Getting ready for unexpected guests — in 20 minutes flat
Let’s talk about that dreaded phone call. It can come any day, at any hour. The one where someone on the other end of the line says the eight scariest words in the English language: “We’re in the neighborhood and want to visit.” (Cue the scream sound effect.)
I don’t know about you, but it happens a lot to me. And when people come to my house, they have Expectations with a capital E. They think that my house will look like a magazine spread, filled with vases of fresh flowers and artfully arranged books. It’s a lot of pressure. Well, I hate to spoil the fantasy, but most of the time I have junk all over the place, just like everyone else.
However, when it comes to sprucing up the house for unexpected visitors, I do have it down to a science. And with a few simple tricks, you too can be ready for your guests in just 20 minutes. I use the 20-minute guideline because, according to the movie “Clueless,” that’s the least amount of time it takes for anyone to get anywhere in Los Angeles.
So let’s get started. We don’t have a minute to waste.
Minutes 0:00 to 03:59: Main entryway
Step into the shoes of your visitors and envision what they will see first when they walk into your home. The first rule is you want them to see as little as possible, as if no one lived there. OK, I’m exaggerating, but do err on the side of minimalism at the entrance. Pick up any shoes, coats, keys and dog leashes and hide them in your bedroom.
Minutes 04:00 to 04:59: Restricted areas
I recommend restricting guests to the living room, kitchen and one bathroom. Close the door to all bedrooms and extra bathrooms. That way, you do not have to clean those areas, and you can use them to hide clutter. Which brings us to…
Minutes 05:00 to 07:59: Clutter bag
I always have stacks of mail, work papers and unread magazines piled up all over the house. You need to get rid of these before the guests come. My trick is to get a large shopping bag — one of those big square bags with a handle like you’d get at a department store — and throw all that stuff into the bag. Then hide that bag in one of your closed-off bedrooms. After your guests leave, you can go through everything in the bag. Sometimes, I’ve actually just left everything in the bag and never even looked at it again. After a while, I realize I don’t need whatever is in that bag, so I throw the whole thing out.
Minutes 08:00 to 09:59: Garbage
Grab a fresh trash bag (or two if you’re recycling) and walk around your home with a vigilant eye. You’ll find things that need to be thrown out — old newspapers, used cereal boxes, ATM receipts, plastic water bottles, etc. — and now’s the time to get them out of the house. Toss them in the bag. Then go into the bathroom and transfer the contents of that little trash container into the trash bag. Do the same with the kitchen trash.
Minutes 8:00 to 11:59: Floors
Since we’ve limited the open rooms in the house, you only need to concentrate on the floors in the living area, hallways, dining area and kitchen. A broom and dustpan are too slow. Use a Swiffer instead and run it across all the hardwood, tile and vinyl floors. If you have carpeting, there is no time to vacuum (and the smell of the vacuum cleaner is a telltale sign to your guests that you did an emergency cleaning). Just pick up any visible detritus by hand and leave the carpet as is.
Minutes 12:00 to 14:59: Table tops
You’ve already gotten rid of clutter and garbage, so cleaning your table surfaces should be quick and easy. Time is of the essence — paper towels, sponges and spray cleaners are not useful, because they take too much time. Disinfectant wipes are faster. Use them on tables, kitchen counters and appliances, and to help remove any stains that might still be on your kitchen floor.
Minutes 15:00 to 16:59: Bathroom
Give the bathroom one last look to make sure the trash container is empty of tissues and cotton balls, that you have fresh hand towels, and the toilet seat and cover are down. If it’s evening, turn off the lights and illuminate the bathroom with a few battery-operated candles. The dim light will make any mess difficult to see.
Minutes 17:00 to 18:59: Follow your nose
How does your home smell? Neutralize odors with a spray like Febreze, or light a scented candle. And my favorite trick: Keep a pack of frozen cookie dough in your refrigerator, and pop some cookies in the oven. Nothing is more welcoming than the aroma of cookies baking.
Minute 19:00 to 20:00: Relax
Take the final minute for yourself. Sit down, pour yourself a glass of something refreshing and get ready to welcome your visitors. Remember, they are there to spend time with you, not to judge the state of your home.
Catch a Wave
There’s nothing better than spending a hot summer day at the beach. Sink your toes in that golden sand and surf those blue waves.
So, what are you waiting for? Let’s hit the beach!
What will you find at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium?
The following words all start with the word sea:
Sea + It shines in the sky and on the movie screen __ __ __ __
Sea + A cool, green vegetable __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Sea + UR + part of your face __ __ __ __ __ __
We’re Cleaning Up!
Heal the Bay invites you to leave “Nothin’ but Sand” on the beach.
Come to Santa Monica Beach on Aug. 20, 10 a.m.-noon.
Park in lot 4S at 2030 Barnard Way and meet other volunteers at the north end of the lot at the end of Bay Street. Get involved. Help clean up our beaches!
The Fab Four wrote many incredible songs about all sorts of people and places. Can you think of two Beatles songs that have to do with the sea? You might want to ask mom or dad for help with this one — but beware, they just might start singing.
My mom yells at me: “Hurry up, it is almost Pesach and we
haven’t done anything yet.”
The memory goes back several years, when I was a teenager living with my parents
and brother in our three-story building in western Tehran.
