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Archive for December 2013

Holiday Almanac: Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth

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Believers worldwide celebrate Dec. 25 as Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they worship as the unique Son of God. The founding events are set in Israel of 20 centuries ago.

aDSC_0023, reducedAs told in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, a Jewish couple named Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census. Rebuffed from every inn in the crowded village, they settled in a stable, where Jesus was born.

In nearby fields, angels announced the birth to shepherds, who rushed to the stable to worship the child. And from the East, magi or wise men followed a special star to Jesus’ home and offered gifts of gold, incense and rare spice.

Roman Catholic churches begin Christmas the previous night with Midnight Mass; Eastern Orthodox churches hold Divine Liturgy. Protestant Churches often celebrate the holiday with special cantatas and carols.

Church youths like to stage “Living Nativity” scenes, recreating the first Christmas — a custom said to have been founded by St. Francis of Assisi. A few churches unpack high-tech gear or rent civic auditoriums for elaborately staged pageants.

Christmas traditionally was from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 — the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in the carol of the same name. That tradition still thrives among Latin Americans, who will celebrate Jan. 6 as Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.

— James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

December 25, 2013 at 4:15 am

Torah-Science Conference to scrutinize life: birth, death and in between

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(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

When does life begin? Who has the right to end it? Where is the soul? And between birth and death, how to decide if a life is worth living?

These age-old questions, once the domain of sages and religious leaders, are being increasingly tackled by doctors and other scientists. But the best approach blends the two, according to a conference in South Florida starting this weekend.

“Scientists can’t deal with miracles, but we humans can,” says Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the main organizer of the three-day Miami International Torah and Science Conference, starting 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. “[But] science empowers us to understand God in a more majestic way.”

Site for the free biennial conference will be the Shul, just north of Miami Beach, where Lipskar is the head rabbi. The conference had a kind of soft launch Friday night with a dinner and talk.

Scheduled at that event was rabbi-cardiologist Alan Rozanski of Columbia University, who is noted for a study that indicated a person’s attitudes and even moods affect physical structures like arteries, Lipskar says. The dinner had more than 200 reservations, Lipskar says.

Lipskar himself then will help kick off the opening session Saturday night, discussing the beginning of life. Topics will include new biotechnological ways to begin life and the light that halacha, Jewish religious law, can shed on it.

The rabbi will share the dais Saturday night with Nathan Katz, founder of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. Katz, who himself has helped plan the conferences since 1999, agrees on the value of blending scientific and spiritual perspectives.

“Traditionally, religious people and accomplished scientists live in different approaches to reality,” he says. “Here, they seem to be making a tremendous effort to understand each other’s perspective. That deepens their own understanding.”

Sunday’s events will start at 11:30 a.m., with a talk on epigenetics, a new study of changes outside a gene. Lipskar finds the study “exciting, because Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy already concluded this: that there is something outside the genetic structure that can change it in behavioral reality.”

The Sunday evening events will deal with the end of life — including the provocative question: “Does Life Ever End?” Final issues on Monday will cover neuroscience and cosmology, even comparing ideas of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking.

The Torah and Science Conferences are held every two years, always around Hanukkah, Nov. 27-Dec. 5 this year. The timing was chosen to relate the spreading light of the menorah candles to the growing light of knowledge and reason.

It was light, and the theories of Albert Einstein, that caught the attention of the late Chabad Lubavitch chief rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Schneerson gave his blessing to the first Torah-Science Conference, which was held in 1987.

Subsequent conferences have probed heady concepts like time, intelligent design, the nature of the soul and brain, and links between the natural and supernatural realms. Even after the conferences end, the papers of the speakers are available through B’Or Ha’Torah, a peer-review journal of the Jerusalem College of Technology.

Basic viewpoint of the conferences is that faith and science are different yet complementary, Lipskar says. And that each viewpoint is necessary.

“Science makes you an expert, but not a kinder, gentler person,” the rabbi says. “When you integrate science and religion, you add the element of meaning and purpose. You have the conductor of the orchestra.”

If you go

Event: Miami International Torah & Science Conference

Featuring: Discussions of the beginning and end of life, from the perspectives of religion and science

Where: The Shul, 9540 Collins Ave., Surfside, Fla.

When: Dec. 14-16

Starting times: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Monday at 9:30 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: 305-868-1411, ext. 329, or torahscienceconference.org

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2013 at 11:37 pm

‘Christmas Near the Beach’: Living room festival — for several thousand people

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Deena McDaniel buddies up with daughters Abby, left, and Rosey. All three will be in Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Santa is invited. So are some hip-hoppers, gospel singers and ballet dancers. Oh, and you are, too.

