On Nat Geo show, Morgan Freeman sits down for Seder
While the prophet Elijah remains conspicuously absent, one Passover Seder in Jerusalem received a more well-known guest.
Morgan Freeman, the well-known actor and voiceover artist, attended a Seder held by Rabbi Maya Leibovitch, the first woman born in Israel to become a rabbi. Footage of the evening aired on May 8 during the sixth episode Freeman’s National Geographic show, “The Story of God.”
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Among other interviewees in Sunday’s episode, Freeman also spoke with a man who fell 46 stories and lived and a pastor who claims prayer saved him from a life-threatening disease.
Amid ‘exodus’ from Brussels, my family sings a sad ‘ma nishtana’
I was feeling nervous about coming to Brussels for seder with my family.
Making the 130-mile trip there from my home in Amsterdam meant taking my 5-month-old son on a train that last year saw an attempted jihadist attack, and into a city that is still reeling and on alert from the March 22 Islamist bombings that killed 32 people.
I wasn’t worried about terrorism, though. Having experienced, by the time I turned 19, two intifadas and the Gulf War missile attacks in my native Israel, I was pretty much immune to terrorism’s psychological effects.
No, I fretted over my family’s violent and scary rendition of “Echad Mi Yodea” — the cumulative-verse Passover song that they enjoy hollering, building up to an ecstatic crescendo. By the 13th and final verse, about 35 of them are shrieking, red-faced and hoarse, while pounding fists and cutlery on the table like some prison riot scene.
I have grown immune to this tradition’s psychological effects, too, and on occasion had even used it to test the mental composure of unsuspecting dates. But I feared it would all be too much for little baby Ilai.
Yet as I waited for all hell to break loose last week, I saw my worries were unfounded. My family’s “Echad Mi Yodea” this year was a shadow of its former self in what I suddenly realized was a vivid illustration of the absence of relatives from my age group who, like many Belgian Jews, have left their native country because of its anti-Semitism problem. With each passing year, there were fewer of us around the seder table.
My Belgian relatives have said goodbye to nine young seder rioters over the past 15 years. Six enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and made aliyah. Two immigrated to the United States and one moved to London.
I came to Brussels this year because this seder was the sendoff for a second cousin and his wife, a physician and an architect, who are moving to Florida. His sister and her Belgian Jewish husband already live there.
“This is my last seder as a European,” cousin Mark (not his real name) told me over the phone. We spoke in Hebrew, a language learned by all my Belgian relatives my age at the insistence of aunts and uncles who were born to Holocaust survivors and who always regarded aliyah as a contingency plan in case things went south in Belgium.
“I want you to be there to send me off from slavery to freedom,” Mark said.
He feared for the future of his own two children in a country where Jewish schools are under heavy military guard and where Jewish students are being forced out of public schools because of anti-Semitic bullying.
“Things are bad here and I want a better future for my children,” he told me.
I asked Joel Rubinfeld, the founder of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and a former president of the CCOJB umbrella of group of French-speaking Belgian Jewish communities, whether my family was unusual when it came to its emigration agenda.
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “There is the beginning of an expedited emigration process. Our only statistical view on it is through aliyah, which tells a very partial story in a community with highly educated members who can settle anywhere in Europe and have little trouble getting visas to the U.S., Canada and Australia.”
In 2014, Rubinfeld warned Belgian Jewry was seeing an “exodus” because of anti-Semitism.
Last year, 287 Jews immigrated to Israel from Belgium, which has a Jewish population of about 40,000. It was the highest figure recorded in a decade. From 2010 to 2015, an average of 234 Belgian Jews made aliyah annually — a 56 percent increase over the annual average of 133 new arrivals from Belgium in 2005-2009, according to Israeli government data.
Unlike French Jews, who tend to speak only one native language, Belgian Jews speak two and often three languages fluently. This could mean Belgian Jews have an easier time than their French counterparts immigrating to destinations that are not Israel.
Linda, Mark’s sister, moved to London and had two kids there with an Israel-born husband. She wants to leave Britain for Florida because she doesn’t feel safe in the United Kingdom either.
“Europe is doomed. The bad guys won,” she said. “I’m not going to raise my children in fear just to make a point.”
Her father is a French-born lawyer who was raised Catholic by his mother, a Holocaust survivor, before reconnecting to his Jewish roots. He told me his feeling of personal safety in Brussels was irreversibly shattered when robbers invaded his home a few years ago, tied up him and his wife, and beat him before robbing the couple.
“We may have been singled out by the robbers because we’re Jewish, but at this point, does it matter? It completely changes how you feel just walking down the street,” he said. He and his wife are preparing to join their two children in Florida.