I walk toward the stove, where a big pot of water boils. My
mother puts dishes and utensils in my hand, and one by one I dunk them into the
boiling water for a few seconds.
Rinsing and kashering utensils, hag’ala, is a tradition my
mom likes to do every year before Passover, although we are not a particularly
religious family. As a matter of fact, there are many Persian Jewish families
in Tehran who, though not especially religious, keep Orthodox traditions.
“It is much easier than when I was a child,” my mother says,
scolding me for my obvious lack of enthusiasm. “Then, we had to put a big
cauldron in the yard and make a fire by hand. We would heat up small rocks and
throw them into the water to make it boil.”
Hag’ala and the process of scrubbing and cleaning the home
of all chametz is only part hard work we do before a Persian Passover. We also
make cookies and roast nuts at home, since we either have guests or we are
supposed to visit our Jewish friends and relatives at their homes every single
day of the eight-day holiday. Usually we set a specific date so others can come
visit us on that day of Passover. This is not a tradition from Jewish history;
it comes to us from Iranian culture. Iranians pay visits to each other during
the Persian New Year as a sign of respect, a pious deed, and Jews adopted it
“You are so slow,” my mom shouts. “I do not know how you
will be able to do all these at your own home when you get married!”
When I lived in Iran I couldn’t imagine a day not living
there or marrying in another country.
My long trip to the United States brought me into contact
with other Jewish cultures. Learning different Jewish practices was both
interesting and sometimes alien.
My first encounter with non-Persian Jews came during my
six-month stop in Vienna on my way out of Iran. Orthodox Austrian rabbis with
beards, payes and black clothes reminded me of the images I had seen in books
and films about Ashkenazi Jews.
In America, surprisingly enough, I learned that there are
different branches of Judaism, something I never knew existed before. I always
used to proudly tell my Muslim friends in Iran: “Judaism is all the same among
us. Jews’ beliefs are all the same; we are not like Muslims and Christians, who
have many different branches with different controversial ideas.”
I was stunned to learn that rice is considered chametz by
Ashkenazi Jews; Persians cannot live without rice.
Time has flown by, and already three years have passed since
I left my homeland.
So much has happened to me in these years. I am married and
live in my own home.
The interim days of Passover are here, and my mother’s angry
words ring in my mind.
Suddenly, I miss my mother so much. I pick up the phone and
dial the long string of numbers from a prepaid phone card. After a few minutes
I hear my mother’s voice on the other side.
I ask her what she is doing and she says: “I am preparing
for mo’ed. You know it is so hard, cleaning, scrubbing, doing hag’ala, going to
the busy butcher shop, kashering and salting meat and chicken, making cookies,
“Mom,” I tell her. “Here you don’t feel the hard work of
Passover at all. Every thing is ready-made. Even cakes and pastries, which
taste exactly the same as ordinary ones are in markets for Pesach. You can even
buy kosher-for-Passover milk here. Isn’t it funny?”
“Here I don’t have to worry about being slow about getting
prepared for Pesach,” I tell her. “There is nothing much to do here for
At that moment I hesitate, and the words choke in my throat:
“But you know what, Mom? I miss it. This is not the Pesach I am familiar with.
Without all that hard work and with so much abundance, this doesn’t feel like
Pesach at all.”
My final words to her are my saddest.
“And by the way,” I say. “Here there are no daily guests, nobody
visits us here at home.” Â
Mojdeh Sionit is a contributing writer for The Journal.
Zen and the Art of Homemade Gefilte Fish
I added a new experience to my Passover preparation last
year. In addition to counting the haggadahs, practicing the Four Questions with
my daughter, inviting guests, shopping and cleaning the house, I made gefilte
fish from scratch for the first time ever.
Neither my mother nor any of my grandmothers had felt the
need to initiate me into the gefilte fish sorority, even though I know they all
had this experience. After trying it myself for the first time, I think I may
have a good idea why they decided not to pass on this tradition. I went in with
blind and irrational optimism after watching the instructor at a cooking class
make it look so easy. Here’s what I learned.
Don’t bother to clean your kitchen before you make gefilte
fish. The same goes for cleaning your wedding rings. You will have to do the
job all over again as soon as you are finished. Unless my foremothers were much
neater than I am, cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom is a necessity after
chopping five pounds of fish, onions and carrots and then mixing them up with
your hands. OK, I admit, the recipe said to use a chopping blade and a wooden
bowl, but in the end, the only way I could mix in all the required ingredients
was with my (very clean) hands and since the meat grinder was not cooperating,
I ended up using my food processor. If you don’t feel motivated to make your
kitchen sparkle the way any fine Jewish housekeeper would do before Passover,
make gefilte fish. You will have no choice in the matter.
I now know why gefilte fish costs $5 a jar. It costs a
fortune to make it from scratch. The recipe I followed, which created two nice
serving platters of fish, required 5 pounds of salmon, cod and other assorted,
expensive filets. That’s at least $20 worth of fish. Surely the fish factory
doesn’t use the fancy kinds of fish I used, but fish is expensive and they pass
the cost on to you. It may a little cheaper to make it yourself if you stick to
the cheaper fillets, but that’s probably not a good enough reason to do it. The
beauty and taste of salmon gefilte fish may convince you, however, if you have
access to that Northwest specialty.