That’ll be Christmas Near the Beach, a flamboyant blend of music, dance, comedy and worship. The free festival is planned for 4-9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at ArtsPark in the heart of Hollywood, Fla.

“Everyone wants to have people for Christmas in their living room, but they can’t,” says Deena McDaniel, producer of the seventh annual Yuletide festival. She then grins and waves at the 2,400-square-foot stage at ArtsPark. “So let’s have it in my living room!”

Holding forth at the circular park at U.S. 1 and Hollywood Boulevard, Christmas Near the Beach will include a sampling of music and performance styles from around South Florida. Among them will be hip-hoppers Justin Phillips and Mr. E; the Overflow Band, a Spanish praise and worship group; St. Nick and the Florida Sunshine Band, a marching band; the Pursell Family Band, bluegrass gospel; and Sensere, a 1950s-style gospel group with horns and singers.

Also there will be Expressions of Joy, a dance studio for which McDaniel an instructor. They’ll perform excerpts of their Christmas ballet A Star Shall Come Forth. And they’ll do an excerpt from their original ballet based on The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis.

The biggest performance will be a flash mob of 200-300 dancers, choreographed by McDaniel, who shared the moves via YouTube.


Deena McDaniel shows the “Grinchy” mask she’ll wear in a play at Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

McDaniel herself will reprise her Grinchy Got Saved performance, in which she dresses and masks as a parody of Dr. Seuss’ sneering green character. She’ll also perform an athletic, gospel-oriented dance called Only One Roadway, wearing mime makeup that, she confesses, some children have found scary.

Christmas Near the Beach will offer other trappings of South Florida festivals as well: hot dogs, fried Oreo cookies, a Tacky Sweater Contest, arts and crafts for kids, and a classic car show (St. Nick will even arrive in one of them). You’ll also have a chance to win a Christmas tree in a free raffle.

The festival moved last December from its original home on Hollywood Beach, where it got about 1,000 people each year. Last year the crowd tripled, McDaniel said, and this year she gleefully expects 10,000.

But Christmas Near the Beach will ignore the reason for the season. After his big entrance, St. Nick will kneel before the Baby Jesus at a live Nativity scene. Also featured will be a message by Pastor Al Pino of McDaniel’s home church, Palm Vista Community Church in Miami Lakes.

The variety of the acts reflects the variety of the dozen participating churches, McDaniel says: Haitian, Hispanic and African American as well as Anglo. She says the audience itself will include about 50 congregations.

If Christmas is the right time for such a festival, Deena McDaniel is the right person to produce it. Besides her work with Expressions of Joy, she leads a fitness class at Memorial Hospital in Hollywood and has worked as an adjunct professor of cardio and Pilates at Barry University in Miami Shores. She also holds a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and worked for 10 years as a DJ in her former hometown of Camden, Mo.


Two samples of the glass starfish ornaments for sale, to benefit Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Her two youngest daughters seem to be following in her nimble footsteps. Rosey, 12, has a speaking part as a “Who” in the Grinch play. She’ll also dance in the flash mob, as will sister Abby, 10.

Abby has her own vocabulary in talking about Christmas Near the Beach. “Super-extra-awesome-amazing,” she says with a smile.

Although the festival is free, McDaniel plans to pass the plate for the first time this year to defray the $11,000 price. Most of the cost is carried by sponsorship and donations, she says.

This year, the program will get help from another source: Hollywood Hot Glass, a glass-blowing workshop based at ArtsPark. Director Brenna Baker will sell glass starfish-shaped Christmas ornaments for $20 each, with proceeds to benefit Christmas Near the Beach.

Christmas Near the Beach is also getting coverage from Christian media, including radio stations WAY-FM, Reach-FM, and the GraceNet Internet broadcast. At least two secular newspapers, the Hollywood Gazette and the South Florida Sun Sentinel, have also shown interest.

How to know if Christmas Near the Beach is a success? Here, McDaniel tears up. “Whenever the gospel is preached, it’s a success. Being big doesn’t mean you’re faithful. God says to share the gospel and let him do the work.”

Then her bright smile returns. “But big is OK, too. I’ll take big.”

For more info, check out the Christmas Near the Beach website.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2013 at 3:21 am

Holiday Almanac: Advent, a season of preparation for Christmas

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Photo: István Benedek via sxc.hu

Photo: István Benedek via sxc.hu

Today (Dec. 1) starts Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent, which is marked by the four Sundays before that day, is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and many homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes in South Florida have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse tree, often decorated by children in church schools. The tree, which in South Florida is often mahogany or black olive, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 1, 2013 at 5:51 am

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