Catching up with other relatives between seder songs, I found myself chatting in Hebrew to Sylvia, an aunt whose three children are living in Israel with their spouses. It took a while before I realized that the last time we spoke Hebrew, she was limited to basic sentences like “I have a yellow pencil.”
Unbeknownst to me, she and her husband have been attending ulpan, Hebrew-language school, preparing to join their children in Israel. They bought a penthouse apartment in Tel Aviv years ago.
Even before the eruption 15 years ago of anti-Semitic Islamism in Europe, Sylvia and her husband said they would leave Belgium if ever the National Front, the far-right party in neighboring France, would come to power.
Another uncle, I learned during the seder, had taken up Israeli citizenship last year like two of his four children, who are currently serving in the Israeli army, but is still living in Belgium.
“It hardly matters if I do it now or in a few years when we actually move to Israel, so I figured, why not?” he explained.
But I recalled the very different attitude of his late mother, my great-aunt and matriarch of my family’s Belgian branch. A Polish-born, steel-willed woman who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Belgium, she was always proud of her adopted country, where she and her husband survived and later prospered.
Though she raised her three children to be very pro-Israel, she enrolled the first two in a public school and strongly encouraged all of them to stay in Belgium, where she mastered impeccable French and integrated seamlessly.
I asked her daughter, the one preparing to follow her two children to Florida, why she doesn’t share her late mother’s attachment to Belgium.
“My mother and her generation felt gratitude to Belgium after coming from Poland, where even before the Holocaust there were limits to a Jew’s social advancement,” said my aunt, a physician. “Belgium was her America. It welcomed her with open arms. We have had a different experience here.”
The fifth child – missing in the contemporary world
Last weekend many Jews attended a Seder, but many others did not. I find it heartbreaking when I think about all the Jews who chose not to participate, and question the reasons for this. What are the implications of so many people not connecting to this paradigmatic story of the journey from enslavement to freedom? In the past decades, Passover has seen a tremendous infusion of creativity and Haggadot have been written for nearly every social or personal identity and political cause. The ancient rabbis who shaped the Haggadah were creative geniuses who captured the timeless story of the Israelite’s journey from slavery to freedom
Although I find the Haggadah one of the most imaginative, insightful and timeless dramas ever created, there is one modern-day phenomena that the rabbis did not anticipate. When they describe the four children–the wise one, the one who is angry, the innocent one, and the one who does not know how to ask–they are operating under the assumption that everyone will be together at the Seder table. These four personality traits cover most of the human behavior characteristics and qualities that we all possess. Thus, all who represent the four children sit at the Seder Table, regardless of whether or not they like participating in Jewish practice, feel alienated, are uncomfortable, are going through tough times, or do not understand the holiday or know how to participate. They are still there – they are at the table of Jewish life.
The ancient sages did not anticipate modernity and the fact that many Jews would no longer actually be at the Seder Table. They did not imagine the fifth child. I am hearing more and more about people who did not attend a Seder, that Passover observance is on the decline and that the Jewish community is not offering enough welcome and dynamic tables that are open and affordable to all.
This fifth child is a lens into the perhaps the greatest challenge of the contemporary Jewish life. For whatever reason, some people feel alienated, disconnected, or have made other activities a priority and don’t feel the need of being at the Seder Table. In many ways, the Jewish community has failed to convey that without the fifth child present, we are not the same – we are somewhat of an incomplete community; our tables have too many empty seats.
The greatest concern lies within the non-Orthodox community. The majority of American Jews have made a Seder an optional activity, no longer an expectation to gather for this family holiday where we explore the quintessential story of freedom that has shaped the Jewish people. A recent Pew Study showed that 70% of American Jews attended a Seder in 2015. Up through the late 90’s the percentage was around 90 percent. We need much more than programmatic solutions like “audacious hospitality” (a well-intended term developed by the Reform movement) in order to reach the fifth child. It is a good start but we need to explore solutions that resonate to the fifth child, we need ideas that take us out of our comfort zone and push us to find ways to welcome people back to the table. We need to thoughtfully listen to the reasons they are missing from our tables, in order to fully understand what’s going on.
The fifth child has become the third rail of Jewish life. We are scared to really examine the phenomena and we convince ourselves that things are great because we had a good Seder. Passover remains the Jewish holiday that has the highest participation, and it is on a decline. We will only really begin to stem the tide of assimilation and alienation when we start to listen with the fifth child, when we engage with creative, dynamic and open minds (who often are not part of the Jewish establishment) but who are finding solutions to some of the most vexing issues in the modern world and when we really do an honest self-examination of the state of Jewish life.
We can only really be free when more Jews are back at the Table. For the fifth child reading this – we need you. For those of us who are one of the four children – we need to dig deeper, look inward and listen better so that we can include the entire family, especially the growing number of fifth children.
