The occupation that saved Israel

Imagine sitting down at a Passover seder and receiving a visitor who wants to kill you. That visitor is not the prophet Elijah or the Fifth Son — the one absent from the table — who has a change of heart. No, he’s a killer who hates Jews and wants to destroy them.

Fifteen years ago, on March 27, 2002, Abdel-Basset Odeh left his home in the West Bank and walked into a Passover seder in Netanya’s Park Hotel. He then blew himself up, killing 29 mostly elderly Jews and wounding 64 more.

The Jewish world was horrified but not shocked. That’s because the Netanya massacre was part of a murderous Second Intifada that lasted several years and killed more than 1,000 Israeli Jews. It seemed as if every week was marked by a similar calamity — a Palestinian would enter Israel from the West Bank and blow up Jews in restaurants, ice cream parlors, discos, cafés and public buses.

Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Israel entering the West Bank after the Six-Day War of 1967, critics have come out in full force urging Israel to “end the occupation once and for all.” For the majority of Israelis, however, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

You see, Israelis remember something that happened right before Jews were being blown up every week by Palestinian terrorists. They remember that their prime minister, Ehud Barak, had, in fact, offered to end the occupation once and for all — and the Palestinians walked away.

It happened in July 2000, when President Bill Clinton brokered peace talks at Camp David. A year later, in a Newsweek article titled, “Clinton to Arafat: It’s All Your Fault,” the U.S. president let the world know who he felt was most responsible for the agonizing failure.

When Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat told him, “You are a great man,” the president replied, “The hell I am. I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”

What Israelis remember, above all, is that after the failure of peace, Arafat started a war. Israelis remember that after Barak offered to end the occupation, they started getting blown up by Palestinians entering from the West Bank.

And they remember that after the Netanya Passover massacre, Israel said, “Enough.”

Israelis remember that after Barak offered to end the occupation, they started getting blown up by Palestinians entering from the West Bank. 

The Jewish state was left with no choice but to double down on the occupation and go right to the source of the terror — the West Bank.

So Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, calling up reservists and sending troops and heavy weaponry deep into the hearts of six major Palestinian cities, surrounding towns and West Bank refugee camps.

The goal was to stop terrorist attacks by regaining control of the West Bank, in particular the cities in Area A that were under the sole control of the Palestinian Authority.

What did they find when they regained control? Just what they expected. As reported in JPost, Israel uncovered 23 explosives laboratories and seized enormous quantities of weapons.

“The situation we had back then — with suicide bombers coming into the center of the country blowing themselves up — we don’t have that now,” Lt. Col. Yair Pinto, a commander during Operation Defensive Shield, said recently to JPost.

Indeed, in our zeal for peace, it’s easy today to forget the dark days of the past. Those were the days when Israelis would risk their lives any time they took their kids for ice cream, got on a bus, met a friend for coffee or sat down for a Passover meal inside a hotel.

So, yes, bemoan the occupation. Lecture Israel on the need to end it. I have as much sympathy as anyone for the need to shake up the status quo and make a durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But I also have sympathy for Israelis who remember that when Israel was traumatized by daily terror, it wasn’t less occupation that saved them, it was more.

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

Ivanka Trump at the White House on March 8. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Did Ivanka Trump skip Easter at the White House because she’s Jewish?

Covering the White House Easter Egg Roll live, CNN reporter John Berman noted that Ivanka Trump was not in attendance. Maybe, he speculated, it was because she’s Jewish.

“I saw Tiffany Trump just there before. Not Ivanka or Jared Kushner. Of course, Ivanka Trump is Jewish,” he said during Monday’s festivities. “I don’t know if she’s taking part in the Easter egg roll on the south lawn or not.”

The Newsbusters website pointed out Berman’s comment Monday and criticized what it called his “bizarre conspiracy theory” for why Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter, and husband Kushner were not there.

But not so fast. The political news website Politico reported Sunday that Ivanka Trump and Kushner, both top White House aides, “were spending Passover at the Four Seasons Whistler resort in Canada. It was their second ski trip in the past month.”

Monday was the seventh day Passover. So the Trumps may very well have still been on the bunny hill.

Does that count as a Jewish motive for missing Easter?

The president’s grandchildren were at the Easter Egg Roll, according to The New York Times. But the newspaper does not specify which of the eight youngsters were spotted or whether Ivanka Trump’s three offspring were among them.

If Trump did skip out on the Easter Egg Roll for some Passover powder, it was clearly not out of any Jewish aversion to the Christian holiday. On Monday, she tweeted Easter greetings and a happy birthday wish to her son, who was born on Easter.

Photo courtesy of Four Season Resort and Residences Whistler

Where in the world are Jared and Ivanka for Passover? Canada

In a misdirection of sorts, Ivanka Trump posted the following photo on Monday of her family at the White House:

This post led to much of the media including The Jerusalem Post to conclude, “This year, Ivanka and Jared celebrated Passover at America’s first home, the White House, continuing a tradition first started in 2009 by former US president Barack Obama.”

[This story originally appeared on]

However, Jewish Insider has learned exclusively that the president’s daughter and son-in-law spent the first days of the Passover holiday at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, a resort town in British Columbia, Canada.

A Jewish Insider reader shared a photo with us of Ivanka in ski gear filling up a plate of food while chatting on her cell phone a few hours before Monday night’s Seder.

 Ivanka in ski gear at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, British Columbia. Photo from Jewish Insider

Ivanka in ski gear at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, British Columbia. Photo from Jewish Insider

In past years, Ivanka has joined Jared’s family at the Biltmore in Arizona, at a program near the Mayan Ruins in Mexico, and last year at Ivanka’s own Trump National Doral in Miami.

In fact, Jared first met Avi Berkowitz, now his deputy at the White House, on the basketball courts at the Biltmore Passover program.

Among the featured speakers at the Whistler Passover program this year is Ami Horowitz. Horowitz is a frequent Fox News contributor and is credited with sparking President Trump’s controversial remarks in February that Sweden “took in large numbers” of refugees and was “having problems like they never thought possible.” He told those at the rally to “look at what happened last night in Sweden,” leading to a strong reaction from Swedish officials who said no terrorist attack had taken place there the previous day or in recent months. After the backlash, Trump clarified via Twitter that he first heard about the stories in Sweden from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News segment with Horowitz.

No word yet on whether Ivanka’s friend, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit the First Family in Whistler.

Passover and xenophilia

During the traditional liturgy of the Passover meal, the haggadah, we lift up the matzo and say aloud, “This is the bread of affliction, let all who are hungry come and eat.”

When I was a child, my particular affliction was literal-mindedness. My family followed the 3 + 1 branch of Judaism — going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, celebrating Chanukah, and holding a Passover seder. For Chanukah, there was no liturgy, and most of the words the rabbis and cantors mumbled during High Holidays were Hebrew — arcane and mysterious to me then.

But the genius of Passover is it brings the service to the home and fuses it to a meal. The congregation shrinks and the rabbi becomes that person whose questions or answers move you most. 

In that intimate setting, the words hit home to me. More than anything else, seders shaped my Jewishness. I had time to read and re-read the words and, as I was prone to do, take them seriously. When it said to question, I questioned.

Oy, did I question. My uncle, an observant Jew, ran a very traditional seder. I asked him, “Why do I have to wear a kippah?”  Why not a baseball cap?  Did God really find the Dodgers so offensive? 

Then it came to the part of the seder when we dipped our fingers in our wine glasses, then tapped our plates to symbolize our sorrow at the Egyptian blood God had to spill to free the Jews. Why, I asked my uncle, did he lick the wine off his fingers afterward — wasn’t that taking enjoyment from the Egyptians’ blood? That poor man. For years, he had to watch me make a show of wiping — not licking — the wine off my fingers like I was a murderer, erasing evidence.

Years later, I continued my antisocial habit. The haggadah declares, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  “Why,” I asked my college Hillel rabbi, “don’t we go out and invite all who are hungry to come and eat?” 

My liberal rabbi changed the subject.

Even more strange and mysterious than the Hebrew was why I believed some words I read to be true and others to be just fiction. I never thought for a second that the sea really parted, that the Nile turned to blood, or even that 600,000 Jews ran into the desert all at once.

Yes, what I’m saying is, much of the Passover story we just spent two days reading always struck me as fake news. The story lacks hard evidence. But I still believe in its meaning and guidance. 

At Passover, we 21st-century Jews slip into our pre-modern minds, when the facts of what happened don’t matter — there was no Wikipedia to record them, or Siri to recall them. What matters is the meaning.

“Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened,” Karen Armstrong explains in “A Short History of Myth.” “But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant. A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”

The genius of Passover is it brings the service to the home and fuses it to a meal.

When the haggadah tells us to remember the stranger because we were once strangers, I take it to heart. When I read that we have to think of ourselves as if we were slaves — even though there is no historical evidence we were — I embrace the ethical imperative of empathy. There is so much wiggle room for the facts in the myth of Passover, but none for the truth.

“A myth demands action,” Armstrong writes. “The myth of the Exodus demands that Jews cultivate an appreciation of freedom as a sacred value, and refuse either to be enslaved themselves or to oppress others.”

In a series of interviews with Laure Adler, published this month in book form as “A Long Saturday,” the philosopher George Steiner zeroes in on this essential truth of Passover.

“Don’t forget (people forget this all the time),” Steiner said. “In ancient Greek the word for ‘guest’ is the same as the word for ‘foreigner’: xenos. And if you were to ask me to define our tragic condition, it’s that the word ‘xenophobia’ survives, and is commonly used, everyone understands it; but the word ‘xenophilia’ has disappeared. That’s how I define the crisis of our condition.

This Passover, I am hoping we Jews do all we can to bring that word, xenophilia, the love of the stranger, back into existence — and do I really have to explain why?

The Exodus may be a myth, but when it comes to its lessons for this holiday, which comes to a close next week, it tells the God’s honest truth.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

From barley to holiness in 49 days

We have a tendency in the Jewish world to jump very quickly to the meaning of things. A good example is the tradition of counting the Omer, the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. This odd ritual is loaded with symbolic meaning. You can read many commentaries on how the 49 days are a period of spiritual preparation for the awesome experience of receiving the Torah on Shavuot, how each day represents an opportunity to repair our impurities, and so forth.

But while I do enjoy the jump from ritual to meaning, there’s also something to be said for the value of a story itself. Where does this unusual ritual come from? And what can it tell us about our people and our tradition?

It turns out it all started with a little barley.

The Jews were very much a people of agriculture during biblical times. Their Whole Foods was really whole foods. Their ability to work the land, especially for the making of bread, was a matter of holiness and survival. It was an elaborate process: Oxen helped plow the land, seeds were sown by hand, grain was reaped with a sickle and brought to a threshing floor, where it was ground and then winnowed of debris, and so on until a beautiful loaf of bread was born.

There was a sense of miracle about all this. Our ancestors were intimately aware that growing food could never happen without the raw gifts from God, from rain and earth and wind, to the sun, fire and animals. Finding ways of thanking God was a dominant theme of the time, and bringing sacrifices to the Temple was one of the holier ways. It’s not well known that many of these sacrifices did not involve animals but agricultural produce.

The tradition at harvest times was to bring as an offering a part of that harvest. Each Jewish farmer, for example, was required to bring to the Holy Temple the first of each fruit that ripened on his farm.

Which brings us back to barley, the crop harvested at Passover at the beginning of the harvest season. To show gratitude to God and pray for continued blessings, on the second day of Passover, our ancestors would bring an omer (“sheaf”) of barley to the Holy Temple.

Forty-nine days later, on Shavuot, the kohanim (priests) would bring two loaves of bread as an offering to God. These loaves came from wheat, which was considered a higher-grade crop than barley. One interpretation for the ritual of counting the 49 days is that it was a way of ascending from the humble barley crop to the majestic loaf of bread.

It makes sense, then, that Shavuot would be the time to celebrate the receiving of the Torah. The Torah is God’s ultimate gift to our people — the spiritual loaf of bread that has kept us nourished for millennia.

The Jews were very much a people of agriculture during Biblical times. Their Whole Foods was really whole foods.

The power of this gift is not just that it is full of fascinating stories and moral ideas,  but that these stories and ideas are embodied in concrete rituals that keep us connected to God and our ancestors.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews were faced with perhaps their greatest challenge: How do you continue a tradition of rituals without the physical structure upon which so many of these rituals revolved?

How do you suddenly shift to a new way of thanking God after doing it the same way for centuries? And who decides on this new paradigm?

The sages of the Talmud did. It was the centuries of talmudic debate and argument that created Judaism 2.0 and enabled the tradition to survive without its physical core.

One of the ways we bring offerings to God in our days is through prayers and the recitation of blessings. It’s not the same, of course, as bringing a sheaf of barley to a magnificent structure in Jerusalem, but that’s not the point.

The point is this: Holy Temple or not, can we still strive for holiness? And can we honor the rituals that help us strive for that holiness?

Finding personal meaning when we practice the rituals is one way to honor them. Another is to delve into the stories in which these rituals are rooted.

I love seeing how far our ancestors went to honor God. I love imagining the elaborate process they went through as they trekked from the fields to the Temple to thank their Creator for the simple miracle of barley.

And I especially love that a few thousand years later, we’re still talking about it.

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

President Barack Obama celebrates Passover at the White House. Photo by Pete Souza/The White House

Trump administration to host White House seder

The Trump administration is planning to continue the tradition set by President Obama of hosting a Seder at the White House Monday night, White House sources told Jewish Insider.

“Many of our Jewish staff are actually going to be able to spend the holiday with their families. Our tradition is still taking shape but this year it will be an opportunity for observant WH staff that can’t be with their families to celebrate the holiday among friends,” a White House spokesperson confirmed on Monday, following our exclusive report on Friday.

[This story originally appeared on]

“We’ll also be opening it up for other interested WH staff (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) to take part in a Seder on campus,” the official added.

As of Monday morning, it seems the President will not be attending.

President Barack Obama was the first sitting president to host a Seder in the White House.

Eric Lesser, who was one of the originators of the Obama White House Seder back in the 2008 campaign, and is now a Massachusetts State Senator, told Jewish Insider that he is not sure if the former president will be attending a Seder this year. “I’ll be in Maryland with my in laws for both nights,” Lesser said.

The first and only White House Seder before the Obama era was held in the Indian Treaty Room for 50 WH staffers under President Bill Clinton. It was organized and led by Steve Rabinowitz, now President at Bluelight Strategies.

The bitter truth: A Sephardic reflection on maror

Can the simple arrangement of the Passover seder plate reflect a deeper message? In the Sephardic tradition, the answer is a resounding yes.

Unlike the standard Ashkenazi version sold in Judaica stores or printed in most haggadot, the Sephardic custom is to place maror — the bitter herbs — at the very center of the seder plate. This follows the arrangement of the “Ari,” Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic from Safed.

While this custom is not really discussed by any Sephardic authorities, it is interesting to note that in his “Hazon Ovadia” commentary to the haggadah, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, remarks that Maimonides lists the “three things one must say the night of the seder” as “Pesach, maror and matzah.” This order differs from the standard “Pesach, matzah and maror” text, in that it places maror before unleavened bread, and, once again, places maror at the center.

Placing bitterness at the center of the Passover experience makes sense: Throughout Jewish history, bitterness has played a formative role in our story, our texts and our dialogue. In our own unique way, we have come to embrace bitterness and to own it as a definitive part of the Jewish hard drive.

The Jewish experience is as much about bitterness as it is about celebration, and while that might seem like a paradox to many, Jews understand that life is lived between a laugh and a tear. Thus, on the very night when we celebrate our freedom from slavery, we have no problem embracing bitterness and recognizing its ongoing presence and centrality in our collective story.

The Sephardic custom of centralizing the maror helps us tell our larger story. By placing maror in the middle, we allow ourselves to expand the haggadah to include our bitter experiences beyond Egypt. We remember the Babylonians and Romans, our inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms under the cross of Christianity, and the episodes of jihad against us under the crescent of Islam. The bitter herbs include Auschwitz and Treblinka, and they also allow for reflection on the contemporary resurgence of anti-Semitism.

All of these experiences have stood at the center of our journey as a people. While this seems painful, Judaism does not shy away from the bitter truth of our history. Only by telling these stories can we contemplate their lessons as they affect us today. There is no better night to do so than Passover, a night when we are commanded to conduct a meaningful symposium through telling stories.

Placing bitterness at the center of the Passover experience makes sense: Throughout Jewish
history, bitterness has played a formative role in our story, our texts and our dialogue.

While we recount our own collective bitter experiences, we also place maror at the center so that we remember the bitter suffering of others. Centralizing maror reminds us to not persecute strangers, immigrants or refugees, “because we were strangers in Egypt.” While gazing upon the maror at the center of the seder plate, we see the bitterness of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and modern-day Syria. We feel the pain of orphans, widows and all of the weakest members of our society.

Our own maror does not create bitterness toward others; quite the contrary, it sensitizes us to the suffering of others, and calls upon us to step in on their behalf. On Passover, we centralize the maror of others alongside our own. Their maror becomes ours.

Bitterness takes on different shapes and forms. It’s not always about persecution. For example, even though the bitterness of slavery precedes the sweetness of freedom in the Passover narrative, we shouldn’t forget what comes next. It turns out that the Israelites’ first moments of freedom are defined by a different kind of bitterness: “Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah” (Exodus 15:22-23). So our freedom gave birth to a bitter experience — and it certainly wasn’t the last one in the Bible.

This paradigm has followed us into our modern-day experiences. The Holocaust preceded the creation of Israel, and while Israel marked a new era of Jewish independence, it also gave birth to a new set of bitter realities, which have held center court in today’s headlines. These new “bitter herbs” include fierce debates over war and terrorism in Israel, deep political and social divisions within Israeli society and growing political alienation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Our internal divisions over religious issues, the Palestinian question and current U.S. politics are no less bitter than our fears of Iran and Hamas.

So on Passover, as these debates often take center stage, we ask: “Maror zeh?” — “These bitter herbs that we eat, what do they recall?” The Sephardic custom of placing maror at the center of the plate arguably makes this the most important of all questions asked during the seder.

