The myth and function of the Passover plagues


Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.

The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt. Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)

Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected.

First, there is no evidence to date of any mass slavery of ancient Israelites during the relevant time period. Second, consider the nature of the reported biblical caravan. According to the late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, a group of about 2,000,000 individuals would have come out of Egypt. (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schoken Books 1986) at 95.) If a group of that size marched twenty abreast, there would have been 100,000 rows of participants, exclusive of animals, carts and other things. If those rows were separated by just ten feet, the entire entourage would have, by application of simple mathematics, extended for around 190 miles. Aside from the problems that result raises with the sea crossing tale, there is no evidence that any movement of a population of that magnitude ever occurred into the Sinai Peninsula and up to the east bank of the Jordan River. Third, there is no evidence of any new settlement patterns established west of the Jordan by a substantial influx of new immigrants in the 13th century BCE. If the narrative were intended to be history as we moderns understand it, that is, a reasonably accurate statement and chronology of actual events, the story fails.

Now, if there were no mass enslavement of Israelites and no mass exodus of them, then surely there would not have been any need for liberating plagues either. Some still maintain, though, that the there is significant evidence for the biblical plagues outside of the biblical text. One such advocate is Israeli Egyptologist Galit Dayan who cites as proof of the biblical plagues an ancient Egyptian document known formally as the Admonitions of Ipuwer. The Ipuwer papyrus describes a time of considerable social and political chaos in Egypt. Dayan translates the hieroglyphs as follows: “Plague is throughout the land. . . . the river is blood . . . and the hail smote every herd of the field . . . there is a thick darkness throughout the land . . . the Lord smote all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt (including) the first born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne . . . .”

There are, however, a number of serious problems with the claim that the Ipuwer papyrus is evidence of the biblical plagues. One is that the Ipuwer papyrus contains a longer and more complex story than Dr. Dayan implies, and her list of events similar to certain biblical plagues amounts to a cherry picking of like situations, while failing to explain the absence in the Ipuwer papyrus of other biblical plagues like lice, insects and locusts. Moreover, the ordeals Ipuwer describes are not seen as coming from a powerful god acting on behalf of his people, but as the result of the ineptitude of an unnamed king. The social dynamics of Ipuwer’s story are also directly contrary to those in the biblical tale. Ipuwer’s story concerned the immigration of foreigners into Egypt, not the emigration of slaves from it. Perhaps most importantly, while there is a debate among Egyptologists regarding the dating of the events related in the papyrus, with some setting the story in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2100 BCE) and others in the late Middle Kingdom (c. 2100-1700 BCE) (see Sarna, above, at 69), both of those dates are centuries before the 13th century date traditionally assigned to the Exodus.

The Ipuwer papyrus also has an extra-biblical competitor. Israeli born producer, director and writer Simcha Jacobovici argues that a 3,500-year-old Egyptian monument known as the Tempest or Storm Stela provides archeological evidence for the Exodus. He contends that a new translation of the stela proves that a massive eruption of a volcano on the Greek island of Santorini generated a storm which flooded Egyptian temples, and plunged Egypt into darkness for days. As in the biblical plague story, loud voices were heard and the Egyptians were seized with terror. (See Ex. 9:29, 15:14.) Jacobovici claims that the stela proves that the Pharaoh at the time, Ahmose (r. 1550-1525 BCE), the storm and the contemporaneous expulsion of certain Asiatics known as the Hyksos are the basis of the Exodus story.

Jacobovici’s argument displays the same defects as the claim based on the Ipuwer’s papyrus. While there clearly was a massive volcanic eruption on Santorni, which scientists date to between 1645 and 1600 BCE, and that event may even have had some impact more than 450 miles away in Egypt, it occurred at least half a century before Ahmose’s reign. Timing aside, there is no claim, much less any proof, that the volcanic eruption generated a series of plagues in Egypt as related in the Exodus story. Finally, no convincing explanation is offered to fill a long historical gap and connect the expulsion of some (but not all) Hyskos in the 16th century BCE with the emergence of a recognizable Israel community in the late 13th century BCE and a kingdom in the 10th century BCE.

Not only are the attempts to establish the historicity of the Egyptian plagues wanting for lack of hard proof, there is also no basis for the initial assumption that the Passover story generally and the plagues specifically were even intended to be taken literally, to be historical statements, as we moderns understand that concept. To the contrary, both the text of the Torah we have today and other references in the Hebrew Bible strongly suggest otherwise.

Exclusive of the recitation of ten plagues in the Book of Exodus, plagues in Egypt are discussed two separate times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Psalms. (See Psalm 78:42-51 and Psalm 105:28-36.) In both of the recitations in Psalms, there are only seven plagues, though, and the seven are neither the same in both lists nor is their order the same. What does this mean?

The presence in the Hebrew Bible of these different accounts is actually quite instructive. First, it indicates that when elements of the text were being collected and collated, the editors were familiar with more than one tradition respecting plagues. This is no different, and therefore no more surprising, than the retention in the Torah of alternative traditions concerning such matters as creation, the flood, the Ten Commandments and the spies, to name a few instances where different renditions of traditional stories have been maintained.

The larger story, as found in Exodus, itself appears to be an edited and conflated version of several traditions. Referencing classic biblical source criticism, Yale biblicist Christine Hayes teaches that each of the primary biblical sources known as J, E and P supply some, but not all of the ten plagues. Specifically, she says that J is the source of eight plagues, E provided three and P supplied five, but there are some overlaps. (See Transcript, 1/12.) Significantly, Hayes does not identify D as a source for any of the plagues. In discussing the exodus in Deuteronomy, Moses merely obliquely references “signs” and “wonders,” and fails to mention any specific plagues at all, save perhaps boils and locusts (or crickets). (See Deut. 4:34, 28:27, 38, 42.)

Literary analysis of the plagues lists is also instructive. Each list in Exodus and in Psalms was written as if complete, signaled by either seven or ten components. In the world of biblical symbolism, those numbers indicate wholeness and perfection. (See Sarna, above, at 74.) Further, the more extensive narrative in Exodus is structured carefully, not only as three series of three plagues each, with a stunning climax, but also including within each series repeated patterns of and phrasing for elements of the story.

In short, the theme of plagues seems to have been common during the extended time the Hebrew Bible was being formulated, but the details of the story were quite fluid. There can be little doubt, then, that the story of the plagues in the Torah we have received today is a product of craftsmanship rather than reporting.

But all this begs a critical question: why include a plague story at all in the larger Exodus drama? If the authors merely wanted to convey a spectacle of the majesty and triumph of the Israelite God, they could have invoked images of God splitting of the Nile, a feat more difficult than simply turning it red as even Egyptian magicians could do. (See Ex. 7:22.)They could have had God appear as alternate pillars of cloud and fire, as later claimed during the trek though the wilderness. (See Ex. 13:21.) Or God could have created an oasis, a tiny Eden, or rained down quail and manna instead of hail and locusts (see Ex. 16:13-15), not only to demonstrate creative and fulsome power, but to illustrate the rewards that Egypt could earn through conciliation with the Israelites. That is, the story could have offered divine carrots instead of sticks.

Clearly the purpose of this carefully designed and structured composition was not meant merely to demonstrate either awesome supernatural power generally or the control of nature specifically. It certainly was not meant to induce behavior with compassion and beneficence. Rather, the purpose of invoking plagues seems to have been an exceptionally clever use of a story that was itself dramatic and had some broad acceptability in the popular culture in order to advance a theology at least of monolatry, if not monotheism.

As the Torah text explicitly states, the plagues were selected to defeat and humiliate the gods and symbols of imperial Egypt. They were aimed “ubechol elohe Mitzrayim,” that is, at all the gods of Egypt. (Ex. 12:12.) This view is corroborated later in the Torah. Describing the day after the first Passover, the text claims success for the onslaught: “Yahweh made judgment on their gods.” (Num. 33:4.) The ancient Egyptians had many deities, and the names and roles changed over time. But it is possible to construct a list of the plausible targets of the biblical authors.

The attack begins with the lifeline of Egypt, the Nile River. (Ex. 7:19.)Turning the river to blood would cripple all agriculture and commerce which depended on the river, which is to say most of the Egyptian economy. For the biblical authors, it also represented a multi-pronged assault: the defeat of Hapi, the guardian the Nile, of Khnum, the god of the inundation of the Nile, and of Osiris, god of the underworld, for whom the Nile served as his bloodstream. The second plague was directed to a god symbolized by a frog, that is, Heqet, the goddess of fertility. The Egyptian god of the earth was Geb. Turning the dust of the earth into lice (or perhaps fleas) showed his impotence.

The war on the Egyptian pantheon continues in the second series of plagues. The definition of the fourth plague, arov, is uncertain. It suggests a swarm or horde of insects, often understood as flies. But the text also says that the swarm would fill not only the Egyptian houses, but the land under them. (Ex. 8:17.) Quite possibly the reference is to the scarab or dung beetle, as one of the most prominent Egyptian insect gods, Khepri, was depicted with the head of a scarab. Striking cattle with disease on cattle surely would have embarrassed any one of several Egyptian gods represented by animal heads, such as Apis, the bull, and Hathor, the goddess of the desert and symbolic mother of Pharaoh. Similarly, the spread of boils illustrated the impotence of Imhotep, the god of medicine and healing.

In the third series, the rain of very heavy hail would demonstrate the weakness of Nut, the sky goddess, and mother of other prominent deities. The swarm of locusts that ate everything apparently could not be stopped by any of the agricultural gods and goddesses like Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest, or her son Neper, the grain god, or by the god of wind and chaos, Seth. The final plague in the series, that of a thick multi-day darkness in all the land of Egypt, was surely an act of war, and a successful one at that, on the supreme sun god known as Ra (or Re) or Horus, and often depicted with a man’s body and the head of a falcon.

The import of the story so far, then, was that the gods of Egypt were incapable of protecting their respective domains, and that Pharaoh could not protect his subjects. With the final, and most devastating plague, that of the death of Egypt’s first born males at midnight, we learn that Pharaoh could not even protect his own household or the system of primogeniture on which Egyptian law was based. Neither Renenutet, the guardian of Pharaoh, nor Selket, the guardian of protection and healing, were of any use.

As Rutgers Jewish historian Gary Rendsburg teaches, modern readers of the Hebrew Bible, unfamiliar with the authors’ society and the cultural clues contained in the text will “miss many of nuances that make the stories so fresh and loaded with meaning.” (At 3/4.)That is true, of course, and important. Still, we are left with critical questions. Why was any account of plagues ultimately included in the Torah? What function did it serve? What did the final redactors want their immediate audience to learn?

Unfortunately, we cannot say with precision when particular stories were first written or when they were incorporated into the canon. Much work appears to have been done in the 8th through the 6th centuries BCE, with final revisions coming during and after the Babylonian Exile. Arguably, given the inconsistencies between Ezra and Nehemiah about something as seemingly basic as a fall holiday, one could argue, as does University of Michigan scholar Lisbeth Fried, that the canon was not even set by the end of the Persian Period. Obviously, this is quite an extended time.

Moreover, this was a time of considerable turmoil, politically and theologically. A member of the educated class, attuned to cultural cues, might well have recognized the Egyptian motifs referenced in the story of the plagues. If he did, then he would also know that the story was not an eye-witness account of events, but a symbolic war between the then dominant Israelite god, Yahweh, and the gods of Egypt, headed by the Sun-god Ra. At the same time, Egypt’s influence over the Children of Israel was not as strong during this period as it once was. The Assyrians crushed the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE, and the Kingdom of Judah having barely survived a subsequent assault existed at the sufferance of the Assyrians. The Assyrians subsequently fell to King Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonians. Then, following a series of invasions at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the complete destruction of the Judahite capital, Jerusalem, and the transfer of Judahite royalty and leadership to Babylon, Judah became a vassal state of Babylon. Babylon, in turn, fell to Cyrus about sixty years later. While Cyrus allowed Judahites to return home, their province, now known as Yehud, was now a small province in the Persian Empire and ultimately subject to Persian control. Toward the end of the 4th century BCE, Persia, and with it Yehud, fell to Alexander and the Greeks.

In the midst of this extended geopolitical war, a multi-faceted religious battle continued as well. With the advent of the reform prophets in the 8th century BCE, polytheism came under increased attack from both those who favored either the supremacy of Yahweh over lesser gods and those who recognized Yahweh as the sole god. And those camps contended with each other. The latter monotheistic view seems to have gained ascendance in the 7th century with the rise of the Deuteronomistic school, but fate, in the form of the death of King Josiah of Judah and the ascendancy of King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, intervened.

The destruction of Jerusalem could have ended this nascent monotheism. After all, if Yahweh were the sole true god, he certainly did not protect his treasured people, or his promised land, or even his house, his temple, from ruin. Ironically, though, far from ending monotheism because of the impotence of the deity, the exile from and return to Judah was understood by Judahite leadership differently. Influenced by the Deuteronomists, they argued that the people failed Yahweh, not the other way around. The solution of the surviving and returning leaders, like Ezra, was a stronger commitment to what they saw as the one true god. This was the broad context in which the contents of the Torah seem to have been finalized. And, if so, this context helps us understand how the plague story may have functioned at that time.

Rather than directed to a sophisticated reader in Judah or even in the established community of Judahite emigres in Egypt, who would understand the references to the Egyptian pantheon, the story of the plagues may well have been intended to underscore for post-exhilic Judahites who had returned, or were thinking of returning, that the worship of false gods of any kind, whether Canaanite or Babylonian or Persian or of any other origin, was improper and destructive. That is, beyond the explicit message, lay an implicit lesson: just as the gods of Egypt were no match for the Israelite God, neither are any of the current local gods. In a time that required nation building, the story served, then, to provide a unifying theological feature in the larger text which functioned as a unifying statement of a people’s creation and history and a unifying anthology of its traditions.

Myth based Judaism has generated compelling stories and, at its best, a compassionate culture. The story of the Israelites’ escape from bondage serves as a beacon to all who are oppressed and as a reminder to those of us fortunate enough to be free to remember what slavery might have been like, how it must have felt to have been a stranger in a strange land. During the seder, as the plagues are mentioned, we remove some wine from our cups to diminish the sweetness of the Israelite’s escape, to recognize the suffering of others and to temper our joy. These are worthy lessons.

But myth based Judaism has its limits, and pretending that myths are reality is not only intellectually indefensible, it can be counter-productive, even self-destructive, as well. If we take bible stories as statements of historical truth, when they are not, and if we purposefully avoid trying to understand what the authors intended their audience to learn, we act as nothing less than illiterate literalists.

Reality based Judaism acknowledges that neither the Exodus nor the plagues occurred as depicted, that the plagues are a myth within a larger myth, set in a time when humankind often identified each aspect of nature, of life itself, with a separate god. Some may conclude from that acknowledgement that the Jewish freedom narrative lacks not only foundation, but merit. But reality based Judaism also rejects the nihilism of superficial contemporary readers who fail to come to grips with both the original intent and redeeming transcendent value of the story. Rather, reality based Judaism accepts the challenge of Passover to dig deeply into the tale, to ask a question and then another and yet another. It seeks to wrestle with the text and extract both truth and wisdom from this powerful story. When we do, when we struggle with the broader myth, and the more troubling one contained in it, we recognize that the authors had matured enough to grasp the fallacy of false gods.

If we want to build a Judaism for tomorrow, we need to look back to the origins of our texts and traditions. We need to try to understand not just what our foundational texts say, but why they say it. We need to become familiar with the context of the content of those works to determine what end the founders sought to achieve. This is the challenge and this is the opportunity of reality based Judaism, as we, too, need to reject false gods and be guided by truth and wisdom.

A version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law. Photo from Wikipedia.

The arithmetic of trust


Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

“[Moses] hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them … ”  — Exodus 32:19

The shattering of the Ten Commandments in this week’s parsha after Moses finds the Israelites with the golden calf is the shattering of trust. Think of a moment when your trust was broken. Do you remember the pain of betrayal, when the covenant carved into stone that you thought was solid and eternal was all at once demolished?

Of course you do. No one forgets.

I believe that trust is a delicate compound of truthfulness and tenderness. And today, we are sorely lacking in both elements.

Truth is delicate. It is a fabric easily stretched and torn. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify the true fabric of truth amid so many well-crafted synthetics. We are surrounded by what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” which he defines as something that a person making an argument claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts.

Photos are filtered. Bodies are nipped and tucked. Resumes are enhanced. Diplomas are doctored. Reality shows are staged. Facts are altered. We live in an era when more than speaking truth to power, we ache for power to speak truth.

And yet, the truth, too, can be brutal. In Paul Simon’s song “Tenderness,” he sings: “You say you care for me, but there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty/ You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.”

The rabbis say that in order to preserve shalom bayit, peace in the home, every now and then a small fib is OK. In fact, Talmud gives examples of when it is preferable to lie. What does one say to a bride? Even if she is lame and blind, one is to say how graceful and beautiful she is. I would argue that shalom bayit is not about dishonesty. It’s about delivering truthfulness on a cushion of tenderness. You might think the bride is unattractive, but her partner doesn’t, and when we learn to perceive through loving eyes, we are elevated.

Truthfulness plus tenderness equals trust.

In the Talmud, Rava, who lived around the year 300, said: At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah?” (“Did you deal honestly with people in your business?”)

There are systems in this world, many, where dealing honestly with one another is not a high priority. Where girls are offered jobs overseas and then are lost in the sex trade. Where bribes corrupt organizations and obstruct every avenue toward justice. Where everyone and everything is for sale, and no one is safe.

And yet, we are a network, a symbiotic relational push-and-pull, give-and-take system. We are all in the same boat, and if I drill a hole under my seat, it affects you. We are connected. Everything depends on trust.

Every time we drop off our kids at school, we trust that they are in caring hands. Every time the light turns yellow, we trust that cars are going to slow to a stop. Every time we make a deposit, we trust our money is safe.

Too much trust can be dangerous — we would be foolish to trust everyone. But trustworthiness is not dangerous. To be on time, respect boundaries, act with sincerity, deliver honesty with tenderness, create safe environments, keep confidentiality — these are what make you trustworthy, sought after, admired and adored.