On this holiday that is truly an anchor of Judaism, we are reminded of the power and responsibility of freedom. Let us take serious stock of this problem. The creativity and imagination that freedom allows can fuel us to take action and find better ways to include the fifth child at the Table. When more people sit at the Table of Jewish life on Pesach and throughout the year, when the Tent of Jewish life is more tolerant and respectful of divergent views, we will include many more who will nurture and sustain us. With more thoughtful and comprehensive community involvement, the possibility of the fifth child returning to the Seder Table becomes a reality, which fills me with hope about our Jewish future.
Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.
Obama, asking ‘mah nishtana?’ answers that it’s his last White House Passover
President Barack Obama sounded a wistful note in his last Passover message as president.
“Mah nishtana halailah hazeh?” said the White House statement released Friday, hours before the start of the holiday, using the Hagadah’s phrase, reserved for the youngest child at the seder meal, who asks “Why is this night different from all others?”
“For Michelle and me, this Passover is different from all other Passovers because it will mark our last Seder in the White House – a tradition we have looked forward to each year since hosting the first-ever White House Seder in 2009,” Obama said in his message.
Obama this year is holding the seder late because he is overseas during the first two nights of the holiday.
The statement sounded familiar notes from past Obama statements for Jewish holidays, linking the quest for Jewish freedom to broader civil and human rights themes.
“This story of redemption and hope, told and retold over thousands of years, has comforted countless Jewish families during times of oppression, echoing in rallying cries for civil rights around the world,” Obama said.
“We dip the greens of renewal in saltwater to recall the tears of those imprisoned unjustly,” he said. “As we count the 10 Plagues, we spill wine from our glasses to remember those who suffered and those who still do. And as we humbly sing ‘Dayenu,’ we are mindful that even the smallest blessings and slowest progress deserve our gratitude.”
He signed the message, “chag sameach,,” the Hebrew for “Happy Holiday.”
Earlier this week, Obama on April 18 also marked “Education and Sharing Day,” a declaration presidents have issued since the Carter administration in honor of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
Obama cited Schneerson’s “tireless devotion to extending access to education to more people — regardless of their gender or background.”
He cited among his presidency’s education initiatives expanding access to early childhood education and a proposal to make two years of community college available to those who work for it.
“The Rebbe’s lifetime of contribution imparts a reminder of the tremendous importance of making sure every child has the tools and resources they need to grow, flourish, and pursue their dreams,” Obama said in that statement.
As Passover approaches, longtime OU kosher supervisor sounds alarm on Manischewitz
Three days before the beginning of Passover, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a veteran mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for the Orthodox Union (OU), filed a lawsuit against Manischewitz and the OU, saying he can no longer stand behind the kosher status of the Manischewitz products he has supervised for 20 years, including its Passover matzos.
“I believe this is a breach of public trust. I just couldn’t handle it,” Horowitz told the Journal on April 21, two days after he filed suit in the New York State Supreme Court.
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.”
Obama to host late Passover seder this year
President Barack Obama will host a Passover seder this year, but not on either of the nights it is required according to Jewish custom.
A spokeswoman told JTA that Obama will host the seder next week following his return from travel overseas.
Obama will be in Saudi Arabia on the first and second nights of Passover, Friday and Saturday, attending a regional cooperation summit.
Obama joined a seder organized by campaign staffers in Pennsylvania during the hard-fought 2008 primary season, when he first ran for president. Since then, he has made it a custom to hold one in the White House, and include among his guests Jewish staffers and backers.
Bring a story to your seder
Passover seders can be noisy affairs. Gather families and friends together for a festive meal and, invariably, people will gravitate toward the lively art of random schmoozing.
They’ll schmooze about Trump, Clinton, Kobe, AIPAC, J Street, Bibi, Iran, family gossip, community gossip, Jimmy Kimmel’s spoof videos, how Facebook is taking over our lives, Trump again, which colleges the kids got into … and, if they can squeeze it in, how our ancestors were liberated from slavery 3,300 years ago.
Reading the text of the haggadah is also no guarantee that the conversation will focus on our ancient story. That’s because the haggadah itself doesn’t read like a story — it’s more of a compilation of commentaries, blessings and exhortations with a few plot lines thrown in.
Maybe that’s why, in recent years, creative types have developed countless variations of the haggadah to fit just about any theme you like, from social justice to Hollywood to the environment. I can see why these new haggadot are so popular — you get to spend the seder night honoring a cause or cultural idea of your choice, while connecting it in some way to the theme of the Passover holiday.
This year, however, I would like to suggest a simpler idea to make our seders more meaningful, one that works regardless of the haggadah you use.
It’s an idea that honors one of my favorite causes: telling stories.