RABBI DANIEL BOUSKILA is the international director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

Rabbis dish on the seder plate

For most Jews gathering next week for Passover, the items on the seder table are as familiar as the story of the Exodus. Which is too bad, given the richness of their history and the multitude of meanings they can embody as times change. To get beyond the traditional explanations for matzo, charoset and the rest of the Passover seder’s usual suspects, area rabbis have offered new interpretations and revelations about some of Judaism’s most beloved symbols.


While so very fragile, lengthwise the eggshell becomes strong and can withstand surprising pressure. This is because it is a natural arch. Leonardo da Vinci described an arch as “two weaknesses [that] are converted into a single strength.” By supporting each other, the weak segments redistribute the crushing forces upon them and become the strongest structure in engineering.

The purpose of an arch is to act as a passageway, whether for light through a window or people over a threshold. The Passover egg commemorates the passageway from sure death into new life. Its shape symbolizes the great power created when vulnerable individuals are united into a single strength, embodying the talmudic axiom, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”/“All Israel is responsible for each other” (Shavuot 39a). Its perfect arch reminds us that God designed us with the ability to bear heavy burdens while remaining full of light. The arch of the Passover egg is the ancient strength of aqueducts and bridges. It is the means to take us from here to there, to enable us to cross over. Is it any wonder why, to mark the covenant between God and humankind, God chose the rainbow arch? The egg is the very architecture of community.

— Rabbi Zoë Klein, Temple Isaiah


There is no explanation of charoset in the haggadah, but in the Mishnah, one suggestion is that it represents the mortar the Israelites used during their forced labor. Still, it seems odd that the food’s complex deliciousness would be a symbol of oppression, and other, more positive explanations abound.

Since talmudic times, charoset has been associated with the women of the Exodus who, one midrash says, took fish and wine to their husbands in the fields to seduce them into bearing more children even while they were enslaved, a time of danger and despair.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out that all of the ingredients in charoset appear in the Song of Songs, which we read on the Shabbat of Passover — sacred poetry about love and taking pleasure in the beloved.

Or charoset may simply exist to offset the burn of maror — it sits on the seder plate throughout the narrative of our suffering and oppression as witness to the sweetness that people create even in the worst of times.

The ingredients for charoset are as different as the Jewish cultures that prepare it.  No matter our differences, we all need the sweetness of hope and love to balance doubt and pain.

— Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Kehillat Israel


Confronted with our contemporary political and religious climate, the karpas at the seder contains a crucial lesson for us. The word “karpas” means fine quality wool, as the verse in Megillat Esther indicates when it describes the woolen tapestries of King Ahasuerus as “chur karpas u’techelet.”

With this definition, Rabbeinu Manoah of Narbonne offers a stunning suggestion that karpas at the seder symbolizes the wool coat of Joseph gifted to him by his father Jacob (see Rashi Genesis 37:3). We dip the vegetable (usually parsley, celery or potato) into saltwater to re-enact the brothers’ act of dipping Joseph’s wool coat into blood to deceive their father after they had sold Joseph down to Egypt.   

Before we celebrate how the Jews proudly left Egypt, we take the karpas to reflect upon how the Jews sadly got there in the first place. Jealousy, polarization and divisiveness led to our troubles. One central goal of the seder is to address the divisiveness that plagued us then and now — symbolized by karpas — and repeal and replace it with respect, tolerance, inclusiveness and friendship — symbolized by the enterprise of sitting around the table together.

— Rabbi Kalman Topp, Beth Jacob Congregation


The Almighty called to the children of Jacob
“I have taken notice of you
And seen your suffering
And sent to you my prophet
To relieve you of your maror-bitterness.

I carried you on eagles’ wings
And shielded you from the pursuers’ arrows
So that whenever you taste the maror
You will remember
Who I am
And who you are
And why you are free.

As I took notice of your ancestors
I call upon you today
The descendants of slaves
Who know the heart of strangers
And their fear and desperation
And do for them as I have done for you
And liberate them
The oppressed and the tempest-tossed
The poor and the discarded
The old and the lonely
The abused and the addict
The victim of violence and injustice
And everyone who tastes daily the maror-bitterness
That you know so very well.

As you sit around your seder tables
I call upon you to act
With open, pure and loving hearts
On My behalf
And be My witnesses
And bring healing and peace.”

— Rabbi John L. Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood


One anomalous item on the seder plate is the zeroa, according to the Jerusalem Talmud a shank bone, which is roasted and represents the special Passover sacrifice that was at the center of the festival’s observance in Temple times. Because sacrifices may be offered only from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and because that Temple no longer exists, we create a replica of the sacrifice, but we do not eat it, only pointing at it. We physically aspire to something that remains beyond our reach.

How paradoxical that what is beyond reach is the zeroa (literally “the arm”), recalling God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm” that liberates us from slavery. At the seder table, where it is our hands and arms that do the pointing, we embody God’s liberatory lure. God persistently frees the oppressed and lifts the fallen, but only through us, with us. It turns out that the real image of God’s commitment to human dignity and freedom is not on the plate at all. The outstretched arm and hands are our own. So, this Passover, arm yourself and give God a hand.

— Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University


Each year at our sedarim, we dip a bit of karpas into salt water — and in some ethnic traditions, into vinegar or lemon water. The bitter liquid reminds us of the deep pain, sweat and tears that accompany hardships such as slavery and oppression. As we dip, we reflect on our ancestors’ pain, modern examples of oppression and times in the past year when our tears flowed freely. Many of us will dip a second time into the salt water at our seder with a hardboiled egg, which serves as a sign of spring and birth. Just as our Israelite ancestors left Egypt by crossing through the saltwater sea to enter the vastness of freedom, the salt water and egg dipping can be for us symbolic of a mikveh, a spiritual cleansing, an acknowledgement of the sweetness that lay ahead.

Salt enhances sweetness. Think salted caramel or salted chocolate. Dipping in salt water acknowledges suffering and bitterness, but also that there, too, will be a time of healing and celebration of freedom. Think, too, of the Dead Sea. It is so bitter nothing can live within it, but within it lies powers of healing. As we dip into salt water this year, may we recall our pain and suffering and exit into renewal, healing, feeling refreshed and free.

— Rabbi Sarah Hronsky, Temple Beth Hillel


Passover is such a grand holiday — why should its central symbol be a cracker?

The rabbis identify the matzo with humility. Unlike bread, which is puffed up, the matzo lays flat, shorn of ego. But Passover is not a holiday of humility, but of slavery and freedom. So, why matzo?  

Ralph Waldo Emerson once recorded in his journal something his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, said to him: “ ‘Hurry’ is for slaves.”

To be a slave is to have no control over your own time. The Israelites baked matzo because they had a brief moment, a slice of time, the beginning of true freedom, but they were not yet there. Matzo is the sign of a people soon to be free: the bread of affliction but also the bread of transition — from being a slave to liberation into the service of God.

— Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple


When are the Jewish people going to be able to drink with joy from the fifth cup, Eliyahu’s Cup, during the seder? When we have prepared the world for redemption. Preparing the world for redemption, however, requires tremendous effort and faithfulness to our people’s mission. Where do we start? The haggadah gives us a brilliant place to begin. Immediately after we pour the Fifth Cup for Eliyahu, we open our front door. What a strange custom, right? But it sends a message to our generation: We can help prepare the world for redemption by opening our hearts to one another. Why is the door normally closed? Because we’re in pain. So we close the door on each other — parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Right after opening the door during the seder, we read a passage from Psalms, a dire warning to those who forget that we are all children of the Creator and must act righteously with one another. My blessing for all of us is that we avoid the consequences of failing to act righteously toward one another and instead pave the road to the redemption of the world.  It’s all there in the Cup of Elijah.

— Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Pico Shul


Since the 1980s, many Jews include Susannah Heschel’s tradition of adding an orange to the seder plate as a symbol of people marginalized in the Jewish community. Heschel chose an orange because, as she said, “in a whole orange, each segment sticks together.”

Over the years, I’ve added to that tradition, and you can, too, with just a few words and actions:

“Tonight, let’s squeeze some orange juice upon the charoset, that already sweet promise of freedom, that symbol of the mortar our ancestors used when they were slaves. In so doing, we offer a reminder that those who some call ‘outsiders’ among the Jewish people — including LGBTQ Jews, Jews by choice, Jews of color, Jews from other traditions, Jews who are adopted, non-Jewish family members — have actually become part of the mortar that holds our people and our traditions together.”

[One person at each table squeezes some orange juice on charoset as we say:]

Evan ma-ah-su ha-bonim ha-y’tah l’rosh pinah.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).

[Each person takes a slice of orange to eat, as we recite:]

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam borei pri ha-eitz.

“Blessed are You, God, creator of all, who created the fruit of the tree.”

[Each person eats a slice of orange.]

— Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

Jewish families crossing through the Iranian mountains and Pakistani deserts on the way to finding freedom.

My Exodus: A very Persian Passover

Through the camera of my iPhone I see people’s feet. They jump over five wooden crates filled with burning twigs. The crates are spaced a few yards apart, sitting on the concrete patio in the backyard. I lift the phone to get a wider shot.

I see a mom holding one daughter’s hand on her right side and holding her little one in her left arm, eagerly jumping over the first box and running toward the next. As she gets closer to the second box, the next family, swiftly and skillfully, moves into action from the orderly line behind her.

Sinuous Persian music is playing in the background as the rhythm of jumping and passing over fire after fire happens naturally and without supervision. I am excited to text this footage to my son, who is away in college. He has never been to a Shabeh Chahar Shanbeh Suri, an ancient Persian ritual that takes place on the last Tuesday of the year. I have not been to one, either, since that fateful time, three decades ago, when our retelling of the biblical Exodus merged horribly, unbelievably, with our own.

As I look at these flames, I remember the first time I jumped over fire. I was 9 years old. It was just outside of our home in Tehran, the last Tuesday of the year. All the neighborhood kids were out and had lined up dry bushes, and set them aflame on the street. Each fire had its own height, proportionate to how much material was burning. I was standing to one side, mesmerized by how nimbly Azadeh, a neighbor girl my age, navigated through the fire, as her hazel eyes emanated an amber spark and her golden pony tail flew in the air.

Azadeh, came over and asked, “Hi. Why don’t you jump?”

“I’m going to get burned!” I said.

“Don’t be silly! Nobody burns! This is so much fun! Here, why don’t you hold my hand and we’ll jump together! Just do it really fast!”

Her grandma was watching us. She said, “Girls, don’t forget to say, ‘My yellow is yours, your red is mine’ as you jump over! This way, the fire will take your sickness and problems and give you warmth and vitality, instead!”

In one evening, I had mastered the art of jumping over medium-height fires. Better yet, I had found my best friend.

Charshanbesuri, as the kids call it, is the ancient Persian ritual of lighting fire to say farewell to the darkness of winter and to welcome the brightness of spring in Iran. The busiest week of the year followed with spring cleaning at home and shopping for new shoes and clothes to welcome Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Nowruz comprises 12 days of open house, where everyone is obligated to visit one another’s homes. On the 13th day, families go outdoors and spend the day in the fields.

Jewish families hold their open houses during the eight days of Passover, instead of Nowruz. On the first day, you visit mourners. On the second day, the oldest of the family, and on the following days, the younger family members, and so forth. They spend the day after the end of Passover outdoors.

That year, the Passover seder fell on the seventh day of Nowruz. This meant that when Azadeh and her parents were hosting their open house, Mom and Grandma were still busy preparing for Passover, cleaning and cooking.

Our entire household was in preparation mode. All the closets would be cleaned out and reorganized. All the dishes and pots would be washed in hot and cold water for Haghalah, or purification. The kids were as involved in this ritual as the adults. There were always tasks for us to do, and the main attraction was Grandma’s stories about the lives of our ancestors and the stories from Torah. She would tell us about how they had to take the pots and pans to coppersmiths to remove the rust and to add a layer of zinc. They had to buy sesame seeds to take to a processing plant and have the oil extracted for Passover cooking. They had to have someone come into their home and open the mattresses and re-fluff and clean the cotton and re-sew the mattresses and quilts, wash the cover, open the pillows and wash the feathers …

Grandma was making hallegh (charoset) in the kitchen. It was made from nuts, grapes, pomegranate seeds, wine and cardamom. Mom was making special almond-and-walnut cookies with eggs and no flour, because we were forbidden to eat anything with leavening during the eight days of Passover.

“Mom, when are we going to visit Azadeh’s family?”

“We have to wait for Dad. He has gone to the Jewish cemetery where they are baking the matzo. And you know how crazy that gets when everyone is there.”

Grandma said, “You don’t need to tell your friend about all this, dear.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s complicated!” she said.

Haft-Seen is an arrangement of seven symbolic items whose names start with S.

Haft-Seen is an arrangement of seven symbolic items whose names start with S.

Before we entered Azadeh’s home, Mom said, “Make sure you do not touch any food before you are offered! You have to sit politely and quietly. You are a big girl now, and you should know that kids are not to speak unless asked. And do not eat too many pistachios as you will get a stomachache.”

The Nowruz Haft-Seen set up at Azadeh’s home was similar to the one at our home, except that, instead of an edition of the Torah on our table, they had a Quran. Two fish were dancing in a bowl of water set next to a pot of tulips. A bowl of hand-painted eggs, and an elaborate mirror were set next to the seven plates holding items that start with the letter S: sabzeh (a green plate of grown wheat), seeb (red apples), samanoo (a wheat-based dish), senjed (a fruit of the lotus tree), seer (garlic), serkeh (vinegar) and sekkeh (coins laid in water). The two burning candles on the Haftseen table reminded me of my grandma’s Shabbat candles.

After returning home, I asked Grandma, “Why is our sabzeh different?”

“We don’t grow wheat when it is close to Passover. Instead we grow lentils.”


“It’s complicated!”

Finally Passover began. Every year, we went to my oldest uncle’s home for the seder. In the dining room, there was an extra-long mahogany table with just about enough chairs pulled from around the house to fit four families. I still remember the smell of the carrots, beans and cinnamon rice that my aunt cooked for dinner. The chicken with the tomato sauce was divine.

The ceremony was even longer than the table. Uncle would sit at the head of the table, monotonously reading in Hebrew the entire story of the Exodus of Jews from Egypt. Men and children sat in the middle trying to follow the story in Farsi. Women sat at the far end of the table gossiping. Every once in a while, Uncle would stop reading and yell, “Quiet!”

There were only three or four haggadot passed on to people who recited a section in Farsi. We were never able to finish reading. Nor did we understand most of what was written. The text was esoteric and disconnected.

Children loved the “Kaddesh Urechatz” mantra. For this, each person got the chance to hold the afikomen (unleavened bread) that was wrapped in a special fabric, and recite the names for the sections of the haggadah. Later, the afikomen would be hidden and kids would be sent to find it. 

Adults even allowed us to drink wine four times. And we asked the Four Questions, which I never completely understood as a child. What I did notice was that similar to Haftseen, we also had a bunch of greens, eggs and vinegar on our table. We dipped celery in the vinegar and ate it to remember the tears of our forefathers in Egypt.

Before the recitation of the Ten Plagues, women covered the long table with a couple of white sheets. This had two functions. First, it protected our food from the terrible words that were about to be uttered. More importantly, it gave kids an opportunity to start to steal scallions from underneath the white sheets and store them for the “Dayenu” ritual.

As soon as the section on Ten Plagues ended, children would jump off their chairs and attack! There was no song. “Dayenu” was a cross-generational free-for-all, and this sweet moment was worth waiting for, the entire year. At any other time of year, it was unimaginable for children to look adults in the eye, let alone hit them. Now, there was no time to spare! We had only 5 or 10 minutes to run around the table and the room and hit everyone with the scallions.

Grandma said that everything at the seder was to remind us of what our ancestors went through. “Dayenu” reminded us of slaves who were whipped and that we were now free. Charoset was the mud our ancestors used to build the Pyramids. The piece of meat on the seder plate was for remembering that Jews made a burnt offering right before they set out to leave Egypt, in order to divert the attention of Egyptians.

That was spring 1978. The following winter, people took to the streets demanding, “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic!” The smell and sight of the smoke from burning tires and storefronts marked the beginning of the exodus of many families, including Jews, from Iran. Schools were closed, on and off. Grandma declared that our family had to leave for Israel. We had family there and would be staying with them for a while until things normalized. Dad agreed to let us go. He did not wish to leave his job.

People set fire to stores and cars during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

People set fire to stores and cars during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

During the one month we were in Israel, I went to public school. Unlike my school in Tehran, the school in Tel Aviv had many creative activities during the week, such as wood shop. I was starting to write in Hebrew and learn the language, when Mom decided to take my brother and me back to Iran to be with Dad. Grandma did not come back with us. I started to write her long-winded letters on a regular basis.

Dad said Azadeh had come to our home and asked for me. He had told her that we’d gone to France because my mother needed surgery. The first day I was to return to school, Mom said, “Do not, under any circumstances, tell anyone that we went to Israel! Tell everyone we were in France for my surgery!”

The first thing I noticed in school was that Azadeh was wearing a scarf that tightly covered her entire hair and forehead as well as any trace of her playful nature and free spirit. I remembered the Charshanbesuri when Azadeh and I had taken a spoon and bowl to go Ghashogh-Zani (Knocking on Neighbors’ Doors). We had disguised ourselves in sheets, laughing our way through the street as we knocked on doors to collect nuts and sweets.

There was a knock on the classroom door. The school custodian came in and asked for a student to go to the office. My teacher asked him, “Did they kill his father?”

After he left, she asked me in front of the whole class, “Were you in Israel?” “No, ma’am!” I declared. Before I knew it, I added, “We had gone to France for my mother to have surgery!”

That summer, Mom found me a painting class that I could ride the bus to. It was a very pleasant way for me to divert my attention from the turmoil and tension in the air. One day, as I was walking on the busy street toward the bus stop, a motorcyclist sped toward me, yelled and zoomed away. I was mortified, because I had heard rumors about motorcyclists who would throw acid onto the faces of girls wearing short sleeves! Summer got unbearably warmer as I started to wear long sleeve clothes.

The following fall, the Iran-Iraq war began and the airports closed. Nobody was to leave the country. One step at a time, personal and community freedoms were curtailed. Women had to cover their heads and wear baggy, long-sleeve dresses called uniforms with long pants and socks — preferably all black. People’s homes were broken into to collect evidence of “un-revolutionary” belongings or activities. A not-so-distant relative was labeled as “Zionist, Imperialist, Enemy of God and the Prophet of God.” He was executed without a trial.