Homemade does taste better. Homemade is about five times
better tasting than fish in the jars. But frozen gefilte fish isn’t a bad
second choice and having a friend make it in his or her kitchen is an even
better alternative. I know why grandma made it from scratch in the past (she
didn’t really have a choice). I also know why in later years, the jars seemed
fine to her. Who wants to spend that much time preparing one small part of the
You’ll impress your mother (and your grandmother). I
called my mom the next day to complain that she hadn’t discouraged me enough
from attempting the gefilte fish experience. She told me she was impressed that
I made the effort and was sure it was delicious. I wish she could have had a
taste, but I wasn’t going to mail any fish to Florida. Unfortunately, my last
grandma died a few years ago. I’m not absolutely sure she would have been
impressed with my efforts, but at least she would have been amused by my
stories about the experience.
Your guests will love to bring home leftovers. Don’t
worry, you’ll have plenty to share. I gave away about half of what was left
after the first seder and had plenty remaining in my fridge. My friends said it
would make a great lunch during the week. I hope they enjoyed it. Every time I
tried to eat some more, I remembered the experience of making it and lost my
appetite. Usually it’s my favorite leftover for Passover lunches.
There’s an easier way that’s still authentic. If you ask
around, you can probably find a good grocery store or fish shop where they’ll
grind the fish for you. You may even get to pick out your filets first. Some
places take orders every year before Passover, like the Albertsons in my
community. The finished product will probably taste just as good, but you won’t
have to do the most difficult and messy part of the process. What you’ll miss
out on is the opportunity to complain about how hard you worked and to tell
funny stories about the mess you made.
Your friends will tell you their funny gefilte fish
stories. When I told my friend, Anne, that I made my own gefilte fish this
year, she wrinkled up her nose and asked if I wanted to hear her gefilte fish
story. Before going through the conversion process, Anne had asked our rabbi a
very serious question (I am not making this up). She wanted to know if she
would be required to eat gefilte fish when she became a Jew. The rabbi assured
her that consumption of any particular food (except for one bite of matzah) is
not required of Jews. She was relieved. I’m not positive the rabbi gave her the
correct answer, but Anne has never been concerned about passing as a “culinary
Jew.” I forgot to ask if her husband and daughter eat gefilte fish. This year,
I’ll send them over some leftovers, if they want.
You’ll really enjoy this movie now. If you haven’t seen
the short film “Gefilte Fish” directed by Karen Silverstein, check it out of
your favorite film library. It’s a hilarious documentary in which three
generations of women talk about making gefilte fish. I don’t want to ruin it by
telling you any more. It’s 15 minutes long and distributed by Ergo Media. If
you have trouble finding it, contact the distributor at firstname.lastname@example.org or
Zen and the art of gefilte fish making. OK, I admit, I
never did finish that book (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”), but I
think I got the gist. There was something about my gefilte fish experience that
made me feel I had really found my place in the chain of Jewish motherhood. It’s
similar to the experience of making challah with my daughter — like time has
stopped and we have truly stepped away from the everyday world. It’s something
I do not feel in my women’s study group or at temple. Even though I am a modern
Jewish woman, and even though I lead the seder as well as prepare the food, it
is the rituals of the kitchen that connect me to the Jewish universe and my
Eileen Mintz’s Gefilte Fish
5 pounds assorted fillets of fresh fish
Sample assortment, but you can be creative:
1 1/2 pounds salmon
1 1/2 pounds snapper
1 pound black cod
1 pound ling cod or true cod
1 1/2 large sweet onions
4 large carrots
5 large eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (or a little more)
4 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons pepper (white)
3/4 cup matzah meal (or up to a cup) for binding
3/4 cup ice water
4 shakes paprika
4 shakes of black pepper
4 tablespoons sugar
To prepare stock, fill two large heavy stock pots full of
water. Slice three onions and carrots, divide equally between pots. Add fish
skins, and heads if so desired. Sprinkle in paprika, salt and pepper and two
tablespoons of sugar. Boil this stock to a medium boil for 10 minutes.
Wash fish and pat dry. Grind the fish, onions and carrots
together, using a meat grinder, food processor or chopping bowl. If you use a
food processor or meat grinder, chop the fish again in the wooden bowl.
Add eggs one at a time. Add sugar, salt and pepper and
continue to chop until very well blended and into very small pieces. Add water
a little at a time throughout this process. Add matzah meal and chop again.
Check to see if mixture is thick enough to bind together and to make an oval
gefilte fish ball. If not, add more matzah meal.
With wet hands, shape the fish balls and carefully drop into
boiling stock. Cover slightly and cook on medium-low heat on the stove for two
hours. When done, let the fish sit in the pot for 10 minutes and then remove
pieces carefully to container. Strain the remaining stock over fish balls, just
barely covering them.
Chill and serve. These will keep in the refrigerator for up
to six days. This is enough fish to serve a large group for the seder and can
easily be doubled to make sure there are leftovers. Â
Donna Gordon Blankinship is a freelance writer living in Seattle.