Here’s how it works: Over the course of the seder, everyone at the table gets to tell one inspirational story about someone they met in the past year.
Preferably, it will be about a person who falls outside of your social circle — someone who doesn’t vote, pray, live or think the way you do. In other words, a “stranger” who moved you or opened your mind in some way.
If you plan to do this, let people know ahead of time so they can think about their story. If a guest asks, “Can I bring anything?” just tell them, “Bring a good wine and an even better story about a stranger who moved you.”
The real question is: How many of these stories do we each have? How often over the past year have we left our bubbles to engage with strangers?
Passover reminds us that we can easily be “enslaved” in the comfort of our own social circles. When we’re called upon to lean sideways during the Passover meal, I see it as a reminder that the strangers we so often ignore during our busy lives are off to the side somewhere. We must lean sideways to notice them and hear their stories.
We often think of strangers as vulnerable souls who need our help. But they can also be fellow human beings who need our ear, or whom we need to hear. It’s not enough to feed the stranger; we must also show interest in their stories.
Stories add meaning to our lives. And let’s face it, an essential purpose of Jewish holidays and rituals — whether we’re feasting under a sukkah or fasting on Yom Kippur or gathering around a seder table — is to make our lives more meaningful.
The Passover seder, which calls on every generation to relive the foundational story of the Jewish people, is an ideal place to share little stories of human connection. After all, it is millions of little such stories that have sustained our epic journey since we were liberated at Sinai.
The thing is, though, we’re not the same flock of Jews who trekked through the desert 3,300 years ago. We’re still one people, but we’re a people with a million different stories.
We are the most diverse Jews in history. Here in America, we have Jews from virtually everywhere. We have different denominations, ethnicities, traditions, histories, accents, ideologies, neighborhoods, foods, music, views of God, different everything.
We are so diverse, in fact, that we have become strangers in our own eyes. Our little stories live on, but inside our little bubbles. It’s true that some of our differences divide us, but others can unite us, especially if they arouse our curiosity about our individual stories.
This year, for example, a Reform temple in Beverly Hills, Temple Emanuel, will celebrate the ancient Sephardic tradition of Mimouna on the last night of Passover. They will be doing what my ancestors did in Morocco for centuries. Cultural appropriation at its finest.
So, while we schmooze about the usual stuff this year and remember our ancient story, let’s add meaning to our seders by bringing the stories of the strangers in our midst. Let’s liberate our bubbles.
All we have to do is look sideways.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.
5 seder supplements to make your Passover relevant this year
We get it: Most Jewish families don’t yearn to make their Passover seders longer.
But there’s an entire world of seder upgrades and supplements out there providing myriad creative ways to freshen up the age-old tale of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt and — perhaps more significantly — make it relevant to our complicated, modern world.
You don’t need to be a scholar. You don’t even need to be particularly resourceful or ambitious — all you need is Internet access. Dozens of Haggadah supplements put out by Jewish organizations in recent years have addressed a variety of present-day social justice issues such as civil rights, poverty, hunger and genocide.
Below we give your our top picks for supplements that will give your seder a social justice reboot.
1. Refugee crises (HIAS)
The Passover seder famously celebrates the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt — so it’s a perfect opportunity to raise awareness on modern-day movements of people.
The Syrian refugee crisis is perhaps the most discussed humanitarian issue of the past year. And HIAS, “the world’s oldest, and only Jewish, refugee resettlement organization,” is using the crisis’ moment in the headlines to shine a light on the plight of refugees fleeing turmoil across the entire globe.
Its nine-page Haggadah supplement compares the story of Jewish flight from Egypt to the stories of modern refugees fleeing places like Congo and El Salvador.
“The Syrian refugee crisis is huge and devastating and the one that’s been most in the American news, [but] there are 20 million refugees in the world and 60 million if you include displaced people who have fled for the same reasons but haven’t crossed international borders so are not legally refugees,” Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the vice president for community engagement at HIAS, told JTA.
The supplement also includes a list of 10 plagues facing modern refugees (including “workforce discrimination” and “lack of access to education” — good luck making puppets for those!), as well as an instruction for seder participants to leave a pair of shoes by a doorstep to symbolize that Jews have historically “stood in the shoes of the refugee.”
2. LGBTQ Jews (Keshet)
Less than a year after the Supreme Court case that declared same-sex marriage legal nationwide, LGBTQ rights are again a hot topic. North Carolina enacted a law banning anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people — drawing the high-profile ire of Bruce Springsteen — and Mississippi is poised to pass a law that would allow businesses to refuse serving LGBTQ couples.
Keshet, a nonprofit working to promote the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life, has created a six-page “LGBTQ Celebratory Passover Resource Guide” that’s ripe for conversation this year.