Charshanbesuri — the fire-jumping ceremony of Nowruz — was outlawed. People did it anyway. Revolutionary guards doused the fires with water, which made them look dark and smell wrong.

For the first time, Mom and Dad were experiencing anti-Semitism at work.

They found solace in trying to prevent the government from closing the Jewish school. Therefore, they put me in that school. It didn’t take long for the government to forbid schools belonging to religious minorities to enroll Muslim students.  Here, I met my new Jewish friend Parastoo. The spark in her eyes reminded me of the Azadeh I used to know. She was fun and unafraid, a free-spirit in spite of the tensions around us. Parastoo lived far from our home, but when she would visit, we hung out with Azadeh.


A mother and her daughters prepare kosher baked goods and dried fruits for Passover.

One day when I came home from school, I heard a wailing that I had never heard before. It was so strange. I didn’t know what to make of it. I went into the kitchen and saw Mom sobbing quietly as she was staring at the wall. “What is that noise, Mom?” I asked. “It’s Azadeh’s Mom!” Azadeh’s brother, an Iranian soldier, had been killed in the civil war with the Iranian Kurds.

This was the last straw for Mom. Her goal in life became for the family to leave Iran. And it had to be before my brother turned 13 years old, the age the Islamic government considered boys as soldiers. The punishment for a runaway soldier would be no less than death.

By now the airports were open, but not to Jews. The passport application process included declaring one’s religion and the names of one’s entire extended family. Jews would have to go to the prime minister’s office to obtain their passports instead of the passport office. Mom and Dad managed to purchase an exorbitantly expensive fake passport for my brother from the governor of an obscure state. My brother needed to leave the country before he would be found out. My parents and I had to take the illegal route. As Grandma would say, “It was complicated.”

Mom stressed to me, “Nobody can know about this! I mean nobody! Remember those people who told their friends and then they were found and taken to prison?”

“Parastoo, I have to tell you a secret!” I whispered in her ear.

“What is it?” she said jokingly in her playful manner.

“Never mind.” I turned my head away. She suddenly changed. She looked at me seriously and said, “I’m sorry. Tell me. I am listening.”

“You must not share this with anyone! I mean nobody! OK?”

“Are you leaving?”

I closed my eyes and nodded my head in agreement.

“OK, then. You cannot tell anyone that we are leaving too. Who is taking you?”

As I watch the Charshanbesuri fire through my iPhone, I remember my exodus from Iran through the deserts of Pakistan. My family and other Jewish families were following our Baluchi guides through the desert. There were many dry bushes along the way. I thought of the Jewish people following Moses in the desert, longing for freedom. I wondered what Moses thought when he saw the burning bush.

Hagalah is the process of washing plates, pots and utensils for Passover.

Hagalah is the process of washing plates, pots and utensils for Passover.

Parastoo and her siblings went to Israel. After my family arrived in Los Angeles, I wrote to Azadeh and told her about our journey. We continued correspondence for a few years. Later, we became part of an online group for our elementary school friends. She stayed in Iran and married. When it was time for her son to be drafted, they moved to Irvine.

My thoughts are interrupted as Azadeh comes toward me to greet me. Her long, golden hair is now flowing gloriously in the open air. The spark in her eyes is back.

“Thanks so much for coming all the way to Irvine from L.A.! It’s so good to see you after all these years!” We hug and shed tears.

Then she straightens herself up and smiles. “Put that phone away! Hold my hand and we’ll jump together! Just do it really fast!”

“Wow, Azadeh!” I exclaim. “I never realized that all those years I was celebrating my Persian identity by passing over a burning bush!”

“Tell me!” she demands, “what happened to Parastoo?”

“Oh, yes, she is now living in Israel and covers her head. Last time I saw her, she had six children. She has been a grandmother for a while! When I went to Grandma’s funeral in Israel, Parastoo came and brought some scented herbs to say blessings for her. We lit candles together.”

As I take another glance into the burning bush, I think to myself, “It’s complicated!”

Shirin Raban is an award-winning designer, cine-ethnographer and educator. She created the film “The Fifth Question: Why Is This Passover Different?” and lectures at UCLA Extension and Cal State Northridge.

What sourdough taught me about Passover

Two weeks ago, when the rains finally stopped and the sun appeared in a brilliant blue sky, I took my sourdough starter outside for some fresh air. I sat on a bench in the garden and read a book. My starter sat beside me.

After a while, my wife came out.

“What are you doing?”


“No, I mean, what’s that?”

“My sourdough starter.”

She was kind enough not to say, “You’re so weird.” But I’m pretty certain she was thinking it.

Each week when I make bread, I use the starter. I created it nine months ago, mixing a few tablespoons of freshly grown local wheat and water in a large mason jar, and setting it aside, uncovered, on my kitchen counter. The next day I added a little more flour and water. 

After about a week of these incremental additions, the slurry bubbled and frothed. Wild yeasts, ever present in our air, had landed in the starter and multiplied. Tiny bubbles appeared where the gasses formed by the yeasts tried to escape. When I lowered my nose to the jar, it smelled like the tank room of a winery. A really good winery.

From that day on, to make bread, I only had to combine a portion of the starter with some flour, water and salt, stir it into a lump, let it sit overnight, and the next day, bake it into a beautiful loaf. I do about 10 minutes of work, total. Those wild yeasts do all the rest.

To replenish my starter, I add more fresh flour and water, then let it sit out again, until the yeasts gather and activate. Sandor Katz, the modern-day guru of fermentation, once wrote that he likes to take his sourdough starter outdoors so it can collect the various local yeasts that may not make it as far as his kitchen counter. Los Angeles forager Pascal Baudar said that he often takes his sourdough along with him when he goes for a walk in the woods. I figured I would do no less for mine.

I started making sourdough bread in college — my first job as a junior was turning out 10 loaves each day for a local bakery. It has a pure taste, simple ingredients, and the probiotic fermentation makes the bread more digestible and better for you. Most other bread tastes cottony and dry to me.

But our ancestors ate sourdough bread because they didn’t have a choice. If you want to know why the Israelites couldn’t wait for their bread to rise, it’s because natural leavening takes a long time to do its magic. Until two Hungarian Jewish immigrant brothers named Charles and Maximilian Fleischmann came up with commercially produced yeast in 1868, all bread was based on starter cultures like mine.

To keep a starter culture alive and healthy, you must feed it daily, keep it at a comfortable temperature, protect it from contamination, and occasionally nurse it back to bubbly life. What I am telling you is that, yes, I have an I-Thou relationship with my blob of sourdough starter. I am sensitive to its needs. I feed it; it nourishes us. 

And now comes Passover, when we are commanded to forgo any leavened thing. In our kosher home, that means all yeast products, all flour, anything with leavening, must go. I would ask my wife, the rabbi, if that means the starter too. Except I already know the answer.

After nurturing my baby for nine months, I figure I have to use it all at once or toss it. As we say in Venice, this bums me out. I ask that age-old question of an inscrutable God: Why?

Until you actually make bread like your Israelite ancestors did, it’s hard to understand what lesson there is in prohibiting leavening.

Israelite slaves escaping Pharaoh’s army didn’t have time for their bread to rise, the Passover liturgy tells us. Remember you were once slaves. So don’t eat bread, or anything remotely like it. 

That’s the reason the rabbis always give us — it’s right there in the story.  I turned for answers to my sourdough guru, or rabbi, Sandor Katz. 

“I’ve vaguely understood it to be a metaphor for remembering a time in exile and in transit, without even a place/time to let dough rise, which of course would also imply no place/time to let grape juice ferment (or to grow grapes for that matter),” he e-mailed back. 

But I wanted more.  I assume there must be some reason for the reason. Why of all the things the Jews must give up for eight days, God picks yeast? After all, did the Israelites have time to bring their oxen or wine barrels? Why not meat or sugar or alcohol — things that other religions commonly proscribe? We would nod our heads — oh, that makes sense. But yeast?

I have never come across religion that places prohibitions on leavening. If I was going to have to say goodbye to my beautiful 9-month-old bouncing baby starter, I needed to see the deeper meaning behind it.

And precisely because of that starter, I do.

Until you actually make bread like your Israelite ancestors did, it’s hard to understand what lesson there is in prohibiting leavening. But staring at my starter, I’ve come up with three.

First, sourdough culture is a very human enterprise. Humans manipulate nature to make bread. It takes culture to culture. But for the eight days of Passover, we step away from what we humans create, and sit down to what God created. Eggs. Meat. The first greens. We eat what’s fresh and new and pure (even more reason those processed Passover foods are heretical to the holiday). The earth that was dead in winter has come alive in spring — and we had nothing to do with that. Enjoy it, marvel in it, understand it.

Second, baking takes time. Sure, the Israelites could have scooped their starters into their goatskin purses as they fled. But no matter where they went, they would have had to camp for at least a day to let their bread rise. Passover teaches us to live lightly, be ready to move on quickly, live for today in the presence of all you have — leave tomorrow behind.

Finally, in order to thrive, a sourdough culture needs continuity with the past. Yesterday’s starter becomes tomorrow’s, which becomes next month’s. Passover breaks that chain. You toss it all out, you start fresh.

These are lessons no less profound than remembering our redemption, but harder for our modern minds to understand — at least without a sourdough starter around.

As for mine, I figured a solution. Our neighbors will baby-sit the batter during the holiday. I’ll leave them instructions. Feed and water daily. Keep warm. Walks optional.

Happy Passover.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Don Rickles

A moment on silence for Don Rickles

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with people who can’t keep their mouths shut. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean it in the sense of the person who could always fill awkward silences in social situations. These rollicking social animals don’t fill awkward silences by waiting for them and then pouncing. Their style is to make sure the awkward silences never happen in the first place.

I never met Don Rickles, who passed away today at the age of 90, but if I had to guess, I would think he’d fall in that category of people who don’t mix well with awkward silences. He might even be an extreme case. His frantic style during his comedy acts and interviews on late night television suffocated any possibility of silence. If there was any awkwardness, it would be from the digs he would take at everyone and anyone around him.

This clownish quality is rarely given its due. I have a close friend who I love having over for Shabbat. He’s French. His name is Bob. He’s super high energy. His spirit never flags. He will sing, do a little magic, weigh in on someone he recently met, comment on the food, recite a few lines of poetry, engage with others, never bring up Trump, and, basically, elevate the whole spirit of the table. He’s Rickles without the digs.

He told me once that he feels a sense of responsibility in social situations. He has a gift. He can make people happy. He can entertain them. Why not use it? Whether he’s in a good mood or not is not the point. The point is to put others in a good mood.

I’ve never had Don Rickles over for Shabbat. I may be totally wrong about him. Maybe he clammed up in social situations and saved himself for the stage, as many comedians do. Maybe he made no jokes at Passover seders. Maybe he wasn’t the life of the party during meals at the Polo Lounge or in Vegas clubs.

I doubt it, though. If his public act is any guide, I’d be surprised if he didn’t enjoy being the life of the party.

But even if I’m exaggerating here based on ignorance and partial information, it’s worth raising a glass to all those people who take it upon themselves to elevate the mood and spirit of social situations. We need them. We have more than enough grouchy and moody people, or even just people who prefer to say nothing if they have nothing to say.

Because here’s the thing about rollicking social animals: Even when they have nothing to say, they come up with something. Their material may fall flat once in a while, but they prefer that to the coldness of silence.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with silence, especially if you’re at a yoga or meditation retreat. But when people gather to enjoy life, silence can wait. I say, bring on the clowns.

Don Rickles was one of the greatest clowns we had, and there was nothing awkward about that.

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

Getting organized, with Moses leading from the back

This holiday season, Jews across the globe will gather together for Passover to eat, share stories and retell the tale of the Exodus. The Passover seder is the most celebrated Jewish event all year long — even avowedly secular and disaffected Jews will try to find a place at the table.

There is something about this story, the liberation of the Israelites, that is restless in the heart. It carries no expiration date; it refuses to be a forgotten tale.  

One of the most subversive motifs of the traditional haggadah is, believe it or not, the absence of Moses. (Didn’t notice? Take a closer look this year.) The rabbis played down his significance in order to tamp down the urge to messianism that can emerge in heroic narratives.   

Moses is in many ways the messiah-warrior. He works miracles, knows God “face-to-face” and is apocalyptic in his rhetoric. Moses is the very paradigm of what the sociologist Max Weber calls the “charismatic leader” whose power destabilizes societal structures and upends cultural norms.  

Yet, there is another side to Moses, one that is equally revolutionary and powerful, yet decentralized from the core narrative of the Passover story. Moses was a prophet, true, but perhaps more importantly, he was an advocate for justice, an effective community organizer.

Here is a man who was neither the firstborn nor the secondborn of his family.  He was part of a family of Israelite slaves who were contented to be what their parents and their grandparents were: slaves who knew nothing but a system of oppression that tries to destroy their identity. As the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass writes, “[T]o make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one … [the slave] must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.” In fact, when we meet Moses, it is through his father and mother, neither of whom have a name and who give no name to their child, thus perpetuating the internalized oppression of being a slave (Exodus 2:1-2).

Moses is in many ways the messiah-warrior. He works miracles, knows God “face-to-face” and is apocalyptic in his rhetoric.

Moses the Jew, the oppressed, grows up in the house of the oppressor, Pharaoh. It is in this space between worlds that he begins to feel the internal conflict that all changemakers feel. As he matures, so does the pain in his heart. His eyes are opened and he sees the tension of his dual identity grow until that fateful day when the Egyptian taskmaster beats the Israelite slave. Moses wakes up from the stupor of his youth and affirms for himself, years before he meets God, that the world as it is is wrong and unjust. He opens his eyes to see his conflict of identity, and into the breach he jumps.

Except he fails.

Moses saved the single Israelite slave from death, but his justified killing of the oppressor did nothing to change the political environment. One act of righteous vengeance does not bring about justice for all. Everyone needs to be brought along. They need to be organized.  

Social change comes not from a single catalytic act but from the groundswell power that follows it. Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus did not on its own change the lives of African-Americans. Justice was born out for her and others because she was a strategic leader in an organized movement that included a bus boycott, church sermons and marches across the country. Likewise, Ghandi’s self-inflicted protest of starvation did not give liberation to Indians, yet his act of sacrifice worked because of the planful resistance that he and hundreds of others organized to unleash the will of billions of lives who wanted independence.

Societies need symbols in the form of statues, logos and people. However, to be a symbol is to be an idol, and our God brooks no idol worship. Our God needs organizers who know they can’t change the world alone, and Moses learned that.  

Moses, like Parks and Ghandi, is not the center of the liberation story. The people woke up to their oppression and cried out to God long before Moses returned to Egypt (Exodus 2:23). When Moses does come back, he removes himself from the center of the story as quickly as possible. It is Aaron, not Moses, who is the actual spokesman for the people. Aaron and Moses assemble the elders. Moses and Aaron carry the relationships with the leaders of the Israelites.  

It was the leaders who helped to organize the slaves to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. It was through organizing that the “Children of Israel” are finally able to call themselves the “Nation of Israel” (Exodus 5:1). It was through organizing that the oppressed masses saw a different way of being, resisted tyranny and found their identity not simply as a family but as a body politic with rights, and they demanded those rights.  Only then — after the groaning, the planning and organizing — did Moses and Aaron dare confront the oppressor Pharaoh in his own home and bring about redemption.

It is easy to see Moses as a messiah. It’s inspiring to romanticize the Exodus with its fantasia of miracles and powerful speeches. But the rabbis were right to take Moses out of the haggadah. For the true and enduring story of the Passover — the part that inspires millions worldwide to see themselves in this story — is in the ability of a once no-name slave to make it not about him, but about a sacred cause.  

The greatest teaching of the Passover seder is the eternal wisdom that the narrowness of Egypt was not just then, but now. Oppression was not just then, but now. Liberation did not end then, but must be worked out in every generation, including our own.  

Moses is not mentioned in the haggadah for good reason. He is only a man called to his people to organize them in the face of uncertainty. To wager life and limb for a better tomorrow. It is his style of leadership, to put others first and lead like a shepherd — from the back — that has inspired social revolutions for millennia.

For when leaders pull back from prophecy and push the pain of the oppressed into the public sphere in order to organize an entire nation for social change, it is then that, as the poet Seamus Heaney writes: “Justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme.”

RABBI NOAH ZVI FARKAS is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; founder of Netiya, a nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners; and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

A youthful Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz (third from left) chatting with Jewish leaders of the Krishna movement at their annual festival in Venice, Calif. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz

Hare Krishnas, Passover and a rabbi

As part of my efforts to reach Jews, I often visit unconventional places. I have even visited the annual Festival of the Chariots, held by the Hare Krishna movement in Venice Beach. In 1989, I met a husband and wife at one of those festivals. They were part of a group giving away Krishna books and literature.

I am anything but bashful. So I engaged them in conversation and discovered they were both Jewish. This is not surprising because many nontraditional religious factions have a large percentage of Jewish followers.

Established in 1965, the modern Hare Krishna movement came under criticism during the anti-cult movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Former members accused them of brainwashing and child abuse.

I had many long and meaningful follow-up discussions with this couple, and we became close friends. They were in their early 30s. The husband grew up attending a Reform synagogue in New York, and his wife grew up in a secular Jewish home in Los Angeles. They were disillusioned with Judaism because it did not seem relevant and did not address their longing for something spiritual. Their search took many years until they encountered the Krishna community, which provided a sense of family and spiritual purpose.

As we got closer to Passover, my wife, Dvora, and I decided to invite them to our family seder. They were very reluctant, perhaps frightened because they are used to strangers criticizing their lifestyle. But they accepted our invitation when we assured them they could come as they were, and we would make the meal vegetarian out of respect for them. It did take some effort to convince them that we should compromise and leave the shank bone on the seder plate.
Seders are, far and away, the most widely observed ritual in Jewish life, and it’s no wonder why: the great food and wine, family and friends, amazing storytelling and inspirational themes of liberation. And of course, for the kids, a prize for finding the afikomen.

During our 39 years of working in Jewish outreach, Dvora and I always have looked to the Passover seder as an opportunity to reach out to people who might need a welcoming and unthreatening bridge into Jewish life.
As part of my Jews for Judaism efforts in outreach, I work with people facing a spectrum of spiritual challenges. Some are seeking spiritual guidance because they are battling a life-threatening illness. Others are struggling with family or financial crises. For a long time, the core of my work focused on Jewish families who were heartbroken because a son or daughter had been deceptively enticed into converting to another religion.