For the Kids
Passover is a holiday that celebrates freedom and the coming
of spring. And it is no coincidence that everyone does spring-cleaning. Life
starts anew. We need to clean out the old to make room for new beginnings. On
Passover, we conduct a seder to remind us of this. In Hebrew, the word seder
means order. During the seder, we ask: “Why is this night different from all
Why do we do things differently on this night? We change the
way, and the order in which we do things (we eat matzah instead of bread; we
recline while we eat) to remind ourselves, that this night is different and
that life is about change. It is exciting and wonderful to watch spring arrive.
Passover’sÂ Here by Michelle Moreh, of Beverly Hills.Â
the matzah is ready to cook,
While we wait,
I think I’ll read a Passover book.
We say the blessings,
and eat the symbolic meal,
Because we want to keep
Passover for real.
For seven days we don’t eat
food with yeast —
Now my choices for breakfast
will be decreased!
When this holiday is over
I will not dread
That we will once again
be able to eat bread!
Michelle wins a Baskin-Robbins gift certificate.
Go Ahead, Lick Your Lips
When you clean your house for Pesach, don’t forget your
drawer full of makeup. Yes, makeup. Your lipstick, lip gloss, foundation and
eye shadow may contain wheat and oats that some rabbis say you need to stash
away with the rest of your unleavened food products.
But for ladies who hate to go bare, Shaindy Kelman has
fashioned Shaindee Cosmetics, a line of kosher-for-Pesach makeup that can also
be used on Shabbat and holidays, when some don’t apply makeup. Under the
supervision of Rabbi Abraham Blumenkrantz and Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of Star K
Certification, Kelman designed two lines: Long-Lasting Everyday Cosmetics for
those women who would rather apply makeup before the Shabbat and Yom Tov, and
another line of powder-based Shabbat Cosmetics you can apply (according to
specific halachic guidelines enclosed in the packaging) during Shabbat and Yom
It was about eight years ago that Kelman decided that a
naked face on Shabbat and Pesach was simply unacceptable.
“You know, you buy yourself a nice suit and shoes and a nice
hat and a great sheitl [wig] and then you look like you’re dead,” said Kelman,
who has 20 years of experience as a makeup artist and esthetician.
Shaindee Cosmetics distributes in London, Johannesburg,
Israel and select markets in the United States.
Kelman also wanted to help the women in her religious
community in Baltimore who are looking to make a match.
“Let’s face it, shidduchim these days are so hard,” Kelman
said, referring to the process of matchmaking. “It’s important to look nice and
feel good because makeup … is that little confidence that comes in a jar.”
“The time that I invest in teaching them [her clients] is
worth it to me because they are following halacha, they look great and they
feel positive,” the mother of four and owner of a full-service skin care clinic
in Baltimore told The Journal.
For more information, visit www.shaindeecosmetics.com or
call (800) 625-3897.
To purchase Shaindee Cosmetics in Los Angeles, visit Miracle
Mile Beauty Supply & Salon, 5001 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 104, (323) 931-2777.
Time to Clean House
"Don’t use my real name," insisted Devorah &’9;&’9;of Pico-Robertson. "I don’t want anyone to think that I am not Pesach cleaning enough."
In fact, for all the women interviewed in this article, having others judge their Pesach cleaning standards would be just another anxiety to add to their very full plate of pre-Pesach concerns — so they all asked to be quoted anonymously about their experiences cleaning for Pesach.
For many, Pesach cleaning is a holy — but stressful — chore, one that has a deeply religious significance with a side benefit of added domicile hygiene. The goal of Pesach cleaning is to rid the house of chametz — any leavened product, because in Exodus 12:19, the Torah commands: "For seven days, leaven may not be found in your home." The law is so strict that the punishment for eating chametz on Pesach is karet — being cut off from the Jewish people. Bearing this in mind, Pesach cleaning becomes more than just your average wipe down.
Many people think about Pesach cleaning at least a month in advance. "Purim is the turning point" said Rochel, 33, who lives in Santa Monica. "On Purim, you get all this chametz with shalach manot [Purim packages], and you immediately have to start getting rid of it." Rochel estimates that she puts in five to six hours a week from Purim to Pesach cleaning her one-bedroom apartment. "If I had kids, I would probably need to put in more time," she said. "But there are certain things I stopped doing to make it easier to clean. I don’t eat in my bedroom, and during the year I stopped throwing pasta against the wall to see if it was ready. That way I don’t have to wash my walls come Pesach time."
Devorah says that it takes her about 24 hours in total to get her house ready for Pesach, and she employs a cleaning woman for about eight hours to help her with the task. "She does the books." Devorah says. "She takes every book off the shelf and opens it and shakes it, to make sure that none of my grandchildren have hidden any chametz in them."
Tasks like shaking out all of one’s books in an effort to find half-eaten sandwiches or examining the underside of every LEGO to find long lost Cheerios might seem like unnecessary and arduous time-wasters. Some feel that you can never be too careful.
"When you have small kids, you have to go over the whole house, because you don’t know what you’ll find," said Rabbi Shimon Raichik, 49, the rabbi of Congregation Levi Yitzchok, Chabad of Hancock Park. "One time, the night of Bedikat Chametz [the ceremony of checking for chametz the night before Pesach], I was going through my kid’s toys, and I found a toy truck. I opened up the truck and found a half a bagel. And the truck was something that we had already cleaned!"
