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Jewish Journal

Israel [hearts] Valentine's Day

by Meredith Price

February 7, 2008 | 7:00 pm

The contemporary, commercial holiday of love is actually rooted in paganism, believe it or not.

The contemporary, commercial holiday of love is actually rooted in paganism, believe it or not.

Although many people today correlate St. Valentine's Day with Christianity, the contemporary, commercial holiday of love is actually rooted in paganism. In honor of the goddess of marriage, love, fertility and women, Juno Februata, the Romans held a pagan festival in which girls and boys were matched for erotic festivities by drawing names from a box.

With the rise of Christianity, the priests substituted the girls' names with those of saints. Scholars disagree about who the enigmatic Valentine may have been, but according to one legend, he was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II by continuing to marry couples despite the edict against it during a time of war (single men made better soldiers). His purported execution occurred on Feb. 14, and in homage to his bravery he was given sainthood and honored during the St. Valentine's Day celebration that still bears his name. Another version of the story claims that the emperor had Valentine imprisoned for life for his crimes. There, he fell in love with his jailer's daughter. His supposed habit of writing her love notes signed "your Valentine" is one good explanation for the custom of exchanging Valentine's Day cards that remains so popular in the United States today.

About 10 or 15 years ago, the celebration of this holiday began to show up in Israel. According to professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University, Israelis want to participate because it includes them in a larger cultural pattern.

"Just as English has taken over signage at the mall, be it English in English or English in Hebrew, Valentine's Day offers an opportunity to connect with the West in a non-problematic and universalistic way," he said. Despite being St. Valentine's Day, Cohen explains that the holiday has become religiously neutral in recent years. Thus, it doesn't conflict with Jewish identity for most Israelis.

So what spin do Israelis put on their version of Valentine's Day? Other than sometimes writing cards in Hebrew, not much of an Israeli angle exists. On a smaller scale, the celebrations in Israel are almost identical to those for the Jewish day of love, Tu B'Av. And both love holidays so closely resemble traditions in the United States that one would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The scads of nicely wrapped boxes of chocolate; the fuzzy, red-felt-pelted, stuffed hearts; the long-stemmed red roses; the ridiculous epithets for love in stock greeting cards; the expensive gourmet meals; and the couples-only, exclusive spa packages are no different.

Nevertheless, in a country associated far more with war than love, many Israelis are extremely proud to celebrate two days of love rather than just one.

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