More recently, families committed to Jewish tradition come to us for help — not because their children have turned to another religion, but because they have turned away from Judaism, rejecting their upbringing and their family’s values. All are looking for a way back to wholeness for their families.

And the seder is a great place to start.

Because we help people who are seeking, our neighbors are used to unconventional individuals showing up at our home in the very traditional Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Still, when this Jewish Krishna couple who had not attended a seder since they were children and had never visited a rabbi’s home walked to our front door, wearing their long, traditional Hindu saffron robes, many of our neighbors walking home from synagogue did a double take.

The seder turned into an amazing cross-cultural experience. They chanted along when we sang “Dayenu” and were moved by the deeper spiritual meaning of Passover and items on the seder plate.

Commonalities in our rituals became the focus of our discussion. When we discussed the shank bone, they were impressed that I knew that some of the Hindu Brahmans ate meat for sacrificial reasons. They sat mesmerized when we discussed how Abraham ran away from the idolatry of his father, and when we delved into the Chasidic interpretation of an omnipresent God.

Over the next few years, their interest in the spiritual dimension of Judaism grew, and they studied Torah and Chassidic philosophy with me on a regular basis.

To leave a spiritual path to which you have committed your life has unique challenges. They needed a replacement. I introduced them to a Los Angeles vegetarian group, Chavurah. This small community of like-minded Jews, who gathered weekly for fellowship and exploration of Judaism, was exactly what they needed. Eventually, my friends left the ashram and restarted their life with a newfound love of Judaism. Over time, I lost touch with them. However, I did hear that they were raising two Jewish children.

There is an important lesson in this story. Our sages introduced the Passover seder as a tool to help connect our children to their ancient and meaningful heritage. In some way, we are all children who have an inner desire for a deeper connection.

The seder is a special opportunity to nurture the yearning of our soul. The spiritual journey and transformation of this Jewish couple, from Hinduism back to Judaism, can provide us with a wonderful and inspirational lesson. It shows how we can overcome negative experiences and obstacles, and return to a meaningful Jewish life and pass it on to future generations.

And if they could do it, so can we.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founder of Jews for Judaism, International. He is an author, counselor and speaker who hosts a live broadcast each week on the Jews for Judaism Facebook page.

The tunnel entrance in Lithuania through which a dozen Jewish prisoners on burial duty escaped in 1944. Its story is told in “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” on PBS. Photo courtesy of PBS

‘Escape Tunnel’ digs up proof of WWII prison break

There were about 250,000 Jews in Lithuania in 1939, nearly half in the capital city of Vilna, where the population was 40 percent Jewish. Today, there are only 3,500 Jews left in the city, but the remains of 70,000 Jews lie in the burial pits in the nearby forest of Ponar, victims of Nazi bullets before gas chambers became the preferred method of extermination. Gone is Vilna’s Great Synagogue, which dated back to 1644, destroyed by the Germans and later razed by the Soviets in the 1950s.

In June of last year, a team of archaeologists and geoscientists arrived in Vilna to virtually excavate both the Great Synagogue and the Ponar mass burial sites with non-invasive technology that combines ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography. Not only did they make significant finds at both sites, they confirmed the existence of a rumored escape tunnel that a dozen of the 80 Jewish prisoners on the burial detail used to escape on April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover.

These important discoveries are the subject of the “Nova” documentary “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” which premieres on PBS stations on April 19. It combines footage shot in Lithuania and interviews with children of the surviving escapees.

Abe Gol’s father, Shlomo, was the ringleader of the prisoners who spent 76 days digging the tunnel with spoons and their bare hands.

“The people of Lithuania and the Ponar area thought that this was a legend and, with no proof that it existed, discounted it. I knew the tunnel existed from what my father told me over the years. There was no doubt in my mind. Now the world knows it too,” Gol said in a telephone interview.

Although his father, who died in 1986, was reluctant to discuss it, Gol would hear bits and pieces of the story as a boy when some of the survivors gathered for an annual reunion on the last night of Passover. At 15, he read an account of the escape based on his father’s testimony in the book “Escape From Ponar,” published in Hebrew. “It corroborated everything I’d heard,” he said.

Shlomo Gol lost most of his family in the Holocaust, including his wife, child and a brother whose body he uncovered while burning corpses at Ponar. At a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, he met and married Abe’s mother; they sailed to Israel after Abe’s birth in 1948, and moved to the United States in 1962.

Shlomo had testified at the trials of two Nazi commandants in Nuremberg, bringing the ragged clothes he wore in captivity as evidence. “They were so imbued with the smell of tar and burning corpses that he couldn’t wash it out,” his son said, noting that the “bitter memories” of the ordeal also lingered. “He always told me, ‘Don’t ever forget and don’t ever forgive.’ ”

For Paula Apsell, “Nova’s” senior executive producer, telling the stories of Shlomo Gol and his fellow survivors came with a big responsibility. “You hold the memories of so many people in your hands and you want to give it the respect it deserves and communicate how important this is historically and scientifically. We knew if we told it well, it would have a lot of resonance,” she said. “The challenge was to balance the science and the history and give each its due.”

Initially, Apsell intended to focus the documentary on the Great Synagogue and the artifacts that might lie beneath the school that now sits on its former spot. Evidence of a mikveh was uncovered under the playground. But when the crew unexpectedly found the 100-foot escape tunnel while calibrating the detecting equipment, she shifted gears. “We knew we had a really important story on our hands,” she said.

Shlomo Gol (kneeling, at left) with Vilna partisans. Photo courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum

Richard Freund, professor of Jewish History at the University of Hartford and co-leader of the team, was instrumental in telling that story with his “MRI for the ground,” using equipment, software and techniques developed by the oil and gas industries to locate underground reserves.

“Archaeology is the most destructive science on earth, the only science where you can never repeat the experiment,” Freund said. “Instead of blindly excavating, it allows us to see inside without disturbing or violating anything.”

That, he explained, is crucial at sacred sites and burial grounds.

Over the last 25 years, he has used his high-tech, non-invasive methods on 30 projects, including Qumran, Yavneh, and Nazareth in Israel; a synagogue in Rhodes, Greece, that was destroyed by the Nazis; and the death camp Sobibor in Poland.

He plans to return to Lithuania this summer to further investigate the Great Synagogue, as well as a Jewish cemetery in Kovno, several forts that the Nazis turned into killing fields, and a labor camp where the commandant Karl Plagge rescued more than 1,200 Jews.

For Freund, whose Jewish great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Vilna in 1903, the discoveries he made on this latest project had particular resonance.

“There’s not a moment where I don’t think, ‘But for the grace of God.’ If my family had stayed, where would I be?” he wondered.

In addition, he deems the find of the tunnel “fantastic, because you bring closure. There were grandchildren who didn’t believe their grandparents’ stories. In another 20 years, there won’t be anyone to tell the story, and I’m happy that science can tell it.”

Abe Gol, now retired and living in Pembroke Pines, Fla., hopes to accompany Freund to Lithuania this summer. For him, the documentary serves as both a validation for the survivors who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and ammunition against those who insist it never happened. “This will tell the deniers that it did,” he said.

For Apsell, whose Jewish ancestors were from Russia and Austria-Hungary, the story resonates on several levels. “It gives a good picture of what European Jewry was really like, and you begin to see the even greater depth of the tragedy of the Holocaust. It killed people, but also a fantastic community,” she said, pointing out that Vilna was a “vibrant, cosmopolitan, learned” center for Jewry before the war.

“This was the darkest of all dark times in history and we can never hear enough stories about it because there’s such a danger it will be forgotten,” she said. “Not only does it shed light on a part of the Holocaust we didn’t know, it’s a story of hope and an amazing testimony to the will to survive. At a time when you have so much Holocaust denial and as survivors and memories die, it’s really important to have documented proof that this happened, to make sure that it’s never forgotten.”

A family re-enacts the oppression that Israelite slaves felt as part of a Passover seder in 2014 in Encino. Photo by Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

10 easy ways to avoid a boring seder

If your Passover seder is anything like mine, it can resemble the world’s most difficult classroom: different ages, ranging from 3 to 93, and varying levels of interest. Some want to read and discuss every word in the haggadah, some just want to get to the food — and everything in between.

Designing a seder that can work for everyone can feel like a challenge for even the most seasoned educator, let alone a busy parent.

But there is magic in the seder. Having loved ones around a table together can feel like a luxury in this day and age, so here are some tips for making the most of the festive meal. I hope these ideas will inspire you to be creative in a way that feels authentic to your seder.

The seder’s purpose is to get people to ask questions, so the more you break the mold of the way you always have done it, the more likely you and your guests will be able to access the true meaning of the holiday. Here are 10 tips to perk up your seder this year.

1. Put out some food earlier. Food always is important at Jewish events and never more so than in the seder. It can feel like a long time until you get to dinner, but after karpas (the green vegetable that comes right at the beginning), you can serve appetizers. Veggies and dip or fruit are good healthy options, but my family also puts out candy, which keeps the kids busy for a little while. If you want to be thematic, there is fair-trade, slavery-free chocolate that is kosher for Passover.

2. Play with your food. Along the same theme, there are fun ways you can incorporate food into the heart of the seder. One friend of ours attaches the parsley to mini fishing rods and uses them to dip the parsley in the salt water. Another friend chops up lots of fruits and nuts (and even some chocolate) and allows the guests to make their own charoset, as long as it resembles the mortar. When it comes time to remember the plague of hail, I have heard of families throwing mini marshmallows at one another. Finally, there is a Persian custom of lightly (or not so lightly) slapping your neighbor with scallions during the song “Dayenu” as a reminder of slavery.

3. Use the table. Put something interesting on the table, either in the middle or at each individual plate. We have used different kinds of frogs, puppets and masks. Perhaps it will inspire a guest to ask a question about Passover, the story or the traditions of your family. At the very least it will entertain those at the table when they need a break.

4. Don’t be a slave to the haggadah. The haggadah is meant as a guide, and you don’t have to read every word to fulfill your obligation to tell the story. Get many haggadot and look for readings and retellings that speak to you and share those at the seder. Or get the kids to write a play about the Passover story and perform it. Or ask your guests to bring something that represents freedom and tell the story of why. As long as your guests are engaged in the story of slavery to freedom, you have done your job.

5. Move around. This is the story of a wandering people. If you have the space, then wander! Do one piece of the seder in the living room, one in the dining room, or even go outside if the weather is nice. Turn a few bed sheets into the sea and walk through it on your way to the Promised Land. Give your guests a chance to be in the story, not just talk about it.

6. Assign pre-seder homework. People always do better if they are prepared, so ask your guests to participate in the seder. Send a question in advance, ask them to bring something or even make decorations for the seder table. Guests, bring a reading or an object that speaks to you. I guarantee your host will appreciate not having to carry the weight of the entire evening.

7. Give everyone a job. Before the seder, make a list of everything that has to be done during the evening, from pouring the wine to serving the soup to clearing the table. Then, assign away. Your guests will be happy to help, and you will be happier if you come out of the seder not feeling enslaved.

8. Sing (or watch videos). There are tons of songs for kids and adults alike for Passover. Google around to find tunes that you like and teach them at your seder. Providing song sheets helps everyone sing along. And if singing is not your thing, a quick search on YouTube for Passover song parodies turns up videos that would be fun to watch before or during the seder.

9. Make something. When I was about 10 years old, I spent hours creating a chart that outlined the order of the seder. I made a small arrow that could be used to show where we were in the progression of the evening, and since then it has been used every year. My mother still brings out Elijah’s cups that my sisters and I made in Hebrew school, and my kids proudly show off their seder plates, Kiddush Cups and matzo covers. If your kids don’t make them in school, these are easy crafts to make at home.

10. Let loose. The point of the seder is to engage people in the questions, both ancient and contemporary, of slavery and freedom. The way you do that is up to you. Try to find a balance between preparing for the seder and obsessing about every detail. And if your kids run in circles screaming around the table while everyone else is trying to talk, as mine have done on more than one occasion, those are memories too. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

RABBI REBECCA ROSENTHAL is the director of youth and family education at Central Synagogue in New York City. Rosenthal and her husband live in the city with their three children.

Thoughts on freedom

Freedom is one of those easy words that can put the mind to sleep. I mean, who doesn’t love freedom? Especially when you compare it to its polar opposite, physical slavery, what’s not to love?

This juxtaposition of opposites is most obvious at Passover, when we celebrate the extraordinary journey of our ancestors from slavery to freedom. The climax to the story is so epic, so intoxicating, it easily can make us forget that it is really a beginning, not an end; that after the redemption come the questions.

Because if any idea could use some questioning, it is freedom.

We’re not used to questioning freedom precisely because it feels so climactic — like the exclamation point to a civilized life. Indeed, if you’re languishing in jail in one those countries that oppresses gays, women and dissidents, freedom surely is the exclamation point you crave.

But most of us don’t live under such oppression. Here in America, if I write a column that offends our leaders, no one will jail me. If my synagogue wants to celebrate a new Torah scroll on a public sidewalk, our society allows it.

So, what is there to talk about? Why can’t we just use the Passover holiday to appreciate the incredible freedom we have and express our gratitude?

Because our tradition, especially at Passover, compels us to question, to go deeper. In fact, questioning is a way of expressing our gratitude for no longer being physically enslaved. We are free to consider the ways freedom itself can fail us. Like so many beautiful things, freedom can seduce us into gluttony, into overdosing on a good thing.

If I use my freedom to wallow in self-pity, or say hurtful things, or engage in soul-sapping pursuits, am I really free?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in “The Insecurity of Freedom,” touches on this dark side: “The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist of the fact that ‘I can act as I desire.’ This definition not only overlooks the compulsions which often lie behind our desires; it reveals the tragic truth that freedom may develop within itself the seed of its own destruction.”

Unbridled and misdirected freedom, in other words, can lead us right back to slavery. We all learn soon enough that inside the freedom to pursue happiness lurks the freedom to be miserable.

Even when we’re happy, what does freedom really mean? If I’m forced to miss the premiere of a great movie because my daughter needs to go to Office Depot, how free am I? But if it gives me great pleasure to fulfill my duty as a parent, is that sacrifice a supreme expression of my freedom?

It’s not the first time you hear that true freedom comes with responsibility. But responsibility for what? In our era of tikkun olam, there’s a tendency to look only at the macro dimension of freedom, not the personal, intimate one. Because we are personally free, we like to talk about liberating others and repairing the world.

But repairing the world does not preclude repairing ourselves. If anything, the latter is a prerequisite to the former. It is by repairing ourselves that we can best repair the world.

If I use my freedom to wallow in self-pity, or say hurtful things, or engage in soul-sapping pursuits, am I really free?

Yes, it’s easier to worry about how freedom can bring joy and liberation to others than to worry about how freedom can corrode our souls. It’s easier to worry about “the world we live in” than about how staring at our smartphones during family dinners can sap our humanity.

It’s when we use our freedom to service only our desires that we allow it to enslave us in our appetites.

Passover gives us a chance to confront the hidden slaveries of everyday life. We get to go deep, probe what it really means to be free and see the pain that is smuggled by liberation.

Because there is pain. Any harm we inflict on others or on ourselves, any emptiness we feel inside, is connected to how we use our freedom.

When our ancestors were paralyzed by physical enslavement, they didn’t have the luxury to consider the finer points of freedom. We do. We are blessed to be living at a time when we can engage in more sophisticated pursuits, such as the act of refining our characters.

The refined character understands that freedom is just an instrument. It’s a brush that can paint a masterpiece or an ugly blob, a pen that can write words of enlightenment or words that poison, a sharp knife that can create exquisite meals or pierce human flesh.

Passover reminds us to live free, go deep and, above all, choose wisely.

Chag sameach.

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

Photo from Pexels

My iPhone is my Egypt

What is your Egypt?

The people, the food and the storytelling are what I love most about the Passover seder I go to, but I also really like the updates to the ritual. We spill drops of wine as we name the ten Biblical plagues, but we count off ten modern plagues as well, like hunger and terrorism. Traditional symbols are on the table, like horseradish for the bitterness of slavery and salt water for tears, but there’s also an orange, an innovation from the 1970s, standing for feminism and against homophobia. (An orange? Seriously? There’s a story.)

I’m especially partial to this twist: We sing Avadim Hayinu, “Once were slaves in Egypt,” but we also ask the question I began with, as a metaphor, and in the present tense. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits,” a tight place. In the story the Book of Exodus tells, the enslaved Jews are liberated from Egypt. Our seder asks us, What pharaoh owns you? What tightness binds you? What constriction do you need to free yourself from?

I’m writing this before the first night of Passover, so this is a prediction, but a safe one: I’ll be amazed if there’s anyone at our seder who won’t have a little Egypt in their pocket or purse. Everyone will of course silence their ringers, but I’d be surprised if a few of us don’t manage to sneak a peek at our screens; if many of us won’t be fighting a compulsion to do that several times an hour; and if most of us, in the moments between seder and meal, don’t check out what came in while we were asking why this night is different from all other nights.

On all other nights, there are smartphones on the table.

I’ll admit it: I’m rarely without my iPhone, even for a few minutes (you know: in case of an emergency, or my kids are trying to reach me, or I don’t want the plumber to go to voicemail). Some studies say that on average, people check their phones every six-and-a-half minutes, 150 times a day; some say – yikes – as many as 2,617 times a day. Whatever my own number is, it’s bound to be embarrassing. Like most people, I can rattle off one reason after another to excuse that frequency. It’s for work. It’s for news. It’s for stoking my civic outrage at you know who. It’s for Yelp or Uber or Google or Netflix. It’s for weather, scores, maps, directions, texting, posting, liking, Skyping, tweeting, eating, friending, mating. It’s for playing games, taking pictures, getting a jump on my email, working out to my playlists, killing time while I’m riding an elevator, standing in line, waiting for the water to boil.

This is madness.