So while Rava did not say to trust everyone, and he didn’t promise that everyone else will have honest weights and measures, he said you need to be trusted. You have to have honest weights and measures. Success depends on how much you’ve cultivated other people’s trust in you.

On our dollar bill it reads: “In God we trust.” The touchpoint of our entire network of exchange reminds us that we are bound to a trusteeship with God, that our life is our true asset, our breath is our capital, our soul is our fortune.

God leases everything to us. The Torah is the Deed, which we seal with our good deeds, and our good deeds inspire others and accumulate interest. For some God-knows-why reason, God sees trustworthiness in us, and God appoints us the trustees of this supreme gift.

This despite the fact that the shattered shards of trust are scattered all around us. And as we all well know, it takes a lot of time, patience and stamina to put trust back together. Even after new covenants are at last established, we still each carry those broken bits with us.

Moses says in our Torah portion, “Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!” (Exodus 34:9). The Israelites built the golden calf because they did not have enough trust in God, and afterward, they had to work hard to regain God’s trust. May truthfulness and tenderness inform our relationships with one another and with God.

Rabbi Zoe Klein is senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

King Ahasuerus & Queen Esther in Apocrypha. Photo from Wikipedia.

Stepping back, stepping forward


Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that God’s most powerful influence comes not through acting in the world, but rather through conscious and deliberate refraining from acting. He beautifully illustrates this concept with reference to one of life’s quieter, but no less amazing, miracles: teaching a child to take his first steps.

About the time that a small child begins to stand on his own, a caring parent will lean down and beckon, “Come to me.” The child will take a tentative, wobbly step toward his smiling mother. And then, the mother will do something profoundly frustrating: She will back away, creating more distance for the child to traverse.

At first there is confusion, even anger, on the face of the toddler. But, eventually, the distance coaxes him to take one more step, and then another. As the mother makes space, the child learns to walk. It is by pulling back, not swooping in, the Baal Shem Tov taught, that God and we create new realities.

The confluence of this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, and the holiday of Purim, which begins at sunset after Shabbat, is a study in stepping back and leaving space for something new to emerge. Tetzaveh is the only parsha of the latter four books of the Torah that doesn’t mention Moses. Purim’s central text, the Book of Esther, is the only volume of the Bible that doesn’t mention God. Both the parsha and the Megillah defy expectations with the conspicuous absence of ubiquitous characters, inviting us to lean in and listen more closely, to step into the seemingly empty space to discover new and exciting possibilities.

Parashat Tetzaveh describes the ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, the process of bringing human beings into the direct service of God. There can only be one Moses, but, over the course of Jewish history, hundreds of priests would be ordained to carry out their sacred tasks, and after the destruction of the Temple, thousands more rabbis would carry on the chain of ordination.

During this brief moment in which Moses steps aside, we learn that there are other ways to enter into the service of the Holy One aside from being called as a prophet. In Moses’ absence, we are invited to re-imagine our own role in the Jewish story, to envision ourselves as potential leaders and vessels of holiness.

Purim similarly invites us to consider our own power. In previous stories of deliverance from mighty enemies, our triumph always came directly from the hand of God. It was God who split the sea for the escaping Israelite slaves, and stopped the sun in the sky over Joshua’s armies, and protected Daniel in the lion’s den. The story of Esther is the first time we come face to face with the potential of annihilation and don’t have God at hand to save the day.

The Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

Instead, our salvation comes through human courage, the willingness of Esther to put her life on the line to speak her truth. In that way, the Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

By taking a step back in the twin stories that define this liturgical week, Moses and God invite us to take a step forward and discover our own capacity to act. A parent who never learns to give their child space will never equip them with the ability to survive and to thrive on their own.

Moses is mortal, and he will not cross over into the Promised Land with us, so we’ll need to be able to appoint a chain of leaders who will guide us into our new chapter. And even God can’t be with us every step of the way either, booming instructions, blessings and warnings.

Today we walk on our own, a path laid out by Moses our teacher, on a path toward God our parent. Like children learning to walk, we still stumble and fall sometimes, but as we come to trust our own legs, what a joy it is to learn to carry ourselves forward, with confidence in ourselves to set forth into the world.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (intro.aju.edu) and a lecturer at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Taking comfort in the light


Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

My toddler children sleep with all of the lights on.

I do not remember how it started. It could have been loud noises, an odd shadow on the wall, a bad dream.

I do remember trying to trick them with a nightlight. The small flicker was almost offensive. Protests, crying, negotiating … and all that was by my husband and me. For weeks, my kids pushed, and for weeks, we pushed back. The closet lights, the bathroom light, the hallway light — all of them had to be on. The final straw was when my daughter explained, “But Mommy, it is so dark. The darkness gets darker. Please, just leave the lights on.”

And so the lights stay on. Because of that, we have three children who sleep through the night. Do not bother asking about our electric bill.

My daughter’s question remains. When we face dark times, what happens to our spirit when life seems to get darker? When we think we have hit rock bottom and, somehow, the bottom continues to give out beneath, is our soul damaged in the process?

I recently read an article about “cavers.” James M. Tabor, author of “Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth,” researches the men and women who descend on underground explorations for months at a time. Tabor questions the cavers’ mental and physical ability when experiencing extreme weather, isolation and absolute darkness.

A fascinating discovery is that each human being reacts differently to the dark. For some, all it takes is a day or two for anxiety to erupt. For others, it may take longer. The point being: Darkness affects all and, certainly, our minds become a casualty. It just depends on how much darkness someone can endure before reaching his or her breaking point. For those who think there is a point of no return, is salvation possible?

With the introduction of the plagues unleashed against Egypt in Va’era, we witness a darkening of darkness, a slow breakdown of the human spirit. During the Passover seder, we are accustomed to naming the plague of darkness. However, with a closer reading of the text, it is possible that several plagues of darkness befell Egypt, each plague darker than the former, slowly and intentionally weakening the hearts of the Egyptians.

“Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Each of you take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it toward the sky in the sight of Pharaoh’ ” (Exodus 9:8). A taste of night comes as Moses throws dirt before Pharaoh’s eyes, impairing his sight. Later in the Torah, locusts suffocate Egypt and “the land was darkened” (Exodus 10:15). And with the penultimate plague, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21). 

rabbi-nicole-guzikExodus Rabbah teaches that this last darkness is the most crippling. A darkness as thick as a coin, similar to the film that forms when one has a cataract. A darkness that enters your throat and nostrils; a darkness that makes it hard for one to breathe, move or stand. A darkness that paralyzes the body and constrains the soul.

Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg explores this tortuous, systematic darkening of darkness. She contends that, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, no repentance is possible in this kind of dark. In this kind of darkness, it really may be impossible to return. 

Is it true? Is there a kind of darkness in which, once experienced, it is impossible to gain sanity?

It occurs to me that we must never let those we love get to this point. Or at the very least, we should try to save them with every possible attempt. Who experiences absolute darkness? Those who never feel the warmth of another or see sparks of hope breaking the gloom of night.

In our liturgy, we read “Or chadash al Tzion ta’ir, v’nizkeh chulanu m’heirah l’oro. Baruch atah, Adonai, yotzeir ham’orot.” Translation: “Shine a new light upon Zion, that we all may swiftly merit its radiance. Praised are You, Adonai, Creator of all heavenly lights.”

Commentators explain that this light is what the righteous will experience in the world to come. I humbly posit that this light is what the righteous offer in this world so that those drowning in seas of darkness have something to hold onto.

Rays of light: squeezing someone’s hand when they would otherwise feel utterly alone; calling someone in mourning and offering an “I’m thinking about you”; a handwritten letter to someone who needs lifting, healing. Repeatedly turning on the light. Never shutting the door to the possibility of hope.

Even the smallest flicker of a flame holds the potential to pierce the solitude of night.

The lights remain on in our home. My children are comforted. And that is fine by me.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.

‘Exagoge’: A theatrical exegesis on the Exodus


At a playreading in a Tarzana temple midway through the Passover holiday, the star of the Exodus story encounters a conundrum. 

Facing Jethro, his future father-in-law, Moses delivers a monologue that is shrouded in ambiguity. “Oh yes, I will speak,” concludes the man who will become one of Judaism’s most celebrated prophets, “but say nothing of substance, for if I proclaimed my heritage, I would remain a stranger, never finding a place to belong. And then, you will know me.”

Actually, the speaker of these lines in Aaron Henne’s adaptation of the ancient play “Exagoge” is Moses No. 2, and there will be at least five more Moseses in this creative riff on the story of Exodus produced by Theatre Dybbuk. Seven Moseses trying to carve out the identity of a single entity — how’s that for an unknowable character?

This monologue, spoken at a late-April script development meeting of a Theatre Dybbuk production, may change by the time the world premiere of “Exagoge” takes place at Temple Israel of Hollywood on June 18. According to Henne — the company’s artistic director and director of the play — a Theatre Dybbuk production is in a constant state of revision. 

The company uses elements of Jewish folklore, ritual and history to inspire theatrical work with universal themes, and Henne’s is by no means the only voice. Joining the seven actors for the “Exagoge” reading at Temple Judea in Tarzana were scholars, designers, composers and choir leaders. Once the reading concluded, the floor was open for discussion. 

“We’re on our fourth or fifth draft, which has changed wildly over the last couple of months based on questions that have come up in the room,” said Henne, who will take home the feedback and produce another draft. “It really is a group effort to try to find out what the heart of this matter is.”

Choir director Kenneth Anderson said the play causes him to reflect on Moses’ position as a leader.

“There’s a theme that I feel is universal, and it’s something that I teach the kids,” said Anderson, whose Leimert Park Choir will provide 12 onstage singers. “Ultimately, there’s the idea that all old things melt away no matter what the struggle was, and new struggles are born. I feel that way every time I think about anything, even the story of Moses: the whole idea of what it means to be a leader who stays too long.”

The inspiration for this version of “Exagoge” is a series of fragmented verses of what is believed to be the first Jewish-themed play in existence. Likely written in Alexandria in the second century BCE by Ezekiel the Poet, “Exagoge” is an account of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt told in the form of a Greek tragedy. Henne had been interested in Hellenistic Judaism as the basis for a Theatre Dybbuk production, and conducted research in order to find a suitable dramatic work to adapt. 

After Henne discovered “Exagoge,” he commissioned a new translation of the existing fragments. Because barely one-fifth of the original play remains, Henne believes it is unlikely that the work has been performed on stage in thousands of years. “Exagoge” will have a total of four performances this summer: two at Temple Israel (June 18-19), one at Grand Park (July 23) and one at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (Aug. 6). 

As a Theatre Dybbuk production, however, the work won’t feel ancient. Henne’s adaptation builds on the 269 surviving lines, adding to and reconsidering the story in order to bring in contemporary issues. “Exagoge” will have references to present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, Syria, and to oppression and slave populations throughout world history. Masks will play a substantial part in the proceedings, and the play will feature the Harmony Project Leimert Park Choir singing original music composed by TV and film composer Michael Skloff, who has worked extensively with the choir. 

Although past Dybbuk productions such as “Tefillah” and “Kippur” have been staged exclusively in sacred spaces, half of the “Exagoge” performances will be at nonreligious venues. All of the performances will be outdoors, as would have been the case in ancient Greece. 

“It was decided fairly early on that this was not going to be running for four weeks in a single setting,” Henne said. “With the [play’s] cultural conversation … about integration, differentiation, assimilation and all those questions, we want this to be an outdoor event in different areas to try to engage the whole city in a kind of conversation.”

Theatre Dybbuk typically goes 16 months between productions, and Henne originally envisioned staging “Exagoge” to coincide with Passover. That timetable was delayed when the company received a commission to create “Assemble,” a theatrical dance piece for the Center for Jewish Culture and the Leichtag Foundation’s Sukkot Harvest Festival in Encinitas. When the company returned to “Exagoge,” some cast members were no longer available. 

Both veteran company members and first-timers say that working on a Theatre Dybbuk piece is a unique experience. 

“I haven’t been a part of a process this inclusive in terms of writing a very text-heavy play,” actor Jonathan CK Williams said. “Being in rehearsals, we get very much into the ‘How do we tell this physically in the space?’ ‘How do we communicate that?’ Aaron [Henne] is also very inclusive in asking for our opinions and also letting us fly and try weird things.”

“It’s actually very gracious of the playwright,” added Jenny Gillett, who plays Moses No. 1. “It’s his play, but I appreciate that we get to be a part of shaping it.”

“Exagoge” runs June 18-19 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, July 23 at Grand Park/The Music Center and Aug. 6 at the Fowler Museum on the UCLA campus. For more information, visit

Passover: Faith and freedom


My local Ralphs has begun stocking its shelves with Passover goodies. The resonant voice of Charlton Heston can be heard on t.v. This can only mean one thing: the Jewish holiday of Passover is coming. Again, as every year, Jews around the world are instructed to personalize the Exodus story, “as though we ourselves were slaves in Egypt.”    

Judging from the therapy clients coming through the doors of my office, there is plenty of resonance to be found. These days, few of us are actually physically enslaved.  Yet we are often trapped internally. We lives our lives in restricted, confined routines because we are afraid of making changes without any guarantee. 

Many people feel stuck internally, and don’t realize that they can empower themselves to change.  Although it is not a conscious choice, we often choose the safety and familiarity of routine.  But we  disengage from our daily lives in subtle ways.  We stay busy.  We lower our expectations.  We become slaves to our internal inertia.        

I never realized this, but the Hebrew word for Egypt, mizrayim,  can be translated as tight place. Place of constriction.  The Israelites were physically constricted.  Yet even when Moses offered them instant freedom, they hesitated. They weren’t sure that they wanted to exchange the familiar for danger and uncertainty. 

When the Israelites approached the Red Sea, G-d had not yet parted the waters.  According to the Rabbinic Midrash, a man named Nachson ben Aminadav responded by jumping into the sea without hesitation.  Only after he was up to his nose in the water, did the sea part so that the Israelites could cross in safety. He had to take a leap of faith in order to go forward. 

In a way, the therapeutic process requires that same leap of faith.  Many of us have difficulty imagining that lasting change can be possible. One of the best parts of being a therapist is that I am blessed with the chance to offer my clients the idea that change is possible. That often leads to a sense of hopefulness that can lead to significant shifts. 

Often, people engage in magical thinking. “I could leave my current circumstances and start all over again.”  Unfortunately, it is never that simple. The grass is rarely, if ever, greener on the other side.  It is not enough to move to a new physical destination–we need to work on our internal landscape.   Part of that process involves being able to be compassionate to ourselves.  To accept our imperfections and flawed selves. Only then can we become truly free.

Roni Blau is a licensed clinical therapist practicing in Santa Monica.  She can be reached at roniblausw@gmail.com.

Ilan Stavans’ ‘New World Haggadah’ for the modern world


Ilan Stavans feels the time has come for the diversity of the modern Jewish experience to be reflected in the Haggadah we read at our Passover seders. Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and author or editor of many books and poems dealing with Jewish and Latino history and culture. “The New World Haggadah” is his interpretation of the Passover story, and it includes many of the traditional elements but adds varied voices from the multicultural, global landscape.

Stavans will appear at the Skirball Cultural Center Sunday, March 20 as part of “Viva!”, an ongoing Skirball initiative exploring connections between Jewish and Latin American Cultures through lectures, conversations and performing, visual and media arts. We asked him a few questions in preparation for his visit to Southern California:

Jewish Journal: Why another Haggadah? What makes this one different from the others out there?

Ilan Stavans: The mandate we have as Jews is for the story of the Exodus from Egypt to be retold every generation. The real Haggadah, the one belonging to all of us, is always blank, its pages ready to be filled out. As a Mexican Jew who immigrated to the United States, for years I have felt a more diverse, more pluralistic, inclusive delivery was needed. When I turned 50, I told myself: this is your time. “The New World Haggadah” is meant for American Jews in the 21st century. It connects us with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, with Sephardic and Ashkenazic cultures, with the Holocaust and terrorism, with the Civil Rights era, with the Americas as a whole, with the endurance of the State of Israel, and with Yiddish, Ladino, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. This is a Haggadah about Jews as eternal immigrants.

JJ:  This Haggadah retains the construction of the traditional format, but between the explanations of various symbols or reciting of the 10 plagues, you have included some very powerful poetry. How did you decide what poems to include, and do you intend the poems to be read aloud at the seder?

IS: The beauty of the Passover seder is that it features elements from the past, the present, and the future. It has poetry, politics, folklore, Mishnaic commentary, and references to pop culture. My hope is that “The New World Haggadah” will open a new world for readers who will see our heritage through a multilingual prism. I wanted to feature medieval and renaissance authors, resistance in World War II, crypto-Jews and activists during the Dirty War in Latin America, songs of protest and songs of hope.

JJ: Your own ancestors were Polish immigrants to Mexico, the country where you grew up before coming to the United States when you were in your mid-twenties. It seems like you are embracing both sides of your heritage here, and also including references to other ethnic groups that are still seeking freedom in various ways. As American demographics change, are you hoping that this new Haggadah will be embraced by a more multicultural Jewish world?

IS: American Jews are no longer a homogenous minority; we come in all colors and from all corners of the world. “The New World Haggadah is inspired by the maxim e pluribus unum. Tell us a little bit about the artist, Gloria Abella Ballen and how she conceived the beautiful drawings and paintings that enliven the text.

IS: She has done a superb job marrying image and word. This is a Haggadah for all ages.

The New World Haggadah by Ilan Stavans.  Illustrated by Gloria Abella Ballen. Gaon, 2016. Paperback, 82 pages. $18.00

Ilan Stavans will appear at the Skirball Cultural Center March 20th at 2 pm.

Lisa Silverman is the Library Director of the Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

If God took the Jews out of Egypt…


If God took the Jews out of Egypt, why didn’t he take the Jews out of Europe during the Holocaust? Or out of Ukraine during the Khmelnitsky pogroms? Or out of Germany when Crusaders annihilated entire Jewish communities there?

What Jew hasn’t asked such questions?

