By Danielle Crittenden Frum
I can’t remember whether I was relieved or upset when my husband-to-be first informed me that Jews don’t traditionally celebrate Valentine’s Day. I don’t think he was trying to use this fact as an excuse from taking me out to dinner or buying me flowers — but it’s true that he’s never shown much (any?) enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day, especially compared to birthdays and anniversaries.
After my own conversion to Judaism, I encountered this same attitude from teachers at our chilcdren’s Jewish day schools. Sending my kids to class with cards and chocolate hearts would have been seen as provocative as sending them with cigarettes.
There are valid reasons, of course, for the Jewish aversion to V-Day. Pope Gelasius I supposedly created the holiday in 496 CE to commemorate the martyrdom of a Christian saint. Over the centuries many decided to celebrate the day by launching pogroms against Jews (among the bloodiest of them being the Massacre of Strasbourg in 1349, when, as Black Death raged, Jews were blamed for fluctuations in the price of corn. Natch.).
And yet the figure of St. Valentine remains completely mysterious — no one seems certain who this man was and what he was martyred for. There are suggestions that Valentine’s Day actually originates in the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, when, according to Plutarch, near naked young men ran through the streets of the city snapping “shaggy thongs” at women like frat boys with wet towels. Others still ascribe the association of the Valentine holiday with romantic love to the 14th-Century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Whatever its sources, the holiday was so sketchily Christian that in 1969, under the reforms of Vatican II, the Catholic Church struck it entirely from its religious calendar.
Thus — as I’ve frequently if pointlessly explained to my husband — there’s really no reason why modern Jews can’t participate in a now thoroughly secular, harmless and benevolent celebration. Many rabbis agree! Except maybe it’s not so harmless. Perhaps another reason Jews don’t like to observe Valentine’s Day is precisely because they have suffered so much misery throughout history. Why perpetuate it further in one’s own home? The pressure to express your love in a showy and expensive way is today so intense that Valentine’s often amounts to a day of emotional extortion — or as my son glumly puts it, “a day when men pay a lot of money to avoid a fight.”
So yes, I suppose it’s a relief not to observe Valentine’s Day — for men at least. But if I tell my husband I don’t really care one way or the other, he replies with a big eye roll and a sarcastic, “Riiiiight.” The compromise we’ve arrived at, after 27 years of marriage, is that I pretend I don’t expect anything — and he goes through the motions of making a dinner reservation and ordering flowers with all the enthusiasm of the prisoner of Zenda. This year I decided to spare him the ordeal altogether: I booked my departure for my annual business trip to Israel starting the week of February 13. I plan to spend V-Day itself in the Neve Tzedek boutique of Orit Ivshin, picking out something for myself that he would absolutely love me to have … if he loved Valentine’s Day.