We’re as adept at justifying being phone junkies as addicts are at rationalizing their habit. We’re hooked on stimulation, on that spike of happy that hits our neurons when a NEW! NOW! NEXT! attracts our attention. Boredom terrifies us; to endure it without our iBlow would be like going cold turkey ten times as hour. But as MIT professor Sherry Turkle says, there’s a downside to calling our dependence on digital devices an addiction. It implies that our behavior is personal weakness, that it’s futile to resist. What needs our attention isn’t the cause of what ails us, but its toll on our wellness. What wants therapy is how our gizmos narrow the rest of our lives – how, as Turkle writes in “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” they constrict “our capacity to be alone and together,” how they contract “our ability to understand others and be heard.”

Turkle identifies a crisis of solitude and a crisis of empathy in our lives. “As we struggle to truly pay attention to ourselves,” to experience boredom and anxiety and the “rich, messy and demanding” feelings inherent in human relationships, “we struggle to pay attention to each other.” The more time we spend online, or itching to be online, the less time for “the risks of face-to-face conversation. But it’s there that empathy is born and intimacy thrives…. It’s often when we stumble, or struggle for our words, or are silent, that we reveal ourselves most to each other and to ourselves.”

Turkle is no Luddite. She describes the moment when, very nervous, about to give the first talk of a book tour, setting her iPhone on the podium to start a timer, she got a text from her daughter: “Mom, you will rock this.” Yes, the message was digitally delivered. But that didn’t undo its affect or its effect. “It was like a kiss.”

We need an intervention. We need to practice undivided attention – to each other, in conversation, and to ourselves, in solitude. “We don’t have to give up our phones,” she says, “but we have to use them more deliberately, …by working to protect sacred places, spaces without technology, in our everyday lives.”

Our madness is recent. The iPhone is just 10 years old. Still, that’s long enough for me to want a new ringtone: “Let my people go.”

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at

Matzo Balls with Mushrooms and Jalapeños in Broth. Photo by Ellen Silverman

PBS cooking host Pati Jinich’s Mexican-Jewish Passover

Celebrity chef Pati Jinich grew up in Mexico City, where she spent Shabbat dinners at her bubbe’s house.

“When we walked into her house,” Jinich fondly recalls of her grandmother, “the first thing she had was a big, gigantic bowl of guacamole, but it was a Yiddish version, because it was a combination of chopped egg salad and guacamole. Next to that, she would have a big bowl of gribenes” — crisp chicken or goose skin — “with fried onions. And then she already had sliced challah. So you would grab a slice of challah, put the chopped egg guacamole mixture on top, and then you top it with gribenes.”

This Mexican-Jewish fusion runs deep in Jinich’s family, as it does for many other Mexican Jews.

“It’s become fashionable to do a Latin theme on Jewish foods, but a lot of people don’t realize that Mexican-Jewish cuisine is really deeply rooted,” says Jinich, who stars in the hit national PBS cooking show “Pati’s Mexican Table.” “It’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m gonna throw a chili in here, or some spices.’ There’s a full Mexican-Jewish vocabulary that has existed for centuries.”

Jinich’s bubbe also made p’tcha (pickled calf foot), but instead of serving it with horseradish, she served her version with pico de gallo.

Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition first came to Mexico more than 500 years ago. Larger waves of Jewish immigrants arrived over the past 150 years, most of them from Eastern Europe, Syria and the former Ottoman Empire. Today, the Jewish population in Mexico  is close to 50,000, most of them living in Mexico City.

So the idea of Mexican-Jewish fusion is not something new for Mexican Jews like Jinich; it was part of life while she was growing up. For example, Jinich points to Gefilte Fish a la Veracruzana, which has a sauce of tomatoes, capers, pickled chilies, olives, cilantro and parsley.

“The Jewish community thought of using it for fish patties — gefilte fish,” she said. “So that’s a standard — a must — in many Jewish Ashkenazi homes. Instead of eating the gefilte fish cold with aspic, which you need an acquired taste to love, Mexican-style gefilte fish is served warm, in that thick, spicy tomato broth. And it’s really irresistible.”

Jinich, 44, traces her roots to Poland and central Europe — her grandparents fled pogroms and immigrated to Mexico City in the early 20th century. As a young adult, she became an immigrant herself, following her Mexican-Jewish husband to the United States 20 years ago. Jinich, now a mother of three boys, lives in Washington, D.C., where her television show, currently in its fifth season, originates in her home kitchen.

Although Jinich is a natural in the kitchen and on camera, she began her career as a policy analyst, focused on Latin American politics. But her passion for food — and especially the cuisine of Mexico — brought her to culinary school in 2005. Before becoming a chef, she taught Mexican cooking to friends and neighbors while living in Dallas in the late 1990s and served as a production assistant on another PBS food series, “New Tastes From Texas,” a show that featured guest hosts such as Mexican food pioneers Diana Kennedy and Patricia Quintana.

Jinich has published two cookbooks, “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking” (2013) and “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens” (2016). And her television show, which screens all over the world, has been nominated for two Emmys and two James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world. 

Pati Jinich. Photo by Michael Ventura

Pati Jinich. Photo by Michael Ventura

In short, Jinich has become a 21st-century ambassador to Mexican cuisine in the United States. But she brings a modern sensibility to the foods of her native country, which are being rediscovered with renowned chefs such as Denmark’s René Redzepi of Noma, who is opening a satellite of his famed restaurant in Mexico, and Enrique Olvera, who has been featured on Netflix’s popular series “Chef’s Table.”

Jinich sees the culinary world’s recent attention to Mexico as inspiring.

“For a long time, everyone took Mexican food for granted,” she explains. “It took this new cadre of chefs looking at Mexican cuisine and taking all the traditional elements and presenting them in a more sexy, modern way. Not only for the outside to recognize the richness and sophistication of Mexican cuisine, but also for Mexicans. Mexicans are so excited about their own cuisine. Now, it’s going back to the roots — sometimes to the extreme — and really highlighting what makes Mexican food so unique. And I think Mexican cuisine is having a very big moment. There’s so much to explore.”

With recipes such as Asparagus, Mushroom and Goat Cheese Enchiladas with Pine Nut Mole Sauce or Mexican Thanksgiving Turkey, Jinich has an approach that is more accessible than many of the chefs currently helming the Mexican dining scene. She lives by the credo that any home cook can bring the warmth and color of Mexico into the kitchen.

And although Jinich is Jewish, her recipes are, for the most part, Mexican. She did not grow up attending Jewish schools or eating kosher food. At the same time, following in the footsteps of her bubbe, as well as an Austrian grandmother who taught her how to make matzo ball soup (recipe below), she treasures the dishes of her Mexican-Jewish repertoire

“What happened with Ashkenazi food, which is sort of bland, is that it got blessed with all the warmth and colors and flavors of Mexico. It was like a gift to Ashkenazi cuisine.”

“Blessed” is how Jinich also describes her own multifaceted identity. Despite feeling “shaken” by the current political climate in the U.S., she sees herself as simultaneously Mexican, Jewish and American.

“I used to tell my children as Mexican Americans, you’ve been doubly blessed, but you’re doubly responsible,” she says. “You have to be proud about being Mexican, and you have to make Mexico proud, and you have to make your Mexican family proud. And at the same time, you have to be grateful to America and responsible as an American citizen. And one cannot forget the third element, which is about being a Jew and the Jewish values.”

It’s a recipe for life Jinich clearly embraces.


From “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens” by Pati Jinich (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

– 1 cup (2 2-ounce packages) matzo ball mix
– 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
– 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
– 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
– 4 large eggs
– 1/2 cup canola or safflower oil, divided
– 2 tablespoons sesame oil
– 1 tablespoon sparkling water (optional)
– 1/2 cup white onion, finely chopped
– 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
– 2 jalapeño chilies, seeded if desired and finely chopped, more or less to taste
– 1/2 pound white and/or baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, cleaned,  dried, part of the stem removed, thinly sliced
– 8 cups chicken broth, homemade or store-bought

In a large mixing bowl, combine the matzo ball mix, parsley, nutmeg and 3/4 teaspoon salt.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with 6 tablespoons of vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons of sesame oil. Fold the beaten eggs into the matzo ball mixture with a spatula. Add the sparkling water if you want the matzo balls to be fluffy, and mix until well combined. Cover the mixture and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

In a large soup pot, bring about 3 quarts salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Bring heat down to medium and keep at a steady simmer. With wet hands, shape the matzo ball mix into 1- to 1 1/2-inch balls and gently drop them into the water.  Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until matzo balls are completely cooked and have puffed up.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Add the onion, garlic and chilies and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until they have softened a bit. Stir in the sliced mushrooms, add 3/4 teaspoon salt, stir and cover the pan. Steam the mushrooms for about 6 to 8 minutes, remove the lid and continue to cook uncovered until the liquid in the pan evaporates. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the cooked matzo balls (use a slotted spoon if transferring from their cooking water) and serve.

Makes 8 servings.


A standard in Jewish homes across Mexico. Courtesy of Pati Jinich.

– Gefilte Fish Patties (recipe follows)
– 3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
– 1/2 cup white onion, chopped
– 1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
– 3 cups water
– 2 tablespoons ketchup
– 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
– 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, or to taste
– 1 cup Manzanilla olives stuffed with pimientos
– 8 pepperoncini peppers in vinegar brine/chiles güeros en escabeche, or more to taste
– 1 tablespoon capers

Prepare Gefilte Fish Patties; set aside.

Heat the oil in a large cooking pot over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion, and let it cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring, until soft and translucent. Pour the crushed tomatoes into the pot, stir and let the mix season and thicken for about 6 minutes. Incorporate 3 cups water, 2 tablespoons ketchup, salt and white pepper, give it a good stir and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to low, to get a gentle simmer, as you roll the Gefilte Fish Patties.

Place a small bowl with lukewarm water to the side of the simmering tomato broth. Start making the patties, about 2 1/2 inches by 1 inch and about 3/4-inch thick. Wet your hands as necessary, so the fish mixture will not stick to your hands. As you make them, slide them gently into the simmering broth. Make sure it is simmering and raise the heat to medium if necessary to keep a steady simmer.

Once you finish making the patties, cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Cook them covered for 25 minutes. Take off the lid, incorporate the Manzanilla olives, pepperoncini peppers and capers. Give it a soft stir and simmer uncovered for 20 more minutes, so the gefilte fish will be thoroughly cooked and the broth will have seasoned and thickened nicely. Serve hot with slices of challah and spiced-up pickles.

Makes about 20 patties.


– 1 pound red snapper fillets, no skin or bones
– 1 pound flounder fillets, no skin or bones
– 1 white onion (about 1/2 pound), quartered
– 2 carrots (about 1/4 pound), peeled and roughly chopped
– 3 eggs
– 1/2 cup matzo meal
– 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
– 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, or to taste

Rinse the fish fillets under a thin stream of cool water. Slice into smaller pieces and place in the food processor. Pulse for 5 to 10 seconds until fish is finely chopped but hasn’t turned into a paste. Turn fish mixture onto a large mixing bowl.

Place the onion, carrots, eggs, matzo meal, salt and white pepper in same bowl of food processor. Process until smooth and turn onto the fish mixture. Combine thoroughly.

Lara Rabinovitch Neuman works for Google as a food writer and regularly teaches food culture courses at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Michael Twitty eats olives in Machane Yehudah market in Jerusalem. Photo by Jacob W. Dillow

A taste of Black history and a side of Jewish culture

As an African-American Jew by choice, the esteemed author and culinary historian Michael Twitty considers Passover his favorite Jewish holiday. 

“Nothing pulls more at my heart than the songs and traditions and recipes … of the world’s oldest Emancipation ritual,” Twitty wrote on his blog, Afroculinaria. “There is also no other holiday where I feel more whole as an African-American who happens to be Jewish, thanks to the shared history of slavery leading to redemption and freedom.”

In two separate events at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 13, Twitty will share his life’s journey as well as Passover recipes that draw on his penchant for what he calls “kosher/soul.”

“It’s taking the foods of African and Jewish diasporic people and blending them together,” Twitty, 40, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., said during a recent telephone interview.

At the Skirball, he’ll whip up his West African brisket, seasoned with spices including ground ginger, paprika, cinnamon, chili powder and cayenne, then seared in olive oil before being baked atop sautéed onions.

For the seder, his hard boiled eggs are cooked in water steeped in hibiscus, accompanied by a salt water brine spiked with a touch of lavender and preserved lemon.

During seders past, Twitty has served sweet potato kugel, matzo-meal fried chicken, and an apple-rhubarb charoset.

He follows the Sephardic custom of eating legumes and rice during Passover, the latter a Carolina Gold version originally brought to the United States by enslaved Africans.

His Pesach table is graced with two distinct seder plates: one a traditional Ashkenazi version, the other influenced by African and African-American cuisine.  There is a collard green for the bitter herb maror, for example, as well as a molasses and pecan charoset.

Twitty noted that Passover often comes in April, which is the same month in 1865 that his enslaved forebears were freed after the Civil War. 

In Alabama, a great-great-grandmother was “liberated on that day from her particular labor camp called a plantation,” Twitty said.  A great-great-great-grandfather, Edward, born in 1839, had toiled on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. “One day my ancestor was hot, so he knelt by a creek and splashed some water on himself.  That’s when my Daddy saw the whip marks on his back,” Twitty said.

“For me, being Black was a great preparation for becoming Jewish,” Twitty added.  “When you are African-American, your antennae [for sensing trouble] are planted deep inside your skull.  It’s learning how to recognize and process prejudice.”

Twitty grew up in a nominally Christian home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where his grandparents had fled Southern racism during the Great Migration north almost a century ago.  “I didn’t like soul food, and I didn’t like being Black,” Twitty said in a 2016 TED talk of his early years.

But he slowly learned to appreciate his heritage, even as he was drawn to Judaism, first after watching the film adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” when he was 7. He promptly told his mother that he wanted to be Jewish, yet he was taken aback when she informed him that conversion would require him to have a second circumcision.

Even so, his interest in Judaism persisted, and Twitty continued to fall in love with the culture, especially through food, while hanging out with his Jewish friends’ grandmothers in the kitchen.

Years later, Twitty’s uncle, an avid genealogist, found that their family tree included distant relatives who were Jewish. A recent medical test revealed that Twitty’s own DNA features some Ukrainian Ashkenazi ancestry.

While researching Jewish cuisine for a festival in 2000 sponsored by the Smithsonian, Twitty learned to make challah from the prominent Jewish chef Joan Nathan. When he dropped by a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue in Maryland, in part to obtain recipes from the rebbitzen, a caterer, Twitty discovered a spiritual home. He converted to Judaism in an Orthodox ceremony in 2002 while he was in his early 20s.

Of why he was drawn to Judaism, Twitty said, “It’s a very realistic [spiritual] path. The Hebrew word for worship is ‘avodah,’ which is the same word for work. And prayer is actually ‘tefillah,’ which comes from the word ‘L’Hitpalel’ – to turn inside and examine yourself. It’s also a very humorous religion, where laughing at yourself is almost a 614th mitzvah,” he said, a reference to the 613 in the Torah. “Black culture,” he added, “also relies a lot on humor as a means of survival.”

As Twitty began teaching Jewish studies around Washington, however, not everyone in the community was welcoming. One fellow educator accused him of teaching his students to steal. Others told him he might be religiously Jewish, but could never be culturally Jewish.

“People often want to put me in a box,” he added of his diverse identities, which include his being gay. “But I try to be as unboxable as possible.”

Twitty’s work as a culinary historian includes research on how slaves helped to create Southern cuisine, as well as extensive interviews with Southern Jews about how their traditional recipes changed after their families settled down South (think gumbo and matzo ball soup).

A turning point for Twitty came in 2011, when he read a book, “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin,” filled with family recipes that had been written down by prisoners of the concentration camp. In doing so, the women were performing an act of defiance, preserving their heritage even while suffering.

“It dawned on me that the same thing could and should be done with the African-American connection to slavery: how we should connect to our food roots and use that as a means of preservation of our heritage and resistance against the narrative that says we should forget,” he said.

Twitty thereafter embarked upon what he tartly describes as his “Southern Discomfort Tour” to research his upcoming book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,” due in stores in August. The book describes his odyssey retracing his African ancestors’ cuisine, including how he prepared food as slaves once did, on historic plantations and dressed in period garb; how he shared meals with both African-Americans and descendants of his family’s former slave masters; and how he taught kosher soul cooking classes at an Alabama synagogue.

Preparing historically accurate dishes on the very plantations where his ancestors had labored is another act of defiance, Twitty said.

“I wanted to reclaim those spaces for the people who were victimized and hurt there,” he said. That’s also why he believes that Auschwitz might be a good place to celebrate a bar mitzvah. “I want to look into the faces of those who would destroy, oppress, minimize and erase us and go, ‘You didn’t vaporize us — sorry,’ ” he said.

Twitty’s goal is to seek what he calls “culinary justice” for African-Americans, whose food was appropriated by white Southerners who refused to acknowledge its origin. “It’s [in part] about honoring the source,” he said. “Some [white] people who are on top may feel they have a certain amount of privilege and power, so they can freely access [African-American] culture. It’s not borrowing, it’s not quoting; it’s taking without giving credit. It’s theft and exploitation.”

Part of Twitty’s inspiration comes from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal rabbis he’s known who are dedicated to social causes. “Culinary justice is a very Jewish concept to me,” he said.


This is a blend of old school, antebellum recipes with my own special kosher/soul touch.

– 1 teaspoon kosher salt
– 2 teaspoons Bell’s Poultry Seasoning
– 2 teaspoons coarse ground black pepper
– 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
– 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
– 1 teaspoon (sweet) paprika
– 1/4 teaspoon allspice
– 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
– 2 kosher chickens, preferably fryers, cut into breast, wing, leg and thigh portions
– 4 eggs
– 3 cups matzo meal
– 3 cups per whole chicken kosher-for-Passover cooking oil or, if you are Sephardic like me, vegetable oil mixed with Crisco

Combine the salt and seasonings together in a bowl.

Wash chicken and pat dry. Season the chicken with the spice mixture and set aside for a few hours in the refrigerator.

Prepare the egg wash by beating eggs with a fork and mixing with a little water. Then prepare your station: The egg wash should be in a shallow dish and the matzo meal should be in a separate shallow dish.

Brush the chicken with the egg wash, then cover in matzo meal. Place the coated chicken pieces on a rack over a cookie sheet in the refrigerator to set. This will help keep the coating on. The chicken can sit for up to 30 minutes.