There may be an answer in one of the best known and frequently cited statements in the Torah, one repeated throughout the year and, of course, at the Passover seder:

“Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, the Lord took you out of here, and [therefore] no leaven shall be eaten.’ ” (Exodus 13:3)

“And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)

“And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders.” (Deuteronomy 26:8)

And the Ten Commandments begin with:

“I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

Why all these reminders that God took us out of Egypt — even a commandment to remember that he did?

I have come to believe that the reason it is so crucial that we remember is that God is not necessarily (or perhaps even likely) going to do it again.

Some Jews might find this idea heretical. Emotionally and religiously, they do not wish to confront the possibility, let alone the likelihood, that God won’t intervene to save us from oppressors the way he did for the Jews in Egypt.

But if God will rescue us over and over, why are we constantly reminded that he did it in Egypt and commanded to remember that he did so? After all, if God repeatedly saved the Jews from oppressors, it would be completely unnecessary to remember what God did for us over 3,000 years ago. Isn’t the only reason to remember what was done on our behalf a long time ago that it has not been done since?

That, then, may be the reason it is so important to constantly remind ourselves that God took the Jews out of Egypt.

Just as our parents intervened to save us from danger when we were children, but will not do so once we reach adulthood, so, too, in our infancy God intervened directly. But once we reach adulthood, we are, so to speak, on our own. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know us and our suffering. Nor does it mean that he won’t save us again. It means that he cannot be depended upon to save us. 

Of course, we — and all the non-Jews who suffer — wish that God would intervene when confronted with evil. But a moment’s reflection should make it pretty clear that this would end human free will. It would also render life as we know it morally pointless. If God stopped all injustice, we would be moral automatons. And if God stopped some injustices but not all, the question would not only remain, it would be even more acute. Why, God, did you help, let’s say, the Jews, but not the Chinese under Mao, the Ukrainians under Stalin or the Cambodians under Pol Pot? For that matter, why didn’t you save every individual from being murdered and every woman from being raped?

Finally, some Jews might respond that God has in fact saved the Jews from every tyrant just as he saved the Jews from Pharaoh. God, after all, didn’t save all the Jews in Egypt — he allowed hundreds of thousands (adding up perhaps to millions) of Jews to be enslaved over a 400-year period, and only he knows how many Jewish boys he allowed to be drowned at birth, before he intervened. So, then, one can argue today that God has always saved the Jews from oppressors. Not all of them, as we would have wished. But the Jews are still around, and in that sense they were saved from their oppressors.

I, too, believe that God has preserved the Jews since Egypt. It is difficult to offer any other explanation for the unique survival of a people repeatedly exiled, slaughtered and forced to live without a homeland for 2,000 years.

Nevertheless, this survival, as divinely enabled as it may have been, has never been accompanied by anything approaching the overt signs of divine intervention — Moses’ and Aaron’s miracles in Pharaoh’s court, the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna in the wilderness, the cloud by day and the fire by night to lead the Jews to Israel – that accompanied the Exodus.

And that is what we mortals have yearned for since Egypt — a miraculous destruction of the gas chambers, for example. 

So, never having had anything approaching that, it is imperative to recall what God did that one time, when he took us out of Egypt. 

Happy Passover.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com

Pharoah said ‘no.’ You won’t believe what God did next.


Once, at our seder, our friend Ira gave a running commentary on the haggadah, offering a scientific explanation for every miracle and wonder in the Exodus story.    


I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it may actually be better if the whole thing really were made up.

I can see why Wolpe got a big pushback. Ingenious alternatives were offered for the truth of the text. Richard Elliott Friedman, for example, a distinguished scholar, built an elegant case that the Exodus did indeed occur, but just for one fierce tribe, the Levites. When they joined the other tribes, the Levites became the Israelites’ priesthood. The task of teaching Torah fell to them, and their own experience became the official version.

“And that is how a historical event that happened to the Levite minority became everybody’s celebration — how we all came to say that we were slaves in Egypt, although that was not the experience even of most Israelites of the period. It’s not so different from practicing, say, the American cultural tradition of Thanksgiving, which most Americans do, even though most U.S. citizens are not descended from Pilgrims or Native Americans.” 

I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it actually may be better if the whole thing really were made up.

Wolpe is a bit elegiac when he tells us that the Exodus may not have happened, the way parents in another religious tradition admit there is no Santa Claus. He lets us down easy and guides us to the holiday’s enduring lesson. But I think there’s a huge upside to appreciating it as a fiction, a masterwork of the human imagination, a brilliant narrative, an origin myth whose aesthetic truth leaves me awestruck by its moral truth.

Yes, Passover is about the bitterness of bondage and the righteousness of freedom. But it’s also about — to me, even more about — our telling the story of bondage and freedom.  When we do that, we not only obey a biblical injunction to teach our children where we came from, we communally experience how literally spellbinding a story can be.  

We Jews didn’t just give monotheism to the world. We also gave the story of monotheism to the world. If monotheism had been merely a creed or ideology, the world might have paid attention for a bit and then moved on. But because it’s a story, a breathtaking drama, it has held the world in its grip ever since.  

martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Let’s leave Obama out of our seders


Jews have big mouths. Put those big mouths in a society that reveres freedom of speech and it’s a sight to behold. On the whole, it’s a wonderful attribute. We analyze everything, we criticize endlessly, we kvetch, we yell, we do everything but shut up. It’s as if we’re taking revenge on all those centuries when we often had to watch what we said. Here, in the land of the First Amendment, keeping quiet is no longer a Jewish ailment.

I’m always amused when I hear an American Jew complain, “They’re trying to shut me up!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to shut a Jew up.

But in this column, I will try.

You see, there is one time when our big mouths don’t serve us so well. It’s when we sit down for a holy meal. Take Shabbat, for example, a time for reflection and joy. You know how to spoil the joyfulness of a Shabbat meal? Just complain about Obama. Or Bibi, or Abbas, or Iran, or BDS or just about anything else we complain about during the week.

It’s not that these issues are not important. They are. The real question is: Do they belong at a Shabbat table? Do they uplift us?

With the Passover seders coming up, my own challenge will be to shut myself up. I’m so upset these days with the way President Obama has been treating Bibi and Israel that it will be hard for me to contain myself. I, too, have a big mouth, and I love living in a country where I’m free to criticize everything, including my president. 

But am I obligated to use that freedom at a seder table?

Let’s play things out. I’m sitting at a big and noisy seder with my family. Someone brings up the subject of a nuclear Iran. My brother, a renowned scientist who always has brilliant insights, is sitting next to me. I am tempted to get his take on the situation, especially on how Obama seems to be appeasing the Persian mullahs. But I know that if I do that, we’ll be in for a good 30 minutes of talking about politics.

Meanwhile, what would happen to the Exodus story? Where would the mood and the energy of the seder go?

It’s true that if you adhere closely to the haggadah — especially the haggadot that drive the conversation with questions and suggestions — you’re a lot less likely to go off on detours. But we’re human. We’re used to saying what’s on our minds.

If I have to choose between a metaphorical discussion of the Four Sons and a political discussion of the four terror states encroaching on Israel, the latter feels way more urgent.

So, we’re trapped between two time frames: the urgent versus the timeless. Passover clearly deals with the timeless. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “The Jewish festival of freedom is the oldest continuously observed religious ritual in the world. Across the centuries, Passover has never lost its power to inspire the imagination of successive generations of Jews with its annually re-enacted drama of slavery and liberation.”

If we let our mouths wander into the urgent and the political, how will it inspire our imaginations? How will it help us re-enact the drama of our liberation? Should the starting point be what’s on our minds or what’s in our story?

No matter how urgent or important, politics and current events are simply not very inspiring.

Too often, we do mental gymnastics and convince ourselves that a discussion of politics is appropriate to a spiritual setting. I can imagine that many Jews this year will look at the passage that says, “In every generation, enemies rise up to destroy us,” and connect it to the Iranian nuclear threat. I will probably do the same. But how will that make the evening different from any other?

How will it uplift us?

It’s not just that politics can lead to unpleasant conversations. It’s more than that. No matter how urgent or important, politics and current events are simply not very inspiring. For inspiration, you can’t compete with the timeless lessons and stories of our tradition. And Passover is the mother lode of timeless lessons.

Now, if an ancient and epic story of liberation doesn’t speak to you, and you feel you must talk about something more current, here’s an alternative: Talk about your own stories of liberation. You can start with a discussion of what negative habits have enslaved you over the past year and how you plan to free yourself. Personally, I might talk about freeing myself from always complaining about the news, and especially about Obama.

After all, if Obama has been ruining my mood lately, why should he also ruin my seder?

Happy and meaningful Passover.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

God gave this land to them


Pat Boone wrote the words to “Exodus.”

If you’re below a certain age, Pat Boone is some random dude you need Google to ID, and “Exodus” is the new Ridley Scott 3D with Christian Bale as Moses and a wicked cool CGI Red Sea. 

To Boomers, Pat Boone was the un-Elvis in white bucks, Charlton Heston owns Moses and the real Moses movie is “The Ten Commandments.”  “Exodus” was Otto Preminger’s Zionist epic based on the 1958 Leon Uris novel, whose score won Ernest Gold an Academy Award.   It had a big theme — Buum BUUM. BUUM BUUM – but no words, because Preminger and Gold “>put it, “the second Jewish national anthem,” and recently Boone “>Nina Paley’s 2012 animation of Andy Williams’ pipes shows a succession of conquering Canaanites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Jews, Babylonians, Macedonians, Seleucids, Romans, Caliphs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, Palestinians and others who also said this land is theirs, and also in the name of God, gods, divine rulers, divine prophets and holy texts.   

Eleven years old is the same age as the British actor Isaac Andrew, whom Ridley Scott has “>contested by a generation and more of Israeli historians, journalists, military leaders, political figures and artists.  This openness to historical reality doesn’t diminish the idealism and right to self-determination of that nation’s founders, doesn’t mitigate the horror of the Holocaust that impelled its establishment, doesn’t accept the tragic spiral of terror and counterterror visited on its inhabitants.  But it does make it harder to hold fast to origin stories in which right always battles wrong and never battles right. 

“God gave this land to them” is a sentiment I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in history, let alone in song.  Historical revisionism doesn’t displace one god with another.  It replaces divine narratives with secular ones that are less flattering and less thrilling.  It’s uncomfortable to think about Thanksgiving’s origin in gratitude to a Christian God for enabling the “>manifest destiny allotted to white people by Providence.  It may be a heretical thought, but the founding of modern Israel had more to do with mortal men and women than with the coming of Moshiach or the second coming of Christ. 

Earlier this year, Pat Boone “>living in the End Times.  People believe stories, whether they’re true or not.  They have undeniable explanatory appeal. “The Exodus Song” tells one helluva powerful origin story.  That’s why the 11-year-old in me wants to keep singing it.  But a fable is not a fix. 

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com. 

Letters to the editor: Exodus, spirituality and anti-Semitism


Barking Up the Wrong ‘Free’

I must admit that each time I read a good argument supporting each position (1) the Bible is to be taken literally and (2) the Bible is not to be taken literally, I find I am moved by both positions (“Did the Exodus Happen?” April 18). They are both intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. The question then becomes, for me, what are my motives in accepting one position as opposed to the other. Which position brings me closer to God, a being I cannot prove exists? And if I cannot prove God exists, though I can experience his existence as I experience love, why am I required to prove these events occurred to a standard of scientific certainty? The desire for proof and certainty becomes the new prison, the new idol, the new Pharaoh, which prevents our heart from completely opening up to freedom so that we can then walk with God, as Moses did, and we can truly live the life of a free Jew.

Ilbert Philips via jewishjournal.com

To add another well-known name to the discourse, Freud described the story of the Exodus as a pious myth. And yet, in one of his controversial books he wrote profoundly and with reverence about Moses the remarkable national leader of the people of the Exodus. He followed his life from the time he was plucked out of the river until his death at the edge of the Promised Land. 

The story of Exodus, regardless how it happened, is a recurring event in Jewish history. It is the eternal struggle of monotheism in a polytheistic world with tragic results. The Exodus from Egypt probably was no different from the exodus of Jews from Muslim Iran, Czarist and Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or Catholic Spain. The Exile to Babylon and Rome would also classify as a reverse exodus. Whether Rabbi Wolpe or Dennis Prager is right is not the question. The issue is whether the unleavened bread displayed on a silver platter in a festive setting is the proper and worthy symbol of the struggle for freedom by a people willing to suffer and pay the price for it. So we ask: “Manishtana?”

Ken Lautman Los Angeles


To Thine Own Selfie Be True

Kudos to Danielle Berrin for her informative article on Alan Morinis and the Mussar Institute (“Selfie Spirituality,” April 18). I was privileged to learn about how effective this ethical system is when I visited the California Institute for Women where my friend, the Rev. Gabbai Shayna Lester, was honored on Pesach by inmates and her peers alike. The inmates — both Jews and gentiles — who took part in the Mussar classes, learned among other principles the importance of avoiding lashon harah — gossip and negative comments about others. And it was reported on several occasions that the parole board looked favorably on this program in their consideration of an inmate being found suitable for parole.

This was the most moving seder I have ever attended, written by the inmates themselves as part of a creative writing project. The inmates were also able to have a rare “real food” meal, and to socialize with outsiders like me who take our freedom for granted. I urge my fellow Jews to familiarize themselves with this program’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Raphael Halfon, and Am Or Olam. 

Gene Rothman, Culver City


Overseeing From Overseas

Adelson’s acquisitions simply because they are an interference in Israeli internal affairs from an outside entity would be just as wrong if they were from the left (“Why Adelson Newspaper War Matters,” April 18). We have the same problem in the UK with a Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev, buying up our press and now even owning a TV station, to say nothing of Rupert Murdoch and his all-pervasive influence in every corner of the media. It would be a simple matter for the state to pass a law preventing foreign influence in the media. Of course, the State of Israel will not do so until Netanyahu goes, but it is something for the opposition parties to think about before the next election.

Josephine Bacon via jewishjournal.com


Praying for the Enemy

I read with great sadness about the increased anti-Semitic violence in Los Angeles and the haunting viral hatred on the Internet (“Anti-Semitism sees decreased incidents, increased violence,” April 4). 

Those who hate to such extreme do so to mask an inner weakness that they will not admit to. They rise above their own shame through violence to prove themselves as brave. 

We saw it in the Nazi’s and we see it in people who use Nazi hatred for their self worth. 

The Jewish people have seen it all before. 

I pray not for the victims, but for those who use violence as a means of righteousness. 

For if we can turn hate into something better and useful, then society benefits in every way.

George V. Hill via e-mail

Did the Exodus happen?


With Passover here, it is a propitious time to address the central issue of the holiday: the Exodus. Specifically, did the Exodus happen?

My friend Rabbi David Wolpe announced some years ago that it didn’t matter whether the Exodus occurred. In his words, writing three years later: “Three years ago on Passover, I explained to my congregation that according to archeologists, there was no reliable evidence that the Exodus took place — and that it almost certainly did not take place the way the Bible recounts it. Finally, I emphasized: It didn’t matter.”

“The Torah,” he continued, “is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us.”

I cite Rabbi Wolpe because of my respect for his intellectual honesty, for his Jewish seriousness, and because what he says represents the thinking of many modern Jews.

I do, however, differ. I think it does matter if the Jews were slaves in Egypt and whether the Exodus took place.

First, the Jewish people would not have survived, let alone died for their faith, if they had not believed that the Exodus really happened. It takes much more than metaphors for a small, dispersed and horribly persecuted people to survive for thousands of years. And this will be equally true in the future. If Jews come to believe that one of the Torah’s two most important stories (the other, as I will explain, is the Creation) never happened, it is hard to imagine that they will devote their lives to Judaism — no matter how much “truth” a myth may contain. The ancient Greek stories, as, for example, those of Homer, also contained “truth.” But they didn’t perpetuate Greek culture, which was wholly taken over by Christianity. And few, if any, Greeks outside of Greece have ever retained a strong Greek identity thanks to Homer’s stories.

Second, as noted, the Exodus is one of the two essential stories not only of the Torah, but of Judaism and Jewish history. Our prayer book regularly contains the phrases zecher l’ma’asei bereshit and zecher litziyat mitzrayim — “to commemorate the acts of Creation” and “to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.” Just as Christianity is founded on two events — the atoning death and the Resurrection of Jesus, so Judaism is predicated on two events: Creation and Exodus. The Shabbat Kiddush consists of two paragraphs. The first recounts Creation; the second, the Exodus.

Apparently God (or, if you prefer, whoever gave the Ten Commandments) thought the Exodus significant enough to open the Ten Commandments with reference to one event — the Exodus: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” Even one who doesn’t believe that God gave the Ten Commandments would have to explain why reference to something that never happened would so move the ancient Israelites. In addition, the two versions of the Ten Commandments — the one from God in Exodus and the one from Moses in Deuteronomy — differ with regard to the reason for Shabbat. The first version’s reason is the Creation (by keeping the Shabbat, we reaffirm weekly that God created the world); the second version’s reason is the Exodus (“You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” — and only free people can have a day of rest each week).

Third, if the Exodus never happened, what biblical story did? Did Abraham live? Did Moses? Was there a revelation at Mount Sinai? Did the Jews enter the Promised Land? Did King David live? According to scholars such as Niels Peter Lemche, an internationally recognized biblical scholar at the University of Copenhagen, “The David of the Bible, David the king, is not a historical figure.”

Are they all fables? If so, it’s really hard to make the case for taking the Bible particularly seriously, let alone base one’s identity and values on it.

Fourth, that we cannot prove that the Jews were in Egypt means little to me. Many biblical stories that were once dismissed as fables were later shown to have a historical basis. Therefore, my belief in the Exodus story does not depend on archaeologists telling me whether they have concluded that Jews were enslaved in and later left Egypt. In any event, what archaeological evidence can one expect to find? The Egyptians didn’t record defeats. And the Jews were in the desert/wilderness with temporary dwellings that would hardly leave traces after 3,000 years.