However, others complain that Pesach cleaning can be excessive. "I have this linen closet where I store old sheets on the top shelf," said Sarah. "The only time anybody in the house ever touches those shelves is at Pesach time — and the only person who ever touches them is me — when year after year I Pesach clean them. I know there is no chametz there. But I Pesach clean them nevertheless. And please don’t use my real name."
A prominent Orthodox rabbi from the Fairfax area said, "If your freezer never has any open chametz, and everything is always in a bag, then technically you don’t have to clean it. But nobody would ever do such a thing, and when I suggest this to ladies, they look at me like I am crazy, like I am talking about another religion."
Rabbis insist that Pesach cleaning is not spring-cleaning. "Dirt is not chametz," declared Raichik. "This is not a dust cleaning, not a spring-cleaning, but a search for chametz. Therefore, it is not necessary to wash all your windows or clean up to the ceiling, unless you have kids who throw food up there."
Raichik advises his congregants to make a list of everything that has to be cleaned and then to go down the list systematically, checking every drawer, closet and surface in the house. Yet, just looking inside the house is probably not enough. "People don’t realize that the car also needs a detailed cleaning," Raichik said. "Do you know how much food you can find in a car? Everything in a car needs to be searched — under the seats, the glove compartment, all over. To go and check a closet that nobody has been in during the year but to forget about cleaning the car is missing the point."
The point is that when the holiday finally arrives, that house is chametz free. That it is also sparkling clean from all the attention lavished on it during the Pesach cleaning season, makes it all seem worth it. "The truth is, I do it happily," Devorah said. "I don’t dread it. It is a happy time of year, and it is a nice thing to prepare for."
Passionate About Passover
Each year I search for ways to make the entire week of Passover come alive for my family — not just the seders. I get excited about the holiday, always finding a surprise experience to create for my children, depending on their ages and stages. I passionately search the library and Internet, looking for new meanings to the holiday. Each year there is something old and something new at our family seders. I also look for experiences before Passover begins, as well as during the week.
Before Passover begins
We spend a great deal of time cleaning and changing the entire kitchen. In addition, the kids empty out my minivan of all their “kid junk” so I can have it thoroughly cleaned before Pesach. Every year, my husband and kids kvetch about all of the work needed to be done. Mom becomes the “Egyptian taskmaster,” forcing them — their words, not mine — to clean, carry boxes, move furniture, prepare fruits and vegetables, set the tables, etc. The entire house is a frenzy of cleaning, organizing and food preparation.
They soon identify with the Jewish slaves of Egypt, and many questions unfold: “Why do we have to go through all this fuss?” “Why can’t we eat whatever we want?” “Does God really care about all of this?” My three beloved children and husband take on many of the characteristics of the Four Sons.
The conversations become opportunities for questions, disagreement and meaningful yiddishkeit. The secular and ordinary tasks of our household become transformed into something greater than ourselves. We are now working together as a family with a sacred mission, a purpose, as Jews have done for hundreds of years. When we sit down exhausted to the seder, there is a real sense of accomplishment. We are an essential part of the Jewish story.
Bedikat chametz, bi’ur chametz and bittul
The night before Passover, when all the chametz (leaven) has been removed, I scatter 10 pieces of bread throughout the family room. Our tradition calls this bedikat chametz (the search for chametz), instructing us to hold a feather and lighted candle to gather the bread pieces in a paper bag. You can purchase a bedikat chametz kit or make your own. The room is darkened and the hunt is on. My children, even the older ones, look forward to this, especially when we burn the bag of bread the next day. This ritual is called bi’ur chametz (the destruction of chametz before Passover).
Kids have a fascination with hide-and-seek — and fire. In addition, bittul chametz is the nullification of our chametz possessions. We prefer to give much of our food to SOVA, the Jewish food bank, to share with others. In addition, our rabbi symbolically transfers ownership of our food, to another person for the week of Passover.
Shopping at the kosher markets
I’m the master shopper most of the year, usually avoiding taking my children to the market because I usually end up with more kid purchases than planned. But when I take them to the kosher markets or special Passover sections of the larger grocery chains, the sky’s the limit. We break the rules! We look for as many kosher-for-Passover goodies as we can get our hands on.
Finding delectables of every flavor keeps the kids more satisfied for the entire week. In addition, I shlep them to the kosher markets because I want them to see all of the Passover food choices we have, an entirely different experience than when I was growing up. The food shopping becomes a pedagogic experience, as they ask me questions while looking for permissible foods. The “Passover junk food” (an oxymoron?) definitely reaches its quotient, but everyone seems satiated by the end of the week.
For years, our family seders were held at the home of my beloved Bubby and Gramps. Even though they are no longer with us, we use some of the objects from their seders. We incorporate their seder traditions as a way to preserve our collective family memory. We speak of them and they are now seated at the table beside us. My grandmother’s Passover paraphernalia is used on the table: all of her silver bechers (wine cups), her crystal used to hold the parsley and celery sticks; her little plastic matzah boxes with her age-worn matzah covers, her faded afikomen bag and her silver pitcher for hand washing. Even one of their old worn Maxwell House haggadot is there beside me.
I cherish these items, which my thoughtful aunts bring to my home each year for the family to use. These items are treasures to us. We honor Bubby and Gramps’ memory, but even more important, we honor their commitment about living our lives passionately as Jews. Our family seder wouldn’t be complete without these items used year after year.