Heat the cooking oil in a frying pan until hot but not smoking, about 325 degrees or so. Follow the rules of frying chicken: Ease the pieces into the frying pan or Dutch oven. Do not crowd the pan. Remember dark pieces take a bit longer to achieve doneness. Seasoning the coating is a no-no because some herbs and spices will burn in the coating. Adding more chicken will cool the oil, so adjust accordingly.

Fry around 8 minutes each side and turn to brown all around another 4 minutes per piece. Use your best judgment — crispy and golden brown on the outside doesn’t mean done on the inside. To test, you should aim for 160 degrees or above for white meat and 175 degrees or above for dark meat. The appearance of the chicken and the doneness of the meat inside are the two factors you have to balance when frying chicken. There is no exact formula, so have oil and meat thermometers handy, and use your eyes, ears and nose to do the rest of the work. Use tongs, not a fork, to deal with the chicken.

When the pieces are done, transfer them to a clean rack over paper towels on a cookie sheet. Want to get rid of more oil? After 5 minutes, transfer to a plate or basket or bowl with paper towels, just don’t do this when they come out of the pan fresh it will affect the crust.

Makes 8 servings.


For more information about Michael Twitty’s appearances at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 13, visit

Joan Nathan. Photo by Gabriela Herman

Traveling through time in search of Jewish cooking with Joan Nathan

The acclaimed cookbook author Joan Nathan has done more than perhaps anyone to popularize Jewish cooking in America. Her latest book, “King Solomon’s Table,” digs deeper into Jewish history, uncovering connections between cultures to reveal that Jewish cooking is more complicated — and delicious — than we ever realized.

“By having a knowledge of the history, I think I understood what Jewish food was in a different way,” Nathan said in an interview with the Journal in anticipation of the book’s publication and two upcoming local appearances.

[Recipes from “King Solomon’s Table”]

Her journey of discovery reaches back to biblical times and the reign of King Solomon, who sent explorers to various parts of his kingdom to bring back spices and jewels. Nathan finds that Jewish merchants and traders brought these exotic ingredients into their home countries, and these flavors were intermingled with the culinary traditions of their home communities. This culinary cross-pollination resulted in dishes that still are eaten today.

In the universe of Jewish food, Nathan is the Big Bang. Her 10 previous books include six about Jewish cuisine and two on Israeli cuisine. The two James Beard award-winning books, “Jewish Cooking in America” and “The New American Cooking,” have become essential reference books for preparing Jewish meals for holidays and throughout the year. It is unlikely that any hip artisan deli owner or new-wave Jewish food blogger didn’t at some point dig deep into Nathan’s works for inspiration, ingredients or proportions. 

Nathan, 74, lives in Washington, D.C., and on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband, the prominent lawyer Allan Gerson, and is the mother of three adult children. She also hosted a nationally syndicated PBS television series about Jewish cooking, and writes regularly for The New York Times, Tablet magazine and other publications.

Her latest book will be published just in time for Passover, when Jews remember the Exodus story and connect it to other stories of displacement and diaspora. The publication also coincides with stepped-up immigration raids in the United States and a backlash against refugees in Europe.

“Every cuisine is helped by immigrants,” Nathan said. “In writing this book, I began to realize that after 1965, when immigration opened up all over the world — to immigrants from Southeast Asia, from Russia, from all parts of the world — it embellished Jewish food, because we had Afghani immigrants, Uzbek immigrants, Azerbaijani immigrants. And so, in most cases, I tried to go around the world to try this food, but because I couldn’t get to Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, I could get those in Brooklyn and L.A.”

Her new book includes more than 170 recipes that traverse the globe. They include her takes on classics like Yemenite chicken soup, bourekas, hummus and hamantashen, as well as modern riffs on traditional dishes such as shakshuka, herbed labneh and Baghdadi chicken. There also are recipes that combine cultures, like Syrian-Mexican chicken with apricot, tamarind and chipotle sauce.

Nathan’s voracious appetite for stories shines through every anecdote and historical gem in the book.

Nathan’s voracious appetite for stories shines through every anecdote and historical gem in the book. “King Solomon’s Table” is as much a kitchen reference guide as it is a page-turner about Jewish history and culture told through food.

Take the macaroon, a cookie many enjoy during Passover. The treat has roots in the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now southern Iraq. It’s made with almonds, sugar, rosewater and sometimes eggs blended together with cardamom. Macaroons have become a Purim and Passover staple for Iraqi and Iranian Jews, though they’ve picked up flavors as Jews have spread across the globe. Nathan’s cookbook includes a recipe for walnut-almond macaroons with a raspberry jam thumbprint.

Nathan leaves no stone unturned when sniffing out Jewish culinary history. Her research trips uncover Jewish connections from China and India to Mexico and Iran. Jews lived along the Silk Road and adopted kreplach from the Chinese wonton. She includes a recipe for Sri Lankan breakfast buns with cinnamon-laced onion confit, adapted from a bun she found at a roadside stand in Sri Lanka, where a small Jewish community once lived.

Another example is chicken paprikash, a favorite dish among Hungarian Jews. In her research, Nathan realized the paprika was probably brought by Sephardic Jewish merchants from the New World. Similarly, knödel originated in Alsace-Lorraine and southern Germany and later became kneidlach, or matzo balls.

“I remember when I was much younger and I was hiking in the Alps and, in a hut at the top, there was this huge knödel in the soup, and I thought, Oh, my God, matzo balls! And the matzo balls that we have in America are not like what they were in Europe,” Nathan said.

At times, it feels like the definition of “Jewish food” stretches so wide that it seems to lose meaning, but, Nathan says, “the core, even if you don’t agree with it, are the dietary laws” along with the foods traditional to the Jewish holidays.

Another thing that sets apart Jewish cooking from, say, Italian cooking, is that Jewish merchants brought back spices from other lands and incorporated them into the foods of their home countries. So the recipes have a multilayered aspect that merges different cultures’ flavors.

The way Jewish food spans place and time was evident during Nathan’s keynote address earlier this month at a symposium called “Jewish Food in the Global South.” She hosted a cooking class and made carciofi alla giudia, fried artichokes Jewish style; fessenjan, a traditional chicken-and-walnut stew made with pomegranate and served with saffron rice; and upside-down fruit cobbler. She also discussed the evolution of schnecken, a kind of sweet bun. In Arkansas, Jews replaced the walnuts used in Germany with pecans.

“King Solomon’s Table” is as much a kitchen reference guide as it is a page-turner about Jewish history and culture

She also revealed a recipe for a Lithuanian stuffed matzo ball she discovered in Mississippi. It was made in a muffin tin and stuffed with meat and cinnamon. “A Lithuanian immigrant brought that recipe in the 19th century and made it in a wood stove,” she said.

In writing the book, Nathan’s voyage of discovery also landed her at the Babylonian Collection in the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, where she was able to (very carefully) handle three clay tablets from about 1700 B.C.E. These earliest known “cookbooks” had chiseled on them 44 recipes inscribed in cuneiform in the Akkadian language.

Nathan spends a fair amount of time in Los Angeles, where she interacts with Persian Jews eating fessenjan and gondi kashi, a rice dish filled with spices, herbs, meat, beets and fava beans. Her recipe for sweet-and-sour Persian stuffed grape leaves begins with a delightful anecdote about walking into Maryam Maddahi’s home in Beverly Hills, where she heard Persian music and found 60 family members singing, dancing, talking mostly in Farsi and snacking on platters of pistachios and dates. The grape leaves described in her book come stuffed with raisins, barberries, apricots and golden plums.

Another cross-cultural recipe included in the book is chilaquiles, using fried pieces of either corn tortillas or matzos. Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold told Nathan he prepares the dish for his family for breakfast, referring to it as “Mexican matzo brei.”

Jewish cooking is not static. Nathan finds infinite variations on traditional recipes. Potato kugel may be of Eastern European origin, but it morphed into noodle kugel in America. Nathan’s recipe calls for adding leeks to potato kugel, and recently she met a woman who says she makes it regularly with sweet potatoes.

“King Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun,” Nathan said. “Well, let me tell you, we’re using chickpeas the way they used them in the ancient world. We’re using pomegranate syrup. Of course, it’s processed pomegranate syrup, but that’s what they used. Date jam, which is the jam used in the Bible. We are now rediscovering all these ingredients.”

Joan Nathan’s cookbook “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking From Around the World” (Knopf, 382 pages, $35) will be published on April 4. She’ll speak with KCRW’s Evan Kleiman at 2 p.m. on April 6, at the Skirball Cultural Center, and with the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold at 7:30 p.m. on April 6, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Irmas Campus.

Huevos Haminados Con Spinaci. Photo by Gabriela Herman

Passover recipes from ‘King Solomon’s Table’ by Joan Nathan


Long-Cooked Hard-Boiled Eggs with Spinach

Yield: 12 to 16 servings

– 12 to 16 large eggs, preferably fresh from a farmers’ market
– 4 tablespoons olive oil
– 1 large red onion, peeled and coarsely chopped (1 1/2 cups)
– 1 tablespoon sea salt
– 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
– 1 1/2 pounds spinach, fresh or frozen (thawed and drained if frozen)

Put the eggs in a cooking pot and add water to cover by about 2 inches. Then add the olive oil, onions, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Cool and remove the eggs with a slotted spoon. Tap the eggs gently against the counter and peel under cold running water, keeping them as whole as possible.

Return the peeled eggs to the pot with the seasoned water and simmer very slowly uncovered for at least 2 hours, or until the water is almost evaporated and the onions almost dissolved. The eggs will become dark and creamy as the cooking water evaporates and they absorb all the flavoring.

Remove the eggs carefully to a bowl, rubbing into the cooking liquid any of the cream that forms on the outside. Heat the remaining cooking liquid over medium heat, bring to a simmer, and add the spinach. Cook the spinach until most of the liquid is reduced, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, about 30 minutes, or until the spinach is creamy and well cooked. Serve a dollop of spinach with a hard-boiled egg on top as the first part of the Seder meal or as a first course of any meal.

NOTE: To see if the eggs are really boiled, remove one egg from the water and spin it on a flat cutting board. If it twirls in one place, it is hard-boiled. If it wobbles all over the board, it is not cooked yet and the weight isn’t distributed evenly. The easiest way of peeling a hot hard-boiled egg is to put it under cold water between your hands and rub it quickly until it cracks, then peel under the running water.

To prepare the symbolic egg for the Passover Seder plate, boil the egg in its shell, dry it, and then light a match underneath to char it.

Excerpted from “King Solomon’s Table” by Joan Nathan. Copyright © 2017 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Passover: Next year, in Nairobi

Angelenos looking to pair seder with safari need look no farther than Nairobi, Kenya, where they can visit the historic Nairobi Hebrew Congregation.

Marked by stained-glass windows, flower-filled gardens and a community comprising Israeli and European expatriates — as well as African Jews by Choice and travelers passing through in the hope of infusing their exotic journeys into the African continent with a little Judaism — the congregation is happy to host anybody visiting during the holiday.

“We do a traditional seder night and services in shul,” Ashley Myers, president of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation and a British native who initially arrived in Kenya to manage a beach hotel in Mombasa, wrote in an email. “Nonmembers and visitors are welcome to join and often do.”

Services in Nairobi Hebrew Congregation are traditional, with the men and women seated separately inside the large sanctuary. The seder is held in a social hall adjacent to the sanctuary and will be led by Rabbi Avromy Super, who belongs to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and arrived from Australia with his wife, Sternie, just before Passover last year. 

The local Jewish community is more than 100 years old. According to the book “Glimpses of the Jews of Kenya,” which is available for purchase at the synagogue — book sales raise funds for the congregation — Jews have lived in Kenya since 1899. Although Jews have made important contributions to the country in the fields of business, agriculture and more, the population of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation has never exceeded more than 180 members, according to the book. Today, 80 percent of the religious community is made up of Israeli expatriates who are pursuing agriculture, construction and security interests in Kenya, among other ventures.

“It’s a changing community, it’s different than it was in the past,” said Gilad Millo, an Israeli musician living in Nairobi. He also is former deputy head of mission at the Israeli embassy in Kenya and a former diplomat with the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. 

“In my day at the embassy, it was three, four firms that brought Israelis. Today there are a lot of Israeli startup guys who are here independently,” he said. “So you don’t really know everybody and you keep hearing about Israelis who are suddenly here in Kenya doing stuff in areas where Israelis weren’t involved before.”

Millo, who will be holding a seder at his home with friends and family, said the synagogue “brings matzo breadcrumbs and wine and other things from Israel.” Additionally, “for those who want kosher meat, the kehillah [community] brings a shochet [ritual slaughterer] and they sell to the community.” 

Protected by a wall as well as security guards who request identification from passengers in vehicles entering the sizable grounds, the synagogue is located in Nairobi’s central business district.  

A short drive leads to Nairobi National Park, perhaps one of the few places in the world where one can see wild giraffes, zebras, lions and other creatures against a backdrop of a fast-developing cityscape. (But be forewarned, any drive in Nairobi, where people drive on the opposite side of the road because of the country’s history of British colonial rule, will be one big traffic jam.)

In addition to the wildlife, the national park houses a monument featuring large piles of burnt ivory, serving as a reminder of the country’s ban on trade in ivory, enforced since 1989 as a way to disincentivize the poaching of elephants and rhinos. Text on a sign adjacent to the burnt ivory — worth more than $1 million at the time of the burning — will ring familiar to the Jewish community. It reads: “Never Again.”

Poaching continues, nonetheless, despite the efforts of organizations like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The organization operates a rescued infant elephant orphanage that is popular among tourists, who gather behind a roped-off outdoor area as staff members feed the elephants milk from bottles. 

Also in Nairobi is the Giraffe Centre, a nonprofit that educates about the three species of giraffes found in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe, the Rothschild’s giraffe and the Masai giraffe. It also allows visitors — like this reporter, who toured Nairobi on a trip paid for by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs — to feed giraffes pellets using their hands, or for the more intrepid, their mouths. Less known than the threats against elephants and rhinos is that the giraffe population in Kenya is dwindling due to things such as habitat loss and hunting. 

The sanctuary of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation features separate seating for men and women as well as stained glass windows above the bimah depicting stories from the Torah. Windows on the sides represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Photo by Jacob Brauner

Jewish ties to the nation go back decades. In fact, under what was called the Uganda Plan, Kenya was considered a possible temporary Jewish homeland before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Later, the Kenyan government was helpful to Israelis during Operation Entebbe, serving as a refueling zone for Israeli planes during the country’s rescue of hostages from Uganda in 1976. 

The two countries have had diplomatic relations since 1963, the same year Kenya gained independence from the British. The Israeli embassy in Nairobi has been involved in the renovation of Kenya’s national hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital. It also houses employees of MASHAV, the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. 

Michael Baror, Israel’s deputy ambassador to Kenya, told the Journal that Nairobi Hebrew Congregation’s “prime location” has resulted in “expensive upkeep” and “whoever cares for it changes from time to time because the Israelis come and go. … It was there before the city barely existed …[and] it is the oldest [Jewish] community in East Africa.” 

If one is looking for something more intimate for Passover than what the synagogue is offering, Baror said he is holding a seder in his home and that visitors are welcome. 

“There are many people that will be glad to host guests for the seder if needed,” Baror said, “myself included.”

Passover: Next year, in Nairobi

Angelenos looking to pair seder with safari need look no farther than Nairobi, Kenya, where they can visit the historic Nairobi Hebrew Congregation.

Marked by stained-glass windows, flower-filled gardens and a community comprising Israeli and European expatriates — as well as African Jews by Choice and travelers passing through in the hope of infusing their exotic journeys into the African continent with a little Judaism — the congregation is happy to host anybody visiting during the holiday.

“We do a traditional seder night and services in shul,” Ashley Myers, president of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation and a British native who initially arrived in Kenya to manage a beach hotel in Mombasa, wrote in an email. “Nonmembers and visitors are welcome to join and often do.”

Services in Nairobi Hebrew Congregation are traditional, with the men and women seated separately inside the large sanctuary. The seder is held in a social hall adjacent to the sanctuary and will be led by Rabbi Avromy Super, who belongs to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and arrived from Australia with his wife, Sternie, just before Passover last year. 

The local Jewish community is more than 100 years old. According to the book “Glimpses of the Jews of Kenya,” which is available for purchase at the synagogue — book sales raise funds for the congregation — Jews have lived in Kenya since 1899. Although Jews have made important contributions to the country in the fields of business, agriculture and more, the population of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation has never exceeded more than 180 members, according to the book. Today, 80 percent of the religious community is made up of Israeli expatriates who are pursuing agriculture, construction and security interests in Kenya, among other ventures.

“It’s a changing community, it’s different than it was in the past,” said Gilad Millo, an Israeli musician living in Nairobi. He also is former deputy head of mission at the Israeli embassy in Kenya and a former diplomat with the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. 

“In my day at the embassy, it was three, four firms that brought Israelis. Today there are a lot of Israeli startup guys who are here independently,” he said. “So you don’t really know everybody and you keep hearing about Israelis who are suddenly here in Kenya doing stuff in areas where Israelis weren’t involved before.”

Millo, who will be holding a seder at his home with friends and family, said the synagogue “brings matzo breadcrumbs and wine and other things from Israel.” Additionally, “for those who want kosher meat, the kehillah [community] brings a shochet [ritual slaughterer] and they sell to the community.” 

Protected by a wall as well as security guards who request identification from passengers in vehicles entering the sizable grounds, the synagogue is located in Nairobi’s central business district.  

A short drive leads to Nairobi National Park, perhaps one of the few places in the world where one can see wild giraffes, zebras, lions and other creatures against a backdrop of a fast-developing cityscape. (But be forewarned, any drive in Nairobi, where people drive on the opposite side of the road because of the country’s history of British colonial rule, will be one big traffic jam.)

In addition to the wildlife, the national park houses a monument featuring large piles of burnt ivory, serving as a reminder of the country’s ban on trade in ivory, enforced since 1989 as a way to disincentivize the poaching of elephants and rhinos. Text on a sign adjacent to the burnt ivory — worth more than $1 million at the time of the burning — will ring familiar to the Jewish community. It reads: “Never Again.”

Poaching continues, nonetheless, despite the efforts of organizations like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The organization operates a rescued infant elephant orphanage that is popular among tourists, who gather behind a roped-off outdoor area as staff members feed the elephants milk from bottles. 