Playing off of the traditional four children section, Keshet offers descriptions of four ideal LGBTQ “allies” to discuss, from the one who “asks what LGBTQ means” to the one who “comes out as an advocate to move equality forward.” The online, printable guide also includes its own list of 10 plagues —”apathy in the face of evil,” “envy of the joy of others” — and essays aimed at prompting discussion.
3. Human trafficking (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)
The Reform movement’s political outreach arm has produced nearly 10 Haggadahs and seder supplements over the past few decades, but its newest one focuses on the “illegal trade of people for exploitation or gain.” The supplement explains that over 20 million people, including 5 million children, are victims of human trafficking each year.
The Religious Action Center’s new six-page Haggadah supplement urges users to “remember that slavery didn’t end in Egypt, as many people around the world are victims of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.”
There’s a reading for the urchatz, or the ritual handwashing, portion of the seder, as well as an alternate blessing over the fourth cup of wine — “To truly address slavery, we cannot just free individual slaves but must also address the root causes of poverty, prejudice, and inequality that make slavery possible” — as well excerpts from texts on human trafficking by the likes of New York Times writer Nick Kristof.
4. Sexual assault on campus (Hillel International/It’s On Us initiative)
The past year has seen the emergence of some pretty scary statistics: At least one in four undergraduate women experience sexual assault at school and two-thirds of all college students say they have been harassed on campus. The issue made its way to the White House, and Vice President Joe Biden trumpeted the problemat this year’s Academy Awards.
Hillel International and the White House’s It’s On Us initiative, which was launched in 2014 to increase awareness about sexual assault on campus, have teamed up to produce a one-page Haggadah insert that poses discussion questions linking the Passover theme of freedom with the topic of sexual assault.
The first questions ask about personal freedom (“When is a time that you have not been free?”) more generally before getting into some darker specifics: “How does the reality of sexual violence impact how you experience freedom?” and “Have you intervened to help someone become free from a situation or potential situation of sexual violence?”
5. #BlackLivesMatter (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice)
This supplement may have been written for Passover 2015 following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but it is no less relevant today.
#BlackLivesMatter activists have made headlines forinterrupting events throughout the past year held by presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. In general, tensions between the African-American community and local police forces across the country remainuntenably high.
The #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah extension provides alternate readings — For karpas: “The saltwater represents the tears of our ancestors in Mitzrayim,” it reads. “This year may it also represent tears of Black parents and families mourning the loss of their Black youth at the hands of police brutality” — as well as interesting essays, mostly written by Jews of color, including one on the traditional African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses.”
But the Haggadah doesn’t just raise provocative questions, it supplies statistics on police activity in places like New York City and Ferguson, Missouri. (Here’s one for NYC: “Between January 2004 and June 2012 the police stopped, questioned or frisked 4.4 million people.”)
NY mosque hosts seder for Jews, Muslims
Some 100 Jews and Muslims participated in a Passover celebration at a Manhattan mosque.
Coordinated by the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, the gathering took place April 14 at the Islamic Society of Mid Manhattan in New York, News 4 New York reported.
“I don’t believe anything quite like this has happened in New York before,” said Rabbi Allison Tick Brill of Temple Emanu-El, a large Reform congregation in Manhattan.
“It is particularly powerful to celebrate Passover here at this mosque because unfortunately, Muslim Americans are made to feel strangers in their own country,” Tick Brill said at the event, according to News 4.
“Isn’t it beautiful to have our Jewish brothers and sisters in the mosque?” Imam Ahmed Dewidar said. “I think we should be proud of our community here in New York.”
At the pre-Passover seder (Passover begins at sundown on April 22), tables were set up on the floor, each holding its own seder plate.
Participants read from a custom-made haggadah, which consisted of both traditional Passover texts and modern additions such as Bob Marley’s reggae classic “One Love.”
Michelle Koch, of the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, told News 4, “There’s so much hatred and prejudice going on in the world, because people are afraid of each other and are ignorant of each other. So I think as a committee, you bring people together. You teach people about each other.”
Nabil Ezzarhouni, also of the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, said that at the seder, “There was a happiness that could not be translated into words.”
“It’s not just about Jews and Muslims, it’s about the whole society,” he said. “We want to set a standard, and we want to give an example to not just America, but to the whole world.”
A haggadah for a ‘New World’
Ilan Stavans, whose “The New World Haggadah,” illustrated by Gloria Abella Ballen, has just been released by Gaon Books, feels the time has come for the diversity of the modern Jewish experience to be reflected in the haggadah we read at our Passover seders. Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and author or editor of many books and poems dealing with Jewish and Latino history and culture. “The New World Haggadah” is his interpretation of the Passover story, and it includes many of the holiday’s traditional elements along with varied voices from the multicultural, global landscape.