Logic, however, does strongly argue for the historicity of the Exodus story. What people ever made up as ignoble a past as the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible relate about the Jews? Every other people in the world made up a grand and powerful history for themselves. They were all mighty and courageous. We Jews, on the other hand, were slaves, idol worshippers, rebels and ingrates. Why make that up? And why make up that so many non-Jews were heroes — such as the daughter of Pharaoh, the Egyptian midwives and the pagan priest Jethro? Why make up that Moses was raised an Egyptian? Why credit God for the Exodus rather than bold Israelites?

At the Passover seder, you have good reason to believe avadim hayeenu b’eretz mitzrayim, “we were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Recite it with conviction.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Hollywood and the Nazis: Two historians, two opinions


The study of history never lends itself to a single unambiguous view of the past.  For history is, as the British scholar E.H. Carr observed in his famous 1961 book “What is History?” “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present.”

One of the most important consequences of this dialogue is that historians often advance widely divergent interpretations of significant events, whether it be the question of whether the Exodus occurred, what caused the French Revolution or which factors led to the flight of Palestinian Arabs in 1948. At times, scholars use the same body of historical sources and still arrive at different conclusions. A good case in point was a pair of books published by Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen in 1992 and 1996, respectively.  Relying not only on the same historical subject — the brutally murderous German Reserve Police Battalion that killed scores of thousands of Jews during World War II — but also the same archival files, the two researchers drew very different conclusions. Browning titled his book “Ordinary Men” to indicate that the behavior of the police battalion was not the function of a particular German way of being, but a reflection of the capacity for evil deeds inhering in the human condition at large. Goldhagen, for his part, subtitled his book “Ordinary Germansto convey his view that a uniquely German “eliminationist” anti-Semitism motivated the police battalion.

We are reminded of the manifold possibilities of historical interpretation — and of the question of how we ourselves might act in trying circumstances — in the current controversy surrounding an historical topic with particular resonance here in Los Angeles: the relationship between Hollywood movie studios and the Nazis. In his new book “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” Ben Urwand, a junior faculty at Harvard’s prestigious Society of Fellows, issues a stinging bill of indictment against the largely Jewish studio heads in Hollywood for placing economic gain above morality or a sense of compassion for their co-religionists in Germany during the increasingly dire 1930s. Danielle Berrin’s report on the book in the Jewish Journal from more than a month ago captures the sensational claim of the book: “Hollywood’s Deal With the Devil (Hitler).”

In making his case, Urwand relies on a wide trove of published and unpublished sources, especially German government files, to maintain that the studio heads capitulated to Nazi censorship of one movie script after another in order to preserve a foothold in the lucrative German market. There was at work, Urwand suggests, an unsettling alliance of interests among the studio heads, the movie industry’s own guardian of propriety, the Hays Office, and the German Propaganda Ministry, not to mention subservient American Jewish organizations. The overall thrust of the book’s argument follows a wider narrative arc about American Jewish passivity during the second world war that was forcefully promoted in the 1940s by the Jewish activist Peter Bergson (né Hillel Kook). This is not surprising, as Bergson emerges as a heroic foil to the studio heads late in Urwand book, alongside the writer Ben Hecht.   

One cannot dismiss Urwand’s evidence about the opportunism of studio heads vis-à-vis the German film market, especially in the mid-930s. But neither must one buy into the image of them as greed-filled collaborators blithely indifferent to the fate of fellow Jews. Nor should one assume that all American-Jewish organizations and leaders spoke in the same, muted voice about Nazism.  Urwand’s perspective in covering this terrain is tendentious, at times coarsely drawn and, above all, partial.  

The partial nature of his account becomes clear when encountering a very different perspective on the same period and some of the same actors.  Professor Steven Ross, the USC historian perhaps best known for his “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics(2011), is at work on a book that moves the current of historical action in the opposite direction. Rather than focusing on the efforts of Hollywood moguls to preserve market share in Germany, he has uncovered, through a rich body of archival sources at California State University, Northridge, a terrifying scheme by Nazi officials and local sympathizers to engage in mass terror here in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Chief among their goals was a plan to assassinate 20 leading Hollywood Jews, including Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner — who are cast in Urwand’s book as enthusiastic supporters of “the collaboration” from which his book gets its title.  

Ross and Urwand do have some overlapping themes and figures in their accounts, but the emphases differ greatly.  Take, for example, Germany’s Consul General in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling. For Urwand, Gyssling is the key figure in the Nazi propaganda effort in Hollywood, threatening and cajoling studio heads to remove any references to Germany or Jews, avoid any condemnation of fascism, and even eliminate Jewish actors and directors from films — lest they be subjected to Article 15 of the German film code that would entail their companies’ removal from the German market.  

For Ross, Gyssling is the more public yet benign face of Joseph Goebbels’ efforts to conquer Hollywood. Far more dangerous was Gyssling’s rival, Hermann Schwinn, the leader of Los Angeles’ growing Nazi party in the 1930s.  It was Schwinn who presided over a loose group of Nazis and fascists that gathered at the Deutsches Haus in downtown Los Angeles. Out of this local group emerged the plan to murder 20 leading Jewish figures from Hollywood. And out of this group emanated a scheme to hang 20 leading Jewish and civic figures in Los Angeles before driving to Boyle Heights to gun down Jews at random.

As shocking as this series of plots may seem, Ross has uncovered an even more remarkable twist. The Nazis’ plans in Los Angeles were foiled by a group of undercover spies led by one Leon Lewis, a Jewish communal activist and founder of the Community Committee, later known as the Community Relations Committee (CRC). Lewis makes a fleeting appearance in Urwand’s book, but he is a main protagonist in Ross’ forthcoming work. Beginning in 1933, Lewis assembled and ran a team of undercover agents, Jews and non-Jews, who infiltrated and then disabled the L.A.-based Nazi cell.  It was he whom Gyssling accused of spreading the most pernicious anti-German propaganda. And it was he who came to be regarded by the Nazis as “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles.”  

By excavating Lewis’ story, Ross is revealing a previously unknown facet of the complex triangle of Hollywood, Jews and Nazism. He is also offering a very different narrative lens through which to observe this triangle than the one used by Urwand in “The Collaboration.” Ross’ story is not a tale of Jewish indifference or betrayal, but of courage and daring, at least in the case of Lewis.   

And yet, it would be a mistake to depict all as black or white in Ross’ history.  With respect to the Jewish studio heads, themselves targets of the ill-fated assassination plot, he acknowledges that they continued to do business and curry favor with the Germans as late as 1939. At the same time, they provided critical financial support for Lewis’ anti-Nazi spy ring. Their legacy, in this regard, is mixed, neither heroic nor demonic.

And so we are left with two strands of the history of Hollywood and Nazi Germany, each based on extensive archival research, as well as the distinctive interpretive proclivities of two historians. While the great French scholar Lucien Febvre believed it possible to attain l’histoire totale, a total history, a complete understanding of any given historical moment, in all its fullness, forever evades us. Ross’ account of the anti-Nazi spy ring rounds out and balances the harsh judgment of the Jewish movie moguls in Urwand’s book, presenting an important and fascinating corrective, though not — indeed, never — the final word.


David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and chair of the UCLA History Department.

BBC slammed for pulling documentary on Jewish exodus from Jerusalem


 An Israeli-born filmmaker is slamming the British Broadcasting Corp. for pulling his documentary on the Jewish exodus from Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Ilan Ziv said in a blog post on April 27 that the BBC exhibited “a mixture of incompetence, political naivete, conscious or subconscious political pressure and ultimately, I believe, a lack of courage of broadcasters when they are faced with the complexity of the Middle East issue and the intense emotions, fears and aggression it generates.”

At issue is the documentary “Exile: A Myth Unearthed,” which theorizes that many Jews did not leave Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, and that many modern-day Palestinians may be in part descended from those Jews. The BBC had been scheduled to show the documentary, cut and renamed “Jerusalem: an Archaeological Mystery Story,” late last week before it was taken off the schedule at the last minute.

The film was screened for a week at the Jewish Film Festival in Toronto. It was shown on Canadian TV and is scheduled to be shown in France and Switzerland.

The BBC told The Guardian that it dropped the film because it did “not fit editorially” with the tone of the season, which has a theme exploring the history of archaeology.

According to the watchdog group HonestReporting, critics of the decision to drop the film have accused the BBC of succumbing to “unnamed pressure groups,” which HonestReporting says is a reference to “Jews” or “Zionists.”

Simon Plosker of HonestReporting wrote in his blog on the group's website that the BBC may have been “more concerned at upsetting anti-Israel elements by showing a film with such a heavy concentration on Jewish history in the Land of Israel.”

Meanwhile, the BBC named Danny Cohen, who attended a Jewish day school in London, as its director of television. Cohen, 39, previously served as controller of the BBC 1 channel, where he oversaw its London Olympics coverage last year.

In his new position, the Oxford graduate will oversee the four main BBC channels, along with BBC Films and the BBC archive. He reportedly is a front-runner for the job of director-general of the broadcaster when the position becomes available.

Supporters of Israel and the Palestinians have roundly criticized BBC coverage of the Middle East.

Rereading Leon Uris’ ‘Exodus’ a disquieting experience


In preparation for Israel’s 65th birthday, I recently reread Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus” — and found it disturbing and unsettling in many ways.

I first read the book in 1970, around the time of my first visit to Israel, and fell in love both with the book and the country. I was swept away by the romance of the story, entranced by the characters, and I identified strongly with the Jews struggling to establish their homeland against tremendous odds.

“Exodus,” published in 1958, was of course a hugely influential book. A massive best seller (No. 1 of the New York Times list for 19 straight weeks) that also became a mawkish movie two years later starring Paul Newman in the role of the hero, Ari Ben Canaan, it played a major role in the way American Jews and people around the world viewed Israel as well as Arabs. 

“As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel,” Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said.

“Exodus” is credited with setting the tone for international press coverage of the Six-Day War and helping to inspire a Jewish revival among Soviet Jews, prompting them to oppose the communist regime and demand the right to immigrate to Israel. It made Jews around the world proud. It provides the background music to the enduring love affair between American Jews, in particular, and Israel.

For those who may not remember, “Exodus” begins in British-occupied Cyprus. Thousands of Jewish survivors of the Nazis striving to immigrate to Israel have been herded into squalid refugee camps surrounded by barbed wire. The intrepid hero, Ari Ben Canaan, arrives to orchestrate a daring scheme that will shame the British, break the blockade and allow the refugees to proceed to the Promised Land, where they can then take part in the armed struggle for independence.

From the initial scene-setting in Cyprus, Uris takes readers through a series of extended flashbacks that cover the history of Zionism, the settling of the land of Israel and the development of the Palmach, the Haganah and the Irgun. Other flashbacks describe various aspects of the Holocaust, including the rescue of Danish Jewry, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the workings of Nazi extermination camps. Uris at one point describes the Holocaust as “a dance of death with six million dancers!” — one of many unfortunate turns of phrase in the book. 

Finally, the story races through the United Nations partition vote in 1947, the withdrawal of the British and the 1948 War of Independence.

When I first read the book at age 16, I responded to it mainly with my heart — whereas now I read it mostly with my head. Then, I fell in love with Uris’ Israel, which was populated by healthy, strong, lusty young men and women, the latter invariably described as “high-breasted,” which was thrilling in itself at that point in my development. They spent their days wearing blue shirts and short pants, working the land and fighting off Arab marauders, and their nights dancing the hora and making love while murmuring verses from the Song of Songs. 

 “There was an aggressiveness and pride about them … and they were always filled with the songs and dances and ideals of the redemption of the homeland … These were the ancient Hebrews! These were the faces of Dan and Reuben and Judah and Ehphraim. These were Samsons and Deborahs and Joabs and Sauls,” Uris breathlessly tells us.

Uris’ Israel is very much the Israel of Labor Zionism and the kibbutz and moshav (agricultural co-op) movements. He buys into the concept of the “new Jew” — the independent fighter so unlike the weak Jews of the Diaspora who had been left defenseless against the Nazis. Ari Ben Canaan himself is a “strapping six-footer with black hair and ice blue eyes who could be mistaken for a movie leading man. He doesn’t act like any Jew I’ve ever met. You don’t particularly think of them as fighters,” one British character says.

The most disturbing facet of the book is Uris’ depiction of Arabs. In fact, the word “Arab” rarely appears without the adjective “dirty” or “stinking” appended. A few examples:

• “The air was foul with the mixed aroma of thick coffee, tobacco, hashish smoke and the vile odors of the rest of the village.”

• “Nazareth stank. The streets were littered with dung and blind beggars … filthy children were underfoot. Flies were everywhere.”

• “How pathetic the dirty little Arab children were beside the robust youngsters of Gan Dafna. How futile their lives seemed in contrast to the spirit of the Youth Aliya village. There seemed to be no laughter or songs or games or purpose among the Arab children.”

• “They seemed the dregs of humanity. The women were encased in black robes and layers of dirt. The children wore dirty rags.”

• “The Arab section of Safed held the usual broken-down hovels that are found in every Arab city and town in the world.”

• “At least the Arabs are friendly,” Ari said. “They are Christians.” “They are Christians who need a bath,” Kitty replied.

These are just a few of many, many examples that become cumulatively oppressive. There is one “good” Arab in the book, Kammal, the mukhtar of Abu Yesha, a village neighboring the Gan Dafna Zionist village named after Ari’s martyred first love. Kammal recognizes that the Jews have “performed miracles on the land and … are the only salvation for the Arab people. The Jews are the only ones in a thousand years who have brought light to this part of the world.”

But Kammal’s son is weak and allows himself to be drawn into an attack on the Jewish village in 1948. The result is the righteous and deserved expulsion of his people into exile — which pretty much sums up Uris’ view of how the Palestinian refugee problem was created. 

Uris also shamelessly invented events, which are presented as if they were historical. Given the choice between the facts and the legend, he always went for the legend — which he made up in the first place. The main example of this is his retelling of the story of the refugee ship Exodus, which gives the book its title. 

In Uris’ version, the boat is loaded with children who go on a hunger strike and then threaten to commit suicide, one an hour, until the British relent — which they do, allowing the ship to triumphantly sail to Haifa. In reality, the Exodus was boarded by the British, who tried to deport the immigrants to France. When France refused to take them, the British had to return them to Germany, where they were forcibly disembarked. That story is dramatic enough in its own right and prompted an international press outcry that severely discredited the British and their blockade policy. But it did not fit Uris’ dramatic purpose.

Many reviewers have commented on Uris’ clunky prose and his stereotypical characters. He certainly has a talent for evoking a place — as in this description of a small port in Cyprus: “Kyrenia was picturesque and remote and quaint to the point where it could not have been more picturesque or remote or quaint.”

The central love affair, between Ari and the American non-Jewish nurse Kitty Fremont, is curiously flat. Kitty wants Ari to show his emotions and acknowledge his vulnerabilities. She wants him to need her. Finally, with one more tragic death, he does — but only for a short time. Soon enough, he says, he will strap on his armor and return to the battle. Kitty says that’s good enough for her.

It occurred to me that their relationship mirrored the way many Israelis see the United States as a whole. They want Americans to love them and help them out and be there for them in emergencies or moments of rare weakness — but they don’t want to be dependent or vulnerable.

Despite its many faults, “Exodus” still packs an emotional wallop. A few times, I felt myself responding, just as I had when I first read it as a 16-year-old. The sheer narrative thrust and energy leading to the climactic moments where Israel is reborn as a state moved me. We need to remember that story and not take the creation of Israel for granted, and for that purpose, “Exodus” still has a role to play.

But in 2013, Uris’ narrative is insufficient. Now the challenge is to win the peace rather than to prevail in war. We need to find a way of living side-by-side with the descendants of those “stinking Arabs” who fled the land in 1948. We are entitled to our founding myths and our national narrative — but Uris does not serve us well in pointing a path to the future. 

Alan Elsner, a journalist and author, is vice president of communications for J Street. 

Recalling a second exodus


Frolicking with her fiancé in the cool waters of the Suez Canal, Lilian Abada would never have imagined she was about to experience the first of a string of events that would ultimately lead her to flee her native Egypt for Israel with only one suitcase.

When Abada and her future husband, Nisso, emerged from the water that day in 1956, a security agent was waiting for them. The two teenagers were arrested for spying for Israel and interrogated for days. They were released and then rearrested, along with hundreds of Jews. Finally, they fled to Israel.

“We realized the Egyptians wanted us out,” Abada said.

Abada’s account of her family’s flight is set to appear in “The Golden Age of the Jews From Egypt,” a forthcoming book that aims to preserve the memory of this North African Jewish community against what many Egyptian Jews see as an attempt by the country’s Islamist leaders to blot out their history.

The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood last year has generated much angst in the Egyptian Jewish Diaspora, descendants of a 2,000-year-old community all but destroyed in a mass emigration in the two decades following Israel’s establishment in 1948 — a period that community members refer to as the “Second Exodus.”

In the wake of the election of Mohamed Morsi to the presidency last year, there were reports that Egypt had denied entry visas to Rabbi Avraham Dayan and several others who were due to travel to Alexandria to lead High Holy Days services at the city’s Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue. Services apparently will not be held there on the upcoming Passover holiday.

Jewish sources also say a nascent restoration project of some of Cairo’s crumbling synagogues has been suspended, despite the 2010 announcement by Egypt’s then-culture minister that the government would shoulder the cost of the project.

In January, a Muslim Brotherhood politician resigned as a presidential adviser after he drew international attention by calling on Egyptian Jews to return. More recently, authorities censored a film on Egyptian Jews that was to be screened in Egyptian cinemas, though the director, Amir Ramses, tweeted this week that the film will be screened later this month after producers “won the war against security forces.”

“It appears that under President Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian authorities are trying to tear out the pages about the Jewish minority from the book of Egyptian history,” said Ada Aharoni, the editor of “The Golden Age of the Jews From Egypt,” which serves as a kind of Egyptian Jewish haggadah.

A Cairo-born retired sociologist, writer and researcher at Haifa’s Technion, Aharoni initiated the book project, which is being prepared for print just as Jews around the world prepared to remember their own ancestors’ flight from Egypt on Passover. But the holiday was not Aharoni’s main consideration in terms of timing.

Living witnesses to the uprooting of Egyptian Jewry are dying out, she said. And the recent censorship of the documentary created an additional sense of urgency.