Also in Nairobi is the Giraffe Centre, a nonprofit that educates about the three species of giraffes found in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe, the Rothschild’s giraffe and the Masai giraffe. It also allows visitors — like this reporter, who toured Nairobi on a trip paid for by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs — to feed giraffes pellets using their hands, or for the more intrepid, their mouths. Less known than the threats against elephants and rhinos is that the giraffe population in Kenya is dwindling due to things such as habitat loss and hunting. 

The sanctuary of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation features separate seating for men and women as well as stained glass windows above the bimah depicting stories from the Torah. Windows on the sides represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Photo by Jacob Brauner

Jewish ties to the nation go back decades. In fact, under what was called the Uganda Plan, Kenya was considered a possible temporary Jewish homeland before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Later, the Kenyan government was helpful to Israelis during Operation Entebbe, serving as a refueling zone for Israeli planes during the country’s rescue of hostages from Uganda in 1976. 

The two countries have had diplomatic relations since 1963, the same year Kenya gained independence from the British. The Israeli embassy in Nairobi has been involved in the renovation of Kenya’s national hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital. It also houses employees of MASHAV, the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. 

Michael Baror, Israel’s deputy ambassador to Kenya, told the Journal that Nairobi Hebrew Congregation’s “prime location” has resulted in “expensive upkeep” and “whoever cares for it changes from time to time because the Israelis come and go. … It was there before the city barely existed …[and] it is the oldest [Jewish] community in East Africa.” 

If one is looking for something more intimate for Passover than what the synagogue is offering, Baror said he is holding a seder in his home and that visitors are welcome. 

“There are many people that will be glad to host guests for the seder if needed,” Baror said, “myself included.”

Tourism in Israel struggles to recover from violence

The traditional Passover seder meal ends with a promise, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But at least this year, many American Jews chose to stay away.

“There were far, far fewer tourists this year,” Mark Feldman, the CEO of Ziontours in Jerusalem told The Media Line. “Many people were scared to come. They felt that the Old City of Jerusalem was off limits completely and that Jerusalem itself was not safe.”

Several hotels contacted for this article refused to release figures on their occupancy over Passover, but Feldman said hotel occupancy, especially in Jerusalem, was down by 20 or 30 percent over last year.

“American and British tourists plan their travel way in advance,” Feldman said. “They had to decide in November or December, when the situation here was very unstable.”

He was referring to what came to be known as the “knife intifada” in which Palestinians, many of them young, stabbed and killed 30 people, most of them Israelis over the past six months. While the situation has calmed down, a bombing on a Jerusalem bus last month that killed only the attacker but wounded 21, sparked anxiety again.

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism says it doesn’t have exact figures for tourism yet but that the situation was “not bad,” according to Pini Shani, the Deputy Director of the Marketing Administration of the Ministry of Tourism. He said looking at monthly statistics can be complicated, because it depends on other issues such as whether Passover and Easter fall in the same month or in different months. He said that estimates are that about three million tourists will visit Israel this year, similar to 2015.

Tourism during Passover tends to be primarily internal tourism by Israelis, say tourism experts. In March, hotels were 58 percent full, said Pnina Shalev, the spokesperson for the Israel Hotels Association, while in 2015, it was 55 percent. The summer 2014 fighting between Israel and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza, affected tourism, which usually sees hotels 60-70 percent full in March.

“Passover was great with 80-90 percent occupancy in most places,” Shalev told The Media Line. “Eilat (on the Red Sea) was full of Israelis, as was the Dead Sea, Tiberias, and the kibbutzim (collective settlements).”

Israel is also turning eastward, hoping to tap into the burgeoning Chinese market. Shani of the Tourism Ministry said that tourism from India and China is increasing quickly, he said, and Hainan Airlines, the largest private carrier in China, last week launched its first direct flight to Israel. Tourism officials say they hope to see 100,000 tourists from China visiting Israel each year.

Israel has also seen a sharp decline in visitors from Russia, which is Israel’s second largest market after the US, due to the sharp financial crisis there.

Overall Israel, with an average of 3 to 3.5 million tourists annually remains far behind other Mediterranean countries like Greece, which has 25 million visitors a year despite the financial crisis there, or Turkey, with close to 40 million tourists.

Many of those who work in tourism are concerned that the downturn in tourism could become permanent.

“In the summer of 2014 with the operation in Gaza, I had a lot of cancellations and I’ve had very little work since then,” Suzanne Pomeranz, a long-time tour guide originally from North Carolina told The Media Line. “Yesterday I was talking to a high school friend and he said, ‘Why don’t you come home? There’s a war in Israel,’ and I said there is no war here but that’s the way it looks to everyone.”

Passover frenzy grips Jerusalem market

Passover eve, for observant Jews, is the deadline of all deadlines, a day by which all surfaces, all cupboards, all shelves have to be scoured and cleansed of anything that even may allude to a leavened product.

Passover Eve, for many Jews, is the day in which dough becomes kryptonite.

In Jerusalem’s bustling central market, which, apart from the dark uniforms of elite police corps members standing vigilantly by some corners, their hands lightly resting on their weapons, appeared to be unaffected by the violence that has visited this city since October, 2015, an intriguing scent of something burning, maybe something baking, replaced the more common scents of grilled meat and sweet chocolate rugulach.

What was that aroma? It was Biur Chametz, [the destruction of leavened food products] an act described on the website of the Lubavitch movement, an ultra-Orthodox organization, as “Chametz's Final Moments.”

Chametz, a word derived from the Hebrew root of the word “ferment,” is the term used for any leavened product, which is strictly prohibited during the seven days of Passover, a festival commemorating the Jews’ escape from Pharaoh’s Egypt, with nary enough time to bake up a burnt, too-crisp flatbread. [Editor’s note: 18 minutes after water touches grain fermentation sets in and for Passover purposes, the food item become “chametz.”]

“Chametz may be eaten until the fourth hour of the day,” Lubavitch counsels aspiring keepers of the flame. “After that, only foods that are kosher for Passover are eaten… Since even a minute amount of chametz is prohibited, we carefully rinse, brush, and floss our teeth, to ensure that we really have gotten rid of all the chametz within us.”

The souk (shuk, locally) is Ground Zero for Jerusalemite Passover shopping and general holiday preparation, with many of its stalls adorned with seasonal pink garlic, its dark green leaves woven into stands, the heads the size of baseballs.

Basher, the world-famous cheese emporium, has been kosher-for-Passover for a week, replacing the flaky, buttery brioches and crunchy baguettes with French-made “Matsot” [plural of matzah] imported with an eye on the thousands of French immigrants and visitors crowding the markets alleyways.

Every year, Basher mixes up a quarter of a ton of haroset, the sweet paste made of fruits and nuts that is  served at the Passover dinner and represents, in its color and texture, the mortar used by the Israelites when enslaved in Egypt.

David Basher, one of the owners, who is named after his grandfather, who founded the establishment, told The Media Line that his version of haroset, which is composed of dates, walnuts, almonds “and a good amount of wine — actually, several crates of one of Israel’s best wines” — was almost gone. About ten small tubs of it could still be found behind the counter, where they were going for $15 for what appeared to be a few tablespoons. In Basher’s iteration, haroset resembled royal jelly more than grouting.

The entire market has been gripped by a frenzy. Some bakeries, for example, one standout, Duvdevan, had just set out mounds of coconut macaroons and chocolate mousse rectangles on what appeared to be sterilized, white display shelves. “We’ve been ready for the past hour,’ one worker told The Media Line, appearing still to be out of breath. On the other side of the spectrum, Marzipan, a favorite bakery of English-speaking Jerusalemites and American tourists was preparing simply to shut down for a week, the requirements of Passover preparations being too onerous to match.

Not everyone was thrilled by the flurry of activity. One woman at the counter of a health food stall with bags of potato and spelt flour, waiting to pay, asked  the cashier with some irritation why the salesman had just informed her “it’s not ‘kosher for Passover,’ but you can get it anyway; also, it doesn’t require nipui,” the sifting demanded by religious law. “Why can’t I get my stuff without getting a religious talking-to?” she asked. The exhausted salesman replied only that most of his customers “are coming in here and making us crazy with all the specific demands.”

Alexander Turner, a man visiting from Oregon, told The Media Line he found “the religious atmosphere to be a bit stifling. “It’s surprising, actually,” he said, mentioning that when at home he attends synagogue services every Sabbath but found “the constant mentions of religious tasks even on radio talk shows oppressive.”

A bit like Christmastime, back home? “Maybe,” he allowed, smiling. “Something like that.”

Yanky Eischler, the owner of one of the market’s most popular coffee spots, Rpasters, was preparing a keg party for Thursday night, “outside, in the alley, to get rid of whatever is left of our beer.”

Beer, while not leavened, is not permitted during Passover under strict orthodox observance because it is the product of fermented grains.

Fermented fruit is accepted, allowing for the consumption of wine during the holiday, most notably the four cups of wine drunk at the Passover Seder, the meal marking the first day of the holiday, which begins on Friday.

Wine was the subject of particular scrutiny by Naftali Magozi, a religious gentleman stocking up on provisions for his family, who pointed at a Passover classic—Papaouchado wine cookies—the lace-like tea biscuits Israelis of all stripes wait for year-round and wagged his finger in a clear “no.”

The wine cookies are as mysterious as they are yearned-for in all weeks other than Passover. Made only of flour, sugar, wine (10%) oil and eggs, they boast the highest grade of kosher-for-Passover certification.

Yet, men like Magozi, unsure that wine, in fact, cannot under any circumstances leaven the wheat flour in the manner that water would, consider them untouchable. “I’d never take that home. I have no idea what they taste like. Never,” he said. “It’s only an Ashkenazi thing.”

The Elijah dilemma: How do you welcome the stranger when you can’t stand your neighbor?

Here’s the truth: I don’t love my neighbors. Neither do I like them. In fact, I simply can’t bear them. Every second spent in proximity to them diminishes the quality of my life. And I find this deeply troubling given that I regularly stand at the front of a university classroom and talk to students about what it means to love one’s neighbor, what it means to be ethically responsible human beings in a world that grows madder and madder. It’s even more distressing given that I lecture regularly about the imperative of seeing the refugee, the stranger, the foreigner — as the neighbor.

want to love my neighbors — truly, I do. But it seems that desire does not always crystallize into reality. My fantasy of good intentions is hardly compatible with the state of my heart. And I can’t help but wonder whether the impulses that have guided my experience with my proximate neighbors have become a touchstone for my capacity to care for those neighbors who are not so geographically close.

The impending arrival of Pesach — a week of remembering our own historical and symbolic exile — makes such questions even more pronounced. Why do we fill that fifth symbolic cup with wine for Elijah, and for whom do we really open the door?

My husband and I moved into the upstairs unit of a lovely Beverly Hills duplex nearly five years ago. Our downstairs neighbors introduced themselves to us quickly, the woman regularly offering us delicious baked goods and homemade granola. We were pleased to find that, despite their professed love of bacon, they were Jews, just like us. We shared Shabbat dinners and family celebrations with our neighbors. When my baby was sick while my husband was out of town, they drove to the pharmacy to get medicine for him and even helped me administer it. Having raised two children of their own, they had been where I was only beginning to tread. We were grateful for them.

And because we were grateful, we overlooked things like dog excrement (they had two unruly dogs, each well more than 100 pounds) in our shared backyard nearly every time we tried to use it. Let’s not make a fuss, I would say to my husband — they are good to us, and we don’t need to use the backyard (this, of course, was before we had an energetic 3-year-old). We told ourselves that it was no big deal that they wanted to use the driveway to park their cars, while we parked on the street.

cov-dogBut when my son was born and I struggled getting into the house with the weight of a new baby and all the accompaniments, they offered to let us share the driveway. “See?” I said to my husband. “If you don’t put people in a position to be defensive or territorial, they will be generous. They will do the right thing.” He was not as certain. Perhaps he had a more innate understanding of the disconnect between the ideals to which we aspire and our behavior in reality.

Months later, my husband was bitten badly by one of our neighbors’ dogs. They apologized profusely and told us they understood if we needed to call animal control. “No,” I said. “You are our friends, our neighbors, and I know that you love your dog. I know that you guys will do what needs to be done here so that we can safely use our backyard.” My words were arguably ambiguous, but my meaning was clear: Your dogs shouldn’t be in a shared backyard if they are going to attack people, but I leave it to you to do the right thing. I fully expected that our generosity, given that this was the dog’s second attack (he had severely bitten a child a year ago), would be returned.

To say that it wasn’t is an understatement. The dogs continued to run free in the backyard, while we remained confined to our home. We grew resentful. We started to hate our neighbors. And as our animosity grew, we finally began to demand common courtesies that we should have requested at the beginning: Please clean up after your dogs; please share the driveway; please don’t slam the door. The list continued indefinitely. No matter how politely we made our requests known, the relationship had soured, and they were not inclined to live peacefully with us.

Things did not end well with our neighbors. Nothing was ever resolved. No relationship was reclaimed. They moved out, and so did we.

As I finish writing this piece, which I began months ago and then abandoned, I am looking out of the window of my office in our new home in the canyon — a home tucked away near the top of a hill. It’s quiet. We don’t have to share anything with anyone. In fact, the street is so quiet that we hardly see any of our new neighbors. Rarely do we have to wave hello or exchange pleasantries. It concerns me that this feels most natural, most right — the distancing of ourselves from neighbors, the narrowing of possibilities for friendship.

With the threat of dog bites and slamming doors lifted, there is time to think. And I can’t help but consider what really was the reason for the collapse of our relationship with our neighbors — which, given how close we once were, still pains and baffles me.

But I see it now. It occurs to me that I might be the most to blame. I was reluctant to set boundaries with them in the beginning, because I wanted to be seen in a certain light. I wanted to appear kind and easygoing. I wanted to make friends and have a meaningful relationship with the people with whom we shared walls.

I wonder now how it would’ve turned out if I had laid better groundwork in the beginning — if we had expressed our early dismay at seeing our shared backyard overrun by animals, rather than let them have it for years only to suddenly change our tune after we had a toddler who needed to play in the backyard. I wonder how differently things would’ve turned out if, instead of faking a smile and laughing when one of the dogs jumped and clawed at me until my legs bled underneath my pants, I had been honest. But I wanted to be liked. I suppose I was just playing at being a good neighbor. And I suspect I got it all wrong.

The topic of neighbors is one that is important to much of my academic work, and so it rarely leaves my mind, which is why my inability to make something work with my neighbors is a bit of a personal irritant. As I recently spoke to my literature students about refugees, suggesting that they too are our neighbors, my own personal situation haunted my lecture. And yet the narrative of the crumbling relationship with my neighbors always brings me back to the topic of refugees and of our responsibility to them. Given the pervasiveness of the issue in the media and in much of our current political discourse, I suppose it’s impossible not to. And Pesach, each year, is the time when we are called to remember that we were once foreigners in a land not our own. As part of this crucial Jewish memory, we’re called to care for both neighbors and strangers. But what does it really mean to respond to this admonition?

I keep seeing the face of a man, holding his children close — they’re all wearing life jackets; it’s an image most of us have seen. They’re refugees from Syria. The man is clearly anguished as he holds his children. Like me, he just wants to know that he can keep his children safe. Nothing else matters. This is what I read, unmistakably, in his expression.


I see this man’s face — the photo is one of many that have gone viral — and I believe that I can do whatever it takes, that I can open my heart and my home and my borders to him and his little ones. I imagine that once they are here, I can show them how welcoming and compassionate we are. I believe that I can love someone I know nothing about — whose religion, language, culture and customs are not mine.

Yet I cannot love my very own neighbors, those in closest proximity to me, who are like me in so many ways, even though they have shown me love in the past. I find this deeply troubling, and I’m sure that I am not alone in my impulse to make abstract gestures of compassion that I can’t promise will extend beyond gestures.

I can’t help but wonder if this is a uniquely American impulse — this desire to show the world something, to prove that we are who we say we are. My initial generous behavior toward my neighbors was not really about them; it was about me. It was about wanting to be liked.

Maybe America, too, wants to be liked, to be seen in a certain light — to carry on our legacy of taking in the tired, the poor, the homeless, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the “wretched refuse” of our teeming shores. But maybe we can’t follow through. Or at least, maybe we don’t follow through often enough. Perhaps the spirit of our generosity is tainted with anxieties about who we are and what people think of us.

We want to take on the world, to take in the world and the denizens of suffering that get lost from time to time. We fall in love with the idea of being the savior to the world, with the idea that we are big enough and brave enough to reach our arms across the ocean and take in all of the suffering refugees. And sometimes we do this — sometimes we do the right thing. But our compassion always seems to expire once we are no longer receiving attention for it.

I recently co-edited a book that includes an excerpt from Dave Eggers’ “What Is the What,” a novel (based heavily on a true story) that tells of a Sudanese refugee — one of the “Lost Boys” taken in by the U.S. When I teach this story, I also show my students a “60 Minutes clip where a number of the “Lost Boys,” years after being taken in by the U.S., are in dire straits. Fantasies of going to medical or law school or meeting a woman and starting a family have disintegrated into the reality of what it often means to be a refugee in America today. After the hype has worn off, after the benevolent Christians and Jews stop showing up at the foreigner’s door with casseroles and fruit baskets (because, let’s face it, we can keep that up only for so long), the honeymoon with his or her new American neighbors ends for the refugee, the immigrant, the stranger: our new neighbor. 

It’s as if we are saying to refugees: We want to help you get here, and we like how it feels when we accomplish it, but we refuse to take responsibility for what your life looks like after you get settled in your new home (which is often akin to the life of poverty and squalor experienced by early 20th-century Jewish immigrants packed into Lower East Side tenements). We will get you here, we will save you, and we will look and feel good for it. But after that, you’re on your own. We will be on to the next cause, the next opportunity to demonstrate just how much we care.

I have this wild thought — one that conflicts with my gut impulse to say, yes, we need to take in as many refugees as we can. Hear me out.

Maybe there are only two ways to resolve this. Either we take real responsibility for incoming refugees and how their lives take shape on American soil, or we acknowledge to them and to the world that our compassion doesn’t run deep enough to take on long-term responsibility for these people — that once they are here, they must fend for themselves, and that many if not most of them will not make it. Yes, perhaps that dark reality is better than the alternative of living in a refugee camp or on the streets in another country. But shouldn’t America have more to offer these people? Shouldn’t we, as Jews, have more to offer them? If you save someone’s life, do you not become responsible for it? 