We also use some of my grandmother’s recipes, trying to replicate the foods she served us. My mother and two aunts help me prepare many of the Passover comfort foods Bubby made.
I watched Bubby add new things to her seders: a reading about Soviet Jews, a clever and witty song, a personal family blessing. By her example, I started adding readings to our family seders when I was in high school. My grandfather encouraged me to sit beside him and co-lead the seder.
In those days, he indulged my need to read pieces about Jewish feminism and changing the God language to be “gender-neutral.” He encouraged me to lead beside him, and see myself as having a larger role as a Jewish woman, both in and outside of the kitchen. I will forever be grateful to my grandparents for encouraging my active participation at the seders. This was truly “leadership training” at its best, because it inspired me to be both the baleboste and seder leader.
By my grandparent’s example, I have sought to create new experiences for my own family. The seders have been greatly influenced by the ages of my three children and what they were learning in school. Their school-made Passover projects have held a sacred place, alongside the silver and crystal at the table. I lovingly bring out a few of their handmade haggadot and afikomen bags, even those from preschool, and wonder where the time has gone.
The following is a list of some ideas I’ve borrowed and adapted from other sources. Feel free to experiment and challenge yourself. Even one or two new ideas employed will give each Passover a unique memory, and perhaps create a new family tradition.
1. Pharaoh comes to our seder
Last year, I rented a Pharaoh headdress from a local costume shop. My husband wore it for the maggid, the part of the seder that tells the story of the Exodus. My two sons played Moses and Aaron, complete with beards, and my daughter was Miriam. I interviewed each of them to tell their side of the story. They gave us a glimpse of each character’s perspective in the Passover saga. The second night, we traded roles and costumes. Everyone loved it, and the story came alive for us.
Another year I acted the part of Shifra, one of the midwives who risked her life to assist in the birth of Moses. The children listened with awe as I described how dangerous those times were. I recounted the story of the plagues and the Exodus. I recreated the story from the female perspective, also giving voice to Miriam, Moses’ sister. The “old woman” also engaged the children with questions, to foster an appreciation of the drama of the story and our personal and communal connection to it, rather than a dry, monotonous reading.
2. Passover trivia
I research and gather different Passover facts. Some are quite simple for the kids — how many times is the number four repeated in our Seder? — to the more challenging for the adults — what are the names of Moses’ mother and father? As answers are given correctly, I throw a piece of kosher-for-Passover Bazooka bubble gum across the room to the person who has answered correctly.
I sprinkle the trivia questions throughout the Seder, so they are imbedded into the experience. Many questions are easy for those that have been paying attention. They have to keep on their toes. The kids love the challenge and stay involved throughout the evening as the bubble gum flies around the room.
3. Passover diorama
The kids and I gather items that replicate the Exodus story. This becomes the centerpiece at the head table. We have a miniature Pharaoh troll — thanks to the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas — a Beanie Baby camel, a blue foam Nile River and floating baby Moses in the basket of reeds and a homemade pyramid. Some years the pyramid has been made out of LEGOs, papier-mache or charoset. There are locusts, frogs, mini-Moses and clothespin Israelites sprinkled throughout the tables. The kids love taking out these “Passover action heroes” and take a special pride in decorating the table.
4. “Frogs were jumping everywhere”
Like the words of the well-known Passover children’s song, my dear friend, Wendy, has a Passover frog fetish. Each year, she places various frogs throughout her dining room. We marvel at all of her frogs, and our eyes roam throughout the room to see frogs hanging from the chandelier, frogs she has hand-painted onto bowls, Beanie Baby frogs, frog bookmarks — she even wears frog brooch.
Over the years, I have bought her a few frog items to add to her collection. She makes it a challenge to see who can find and count up all of the frogs.
5. Passover music
We sing the traditional songs in the seder. However, we listen to contemporary Jewish artists’ Passover music. My kids enjoy Cindy Paley’s Passover CD, and we have used it as inspiration during our house cleaning. Last year, I bought Debbie Friedman’s Passover CD, and we incorporated some of her incredible songs into the seder experience.
The seder’s heart and soul are transformed by beautiful and rich melodies from all over the world, both old and new. The kids enjoy hearing the songs they have grown up with. At the same time its important for them to see the ever-evolving role of Jewish music.
6. Wine tasting
Why use the same old standbys of Concord grape? There are so many incredible kosher-for-Passover wines you and your guests can enjoy to increase the ta’am (flavor). Be careful not to use the silver cups with certain wines, because the taste will be altered. In addition, there are some delicious nonalcoholic varieties for those who do not drink alcohol.
7. Charoset tasting
I usually prepare several charoset recipes from different countries. I want my children to see that we are part of the Jewish Diaspora experience, adapting our traditions to our countries of residence. It’s important for them to see they are part of a larger world Jewish family. I love trying new recipes each year, and the guests enjoy tasting the different flavors and textures. I also have a charoset pyramid, which they love to dismantle, bite by bite. For those of you proud Californians, Judy Zeidler has a great California charoset with ingredients from our Sunshine State.
8. Use your local print shop
Feel free to copy readings that are meaningful and incorporate them into your seder each year. Your haggadah should never be confined to the printed page. I keep several beside me, in addition to handing out supplemental readings for all to use.
As the developmental needs of your children change and grow, so, too, should aspects of the seder, with readings and questions to match. Don’t be fearful to embellish the experience with new words, insights and questions.