“This film claimed Jews had it good in Egypt and left only to America and France, not Israel — and still it was banned,” she said. “The Morsi regime is determined to delete our history in Egypt and our heritage. In a way, Morsi’s regime wants to return to periods even darker than the one that caused the Second Exodus.”

The 400-page book contains 68 testimonies and will be published in Israel in the coming weeks and sold in bookshops. Although most of it is written in Hebrew, some accounts appear only in French, a tribute to the sizable community of Egyptian Jews that settled in France.

According to Aharoni, only half of the 75,000 to 100,000 Jews who left Egypt settled in Israel. Many went to France, but also to the United States, the United Kingdom and even Brazil.

One of the non-Israelis featured in the book is Aharoni’s younger brother, Edwin Diday, who lives in Paris. In the days leading up to the family’s flight, Diday felt “the same fear that we felt during World War II, as the Nazi forces of Erwin Rommel neared Egypt,” he wrote in the book. Diday says anti-Semitic caricatures were “everywhere, one showing an arm tattooed with a Star of David holding a bloody red knife.”

On an outing to the Rio cinema, a local told Diday’s parents that a gang of hooligans was coming to lynch them.

“Mom and dad took us in their arms and ran with us home, which was fortunately not far,” Diday recalled.

But Diday has other memories of roaming alone as a boy in the Museum of Cairo. And Aharoni recalls her best friend, Kadreya, who was not Jewish, at Alvernia, an elite English-language school for girls situated in a well-to-do neighborhood of the Egyptian capital.

“People don’t realize it, they think of all North African Jews as one bloc,” Aharoni said. “But Egyptian Jewry lived in a European enclave in the heart of Cairo.”

According to Aharoni, part of the reason Jews were able to live in such an enclave was that 95 percent were not Egyptian citizens, despite having lived there for generations. The discrimination deprived them of equal rights, but also freed them from the duty of sending their children to Arab state schools, serving in the army or aligning themselves politically with any one party, Aharoni says.

To help bring the lost enclave back to life, the book features dozens of rare photographs of Egyptian Jewish life. One taken shortly before Aharoni left with her family in 1949 shows nine smiling teenagers from Maccabi Cairo, the local branch of the international Zionist sports organization. Its activities were banned a few months later, Aharoni says.

The book also contains a copy of Nissim Rabia’s 1948 Maccabi membership card with text in Arabic, Hebrew and French. Another reproduction shows the travel document Egyptian authorities gave Jewish families they expelled. Stamped on them were the words “One way — no right to return.”

Many pages in the book are dedicated to the property that Egypt’s well-to-do Jewish residents were forced to leave behind. Diday’s father, Nessim, mistakenly believed his life savings were secure at the Cairo branch of a Swiss bank; the government requisitioned the funds. Benny Roditti recalls how, just before leaving in 1956, he tried to withdraw his family’s savings from a different Cairo bank but was told the account had been “suspended indefinitely.”

Thousands had similar experiences, according to Aharoni.

In recent decades Azi Nagar, the founder of the Association for the Promotion of Compensation for Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands, tried to start restitution talks with the regime of Hosni Mubarak, whose 30 years in power ended in 2011 in a revolution that led to Morsi’s election. Nagar, an Israeli born in Cairo, also was keen to see Egypt honor its announcement that it would cover the costs of renovating the country’s synagogues.

Nowadays, Nagar says, Egypt’s tiny Jewish community cannot even get the government to approve renovations at the community’s expense.

In January, Nagar broached the issue of financial restitution in letters to Morsi, who has not replied.

Aharoni believes speaking about the loss and trauma suffered by Egyptian Jews is important but views restitution talks as a side issue.

“Yes, a staggering amount was left behind in Egypt,” she said. “But going after it is like asking a beggar for a handout.” 

The chametz within


Rejoice! Spring has arrived, and Pesach is here. The time of our liberation is at hand. The Exodus from our narrow straits is re-enacted once more.

To be sure, Pesach is about history — the story of the children of Israel leaving the oppression of Egypt, freed into the wilderness of Sinai.

But Pesach is far more than a retelling of history. 

Pesach is the holiday that teaches us to rid ourselves of the dross in our lives. It is the holiday of the eradication of chametz — the fermenting element needed for dough to rise. Get rid of the yeast and our daily bread becomes the food of angels, a vehicle for holy ascent.

This chametz exists within each of us. It is the ingredient that causes anger to bubble up, resentment to arise, prejudice to form. Chametz is both the cause and the result of the accumulation of stubbornly held opinions, ancient slights and long-held grudges. 

Chametz wraps around our souls and our hearts like linen around a mummy, preserving for eternity all the anguish within. Chametz wraps and wraps around our souls until the eternal light that shines within us is dimmed, dulled and can no longer be seen. 

We are commanded to find the chametz within us, gather it and burn it. This is the true meaning of a burnt offering; an offering that is a pleasing scent unto God. This is the offering we give those we love when we attempt to purge ourselves from past transgressions: “See how much I love you,” we say. “I’m cleaning house. I’m getting rid of all that displeases you, and I’m doing so for you, as a sign of my love.” 

Notice how we are not asked to gather the very best in us as an offering, but rather the very worst in us. This is key. This is the ikar — the main point.

The second verse in the book of Leviticus says: “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a person brings from you a sacrifice to the Lord; from the animal, from the cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.”

How are we to understand this statement? Is this a simple, straightforward instruction about the species to be sacrificed, or is there something deeper being addressed? Obviously, the Torah means what it says and must be understood that way. But if that was all the Torah was addressing, I believe it would have faded away into the dust of history ages ago.

Chasidic teaching instructs us to look at the wording and see that what we are really being asked to bring near to God is the animal, the beast within us. We are being asked to offer up the material, physical, earthbound element within us, our neshamah behemit — our beastly soul.

All of us, hopefully, have qualities we are pleased with and would love for others to notice. But we also have qualities we work hard to transform, subdue or even eradicate. Most of the time we wish those qualities would simply evaporate and disappear from within us.

The Torah commands us to bring our least desirable qualities as an offering, not because they are beautiful and pleasing, but rather because they represent our deepest, most painful struggle. We are, after all, Yisrael — those who will struggle with God — and it is within that struggle that our redemption is found. It is the very struggle with our inner demons, our worst angels, that ennobles us and raises us up higher than even angels can aspire to ascend. 

It is that coarse, material soul within us, the twin sister of our Godly soul, that bears the sweetest fruits of our labor; that is why we are asked to offer it up as a token of our love.

The chametz we carry within us year-round is the expression of that beastly soul; it is the Pharaoh within us, yearning to mummify all that is sweet, precious and pure within us, and cast us into the darkness of Egypt’s penultimate plague.

So let us clean house, demummify spiritually and physically. Let us burn the chametz of our anger and hurt, our pride and our prejudice. But let us remember this: It is only because of our chametz that we struggle and grow; it is only because of our beastly, material soul that we rise higher and higher as we labor to transform ourselves into better human beings. Clean, gather and burn the chametz, but leave a little trace of it somewhere deep inside so that next Pesach can be as joyous a festival as this one; so that next Pesach can offer us as meaningful a struggle for liberation as our past festivals have offered.

A joyous, happy and clean Pesach to all. 

Exodus script: For your seder table


The following text is excerpted from “The Bronfman Haggadah,” written by Edgar Bronfman with illustrations by Jan Aronson (Rizzoli, 2012).

NARRATOR: Four hundred years before the Exodus, a Hebrew named Joseph lived in the land of Egypt. Originally from Canaan, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. His extraordinary ability to interpret dreams eventually won his freedom and rose to prominence in Egypt.

NARRATOR: When a severe famine ravaged the area, Joseph reconciled with his brothers and brought his extended family from Canaan, settling them in Goshen, one of Egypt’s most fertile regions. As Joseph’s brilliant rationing strategies spared Egypt the worst of the famine, he was revered by the Egyptians.

NARRATOR: This love extended to his tribe — the Hebrews, or Israelites. But hundreds of years later, a Pharaoh came to power who didn’t know of Joseph and his legacy. And this Pharaoh feared the Israelites’ numbers.

PHARAOH: Our land teems with Israelites! Should war break out, they could easily side with the enemy. We must keep them from multiplying!

NARRATOR: So Pharaoh assigned two Hebrew midwives — Shiprah and Puah — with the terrible task of killing all the Hebrew boy babies at birth. But the midwives thwarted Pharaoh’s order.

NARRATOR: So Pharaoh set taskmasters over the Israelites, hoping to deplete their vigor with hard labor. Still, the Hebrew population swelled. Furious, Pharaoh ordered his soldiers to find every firstborn Hebrew boy and cast him into the Nile.

NARRATOR: Now there was a Hebrew mother named Jocheved. Often she’d seen Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants bathe in a pool sheltered by reeds. So Jocheved, with her daughter Miriam, set to work, daubing a bulrush basket with pitch and clay. With the watertight basket, they set off for the pool. Once there, they placed the little ark among the reeds.

NARRATOR: Unable to watch her child be claimed by another, Jocheved returned to Goshen. But Miriam stayed behind, wanting to know her baby brother’s fate. Soon Pharaoh’s daughter came to the river. When she spotted the basket, she commanded a servant to draw it from the water. Looking down at the little face, her heart filled with compassion for what she quickly realized was a Hebrew infant, most likely hidden by a desperate mother. She turned to one of her servants.

PRINCESS: My baby needs a wet nurse. Find one!

NARRATOR: Miriam stepped out from hiding.

MIRIAM: I know a woman who can nurse your baby.

PRINCESS: Well, go then and fetch her!

NARRATOR: Miriam hastened to Jocheved and told her what happened. And Jocheved suckled the baby, whom the princess named Moses — a common Egyptian name, but one that in Hebrew means “drawn from the water.”

NARRATOR: Moses grew up with Pharaoh’s son. They played together, rode horses together, and were like brothers. But Moses often felt a strange longing — especially when he watched the Hebrews toiling under the scorching sun, forced to build the treasure cities of Ramses and Pithom. The feeling deepened until one day when, as a whip whistled over the back of an elderly Hebrew, it erupted.

MOSES: Stop! You must stop!

NARRATOR: When the slave driver ignored Moses’ command, Moses killed him and hid the body in the sand. But one of Pharaoh’s men witnessed the killing. When he learned of it, Pharaoh shouted:

PHARAOH: Find Moses! He must be punished!

NARRATOR: But Moses had already escaped. He was now sojourning in the desert, seeking a home far from the tyranny and temples of Egypt. When he reached a place called Midian, he married a young woman named Zipporah — daughter of Jethro, a priest and shepherd. And Zipporah bore him two sons, and Moses dwelt with his family in Midian for many years.

NARRATOR: One day, while tending Jethro’s flock, Moses found himself at the foot of Mount Horeb, also known as Sinai. A bush was shimmering with fire, though its leaves and branches were not consumed. Suddenly an otherworldly voice boomed:

GOD: (VOICE IN THE BURNING BUSH) Moses, come no closer and remove your sandals — you stand on holy ground.

MOSES: Who are you?

GOD: I am the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As you’ve been living your simple shepherd’s life, I’ve watched my people suffering in Egypt. Unable to bear their bitter bondage, they have been crying out to me. So you must go, Moses, down to Egypt — and bring them to this mountain. After this, you will lead them to Canaan — the large and lovely land I promised your ancestors.

MOSES: No one will believe I am your messenger. My tongue is slow and my speech is not eloquent. My words will rally no one!

GOD: Fear not, Moses. What is that in your hand?

MOSES: A shepherd’s rod.

GOD: Cast it on the ground.

NARRATOR: Moses cast his rod down. Instantly it turned into a serpent. God then told him to grasp the serpent by the tail. At his touch, the snake turned back into a rod.

GOD: Now, Moses, slip your hand into your cloak and remove it.

NARRATOR: Moses obeyed. When he withdrew his hand, he gasped. His healthy flesh was now white and flaky as snow. At God’s command, Moses slipped his hand back into his bosom. When he removed it his scaly flesh had been restored to health.

GOD: If the people do not believe these signs and wonders, there will be others. And do not fear your slow speech. Your brother Aaron will serve as your spokesperson.

NARRATOR: So Moses and his family set off for Egypt. Halfway there, he met Aaron. When the two brothers reached Egypt, they arranged for a meeting with Pharaoh. Speaking on behalf of Moses, Aaron said:

AARON: Our God commands you to release his people so they can honor him with a three-day feast in the wilderness.

PHARAOH: Who is this god of yours? And why should I let my slaves worship him? They worship me alone! What can your god do that I cannot do myself?

NARRATOR: Moses threw down his rod and it turned into a serpent. But when Moses grasped the snake, it stiffened back into a rod.

PHARAOH: Nothing but a cheap trick. My magicians can do the same!

NARRATOR: Pharaoh summoned his magicians and commanded them to throw down their rods. They changed into small snakes. In the next moment, the larger snake of Moses swallowed the magicians’ serpents.

NARRATOR: But Pharaoh was unimpressed and refused to let the Hebrews go. Instead, he increased their burdens, withholding the straw they needed to bind the bricks. God then instructed Aaron to stretch his shepherd’s staff over the streams, the rivers, and the ponds of Egypt.

NARRATOR ONE: When Aaron did so, the waters turned to blood — even the water in the stone and wooden vessels turned to blood. Miraculously, the water in the slave province of Goshen remained pure. Still, Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews go. God then said to Aaron:

GOD: Stretch your staff once more over Egypt’s rivers, canals, and ponds!

NARRATOR: As Aaron did so, thousands of frogs leaped up and hopped through Egypt, entering the dwellings of royalty and commoners alike. They wiggled between the bedding, they sprang into the cooking pots, and they filled up the urns, temple bowls, and kneading troughs. The only place free of frogs was Goshen, home of the Hebrew slaves.

NARRATOR: When the Egyptian people became ill, Pharaoh had no choice but to summon Moses and Aaron back to his court.

PHARAOH: If your god removes these frogs, I will allow your people to make their three-day feast in the wilderness.

NARRATOR: So God caused the frogs to die. The Egyptians heaped them into enormous piles and set them ablaze. A terrible stench hovered over the land. But the moment the foul odor died away, Pharaoh withdrew his offer.

GOD: Moses, say to Aaron: Stretch out your rod and strike the dust of the land!

NARRATOR: Aaron did as commanded, and instantly the dust turned to lice. And the lice burrowed into the hair of humans and the fur of beasts. The Egyptian magicians attempted the same, but their powers were too weak. Afraid, the Egyptian magicians pleaded with Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.

NARRATOR: When Pharaoh dismissed their pleas, God unleashed clouds of winged pestilence. And the buzzing clouds of gnats and midges and flies covered Egypt, causing the people to wail in misery. Only the Hebrews were spared. Pharaoh summoned Moses.

PHARAOH: Tell your god to remove this scourge! If he does, I will release his people.

NARRATOR: Again, Pharaoh reneged on his promise. And God had no choice but to send more plagues. First, wild beasts ravaged the land, and then disease killed all of Egypt’s cattle.

NARRATOR: After that, boils bubbled up on the bodies of the Egyptians, and then hail the size of fists battered the fruit trees, breaking their boughs; only Goshen’s trees were spared. And when the hail hit the ground, it burst into flame, and the fire ran in rivulets through the city streets — except for the streets of Goshen.

NARRATOR: Yet Pharaoh’s heart remained stubborn; he refused to let the Hebrews go. So God blackened the sky with locusts. And the ravenous insects devoured every leaf and growing plant — other than those in Goshen. Facing mass starvation, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron.

PHARAOH: If your god crushes these locusts, I will let your people go!

NARRATOR: Moses implored God to remove the locusts from Egypt. God obliged, sending a stiff wind that swept all the locusts into the sea. As before, Pharaoh failed to honor his promise.

NARRATOR: At God’s command, Moses and Aaron stretched their hands to the heavens, causing a dense fog to roll across Egypt. The darkness was so thick it could be felt on the skin; the only gleam of light was in the slave quarters of Goshen. Terrified, Pharaoh called out to Moses and Aaron:

PHARAOH: Remove this suffocating darkness! If you do, you can take your people out of Egypt — though you must leave all your flocks and herds behind!

NARRATOR: But Moses refused to leave without the Hebrews’ livestock.

PHARAOH: Then you and your accursed people will never leave! Now go away from me! I cannot bear the sight of your face!

NARRATOR: Moses returned to God, who revealed to him the awful details of the tenth and final plague.

GOD: In ten days’ time, every firstborn male in Egypt will die at midnight. Not one will escape — neither the firstborn of Pharaoh nor the firstborn of the prisoner in the dungeon. And a loud cry will resound throughout Egypt — a cry that has never been heard or will ever be heard again. 

But I will spare your children, Moses, and the children of your people. Tell the Israelites to slaughter an unblemished lamb. Then, with brushes of hyssop, instruct them to daub the lamb’s blood on their doorposts and lintels. Seeing these markings, the Angel of Death will pass over them.

Ever afterward, this day shall be celebrated as a memorial. And this memorial shall be called Passover, and each generation shall tell the next how their ancestors were delivered from bondage in Egypt. And you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord.

NARRATOR: Everything happened as God foretold. At midnight, the cries of mothers and fathers resounded throughout the towns and cities of Egypt. His own son destroyed, his will crushed, Pharaoh cried to Moses:

PHARAOH: Begone, Moses! And take your wretched people. And take the cattle and sheep you’ve so unjustly demanded! Go from here and never return!

NARRATOR: Fearful that Pharaoh would change his mind, the Israelites hastily prepared to leave, not even waiting for the bread in their kneading troughs to rise. And thus the Hebrews departed — six hundred thousand strong. And they journeyed far from the borders of Egypt, toward Canaan — the promised land of milk and honey. By day, they were guided by a whirling pillar of cloud; by night, a brilliant column of fire. 

But Pharaoh’s heart hardened again, as did the hearts of his courtiers.

EGYPTIAN COURTIER: Why have you done this? Why have you released our slaves?

EGYPTIAN COURTIER: How will we till our land?

EGYPTIAN COURTIER: How will we feed our people?

EGYPTIAN COURTIER: We are ruined!