Perhaps these are the kinds of startling boundaries we need to consider, if only hypothetically, boundaries that reflect an honest accounting of the state of our heart, the extent of our compassion — painful boundaries that take from us the opportunity to feel and appear generous and good. Perhaps we cannot take in the refugee until we are ready to take full responsibility for his or her life, until we are ready to respond ethically to the call to care for our neighbor.

And yet we cannot quite do that for those who are closest in proximity to us. Perhaps we might start by considering first those who are already our neighbors — how we should relate honestly and ethically to neighbors with biting dogs or slamming doors or loud music. And more importantly, how we care for the hungry and homeless, the destitute and downtrodden we see daily, or choose to ignore.

I wonder what it would look like if we were to take real responsibility for those who have become invisible, who live in the shadow of others who are perceived to be more needy or more deserving. What would it look like if we were to take quiet responsibility for these neighbors? It’s less glamorous, but I suspect that such gestures of responsibility might open us up to a place where we are ready to take responsibilities for our neighbors across oceans.

Each year at Pesach, I take something to heart — throughout the week, I turn it and turn it. This year, it will be a question: What does it mean to be a good neighbor? And, just maybe, with the pouring of the fifth glass of wine and the opening of the door for Elijah, this perpetual question will become a new lens through which to see my obligation to others, to the world.

Monica Osborne is the visiting assistant professor of Jewish studies at Pepperdine University. She is currently finishing a book on midrash, contemporary literature and trauma.

Hillary Clinton: Fighting oppression, inequality and injustice on Passover

I didn’t grow up celebrating Pesach.  But over the years, I’ve attended seders where I was inspired by the remarkable story told in the haggadah — a tale of a people who, sustained by fortitude and faith, escaped slavery and reached their freedom. 

As Jewish people around the world prepare for this festival, I wanted to offer a few of my own thoughts on ancient lessons that still hold wisdom for today’s world. 

The first is the importance of religious freedom.  The Book of Exodus recalls how the Pharaoh denied the Israelites the right to worship as they chose.  Today, there are new threats to religious liberty and an alarming rise in anti-Semitism.  In many parts of Europe, we’ve seen synagogues vandalized and gravesites desecrated.  International efforts to malign and isolate the Jewish people – like the alarming “BDS” movement – are gaining steam.

We must confront these forces of intolerance.  As New York’s Senator, I sponsored laws to support restitution for victims of the Holocaust.  And I joined with the Helsinki Commission to help protect and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.  As Secretary of State, I stood up for oppressed religious minorities in China, Iran and around the world.  If I’m fortunate enough to be elected President, I would ensure that America continues to call out and stand up to anti-Semitism.  And just as Jews have always stood up for other communities, we must push back on the rising trend of anti-religious sentiment in any form.

The second lesson is the importance of caring for one another.  After a hasty departure from Egypt, as the Israelites wandered for forty long years in the Sinai, they developed a covenant with G-d and each other, so that no one in future generations would be left out or left behind. 

I believe that same sort of social contract exists in America.  We must fight any effort to weaken or privatize Medicare and Social Security, and we must finally expand benefits for widows.  We must improve housing for low-income families; at their best, public and affordable housing gives families a chance to get back on their feet, afford other essentials, and give their kids a safe and healthy place to grow up.  We should provide $25 billion to build more affordable housing, and up to $10,000 in down payment assistance for families looking to buy their first home.

The third and most important lesson of the Book of Exodus comes at the end.  So that they would never again be subjugated, the Jewish people are set to arrive to their own homeland. I’ve proudly stood with the State of Israel for my entire career, making sure it always has the resources it needs to maintain its qualitative military edge.  I also worked to ensure funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system and saw its effectiveness first-hand when I worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu to negotiate a cease-fire in Gaza.  Since its installation, this technology has saved countless lives. 

Protecting allies and partners like Israel is one of the most solemn duties of any Commander-in-Chief.  Yet others in this race suggest we must remain “neutral” in order to negotiate.  But Israel’s safety is simply non-negotiable.  And it would be a grave mistake for the United States to cede the mantle of leadership in the peace process to anyone else.  For the security of Israel and the world, we need America to remain a respected global leader, and be ready and able to block any international effort to isolate or attack Israel.

There’s one final lesson in the story of the Exodus: the reminder to keep telling its story. To connect the past with the present, participants in every seder are taught to imagine that they themselves were still enslaved in Egypt.

In today’s world, many don’t have to imagine.  Every year, more than 20 million people are trafficked or sold into slavery by modern-day despots and Pharaohs.  In my travels as Secretary of State, I met many who have escaped the contemporary forms of enslavement that continue to plague our planet.  And I believe that our shared traditions – Jewish and American – give us a moral obligation to bring help and hope to those in need.

At a trafficking shelter in Kolkata, India, I met remarkable women and girls who had suffered horrible abuses and were getting their lives back on track.  I’ll never forget meeting one young girl who was born into slavery in a brothel, but managed to escape with her mother.  It would never be easy, but with the help of others, they were finally out of harm’s way and able to reach for their G-d-given potential.

This Pesach, let’s continue fighting all forms of oppression, inequality and injustice.  Let’s take a page from Moses and Aaron, and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.  And let’s never forget to keep drawing attention to the plight of millions of people still in need of their own form of deliverance.

They are out there, waiting for us.

Hillary Clinton is the former U.S. secretary of state and senator from New York and a Democratic candidate for president.

New Hagaddah ‘sparks up’ a Passover conversation on the drug war

There are simple rules to throwing a cannabis seder, according to a new hagaddah invented for that purpose:

Provide ample buds.

Get a sitter.

The Official Le’Or Cannabis Passover Seder Haggadah, released in March on the web, serves as a practical almanac as well as a spiritual document.

“For thousands of years, cannabis has been a piece of the Jewish — and human — spiritual experience,” it advises. “This is an opportunity for us all to ‘spark up’ a new conversation and let our ru’ach [spirit] burn bright!”

The premise of a cannabis-themed seder (available for $4.20 at is simple enough.

“Cannabis at any event always makes it a lot better,” said David Bronner, the scion of the Dr. Bronner’s soap dynasty who is the lead donor for Le’Or, the organization that wrote the ritual guide and which is dedicated to bringing a Jewish voice to legalization efforts.

Like its more traditional counterparts, this haggadah also has a message. When it comes time to lament the Ten Plagues inflicted on Egypt, guests are meant to recite ten plagues of the failed drug war, running from “one, the criminalization of nature”
to “ten, the perpetuation of violence by those sworn to protect us.”

The text emerged out of a seder hosted by Claire and Roy Kaufmann, a couple who live in Portland with three young children and who together form the entire team at Le’Or. They hosted the very first cannabis seder last year, when only prescribed patients could legally partake in Oregon. Since then, the state has legalized recreational marijuana and the Kauffman’s put their haggadah up on the web.

Releasing the hagaddah during a year when pot measures are on the ballot in 20 states was no accident. Whereas questions of legalization once scored only laughs from political candidates, it’s an issue Roy Kaufmann feels is now being taken more seriously. Just look at Bernie Sanders, he says, the Democratic presidential contender who’s regularly calls to treat marijuana in the law the same way alcohol is treated.

The seder is a way to spark up some serious conversations on the issue, pun intended, he said.

“I’m happy with the pun,” he said. “Once you work in this policy long enough, the puns almost start to strengthen you.”

By inviting friends and family to cannabis seders across the country, he thinks hosts can encourage their network to think seriously about how marijuana laws feed prison populations of disproportionately Black and Latino men.

For the most part, Roy wrote the Hagaddah while Claire focused on “event production.” At the inaugural cannabis seder, they rented a venue for 40 guests, including Bronner.

“Family, friends, love, good times,” said Bronner, who lives in Encinitas, describing the event. “It’s basically, ‘Let’s just turn up a notch on all that.’ The herb is a sacrament that helps us really enjoy our loved ones and family and the moment of time, this creation we’re in.”

The Kauffmans decided to spread the love this year by editing the hagaddah and making it downloadable as a pdf file.

As a text, the hagaddah is both spiritual and political. At one point, it suggests that the word “cannabis” may have arisen from “qaneh-bosm” an herb mentioned in the Torah as a component of the anointing oil for High Priests. At another, it quotes from “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (2010) by Michelle Alexander, which quickly became a canonical work on race theory.

The ceremony is an exercise in putting the Kaufmanns’ mission into action by making cannabis a Jewish issue. Of course, it took a little bit of repurposing: the blessing for spices associated most often with the Havdallah service on Saturday evening is recited over each bowl — a pipe or bong packed with buds. Throughout the evening, four bowls are smoked.

And as they smoke, the people of Israel are asked to remember others who are enchained even as they sit as a free people.

“How many of us have consumed cannabis with no consequence or suffering?” it asks. “How often have we thought about those who’ve suffered for making the same choices we’ve made?”

If even a handful of serious conversations happen around these and other questions it poses, Roy said: “Dayenu — that’s an outcome that would be amazing.”

The authenticity of anonymity, the absurdity of fame

It starts with that moon. That haunting, mystical full moon that rises over erev Passover, the brightest of the year. The same moon that accompanied our ancestors as they committed the most courageous, terrifying, faithful act of our history. This was their light. It is our light.

I look at that moon and I feel a sense of fear and awe — a memory encoded in my DNA — and I wonder: What did it feel like, that night, to flee the only place you’ve ever known, to run for your life? I imagine unimaginable terror — no GPS, no knowledge of where you’re going or how you will survive once you get there.

I look at that moon and wonder: Who were my ancestors who had the courage to leave? It’s a stunning fact: I share blood with this person from so many hundreds of years ago, so many generations ago. How old was he or she? What did he or she look like? Questions about this hero flood my mind, starting with the most basic one: What was his or her name?

On erev Shavuot, 50 days later, while immersed in the study of Torah as a remembrance of when the Jewish people received our holiest of holy instructions, I imagine my ancestors, of whom I know no details, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and hearing the voice of God, experiencing the most profound revelation in the existence of mankind.

The energy of this night makes it real for me, the story we tell about our Exodus from bondage to freedom, our days of wandering, wondering, remembering and receiving the Torah.

And it’s this relative of mine who I can’t stop thinking about.  As I imagine Jews all over the world celebrating Shavuot, I’m deeply moved that each one of us has ancestors whose acts of courage and faith contributed to the making of the Jewish people, and because of them, we are Jews today.  

But mostly I am struck by the collective anonymity of those who created the Jewish people. 

As a life coach in the entertainment industry, I am keenly aware of the belief that anonymity in Hollywood is a fate worse than death. People today, and not just entertainers, desperately want to be famous. As the fame and celebrity culture has mushroomed and as the media continues to feed us the belief that, to really count in this world, you have to be famous, it’s no wonder studies show that teenagers don’t want to be doctors, lawyers or the president as in years past. Today, they want to be famous. Not for anything in particular, not for any accomplishment, simply famous.

When actors tell me how much they want to win an Academy Award, or musicians tell me how much they want to win a Grammy, as we dissect their desires, it always comes down to this: They want to matter. They want to make a difference in the world. Entertainers are not alone in thinking that public acknowledgment, awards and celebrity status will prove they count. This seems to be our new cultural “is.”

As Americans immersed in popular culture, we can name thousands of actors, musicians, scientists, engineers, politicians, activists and so on who have “made a difference” based on this faulty definition of success.

But as Jews, Shavuot offers us a moment to re-valuate: There’s no Nobel Prize, no CNN heroes profile, no 9/11-esque memorial recounting the name of every person who braved breaking free from Pharaoh’s wrath, whose every step from that night until entering the land of Israel was full of faith and courage. Shavuot allows us a night to take pause: Who has really made more of a difference in our lives than the anonymous thousands who fled Egypt and created the Jewish people? And how can we apply that understanding to our own lives?

Here’s how, in four parts. 

Part 1: Fame, celebrity, awards (even if the award show is broadcast around the world) or public acknowledgment have no impact on how your words or deeds will impact anyone today, next week or generations from now. Mitzvot — acts of good deeds — are unquantifiable, their true hidden value unknowable. Awards and public glorification are nonsense. Know this, and listen to the sound of your soul. What’s speaking to you is your divine mission. Follow it — that’s what matters.

Part 2: We all count. We all matter. The Jewish belief of tikkun olam teaches us we all have a part to play in healing the world. There’s no competition. Choose to see beauty and value in each person and you will be released from the need to be elevated above others and recognized publicly.

Part 3: Ask yourself, “Where in my life do I want to take one step forward, but fear and uncertainty are holding me back?  I want to remind you of this: If you’re Jewish and alive today, you share blood with people of immeasurable courage. If your ancestor can tie a sheep (the idols of the Egyptians) to his bedpost for three days, slaughter it with his bare hands and smear its blood over his door post, I promise you, you can take one step in the comforts of 2015 toward doing anything.

Part 4: Love more, love deeper, and be kind at every opportunity. The effects of love and kindness are what last forever.

May the energy of Shavuot, and the anonymity of our ancestors, inspire you to reconnect with your truest selves and live lives of true freedom.

Sherri Ziff is an entertainment industry-focused life coach, speaker, TV writer and author of the upcoming “Hollywood Epidemic: Fame, Celebrity & Other Illusions. How to Live a Life That Really Matters.”  She can be reached at

Children of Israel, in more ways than one

The week before Passover, Colel Chabad, the charitable arm of the Chabad movement, brought more than 100 Israeli bar mitzvah boys from all over Israel to the Western Wall.

The 13-year-olds, each accompanied by up to 10 friends and relatives, were treated to a day of spirituality and fun that began with a rousing welcome at the Western Wall Plaza and ended with a communal catered banquet to celebrate their milestone.  

The elaborate annual event — held separately for boys and girls on different dates — brings joy to children who have lost one or both of their parents.   

“For young boys approaching their bar mitzvah, the planning and preparation for the coming-of-age ceremony can be very emotionally challenging for both the child and the single parent,” said Rabbi Menachem Traxler, director of Colel Chabad’s volunteer programs. “Traditionally it’s the father who accompanies the boy up to the Torah, and his absence is really felt.”

Traxler also cited the financial challenges faced by single parents who are celebrating a simcha.   

“Often,” he said, “it’s impossible for single-parent households to come up with the money to pay for even the most modest Kiddush or party, and to purchase new clothes for the family, to purchase a pair of tefillin and a tallit.”  

Ultimately, Traxler said, “The idea is that every kid should have the opportunity to experience a bar mitzvah like other kids, despite their tragic loss.”  

Most of the bar and bat mitzvah children were referred to Colel Chabad by municipal social workers, and the organization provides year-round educational and financial assistance through its Widows and Orphans program. Colel Chabad is one of the many Israeli organizations and institutions that sponsor communal b’nai mitzvah ceremonies for some of Israel’s most vulnerable children.

Some, like Boys Town Jerusalem, a school for 900 students from mostly disadvantaged homes, sponsor an annual ceremony and party for its bar mitzvah-aged students.  

“We do it in the dining room and invite guest speakers,” said Shoshana Kory, a public relations associate for Boys Town. “It’s a special and meaningful event for the boys and their families.” 

Prior to the ceremony, Kory said, the students spend part of the year learning about the rights and responsibilities of bar mitzvah-aged boys. 

“A lot of our children come from difficult backgrounds and often they’re not receiving this information at home,” Kory said. “Some come from abused homes and many are in the social welfare system.” 

Like Colel Chabad, Boys Town relies on donations to provide its simcha services. Some of the money comes from b’nai mitzvah kids abroad, who ask friends and family to donate to the school in lieu of gifts at their simchas.

Moti Azoulai (second from right), one of the bar mitzvah boys, lost both of his parents several years ago. His siblings and aunts joined him at a party organized by Colel Chabad.

“Some donate money to buy tefillin. Some come to Israel and celebrate their actual bar mitzvah with our boys,” Kory said. “They feel more connected to Boys Town and to Israel. I feel certain we’ll see them again when they become adults.” 

Several of the school’s donors have made multiyear commitments to fund the cost of tefillin for one or two students, an expense most of the boys’ parents cannot afford ($350 to $1,000 in Israel). 

Nishmat, a women’s educational center in Jerusalem, runs a 12-session bat mitzvah program for Ethiopian-Israeli girls. Most of the participants attend secular schools. The program is primarily run by Nishmat’s adult Ethiopian students, “all graduates of National Service or the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] who are role models for the younger girls,” said Julie Weisman, the organization’s director of public relations. 

At the conclusion of the course, the girls and their families are taken to the Western Wall and then to a catered party co-sponsored by Nishmat, the Ohel Nechama Synagogue (an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem) and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (the governmental entity that oversees all matters concerning the Western Wall). 

Colel Chabad’s pre-Passover bar mitzvah event this year included transportation to and from each boy’s home, a family photo shoot at the Western Wall, and a gala dinner with music and entertainment. Each boy received a gift bag containing a pair of tefillin, a tallit and a necktie.

 When the boys arrived at the Western Wall Plaza they were greeted by Colel Chabad volunteers, some playing musical instruments. Holding tallitot over the boys like a wedding canopy, the volunteers ushered small groups to the wall and to tables bearing Torahs. Each boy received an aliyah as his family looked on.  

The event was bittersweet for Moti Azoulai, one of the orphans. He was 7 years old when his father died in a car accident. Three months later, his mother, who had been battling cancer, died as well.  

“I haven’t been to the Kotel in many years, so I’m feeling a little emotional,” said Moti, whose family traveled four hours for the event. 

Moti’s aunt, Alise Boutboul, who raised Moti and his older sister after their parents died, agreed that the day was “very emotional because Moti’s parents aren’t here to enjoy this milestone.” 

Lali Raiz, the mother of 13-year-old Erel Raiz and his three siblings, traveled to the event from the settlement of Elkana. Six years ago, her husband suffered a fatal heart attack in the army just shy of his 35th birthday. 

“This is wonderful,” Raiz said as she gazed at Erel. “It’s a hug from Chabad, which supports orphaned children in so many ways, all year round.”

Erel said the Chabad celebration coincided with another event he wanted to attend, “but I chose to come here because this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ll remember this day the rest of my life.”