Jewish Journal: Why another haggadah? What makes this one different from the others out there?
Ilan Stavans: The mandate we have as Jews is for the story of the Exodus from Egypt to be retold every generation. The real haggadah, the one belonging to all of us, is always blank, its pages ready to be filled out. As a Mexican Jew who immigrated to the United States, for years I have felt a more diverse, more pluralistic, inclusive delivery was needed. When I turned 50, I told myself: This is your time. “The New World Haggadah” is meant for American Jews in the 21st century. It connects us with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, with Sephardic and Ashkenazic cultures, with the Holocaust and terrorism, with the civil rights era, with the Americas as a whole, with the endurance of the State of Israel, and with Yiddish, Ladino, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic. This is a haggadah about Jews as eternal immigrants.
JJ: This haggadah retains the construction of the traditional format, but between the explanations of various symbols or reciting of the Ten Plagues, you have included some very powerful poetry. How did you decide what poems to include, and do you intend for the poems to be read aloud at the seder?
IS: The beauty of the Passover seder is that it features elements from the past, the present and the future. It has poetry, politics, folklore, Mishnaic commentary and references to pop culture. My hope is that “The New World Haggadah” will open a new world for readers who will see our heritage through a multilingual prism. I wanted to feature medieval and renaissance authors, resistance in World War II, crypto-Jews and activists during the Dirty War in Latin America, songs of protest and songs of hope.
JJ: Your ancestors were Polish immigrants to Mexico, the country where you grew up before coming to the United States when you were in your mid-20s. It seems like you are embracing both sides of your heritage here, and also including references to other ethnic groups that are still seeking freedom in various ways. As American demographics change, are you hoping that this new haggadah will be embraced by a more multicultural Jewish world?
IS: American Jews are no longer a homogenous minority; we come in all colors and from all corners of the world. “The New World Haggadah” is inspired by the maxim e pluribus unum [Out of many, one].
JJ: Tell us a little bit about the artist, Gloria Abella Ballen, and how she conceived the beautiful drawings and paintings that enliven the text.
IS: She has done a superb job marrying image and word. This is a haggadah for all ages.
Lisa Silverman is the Library Director of the Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.
North of Paris, a beleaguered Jewish community dares to seder
After three firebombs hit the synagogue of this poor and heavily Muslim suburb of Paris, municipal authorities advised the local Jewish community to lower its profile.
Like dozens of attacks on French synagogues since 2000, the January 2009 incident at the Chabad House of Saint-Denis, which did not result in any injuries, was believed to have been Islamist extremists’ retaliation for Israel’s actions – that year against Hamas in Gaza.
“We were told by the mayor from the Communist Party that it would be prudent if we tone down our activities at least until things calm down in the Middle East,” recalled Yisroel Belinow, who runs the Chabad House here with his wife, Rivky, and his brother, Mendel.
“We had absolutely no intention of complying,” he said.
Instead of laying low, the Belinows that year produced Saint-Denis’ first public community Passover seder, starting an annual tradition. Members of this besieged congregation say it succeeded because it reflects their unity in the face of rising anti-Semitic violence.
Each year since 2009, the Beth Chabad of Saint-Denis — a small building under constant army protection — welcomes about 100 congregants for a group seder dinner. It is led by Belinow, an introverted and soft-spoken man, and his more outgoing and older brother.
“It’s the best answer we could come up with to the attack,” Belinow said.
On the evening of Jan. 11, 2009, assailants ignited and hurled firebombs into the Chabad House kitchen. The fire charred the dining area but failed to catch because of a quick intervention by Mendel Belinow, who was inside the building. Belinow said police found 15 unignited firebombs in parts of the building, including a children’s play corner. No one was convicted in the attack.
“The attack lasted an instant and made an impression for a few weeks. But the seders — they’re now an annual event that’s part of the definition of this community,” Belinow told JTA during a community event last month in Saint-Denis.
Saint-Denis’ 15,000 Jews are all that remains of a community that was halved after the 1980s, when many left for more affluent and safer areas. Jewish emigration from Saint-Denis increased in 2000 amid a surge in anti-Semitic attacks. Gradually estranged from areas where it became unsafe to wear a kippah, the Jews here joined a quiet exodus that has depleted Jewish communities north of Paris.
With 100 guests, attendance at public seders in this drab suburb is relatively high for France. The Chabad House of Toulouse, where 23,000 Jews live, gets similar and even lower attendance, which sometimes leads to the event’s cancellation. And in Nice, where 20,000 Jews live, some 120 local Jews attend the local Chabad House’s public seder, which is being prepared for the fifth consecutive year.