NARRATOR: Aware of the folly he’d committed, Pharaoh commanded his generals:

PHARAOH: Bring them back — every single one!

NARRATOR TWO: The Egyptian troops sped after the fleeing Hebrews. Soon the Israelites, camped on the shore of the sea, could hear the rumble of the approaching chariot wheels. They cried to Moses:

ISRAELITE: We are trapped! We will be killed!

ISRAELITE: Why have you taken us from Egypt just to die in the wilderness?

ISRAELITE: He is right! Better to have remained slaves in Egypt!

ISRAELITE: You have not led us to freedom — you’ve led us to death!

MOSES: Fear not. Stand still, and see what God shall do for you.

NARRATOR: Moses then stretched out his rod, causing an easterly wind to blow. With Egypt’s militia bearing down fast, an Israelite named Nahshon broke from the crowd and boldly stepped into the sea. The wind stirred up the water, heaping it into two growing walls with a wide, dry path running in between. The Israelites followed Nahshon across the divided sea.

NARRATOR: The Egyptian army soon charged behind. But Moses did not panic. It was only when his people had reached the other side that he stretched his rod again, making the walls of water to roll back into place. For a few minutes, the Egyptian troops floundered in the waves. But quickly they were covered, and their cries were heard no more.

NARRATOR: Moses’ sister Miriam rushed to the shore. As her tambourine jingled, she joyously sang:

MIRIAM: Who is like you, O God, among the gods? You triumphed gloriously; throwing horse and driver into the sea!

NARRATOR: And thus Israel was out of Egypt. And all day and night the Israelites celebrated, dancing and singing, oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead. (break in storytelling)

 

MIRIAM’S CUP AND TEN DROPS OF WINE

LEADER: We now pause in our storytelling and turn our attention to another ritual item on our seder table. This is known as Miriam’s Cup. The item was inspired by a midrashic legend of a miraculous well that traveled with the Israelites as they trekked through the wildness. Although it is never mentioned in the Exodus narrative, it became known as Miriam’s Well. According to the midrashic account, it disappeared when Miriam died.

CELEBRANT: The purpose of Miriam’s Cup — a relatively new seder object — is to honor the Prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, along with all other women — biblical, historical, and contemporary — who have worked so tirelessly for freedom on behalf of Jews and non-Jews alike.

LEADER: Miriam’s Cup also provides us with a chance to personally honor a special woman in our lives — a mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, or other. As we pass around Miriam’s Cup, we each add a drop of water from our glasses. As we add this drop, we reflect on the warmth and love of the special woman we’ve chosen to remember tonight. (Leader pours drop of water into Miriam’s Cup and then passes the cup to the next person; each celebrant adds a drop of water as the cup circles the table.)

CELEBRANT: At this juncture in our seder, we point out a midrash associated with the parting of the Sea of Reeds. The term “Sea of Reeds” is not a misnomer or alternative name for the Red Sea. It was a part of it, with shallow waters. While the Israelites could wade across it, the Egyptians, in their armor and their heavy chariots, drowned in it. Although the biblical account describes the Hebrews singing at the destruction of the Egyptians, the midrash tells another story.

CELEBRANT: In that version, the angels are cheering as the waters roll back into place, plunging the Egyptians to their deaths. But when God hears the angels’ rejoicing, he grows angry and admonishes them: “Stop cheering, those are my people, too.” Most of us don’t believe in angels, but this story imaginatively makes an important point: While Jewish tradition sanctions the right to self-defense, it instructs us to always celebrate life, not death — even the death of our enemies. This lovely midrash teaches us that Judaism considers all people precious.

LEADER: This concept is expressed in the traditional Passover custom of casting drops of wine from our glasses onto our plates. With a finger, we each remove ten drops — one for each plague — and cast them onto our plates. This custom expresses our aversion to the punishment meted out to the Egyptians during our ancestors’ deliverance. As long as others suffer — even our enemies — our own joy, symbolized by the wine in our glasses, is lessened.

CELEBRANT: As we perform this ritual, we reflect on the calamities plaguing our world today: the slaughter of innocents — both humans and beasts — as well as the pillaging and crowding of our planet, the plundering of our seas, the corrosive poverty, and the unjust wars. As we lessen our joy, let’s silently commit ourselves to kedoshim tehiya — the striving after godliness and righteousness. Together, we now perform this ritual. (Participants dip one finger into the wine remaining in their glasses, casting ten drops onto their plates.)

LEADER: We now finish our second cup of wine and return to our story.

NARRATOR: Week after week, the Israelites journeyed south through the blistering heat of Shur. Finally, they reached an oasis called Marah. In huge throngs, they raced to its shining pools. But the water proved bitter and they spat it out.

ISRAELITE: What shall we drink?

ISRAELITE: We shall perish of thirst!

NARRATOR: Once again, Moses called out to God. And God told him to take the limb of a tree and cast it into the pool. Moses did so, and the waters of Marah turned pure and sweet. After satisfying their thirst, the Israelites journeyed on. As long as they had food, they remained calm. But once their stores ran out, their voices rose again in anger.

ISRAELITE: Moses! What are we supposed to eat? We will die of starvation!

ISRAELITE: He is right! Better we had stayed in Egypt!

ISRAELITE: We may have been slaves, but at least we had bread!

ISRAELITE: You’ve brought us from Egypt only to kill us with hunger!

NARRATOR: With each passing day, the accusations grew stronger. Fearing the people might stone him to death, Moses called out to God. And God said:

GOD: Tell the people I will bring them meat and cause bread to rain down from the sky. And from this time forth, they will be able to gather their portion. But warn them not to gather in excess. And on the sixth day, they must gather a double portion — for the seventh day must be a day of rest.

NARRATOR: That very evening, a flock of quail flew into the camp. And the people set up nets and caught the birds easily. In the morning, the ground was dotted with sticky, wafer-like flakes that tasted like honey.

NARRATOR: The Israelites called this delicious foodstuff manna. And the pillar of cloud whirled on, leading them by day, and the pillar of fire burned brightly, guiding them by night.

NARRATOR: Finally, after forty-nine days of journeying through scorching heat and howling winds, thirst and hunger, the assembly reached the plains near Mount Sinai. Leaving his terrified people camped on the plains, Moses ascended to the smoking peak. When he returned, he held two stone tablets inscribed with the spiritual imperatives known as the Ten Commandments. (Storytelling ends.) n

Reprinted from “The Bronfman Haggadah” © Rizzoli, New York, 2012. Illustrations copyright 2012 © Jan Aronson.

One voice for comprehensive immigration reform


Family is the foundation of American society, and united families strengthen us as individuals and as communities. Tragically, many immigrant families remain separated for years — often decades — because of our severely broken immigration system. Bureaucratic visa delays can go on for more than 20 years before a relative can enter the United States legally. 

Every day, within our congregations and across the nation, faith leaders see the devastating consequences for those who suffer from our unfair immigration policy. As people of faith, we respect all human life and acknowledge that everyone is worthy of dignity and compassion, as reflected in Genesis 1:28, which teaches that human beings are created in the image of God.

The Torah exhorts: “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). The New Testament urges us to welcome the stranger, for “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40). As a religious community, we are bound to share with others what we experience firsthand, and to shine a light on the harsh and sorrowful truth of human suffering — especially when our voice may inspire the winds of change and help bring hope and love where there is now pain and despair.

Last month, 25 clergy and community leaders participated in a study tour of the San Diego-Tijuana border to learn more about the complexities and challenges of immigration reform. Our interreligious delegation united six diverse Jewish and Christian faith communities — Episcopalian, Jewish, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ — whose bishops and judicatory heads are members of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders. 

We stood at the border wall and listened to the voices of husbands separated from their wives, parents torn from their children, grandparents who yearned to hold their grandchildren once again. We toured the destitute community of Chilpancingo and felt the anguish of thousands who hope for nothing more than to reunite with their families in America. We met deportees at Casa de Los Pobres — parents and children who, by the grace of God, still smile and strum broken guitars, eager to fulfill their dreams for a brighter future. 

In our final moments in Mexico, we stood where the ocean meets the sand, before the wall that stretches into the sea, and gazed at the San Diego skyline that seemed so close. We approached a man there who was staring through the wall and pacing. Just shy of 30 years old, he had come to the United States as an infant and lived in Los Angeles his entire life. He told us of his wife and two young children still in Los Angeles, and described the nightmare that began suddenly for his family the day he was cited for driving without a license. Several days later he was arrested by immigration officials at his place of business, placed in a detention facility and eventually deported to Tijuana. He has nothing in Mexico. His deportation marked the first time he ever visited the country of his birth. He plans to risk his life and attempt an illegal journey back, to reunite with his family and once again live in the shadows of America. 

We call upon President Barack Obama and Congress to enact bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that embodies our shared values as people of faith and as Americans. Meaningful reform must include a path to earned citizenship for immigrants already in the United States, changes to family immigration laws and adjustment of quotas for future flows of immigrants, including high- and low-skilled worker visas. There must also be smart and humane enforcement measures that bolster our national security. 

Soon, Jews across the globe will join family and friends at Passover seders and retell the ancient narrative of the journey from the narrow straits of Egyptian slavery to the broad vistas of the Promised Land. Soon Christians throughout the world will celebrate the Easter holiday, with its message of hope and resurrection. This Passover and Easter, share the stories of the immigrant experience past and present. Join the Council of Religious Leaders in “One Voice for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” 

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is regional director of AJC Los Angeles and president of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders. The Rev. Felix C. Villanueva is conference minister of the Southern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ.

New haggadahs: Edgar Bronfman’s and an interactive version for kids


Francine Hermelin Levite and Edgar Bronfman have been using unique versions of the Passover Haggadah for years. Now both have decided to publish their versions of the Exodus story.

Hermelin Levite, 43, the mother of three school-aged children, is the author of “My Haggadah: Made it Myself,” an interactive version for children of the ritual-laden book that is now available on Amazon.

Bronfman, 84, the business giant and Jewish philanthropist, offers “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli) illustrated by his wife, the artist Jan Aronson.

Hermelin Levite's journey to publishing a Haggadah began about eight or nine years ago when she joined some unaffiliated young Jewish families living in lower Manhattan who were banding to create a Passover celebration. Growing up in Detroit, Hermelin Levite says she enjoyed lively and inspirational seders led by her father, who followed the traditional haggadah embellished by music he composed and other innovations. But she knew it was not a universal experience.

Hermelin Levite, a one-time journalist, educational software developer and graphic designer, volunteered to compile the haggadah. She said it had to resonate with kids and families of multiple backgrounds.

She also was motivated by the needs of her young son, who has severe food allergies to nuts, chicken and wheat.

“He was allergic to the food of Passover,” she recalls thinking and vowed to create a seder in which he could participate.

Hermelin Levite recognized that children communicate in various ways.

“The book is designed to invite artistic expression ranging from simple stickers to more complex collage and discussion,” she said, adding that her husband, also a graphic designer, helped with the images.

Over the years, her do-it-yourself, hands-on haggadah has become popular through word of mouth. Last year she decided to self publish and was amazed with the number of orders from far-flung locales such as Budapest and Hong Kong.

This year, with a grant from Reboot, a nonprofit that supports innovative projects to engage young, unaffiliated Jews, Hermelin Levite is traveling across the country introducing the haggadah to new audiences. The spiral-bound haggadah will appeal to kids with all levels of knowledge of Jewish observance.

To illustrate the passage of the four children — the wise, wicked, simple and silent — the haggadah offers four blank faces in which kids are asked to draw the personalities of guests at their seder. Blessings are written in Hebrew with English transliteration.

In retelling the Exodus story, children are presented with an empty suitcase and asked to think about what they would take if they had to leave in a hurry. Hermelin Levite hopes the provocative questions spark conversation.

She credits her Jewish education and a family that fostered a love of Jewish experience with the inspiration for creating the haggadah.

“I used to think I was an accidental children's book author,” Hermelin Levite wrote to JTA in an email. “But given my upbringing, professional path and journey raising my kids, [writing the haggadah] seems to make the perfect sense.”

Bronfman, too, has fond memories of his childhood seders as joyful gatherings of family, but says they were uninteresting, uninformative and rote. Over his lifetime, dissatisfied with the available haggadahs, he has cut and pasted passages from various versions to create more engaging seders in his own home. A few years ago he decided to create his own haggadah.

“I wanted to get all the words right,” he said.

The popularity of Passover offers a unique opportunity, he tells JTA.

“We have a chance to teach young people what Judaism is about,” Bronfman said.

Children's author Eric Kimmel, the author of “Wonders and Miracles,” a Passover companion filled with art that in 2004 won a National Jewish Book award, applauds that spirit.

“If the traditional version doesn't work for you, come up with something else,” he advocates, with a nod to the tradition but also with a dose of disrespect, he adds with a laugh. “What's important is to follow the biblical injunction to tell your children the story of Passover.”

The Bronfman Haggadah” is written entirely in English — Bronfman quips it's to appeal to most American Jews, who do not know Hebrew. The reading takes about an hour-and-a-half. Unlike the traditional haggadah, Bronfman includes Moses, who he holds as a role model of a leader who asks questions and disrupts the status quo. But all the characters of the Exodus, including God, are represented as metaphor and not historical facts, he writes.

Welcoming Elijah the prophet earlier in the seder underscores the Jewish value of welcoming in strangers, Bronfman says.

New words to the popular song “Dayenu” express gratitude for establishing a homeland in Israel. Bronfman ends the seder with a call for spiritual peace in Jerusalem among Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, and all warring peoples.

Notably, Bronfman expands the narrative of the traditional haggadah to include the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. While the foundation of Jewish law is the theme of Shavuot, he acknowledges that most Jews are unaware of the holiday that follows Passover.

“Freedom doesn't mean anything without the responsibility of law,” Bronfman tells JTA. “To be free is a privilege we too often take for granted.”

Aronson, who has fond memories of Passover seders growing up in New Orleans, spent nearly a year working on the illustrations for the “Bronfman Haggadah,” determined to avoid cliched images. To keep the images fresh — and to entertain youngsters — she changes up the artistic styles from one page to another — some are realistic, others abstract or geometric — and also varies the mood and colors. A biblical map of the Exodus depicts the possible routes traveled by the Israelites.

For the Ten Plagues, Aronson draws a large singing insect that will capture the attention of children. Miriam's tambourine is vibrantly colored with long flowing ribbons that complement the joy described in the narrative as the Israelites escape bondage.

Is there a shortcut to redemption


Pesach – the Hebrew name for Passover– comes from the Hebrew root PSH which means to skip over, to pass over. It appears first in the context of the ten plagues, in which God skipped over the homes of the Israelites while the rest of Egypt suffered.

On a deeper, more fundamental level, the Passover festival is based on this idea of passing or skipping over the regular order of things. The Jews did not leave Egypt as part of an evolutionary process. Their departure was a leap, a shortcut. While the exodus was a move from slavery to freedom – a practical, political situation – it was also a transition from oppression to redemption. From beginning to end, the Passover redemption is a leap over an orderly, consistent historical course into a new, different and better state, and into a much higher level of existence.

The Israelites were not just enslaved. In Egypt they had become slaves in their mindset, their world-view and their sense of personal self-worth. While the sons of Jacob and their families surely had a spiritual and religious legacy, it was not well defined and had no specific rites, that legacy was practically non-existent. Possibly, the Israelites in Egypt did retain some elements of their past, but they surely became more and more assimilated into Egyptian culture and its atmosphere. The forms of their religious worship were likely not very different from those of the Egyptians – although they were probably not permitted to practice the Egyptian religion as equals.

The exodus from Egypt, then, called for a very profound change in the entire psyche and social makeup of the Jewish people.  The act of releasing a slave – one who was born into bondage and with an entire life spent obeying orders – calls for a thoroughgoing personality change. Those who came out of Egypt were immersed in the lowest levels of Egyptian culture. They had to detach themselves completely from their old life and acquire a new set of concepts. Being free was a foreign notion that required a much, much higher degree of abstraction and the acquisition of a whole new universe of ideas.

All the slips and failures of the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert are therefore totally understandable. Yet despite all these personal, social and cultural impediments, this broken and naked nation successfully became a new national entity and began taking a new path. The prophet Ezekiel, in his poetic style, compares the Jewish nation that is redeemed from Egypt to a poor girl, saying (Ezekiel 16:6-7): “And … I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live … yet you were naked and bare.” Thus, over and above all the miracles – in the sky, on earth and in the water – of the Exodus, the greatest miracle of all is that Jewish people did indeed come out of Egypt and became a nation. The entire Exodus then represents a quick leap into redemption, passing over the life of slavery that had lasted for hundreds of years.

There is a great lesson here for every individual in every generation: everyone can “pass over,” make a leap. Not only slow, painful and indecisive changes are possible; we all also have an inborn ability to make quantum jumps. People can, even by the power of their own decision, make transitions that are not gradual but almost revolutionary. The “passing over” of Passover teaches us that such a jump is possible and inspires us to do so.

Passover represents the promise that we will indeed be able to leap over the multitude of small and big obstacles in our path and reach a better, more perfect state of things, both physically and spiritually.


Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, world-renowned scholar, teacher, mystic and social critic, has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. The rabbi’s life-long mission is to make the Talmud accessible to all by bringing the study of Jewish texts to communities around the world. Thel Fourth Annual Global Day of Jewish Learning will be on November 17, 2013.

Sharing the Infinite – Parashat Terumi (Exodus 25:1-27:19)


You shall make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

Is it possible for God to dwell among us? King Solomon had his doubts. He wondered aloud at the inauguration of the Temple, “Will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens … cannot contain You, how much less this House I have built” (Kings 8:27). Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik shares this puzzlement. What is the likelihood, he echoed, that “infinity [could] be encompassed in a ‘world of finity.’ ” Can the numinous dwell in the mundane?

Isn’t this the task of religion?

When I begin my classes on spiritual direction at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR, CA), I ask my students to describe the difference between spirituality and religion. The answer I posit: Spirituality is an experience and religion is the embodiment of that experience.