9. “Invite the stranger in your midst”
From the time I was young, I remember my grandparents always having guests at our seders. We continue this important mitzvah each year by inviting friends and strangers, both Jew and gentile, to participate in our seder. I call the rabbi’s office and offer my home.
A few years ago, we had a young man from South America considering conversion. Another year, it was a young couple and their babies who were new to the Los Angeles area. A local synagogue or Hillel can help you find people eager to share a family-style seder. It’s also very important that my children participate in this important mitzvah, seeing this as a lifelong mitzvah of hospitality.
10. Chol ha’moed
The intermediate days of Passover offer rich experiences to my family. The eating of matzah and the abstinence from chametz are all encompassing during the week. Every excursion outside the house takes on new meaning and challenge, as we take the Passover foods along with us, to school and work.
At times, my kids have been embarrassed by the foods. Other times, they have willingly shared these “funny crackers” with their public school friends, just as I did many years ago. Last year the kids went with my non-observant brother-in-law to Disney’s California Adventure during Passover. He respectfully schlepped the container of permissible Passover foods. While the kids kvetched about this, they were pleasantly surprised to run into some friends during lunch.
My daughter remarked at how proud she was to see the picnic area filled with Jews observing Passover, and the kinship she felt with them. I privately thanked God for that moment between us.
Look for ways to enrich your life, crafting your observance of Passover with new meaning, renewed kavannah (inspired intention and aim) and passion for Passover.
Doing the Dirty Work
Rabbi Safra roasted the meat. Raba salted the fish.
According to the Talmud, this is what these two great sages did every Friday afternoon, in preparation for Shabbat. The Talmud regards this information as noteworthy because, although both sages certainly had others in their households who could have done this work, they insisted on doing it themselves. “It is greater to do the mitzvah with one’s own hands than to delegate it to others” was the motto by which Rabbi Safra and Raba lived. And they apparently applied this motto without discrimination. It pertained to messy or smelly mitzvot just as it did to mitzvot that did not get one’s hands and clothing dirty. A mitzvah is a mitzvah.
I remember reading journalist Ari Goldman’s book, “Finding God at Harvard.” He recounts, at one point, an oft-repeated request that his mother would make during the years of his childhood: “Do a mitzvah Ari, and take out the garbage.” Goldman notes with joy and wonder the way that we elevate the most mundane, physically dirty activity to the level of sacred act.
This important perspective on the irrelevance of esthetic pleasantness to the performance of mitzvah is critical to our religious vision. It is the premise that inspires the wonderful “Mitzvah Days,” sponsored by synagogues and federations everywhere, which include cleaning up polluted beaches and scraping graffiti off the walls of playgrounds. It is the understanding that animated some of my all-time favorite people to go out every single Saturday night on the “midnight run” — a tour of several New York City subway terminals, at which they distributed sandwiches, blankets and conversation to the city’s homeless.
I suspect that the source of this idea is to be found in the portion we read this Shabbat. It begins with the command to clear the ashes off the altar at the beginning of each Temple workday. “And the kohen shall don his linen garments and remove the ashes which the fire had produced, and he shall place them next to the altar.” After he’s done that, he is to remove them from the Temple altogether. This must have been a messy job. Yet the Torah ordains that it must specifically be done by a kohen, and by a kohen who must specifically wear white clothing, to boot. It seems an unavoidable conclusion that the Torah was here going out of it way to establish this point — that mitzvah and esthetic pleasantness having little to do with each other.
It is interesting to note that the daily clearing of the ashes became a highly prized assignment within the world of the Temple. The Mishna attests to the competition that attended the privilege of performing this task. The Torah succeeded in implanting its ethic. We should not be surprised about how strongly the Torah and Talmud make this point. After all, the world is not such a clean, sweet-smelling place. If we’re going to succeed at all in “fixing” it, we have to get dirty and understand that getting dirty is a mitzvah.
Like most counter-intuitive religious insights, this one, too, requires daily reinforcement. Let me suggest something that I intend to try, and perhaps you’d like to try, too. With a little reflection, I bet I could compose a kavannah (statement of religious purpose) that I could recite before doing the family’s laundry, or before washing the dinner dishes. Are these not tasks through which I express love for my family, and gratitude to God for having blessed me with them? Couldn’t a similar kavannah be composed for the act of changing a diaper? Surely, one could be recited before kashering the oven for Passover.
If our tradition has it right, these daily reinforcements could change the way we see the world. They could help us to see mitzvot everywhere we look. They could help us to look out each day, and to not see a world that’s a big mess, but to see a world that is waiting for a few more people to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.
The passenger seat is piled high with unopenedjunk mail, while empty water bottles roll around the floor among thegum wrappers and ATM receipts. The scent of stale tobacco wafts upfrom the ashtray so bursting with cigarette butts that it won’tclose. I’ve taken to writing directions on Post-Its, which now dotthe dashboard like yellow Band-Aids.
It is a vision of chaos.
And that’s why I look forward to Passover, maybemore than any of the Jewish holidays. I may travel to a seder in amess of my own making but I arrive to perfect and ancientorder.