Group seders are less popular in France than elsewhere in Europe because it has a predominantly Sephardic community with “close family ties and a tradition of hospitality,” said Avraham Weill, a Chabad emissary and chief rabbi of Toulouse. “People get invited to family seders, lowering demand for a public one.”
Some of the Saint-Denis seder guests are poor Jews with no family in France, including Mordechai Elbaz, a 60-year-old former dope dealer who lives in a moldy two-room apartment. He plans to attend the seder this year with his only relative – a sister, who is on a visit from Israel.
Other Saint-Denis congregants choose the public seder over a family setting. Caroline Wildbaum, 47, a regular at the Mendels’ Chabad House, has attended Saint-Denis seders with her four children, now aged 15 to 22, since the first year.
“I have a rather large family, so it’s not like I come here not to feel alone,” said Wildbaum, who lives in the nearby suburb of Sarcelles, a municipality known as “little Jerusalem” for its Jewish community of 60,000. “Having a seder here doesn’t subtract from the family atmosphere, it amplifies it.”
She added: “None of Sarcelles’ synagogues offer this feeling of unity and family.”
The Chabad House is now the only synagogue in Saint-Denis, which once boasted four. Drugs are sold openly at a local train station. Young, jobless gang members loiter there. In November, two suspected terrorists were killed here in a police raid on alleged perpetrators and accomplices tied to the terrorist attacks that month in Paris, which killed 130 people.
During the raid, the Jewish community of Saint-Denis went into lockdown for a few days. But true to his institution’s ethos, Mendel Belinow vowed activities would only “increase in volume,” starting with a public lighting of Hanukkah candles the following month.
At the Chabad House, congregants exchange hugs, kisses and back slaps. They call each other by their first names and address one another, including the rabbis, with the less formal pronoun “tu.” Wildbaum sometimes teases the Brooklyn-born Rivky Belinow by calling her “my sister the princess” while playfully imitating her American accent.
Many credit the Belinows with generating this atmosphere.
“Mendel, with his fiery speeches and warm hugs, sets the tone,” said Ascher Bouaziz, a physician in his 60s who has worked his whole professional life in Saint-Denis. “Yisroel is more reserved. His administrational skills keep the place ticking. And Rivky, her charm and sweetness just melts everyone who meets her. That’s the secret to this place.”
Yet some connect the social cohesion also to the external threats, which are “making Jews seek comfort in a community where members have exceptionally strong ties to one another,” according to Irene Benhamou, a 59-year-old mother of two. “When you are surrounded by people who want to kill you, you find less time for bickering and formalities.”
Her youngest son was threatened with a knife on the street last year in what she said was an anti-Semitic incident. It made her decide to move four months ago to Noisy-le-Grand, an affluent eastern suburb, but she still comes to Saint-Denis for community events.
For Bouaziz, this year’s Saint-Denis seder may be his last. Next year he is planning to join the 20,000 French Jews who have immigrated to Israel since 2014.
“I don’t feel safe here,” he said. “When I retire I want to live where I can wear my kippah without inviting attack and army protection.”
But Yisroel Belinow wryly jokes about the security arrangements at his synagogue.
“At every seder, there’s one extra on top of the guest list,” he said of the prophet Elijah, for whom room is traditionally left at the seder table. “The only difference here is that we have Elijah plus four French Legion soldiers.”
How your Seder should conclude
Passover is the beginning….
Do you know the concluding words in the Passover Haggadah? In many ways, they are more important than the beginning words.
The central message of Passover is that God liberated Israel from 430 years of Egyptian slavery, and that all humans have the right to live in freedom. We tell the story to remind ourselves, and to teach our children, of both the sacrifice our people made and that God freed us from oppression.
At the Seder, after telling and teaching the history of our people, the Passover meal commences. For many of us, however, the evening concludes once dinner is finished. That’s not, however, where the evening ideally concludes.
The Seder ends with the words: L’shana haba-ah b’yrushalayim (next year in Jerusalem). One might understand these words literally, in the hope that next year we actually will celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. I would suggest another meaning.
Jerusalem is not just a physical location; it represents the Jewish spiritual and moral epicenter. It is an ethereal concept, which we should aspire to incorporate into our religious lives. Concluding our Seder with “Next Year in Jerusalem”, implies that we are on an ongoing journey to a deeper connection and level of Jewish understanding. In other words, next year, may we be more spiritually and morally committed as Jews.
In other words, we were liberated from the shackles of Egyptian slavery for the purpose of “becoming Jerusalem”.
Commencing on the second day of Passover we count the next 49 days leading up to Shavuot; Shavuot commemorates the moment when God gave the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We literally “count the days” from the holiday of liberation, Passover, to the holiday of the receiving of the Torah, Shavuot. That the two holidays are so deeply interconnected is yet another reminder that our liberation from slavery was just the beginning of a very long and meaningful journey.