Spirituality is present in the paradoxical and profound personal moment when we realize that we are never alone. It is an ability to perceive the still, small voice in a silence that trumpets the sound of a million voices proclaiming a truth of such resonance that everything in the universe seems to vibrate in unison. These moments leave us with our mouths agape. We grasp for words to describe our experience. We want to decode it and understand it. We want to share the experience with others — to repeat it, to pass it on to our children. But there are no words equal to the task. 

So, we build a tabernacle to ground the experience so that it can dwell among us. We create religion. We create ritual, ritual objects, religious practices and rites. We record written testimonies that describe the experiences and the values we derive from them. 

I see spirituality as a universal numinous experience and religion as the particularistic garment with which we encircle that experience to catch it and make it tangible — the container housing infinity in the finite. Without the container, the mishkan, that religion provides, the power and significance of the moment of awe — such as the time at Sinai when the violent trembling of the mountain and the smoke, thunder and lightning that accompanied it made the blood of the newly liberated slaves run cold and the hair on their arms stand up straight — dissipates (Exodus 8:16-19). Without a mishkan and the garments of ritual and practice, there would be no path for walking The Mystery into the world. We must have these mishkanot if we are to make Holiness/God real on the earth. Yet danger lurks when the garment becomes top heavy and becomes more committed to the outer form than to the Holy Numinous within. Religion ceases to be a force for good.

AJR, CA is privileged to be a partner with Claremont Lincoln University (CLU), where we explore the meaning of religion with other faith groups. 

We have heard concerns that the exposure to other paths will dilute the strength of our Jewish affiliation, but I know this is not true. By understanding each other, we illuminate ourselves. I more fully understood the Shema when I did yoga and had a visceral sense of the meaning of Oneness. My study of Christian spiritual direction has informed my understanding of the role of the priest and what it means to be a kingdom of priests, as we are instructed to become in Parshat Yitro. Learning Arabic cognates for certain Hebrew words has deepened my understanding of Jewish prayer. Being a sister traveler at Pacific School of Religion in the late 1960s helped me understand the centrality of tikkun olam (healing the world) to my identity as a Jew.

At this time in history, religion is often colonized by those more concerned with boundaries than with our shared phenomenology of the holy and its mandate for peace and healing. At CLU, we are engaged in a holy endeavor, which I believe is central to our continued existence as a species. We are trying to reclaim religion for the good and wrest it away from those who have calcified religion’s boundaries, making it a tool of tyranny rather than a tool for making peace and healing the planet.

We begin by concentrating on the shared numinous experience, naming it in our own unique languages so that we meet at the boundaries, while celebrating the uniqueness of our mishkan. We find our shared values and use them to create a united front for tikkun olam. Together we seek to create a world in which God can dwell. 

Rabbi Anne Brenner, LCSW, is director of spiritual development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. She serves Congregation Macomb Or Shalom as rabbi and is a bereavement chaplain at Scribal Hospice. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001) and assists institutions in creating caring communities

On equal footing: Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)


I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration from the hospital room of my 92-year-old friend Harriet. She was having an EKG during it, even though we all agreed the numbers would not provide an accurate assessment of her condition — her medical condition, that is. 

“You have no idea,” she said to us, “what it means to me … that I lived long enough. I never imagined I would hear what I’m hearing today — the president of the United States including me in an inaugural address. The president of the United States saying the words ‘our gay brothers and sisters’ in his inaugural address. What I lived through — the hiding, the fear, the exclusion, afraid for my job … my livelihood. Unless you are my age, you can have no idea what it was like or what this means.” 

Harriet’s “test” revealed a heart condition, all right: “I love that man,” she said over and over as the president spoke.

I thought back to Obama’s interview in May 2012, when he said that his thinking was “evolving,” and he publicly supported the right of same-sex couples to legally marry. I thought back to his signing the end of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (begun during the Clinton administration), and the Obama administration’s decision not to defend DOMA (the “Defense of Marriage Act”) signed into law by President Clinton. Those are huge changes in far fewer than Harriet’s 92 years, and yet I understood what she was saying to me. I could have no idea how it felt to her. And yet, I kind of do.

Last month, January 2013, saw not only President Obama’s inauguration, but also the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in Confederate areas not under Union control to be “forever free.”

A couple of years later (1865) saw the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery (and the Civil War) with the political and moral battle compellingly told by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner in their current film, “Lincoln.” 

The anniversary and the Spielberg film shine a brighter light on Obama’s re-election, and a different light on this year’s reading of Parashat Mishpatim (“Rules”), which begins with God’s matter-of-fact instruction on the treatment of Hebrew slaves: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave …” (Exodus 21:2). Even though some slavery advocates in the early history of the United States used the Bible, and these verses in particular, to suggest that even God found slavery perfectly permissible, there are many verses also in Mishpatim that helped others to oppose slavery in any form. Perhaps the most compelling of these rules is one told twice in this Torah portion and 34 more times elsewhere in Torah, making it by far the most repeated value, rule or law in Torah: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger (v’atem ya-datem et-nefesh ha-ger), having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt [in Mishpatim]” (Exodus 23:9, also 22:20).

Here God gives us a commandment not just by telling us not to do something, but by reminding us that we know why not to do it: because you know what it feels like to be a stranger. 

God then proceeds to describe some other people not to oppress (the widow, the orphan, the poor). But like a wise teacher who knows the students might drift off if the lecturer drones on, God surprises us by posing a question in the midst of this list: “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Bameh yishkahv?” (Exodus 22:25-26).

Imagine this scenario, God says, exactly as I describe it, and then answer my question. God is not just instructing us about what to do, but asking us why. By answering God’s direct question to us — “Bameh yishkahv? In what else shall he sleep?” — we are invited not simply to see another, to feel what another might feel, we are invited to a deeper understanding of ourselves — to find the innate morals and values and natural sympathy that exist within each of us. 

In order to “win a man to your cause,” Abraham Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”

“For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well,” said President Obama in his second inaugural address. 

“I love that man,” said Harriet.


Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles.

Opportunity of a setback: Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)


This week’s parasha is one of the most central to the Jewish narrative. We read of the final plagues, the storm brought by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm gathering on the border of Egypt, the Divine command to prepare for the Exodus by baking the matzot and eating the bitter herbs. It is the essence of the Passover story. Our greatest glory — Divine liberation — emanated from the nadir of our enslavement.

So often, events unfold that set us back. We wonder: “Why me?” Everything was going fine, and then we abruptly find ourselves in Purgatory. It might be a nightmare job, an aliyah effort that fails, a marriage that dissolves or an investment lost because of a predator’s fraud.

Suddenly, the “man with the plan” has no backup. Everything that once seemed so hopeful and easy has now collapsed. 

Such horrible setbacks are augured in the larger story framing the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. One moment, a family seems finally at peace in Canaan; the next moment, a son is sold into slavery. He finally finds his own peace in a strange land, only to be targeted by his boss’s lusting wife, resulting in his imprisonment. He ultimately rises again, higher than before, and brings his family to Egypt, only to have history unfold horribly once more with a new Pharaoh arisen, the family enslaved, mired in their darkest hour.

The exodus from Egypt was meant to teach compelling life lessons that would imbue meaning for all generations. One of those lessons is that while every life sustains terrible setbacks, there also are escape valves that can open better opportunity than previously imagined.

Looking back, we see the steps that fell into place for this exodus to unfold. In order for the Jews to be crafted as a unique and holy people, we were meant to become resident in Egypt and then enslaved. But why did He select Egypt as our national petri dish?

When Jacob and his sons first arrived in Egypt, we were approximately 70 souls. Yet, 210 years later, we would grow into a nation of millions. To become that nation, we would need to forge an identity and cultivate a culture. For that culture to be unique, pure and unpolluted by surrounding corrupt foreign influences, that family had to be settled in virtual physical isolation. Egypt afforded that unique opportunity in Goshen, the rich land Pharaoh authorized uniquely for us. There, undisturbed by neighboring cultures, we enjoyed two centuries to evolve. Moreover, because of Egypt’s military might, our evolution was not threatened by security concerns. Egypt provided us safety so that we could thrive on our own.

But before that, we Jews had to have reason to move to Egypt. Thus, circumstances unfolded: Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, therefore later loving her son, Joseph, more than his other sons. As those sons became jealous of Joseph, they seized him and sold him into slavery, laying the groundwork for his falling into the hands of Potiphar, whose wife’s failed seductions prompted Potiphar to have Joseph imprisoned. That incarceration — yet another debilitating setback — was the necessary portal to enable Joseph to meet the imprisoned wine steward, who later would become the vehicle for introducing Joseph to Pharaoh. Once elevated to viceroy status, Joseph could bring his father and brother — the Jews — into Egypt, intending thereby solely to save them from famine when, in fact, God’s greater plan was for them to become a People with their own uniquely crafted culture and civilization.

That is how life goes. Setbacks and complications, with no clear reason “why,” until years pass and the master plan becomes a bit discernible. So Moshe’s mother puts him in a basket and floats him in a river, and the basket floats to the princess, assuring that the baby will be reared from infancy in the king’s palace, providing him a life-impacting education in noble bearing and speaking forthrightly to power. The perfect training for the “leader from the periphery” who will lead slaves from bondage. Even as that “happenstance” assures that baby Moses will be regal in demeanor and primed for political leadership, he also needs to acquire training in religious leadership. So, when fleeing from the former comfort and security of Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he “happens” to encounter the daughters of Yitro, high priest of Midian. Upon marrying into Yitro’s family, Moshe now will have a father-in-law experienced in the priesthood who, for years to come, will teach him the skills and craft of theological leadership. 

Within each setback are the seeds from which greater things can germinate. Things often happen for reasons. Sometimes we need only pause long enough from asking “Why me?” to discern perhaps why and to appreciate fascinating new opportunities about to unfold.


Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

‘La Rafle’ recalls Vichy sins


The biblical book of Exodus begins the ominous story of the Israelites’ descent into slavery with the following words: “A new generation arose” in Egypt that did not know Joseph. Well, a new generation has arisen in France, and they, unlike their parents and certainly their grandparents, are willing to remember and to confront the past.

There is a paradox in the Holocaust: The innocent feel guilty and the guilty feel innocent. There is a vast literature of survivor guilt, but a scant literature of perpetrator guilt. In France, the new generation may not feel guilty — they have no reason to feel guilty — but they certainly feel a responsibility to confront the French past.

“La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), a film by Roselyne Bosch that stars Jean Reno and Melanie Laurent, won the audience award for best film when it had its L.A. premier at the 2011 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. The film begins with the statement that the events portrayed happened. And so they did.

A word of historiography: In the aftermath of World War II, France developed two comforting myths, the myth of résistance and the myth that Charles De Gaulle and his forces actually liberated France. The truth was rather different: French police had rounded up Jews, deported them to transit camps and from there to death camps — it was French police, not the Germans. And French men and women collaborated, participating in both the persecution of the Jews and their roundup. French leadership in collaborationist Vichy France, headed by World War I hero Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, were willing collaborators with the German regime and not, as they had been depicted, reluctant participants in the murder of their Jews.

The myth of résistance collapsed, in part, when the full history of former French President François Mitterrand was revealed; the trials of Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon made French collaboration undeniable.

This set the stage for the moving new film “La Rafle,” which depicts the Parisian roundup of Jews on July 16 and 17, 1942, and their confinement in the Vel d’Hiv, a French sports stadium, before their deportation to a transit camp and from there to the “East.” The specific death camp remains unmentioned, but the destination — death by gassing — is an ever-present shadow throughout.

Like the best of French films, the work is textured. We get a wonderful feel for life in Paris, and an even better sense of Jewish life under German occupation. Jewish children become the dramatic center of the film, and their lives in the early days of occupation are portrayed in school, at home and in the street through a series of small vignettes, showing them seemingly oblivious to their new and constricted circumstances. The texture of the film is also reflected in the response of the French population, first to the persecution and later to the deportation. Even within the Vel d’Hiv, we don’t have a one-dimensional portrayal of the French. Some French men and women internalize Nazi anti-Semitism and use the occupation as a welcome opportunity to express their own anti-Semitism without restraint. Others are protective of their Jews — some effectively so, most ineffectively.

Sensitively portrayed by Laurent, the heroine of the story is a French non-Jewish nurse who comes into the Vel d’Hiv to treat the Jews. She is first introduced to us at the early stages of the film when the dean of the nursing school instructs her students to allow the Jews to escape should the Germans enter the premises. She volunteers to work  in the Vel d’Hiv, and it is through her innocent eyes that we encounter the inhumanity of the French confinement of the Jews.

We are taken inside the roller rink, where Jews are hungry and dirty, their nerves at the cracking point. Children play, parents fret, the pious pray and study and the thousands of Jewish prisoners swing between despair and hope, resignation and lethargy, defiance and self-help. For a moment, the peace of Shabbat descends on the Vel d’Hiv, as some Jewish women light their candles, but one can transcend such impossible conditions only for a moment. Some French firemen give water to the parched Jews; their fire chief covers for them and allows them to call in sick so that they can distribute the last notes of the desperate Jews who have trusted them to carry their messages forth. Their calls for help go unheeded.

And while there are heroes and villains, there is also what students of Holocaust literature and historians call the “gray zone.” A collaborationist policeman, who previously was enthusiastic at the deportation and tried to force himself on an aristocratic beautiful young Jewish woman, shades his eye as she seeks to escape the stadium.

“La Rafle” does not shade the painful truth of the experience. The conditions in the Vel d’Hiv are horrific; the mood of the Jews swings wildly, and we witness firsthand the filth and violence of their condition as they wait for the ordeal to end. Their deportation to the transit camp appears a welcome relief, as the Jews think that they have survived the worst, only to encounter more horrific conditions in the camp.

“La Rafle” avoids giving the audience a simple love story. The nurse is infatuated with an older Jewish doctor (played by Reno) who struggles valiantly but in vain to provide medical care to the prisoners. There is no time for love; admiration, affection and a joint sense of mission must suffice. She volunteers to go to the transit camp; he will not permit her to go to the death camp. She is gentile and can live; he is Jewish and will die.

And the children whom we have seen before in the Jewish quarter and in the Vel d’Hiv come center stage in the camps, as first their mothers are deported, and then their fathers. When they are left behind, because French leaders do not want to have it perceived that they kill children, the children form a supportive community among themselves.

We go with these Jews to the transit camps, with their own set of horrific conditions. We witness the separation of husbands from wives, the confinement of children in separate barracks and, ultimately, the shipping out of women followed by men and, only later, by children, which the French officials describe as a humanitarian gesture that will unite mother and child — albeit in the ovens of Auschwitz.

French officialdom is seen in its glorious vanity looking for a way to cast off responsibility, precisely as they are not just compliant, but cooperative, in the murder of their own Jews. 

While all the details of the film may not be precisely historically accurate, the true ethos of their acts and the nature of their pretense is brought to life on the screen.

The film does not take us inside the gates of Auschwitz, for it is there that French history ends and German history begins — and Bosch is interested in French history, French actions, French hypocrisy — but she does take us to postwar Paris and the desperate search by survivors for someone of their past, and by Jewish children for some knowledge of who they were and where they came from, even their true names. 

The drama of reunion is not played up, as it might be in an American film, as a moment of triumph, because we see that, for every reunion, there are thousands who did not return. There is a deep and subtle power to the film; characters are developed and then we return to them, themes are presented and then refined. Each scene is striking; no moment seems superfluous, none inauthentic. But there is no subtlety to what is presented — the horror is layered, the intensity builds from scene to scene. And in the end, we have a powerful film that presents the truth of how the French treated their Jews.

Roselyne Bosch has done her job. It is a film not to be missed.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com/a_jew.

For a Thanksgiving seder, it’s all about the ‘hodu’


Sitting down to the well-set table every November, even though it is filled with family and food, I always feel that something is missing — a Jewish connection to the Thanksgiving story.

A dinner without the drama of the Exodus, like the Passover seder, leaves me just with the turkey to send my spirits soaring.

It’s not that I need another haggadah — I already know why this night is different: the stuffing isn’t made of matzah meal. But what about borrowing the idea of the seder’s four cups of wine — the Tu b'Shvat seder does this, as well — to help organize the evening in a Jewish way?

Liking the idea of repeating an action four times but wanting a change from raising a glass, I played thematically with four feathers, four fall leaves, even sticking four olives — so American, yet a fruit of Israel, too — on my fingers.

For inspiration I turned to William Bradford, a passenger on the Mayflower and later the governor of Plymouth colony, who as it turned out was a figure who could bridge the gap between Puritan and Jewish narratives.

In “Of Plymouth Plantation,” his journal of the Pilgrims, Bradford made comparative references between the Pilgrims’ voyage and the Israelites' Exodus. Later in life, according to Stephen O’Neill, the curator of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth Mass., Bradford “taught himself Hebrew,” even writing a book of Hebrew exercises.

According to Bradford’s journal, the Mayflower Pilgrims gave thanks upon their landing: “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean,” reads the text.

“Let them therfore praise ye Lord, because he is good,” wrote Bradford, quoting from Psalm 107, which in Hebrew begins with the word “hodu,” “give thanks.” Here was my repeating element.

Saying hodu, or thanks, four times in my Thanksgiving seder would work, and in a fortuitous Hebrew play on words, hodu also happens to mean “turkey.”

First hodu: Begin your Thanksgiving seder with a blessing over a glass of wine or juice. Though historians think the Pilgrims probably drank water at the first Thanksgiving, they were not teetotalers — they later produced a hard cider, even a watered-down version for children.

Then say a Shehecheyanu. During their first year in the New World, slightly more than half of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers survived. Sitting together around the table and saying this blessing — especially in a year when nature has made it painfully clear how fragile life can be — reminds us that God grants us life, sustains us and enables us to reach this day.

Since the first Thanksgiving followed the corn harvest, the hamotzi blessing is in order. Break some bread — at this seder you don’t even need to dip it once. Say a hodu for a cornucopia of blessings.

Second hodu: In 1621, Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England describing the first Thanksgiving meal shared by the Pilgrims with the Indians: “Our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”

Adding to the menu, we find in Winslow’s account that to help feed the assemblage, including 90 from the Wampanoag tribe and “their greatest king Massasoit,” the Native Americans “went out and killed five deer.”