Some say cars reflect their owners, that they aresome sort of representation of how we travel through life. I don’tappreciate this interpretation but neither can I deny it. I lack theability to organize the details of my life. I always have. I was thekid who slaved over her book report only to turn it in with aspaghetti sauce thumb print on the cover.
There are people whose lives are effortlesslyorganized. They employ elaborate filing systems and always have asupply of stamps on hand. They have personalized thank-you cards andusually own a vacuum cleaner. They write recipes on index cards. Theyare another species to me, other-worldly creatures I can only admirefrom afar, as distant from me as a supermodel or NBA center.
So when I, generally the youngest at the table,ask “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I have myown reasons.
For one thing, this evening I’m not defrosting aPizza Pocket and eating it off a pan lid so as to avoid washing oneof the stack of dishes that I keep piled in a teetering sculptureabove the sink.
No matter where I am, or who is kind enough tohave me, Passover provides a welcome respite from my habitualdissolution. There is order. There are the same four questions, thesame four glasses of wine, the same 10 plagues, the same songs andstories.
Every year, whether at the home of relatives orfriends or strangers, there is a sameness. It appears, as comfortingand familiar as a poem’s refrain. For a moment, I am part ofsomething that dwarfs the job I did or didn’t get, the fact that Ihaven’t done my taxes, the fact that my last oil change was duringthe Reagan years, the heavy weight of a million scattereddetails.
I am not from a very religious family. My earliestseders were abbreviated affairs, always cut short by my grandfathersaying, “Dayenuwith all these prayers. Let’s eat already. I’m Hungarian.”
My brother and I never understood why beingHungarian made my grandfather so hungry, but we giggled at that everyyear. And I’m sure he said it just to make us laugh. It was one ofour own odd little family traditions, the repetition of which gave usa sense of order even in our less than devout Passover service. Aritual is a ritual.
For me, still less than totally observant, rulescreate order even in the breaking of them. I, for example, can’tresist the siren song of the bread product for long. Around daythree, I usually break. Still, I have something to break against, andthat gives me more structure than I usually have.
Maybe this isn’t what Passover is supposed to beabout. I should be thinking about freedom from slavery. Perhaps, inmy own small way, I am.
So this Passover, I will have my customary eveningof externally imposed order. There will quite possibly be a clothnapkin involved. I will be free of the meaningless minutiae that tendto clog my world, eclipsing at times what truly has meaning. Then, Iwill stroll out to my car, with its bumper held on by a bungee cord,and drive off into the night, wondering if I’m ever going to get thatoil change.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomethingcontributing writer for The Jewish Journal.
The Editor’s Corner
The good news about Passover in America circa 1998is that more Jews than ever are embracing the holiday. It has become,as Dr. Ron Wolfson tells us (in the Passover section), our mostpopular Jewish holiday. Even non-Jews seek an invitation to a sederat the home of Jewish friends.
The bad news about Passover in America circa 1998is that more Jews than ever are embracing the holiday. It has become,in many instances, a Jewish version of Thanksgiving, a time forfamily and friends to gather for warmth, friendship andconviviality.
What could be wrong with that? Well, nothing andeverything.
When I think of favorite occasions many of themhave to do with just such a gathering of family and friends. Mywedding (my second wedding, that is); a particular birthday; ananniversary; and Thanksgiving, most definitely Thanksgiving. All ofthese have a special quality about them, marked by what might bedescribed as an overflowing of affection and feeling accompanied by agreat bounty of food and drink.
But neither Thanksgiving nor a wedding anniversaryare quite the same thing as Passover. Why is this night differentfrom all other nights, we ask. And the answer is both significant andprofound…unless of course we fail to do our part.
Our part, I believe, is the key to Passover. I amnot referring here only or even mainly to the scouring and cleaningthat the kitchen undergoes. “Our part” has to do with understandingthat the evening is about ritual and our past; with recognizing thatit is incumbent on us this particular night to “feel” the words ofour story and to be touched by them anew. No easy task. But itseparates Passover from all other celebrations and all othernights.
We are charged on Passover with reciting thefamiliar passages and once again re-experiencing the escape frombondage. Our seder may change ever so slightly from year to year, forthe simple reason that we have changed. And the challenge for each ofus is to convert what has become rote into a dramatic engagement thatis fresh and alive. Perhaps that is why we have so manyhaggadot and somany different seders: feminist and vegetarian; civil rights and newage; traditional and modern. Usually there is an effort in all ofthese to find a way to “connect” – with friends and with our commonpast. And that effort is not always successful.
What does it matter? Is it not enough that moreAmerican Jews come back into the fold, even if just for anight?
Should we not enjoy a secret moment of pleasurethat a seat at a seder has become such a hot item among non-Jews?Should we not, in short, relax and enjoy the holiday?
I think not. Nor can we turn the other way andperform by the numbers Maintaining the ritual in the same rigid andfixed form year after year ensures that Passover will become a roteceremony, detached from our lives and empty of meaning, so that whatwe remember fondly is a favorite uncle invariably exclaiming, “Giveus the short form, I’m hungry.”
What Passover requires of us is demanding and lieselsewhere. The seder ritual calls for an act of the imagination eachyear that sets free our feelings. This seems to me essential if weare to be linked to a common past, to reify that we are one tribe orpeople, to define ourselves as Jews.
And that is something that a Jewish Thanksgiving -as pleasurable and celebratory as it is – can never do.