At your table, ever thankful that someone else has done the “fowling,” and that you haven’t hit a deer with your car, somebody should hold up the turkey (or Tofurky) platter and thank the “greatest” cook.

To add a sense of family tradition to the meal, also hold up the other dishes, acknowledging what the guest households — the tribes — have contributed to the meal. One should ask, from whom was the recipe passed down?

For tables with children in elementary school, it's also a good time for show and tell. One should ask, from what did you make that lovely centerpiece? Go ahead and kvell.

Say a hodu of recognition and dig in to your Thanksgiving meal.

Third hodu: Before dessert, talk about the perilous journey of the Pilgrims toward religious freedom from England to Holland and finally to Plymouth. Each person at the table can introduce the story of their own family about coming to America; one should tell of the going out.

Say a hodu of freedom and feel free to indulge in pie.

Fourth hodu: Last year, having a guitar-playing guest at our Thanksgiving dinner really gave us a chance to sing out our feelings. After dessert we sang old American favorites like “Turkey in the Straw” and “If I Had a Hammer.”

This year I want to add a passage from “Birkat hamazon,” the grace after Meals” that begins with the words “Kakatuv, V’achalta  v‘savata,” “And you shall eat and have enough, and then you shall thank the Lord your God for the good land He gave you.”

Say a final hodu: As a guest, for the hospitality of your hosts. As a host, for the opportunity to bring together your family and friends.

Then pray you can get up from the table.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

Receiving happiness (Exodus 33:12-34:26, Numbers 29:17-31)


Sometimes we just can’t do as God asks. Our burden is too great. 

I run into this often when visiting hospital patients and their families during the High Holy Days. They feel mad at God for their circumstances and conflicts. Why would I get sick on Rosh Hashanah and miss the mitzvah of the shofar call? How am I supposed to take my medicine on Yom Kippur? Sukkot as z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy. Are you kidding?

This week’s special parasha for Sukkot wraps up all the central mitzvot in a neat package — Shabbat, kashrut, marrying in, praying only to the Holy One, and especially observing holidays. 

We are commanded to be happy on Sukkot and to love God, but sometimes there is just no way we can. God doesn’t seem to be taking such good care of our safety, our health or our loved ones. We may want to run away from God, religion and all of those troublesome responsibilities.

I tell these families that they have every right to be angry, and need not feel ashamed about it. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with raging at God. Scream, cry, curse, shake your fists. God can take it. Never doubt this. 

But please, don’t take this as an excuse for abandoning a life of the spirit. Judaism may seem like a lot of rules and busy-making projects, but there is method to the madness, no matter how loosely you observe. 

Sukkot, for example, is not just a project to build a hut and feed our families inside. It is an opportunity to reach out — both to help and for help. The sick, disabled, elderly and stressed-out play an essential role.

Consider the Yiddish short story, “A Meal for the Poor” by Mordecai Spector. In it, a rich man intends to have the greatest wedding party ever, with tables laden with delicious food, music, invited guests and, of course, wagonfuls of poor people to share in the mitzvah. 

The host’s servants go to the neighboring town, but the poor folk who live there refuse to come unless he agrees to pay them each a token amount — one ruble.

The man is embarrassed to find himself having to bargain with the needy. He initially responds with anger. But then he backs down and meets their demands. They come, and the party is a great success, with guests wishing the host many blessings. 

The Rambam says there is no joy in simply sitting in our sukkah, eating until we are full, and saying our blessings. “This kind of joy is a disgrace,” he wrote in his Mishneh Torah. “When one eats and drinks (on a festival), he must feed the stranger, the orphan and the widow along with all the unfortunate poor. But he who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks (alone) … — this is not the joy of mitzvah, but only the joy of his belly.”

The Zohar agrees. “A person should not say: ‘First, I will fill myself with food and drink; what is left I will give to the poor.’ No, the prime portion belongs to the guests. If he makes the guests happy and full, the Blessed Holy One rejoices with him!” 

For the mystics, the “guests,” or ushpizin, refers not just to the people we bring into our sukkah, but also the sefirot, the attributes of God in the form of biblical characters, that we ritually invite to join us each night. With each righteous hero, we enact an aspect of God’s care and gain the blessing of more of God’s presence in our humble hut. 

Show loving kindness to those in need and our homes will be truly blessed, our teachers say. That is, if we have the energy to be the one who provides. If not, there is an equally important role for us as the needy, bringing our host the blessed opportunity to give.

The Zohar, speaking of Sukkot, says, “Rabbi El’azar said, ‘Torah does not demand of a person more than he can do, as it is written: “Each according to what he can give …” ’ ” (Deuteronomy 16:17).

If we are in the hospital and not in shul this year, if we are too sick to fast, or cannot erect our sukkah, or we just feel alone at this holiday time, it is upon us to reach out and accept someone else’s hospitality. We need not feel isolated or embarrassed about asking for help. It’s a mitzvah that goes both ways and blesses us all.

Don’t know anyone you can call on? How about HaShem, the Lord of Hosts? It would be God’s honor to comfort you in a time of need. You only have to ask.

Chag sameach.


Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), an interfaith referral service for professional chaplains.

Coming to a seder near you: A haggadah on your iPad


This Passover, Jews can still reliably be called “the people of the book.”

If sales of newly published versions of the haggadah are any indication, on the first night of Passover, when it comes time to tell the story of the Exodus, most people sitting at seder tables will be holding in their hands a text that consists of printed words and images on paper.

Next year, though, it’s anyone’s guess, and it seems inevitable that electronic readers and tablet computers will become a big part of at least some future seders, and anyone with an iPad can experience that future today.

A purpose-built iPad app, titled, simply, “The Haggadah” (Melcher Media) was released on March 28, and another iPad-friendly haggadah, an e-book version of the new ink-on-paper title “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” (CCAR Press), has been submitted to Apple’s iBookstore for approval, for a release, the makers hope, before seder time.

The creators of “The Haggadah” app anticipate that people won’t only use the new application to follow their own seder, but also that the app itself could become a site for actual sharing — of recipes, photos, stories and, of course, questions.

[Related: Download the Jewish Journal on your mobile device]

“As far as I know, this is the first haggadah app with this kind of interactivity,” said David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), who translated the haggadah’s text into English and wrote most of the app’s additional text. There are features familiar to any reader of Passover books — an introduction to Passover and a history of the haggadah — and Kraemer also wrote dozens of comments sprinkled throughout the text, each one accessible with the tap of a finger.

Search any online marketplace for e-books and you’ll find a few haggadot (the plural of haggadah), each with its own tone, quality and price. Craig Buck, a TV writer who created the 15-page “Ina Gada Haggadah” for his family’s 20-minute seder back in the 1990s, doesn’t think anyone has purchased the Kindle version yet, although hundreds have downloaded versions available each year (in PDF format) on his Web site.

PDFs can be read on many tablet readers, and DIYSeder, an online resource that allows users to customize a haggadah’s text (What word would you prefer to substitute for “God”?) and commentary (Is your seder table full of politicos? Children? Non-Jews?) has apps for iPad- and Android-equipped devices that will allow their haggadot to be read there.

Another haggadah in the Kindle store — “The Union Haggadah,” first published in 1923 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) — displays both a menorah and a dreidel on the cover, a clear indication that the seller mixed up Chanukah, probably the best-known Jewish holiday, with the most widely celebrated one, Passover.

“The copyright expired, so it’s technically in the public domain,” Rabbi Dan Medwin, publishing technology manager for the CCAR, said. “We don’t know who took that text and made it an e-book. There’s even an iPhone app.”

That shoddy repackaging of a 90-year-old text (retail price $3.99) is nothing like the e-book version of “Sharing the Journey” that Medwin created for the CCAR Press.

E-books, Medwin said, are becoming more flexible. Thanks to the advent of iBooks Author, software released by Apple in January of this year that allows publishers to incorporate various kinds of media into their e-books, Medwin was able to include a number of special features; for example, he embedded more than a dozen recordings of Passover songs directly into the text of “Sharing the Journey.”

All of the text from the paper version of the book is in the e-book version as well. The illustrations by Mark Podwal are included in the e-book, too; Medwin added tap-activated captions to one illustration of a seder plate.

But if “Sharing the Journey” feels like a powered-up book with a soundtrack included, “The Haggadah” app — which was paid for in large part through more than $25,000 of donations solicited through the crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter — is something else entirely.

“The way people use apps is much more tactile and exploratory than the way they use a book,” said David Brown, one of the developers who worked on the app at Melcher Media, a New York-based book producer that has been creating apps since 2011, including the award-winning app version of Al Gore’s book, “Our Choice.”

“What people want is interactivity and surprise and layers of information in a way that a static page can’t deliver,” Brown said.

Just how layered is the app? Look past the fancy spinning seder plate in the “Preparing for the Seder” section, and consider the other illustrations, all of which come from haggadot that are centuries old.

While the main haggadah text in the app might use only a detail from a particular page — say, a single, ornately inscribed word from the Washington Haggadah, which dates back to 1478 and is held in the Library of Congress — a finger-tap on a magnifying glass icon nearby takes the reader to a new screen. There, the full page where the detail is from is displayed, and with a few pinches and swipes, any part of the reproduced page — crinkles, faded sections, even what look like wine stains — can be viewed.

Most of the illustrations come from the holdings of JTS’ library, where Kraemer is director; some illustrations are accompanied by audio commentary from Sharon Liberman Mintz, the library’s curator of Jewish art.

If the illuminated manuscripts reproduced in “The Haggadah” look as though they might have taken years to create, the app itself was put together far more quickly. Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, contributed his own audio commentary, which he recorded in a single one-hour session, a little more than a month before the app’s release.

And the running time of his observations was even shorter.

“The challenge was, OK, say something in one minute about ‘Dayenu,’ or say something in one minute about the Four Questions or the four sons,” Kula said, naming a few of the better-known parts of the haggadah. “Say something in one minute that is accessible and usable and relevant — that gets the job done, which is to help create meaning in people’s lives.”

Kraemer said he won’t use the app at his seder — he doesn’t use electricity on the holiday, and prefers to use a “basic traditional haggadah” anyway, to allow for more interaction between the people around the table.

Kula, who hadn’t yet seen the full app but had heard the edited versions of his commentaries, was very happy with the result and is looking forward to using it at his family’s second seder, which has always been more free in its format. In previous years, Kula said, the young adults at the table have incorporated media of all types, everything from recorded songs to YouTube videos.

In 2012, it seems, flexibility and interactivity are the words to live by when creating seders, and in that spirit, Amichai Lau-Lavie, the founding director of Storahtelling, contributed to “The Haggadah” app an alternative order of events of his own design.

Lau-Lavie began creating “The Sayder” six years ago, and the basic model — four rounds, each one focusing on one question and accompanied by one glass of wine — was established early. Since then, the format has changed; what was an “on-the-fly” innovation morphed first into a one-page paper handout, then a Web site (TheSayder.com) and now, an app.

“I don’t think the haggadah was ever meant to be read cover-to-cover, as is,” said Lau-Lavie, who is now studying to become a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “The Sayder,” he said, has a uniquely spelled name for a reason: “We really wanted people to read less and say more,” Lau-Lavie said.

This year — in light of the harsh conditions under which the workers who make Apple electronics are known to endure, and particularly since there’ll be at least one iPad at his seder table — Lau-Lavie is hoping to get people to talk about consumption and the conditions of workers.

To that end, Lau-Lavie is asking people to put an apple on their seder plates this year.

“Are we the Pharaoh or are we the Moses?” Lau-Lavie asked, modeling the kind of inquiry he hopes to inspire. “How can we do more to spread freedom around the world?”

At Passover, let my people go south


Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the desert for 40 years, and their ultimate deliverance to the Promised Land.

But a contemporary observer might be forgiven for imagining the holiday marks a different sort of migration: Large numbers of American Jews making their annual pilgrimage from cool northern climes to southern tropics, and from major metropolitan centers to the country, in advance of one of the most celebrated Jewish observances of the year.

For decades, a dedicated — and apparently growing — cohort of Jewish families has seen Passover as an opportunity to escape not from slavery but from crummy weather, kitchen drudgery and endless house cleaning, finding their salvation in gourmet kosher vacations on white-sand beaches in Miami or Aruba. Dozens of programs around the world are now offering fully catered, kosher-for-Passover vacations at top vacation destinations, saving families the hassle and headache of ridding their homes of leavened products and preparing a succession of lavish meals for friends and relatives.

This year, Passover is being observed by visitors at beachfront hotels in Miami; on a Caribbean cruise; along the canals in Venice, Italy; at an eco-resort in Costa Rica; at an exclusive getaway in Phuket, Thailand; and steps from Niagara Falls. There are programs in Ixtapa, Mexico; Sardinia, Italy; Marbella, Spain; and the south of France.

Those of a less adventurous spirit hit the Jersey Shore, the tried-and-true kosher hotels of the Catskill Mountains and the more corporate-style hotels in Connecticut and upstate New York. And that’s not counting Israel, where virtually every city offers multiple options for the Passover traveler.

“This year has probably been the biggest year we’ve ever had,” said Laurie van Esschoten, owner of the Ontario Travel Bureau in California, a travel agency that books Passover vacations to dozens of destinations. “It looks to me like people are getting back to the idea of traveling. It’s really been phenomenal for us.”

Passover vacations have existed as long as there have been kosher hotels. For decades, the Catskills in New York state and Miami Beach were the two prime destinations. But beginning in the early 1990s, operators began to expand their offerings — Puerto Rico, Arizona, Aruba and more became the sites of fully kosher Passover programs featuring noted speakers, entertainment, children’s programs and day trips, not to mention the ever-popular 24-hour tearooms.

With the proliferation of offerings, van Esschoten has become something of a Passover consultant, helping arrange travel and other logistics for Passover travelers but also guiding them through a bewildering array of options to a venue appropriate to their needs — particularly with respect to religious nuances.

The programs are generally geared toward an Orthodox clientele, with traditional gender-segregated prayer and high standards of kashrut. But there’s a range of observance within those parameters, and van Esschoten can divine the subtle clues that hint at the particular shade of Orthodoxy at each destination.

“The most important thing is, I’m checking to see if they’re going to have separate swimming,” she said. “Some of the more modern programs do have separate swimming, but only at certain times of day. If it’s not a complete hotel takeover, that might not be possible.”

Families who succeed in identifying the right program often return year after year. And once they become accustomed to outsourcing their Passover preparations, the habit becomes hard to break. Tour operators say their repeat business each year can be upward of 70 percent.

“This population is pretty much addicted to going away for Passover,” said Stuart Vidockler, who runs Presidential Kosher Holidays.

The typical Passover traveler is generally Orthodox, lives in a major Jewish center in the northern United States (though the programs boast they draw customers from around the world) and is relatively affluent. The price tag for the programs is not for the faint of heart, generally starting at about $2,500 per person based on double occupancy for 10 days.

Presidential is operating three programs this year — in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Aventura, Fla.; and on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico — that aim for the higher end of an already high-end market, with five-star resorts featuring championship golf courses, multiple swimming pools and other luxury amenities.

At the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach — one of the largest, oldest and best-known Passover destinations in the country — prices begin at more than $4,000 per person. A two-bedroom suite in the hotel’s Versailles Building will set you back about $10,000, not including a 25 percent surcharge for tips and taxes. For families traveling with children and grandparents, total travel costs can easily run into the tens of thousands.

There are less expensive — and often colder — options as well. Among the most affordable is the Stamford Plaza hotel in Connecticut, which runs over $2,000 per person (average April high temperature: 63). Ten days in Aruba starts at $3,299, but that doesn’t include airfare, which minimally adds another $500 per person for flights from the New York area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, industry insiders say a challenging economic climate — and especially the collapse in the financial services sector in 2009 — has had a dramatic effect on business, leading to the collapse of some companies.

In 2009, Lasko Family Kosher Tours, operators of the popular Fontainebleau program, was sued for failing to pay more than $200,000 to one of its suppliers. A federal judge ruled against the company, requiring Lasko to make payments of $120,000.

Sam Lasko declined to discuss his company’s finances. But this year, the company is operating under a new name, Lasko Kosher Getaways, and is operating only two programs, in Miami and Orlando, down from seven in 2009, when it ran programs in Nevada; Arizona; and Westchester County, N.Y.

“Passover 2009 was the worst year,” Vidockler said. “About half the operators went out of business. Customers disappeared. We probably had a 20 percent decrease.”

For those who would otherwise be cleaning their homes and spending endless hours preparing meals, the appeal of Passover vacations isn’t hard to understand. But with restrictions on travel and electricity use mandated by Orthodox observance of the holidays, they can also become confining — and a bit boring.

“There’s nowhere to go,” said Lisa Rubenstein, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and goes away for Passover with her family almost every year. “It’s what I imagine a cruise to be. You can’t leave. There’s always some food happening in the dining room. It’s always teatime, snack time, dinner’s being served, whatever. And you’re seeing old people from your synagogue in bathing suits — you know, people you don’t want to see in bathing suits.”

Program organizers go to great lengths to pepper their itineraries with diversions. Jewish scholars are flown in to deliver lectures. Bands, comedians, mentalists, magicians and more provide entertainment. Some programs feature well-known cantors leading services and seders. The Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu performed at several Passover destinations before his celebrity profile outgrew them.

But veterans of Passover programs almost uniformly agree — it’s all about the food.

“The eating situation in general, I think back on it as pretty gluttonous,” said Jack Steinberg, who has gone away for Passover with his family about a half-dozen times. “The food is a really major aspect of the whole event. There are people storming the cafeteria the moment that it opens.”

Ellen Weiss, who also has been on numerous programs at various destinations and describes their cost as “an insane, sick amount of money,” has had more mixed experiences. At a Florida hotel one year, she enjoyed a private beach and an extremely solicitous staff. Another year, in New York, the crowd was pushy and impolite.

It was also more religious than Weiss would have liked. One gentleman upbraided her for not dressing with sufficient modesty.

“He wondered why I was wasn’t wearing stockings,” Weiss recalled. “I said, ‘Well, why are you looking at my feet?’ ”

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