Rabbi Woznica is a rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple
Pharoah said ‘no.’ You won’t believe what God did next.
Once, at our seder, our friend Ira gave a running commentary on the haggadah, offering a scientific explanation for every miracle and wonder in the Exodus story.
I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it may actually be better if the whole thing really were made up.
I can see why Wolpe got a big pushback. Ingenious alternatives were offered for the truth of the text. Richard Elliott Friedman, for example, a distinguished scholar, built an elegant case that the Exodus did indeed occur, but just for one fierce tribe, the Levites. When they joined the other tribes, the Levites became the Israelites’ priesthood. The task of teaching Torah fell to them, and their own experience became the official version.
“And that is how a historical event that happened to the Levite minority became everybody’s celebration — how we all came to say that we were slaves in Egypt, although that was not the experience even of most Israelites of the period. It’s not so different from practicing, say, the American cultural tradition of Thanksgiving, which most Americans do, even though most U.S. citizens are not descended from Pilgrims or Native Americans.”
I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it actually may be better if the whole thing really were made up.
Wolpe is a bit elegiac when he tells us that the Exodus may not have happened, the way parents in another religious tradition admit there is no Santa Claus. He lets us down easy and guides us to the holiday’s enduring lesson. But I think there’s a huge upside to appreciating it as a fiction, a masterwork of the human imagination, a brilliant narrative, an origin myth whose aesthetic truth leaves me awestruck by its moral truth.
Yes, Passover is about the bitterness of bondage and the righteousness of freedom. But it’s also about — to me, even more about — our telling the story of bondage and freedom. When we do that, we not only obey a biblical injunction to teach our children where we came from, we communally experience how literally spellbinding a story can be.
We Jews didn’t just give monotheism to the world. We also gave the story of monotheism to the world. If monotheism had been merely a creed or ideology, the world might have paid attention for a bit and then moved on. But because it’s a story, a breathtaking drama, it has held the world in its grip ever since.
How do I make a seder?
Passover, as we all know, is a key religious holiday. The problem is, the seder often lasts more than two hours. Too long for our active toddler. My solution: Host a toddler Passover. I suggested the idea to my husband several months ago. He agreed. We invited another couple with a toddler. Done.
I was quite relaxed. I had in mind a menu of recipes that I’d made a couple of times before. I had a plan for cleaning the house. The associate rabbi and the director of our synagogue’s nursery school had helped us to create a short and meaningful ritual, perfect for little kids. Everything was on track.
But then one night, at midnight, I was brushing my teeth. As I went over the dishes in my head, I knew that something was wrong. Honey cake for dessert at a seder? Thirty seconds later, a grim realization set in: I had never cooked a Passover dinner. As the Chief Maker of Holidays and Special Family Occasions in our household, I just assumed that I had.
Two weeks to Passover and I had no menu. A Rosh Hashanah meal wouldn’t cut it. I had already airily announced to our friends, “We do a Sephardic thing.” I stopped brushing my teeth.
Did I mention that I’m Christian? I’ve been to seders, but I’m no expert. My husband, an Ashkenazi Jew, doesn’t know anything about Sephardic Passover meals. When I have an opportunity to cook Jewish food, I choose Sephardic dishes. I never have to compete with the memories of Grandma’s food. It was a strategy that had worked brilliantly until that night. I was entering uncharted territory.
I needed to find a definitive Sephardic Passover meal. I frantically flipped through Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem: A Cookbook.” I Googled “Ottolenghi Passover.” The only item I found was a complicated fish dish. Dispirited, I went online and ordered lightweight pajamas for my son, just so I could have a feeling of accomplishment.
The next day, my husband and son went out. I started to look for recipes online. I found Cafe Liz, a kosher vegetarian blog from Tel Aviv.
A few hours later, the boys were back. I had discovered Joan Nathan’s “Countdown to a Passover Seder.” I started to print out recipes.
Over three hours in, my husband seemed bemused by the recipes scattered everywhere.
“Remember we’re slaves coming out of Egypt, not free people going back into slavery in Egypt.”
“Fine, but we still have to eat.”
Later, I asked my husband about the usual number of dishes besides the main entree.
“Tzimmes and kugel. Matzah ball soup and gefilte fish.”
“That’s it? That’s just four things. That’s not enough.”
“That was for 20 people.”
“Look, our guests are bringing the lamb. We can’t just have four dishes.”
“Here we go again.”
My husband claims that we always end up with too much food. All I know is that in my tradition, abundance equals hospitality. Taking the time and making the effort to prepare special foods is an important aspect of family celebrations. I remember my aunt, for example, flying to visit us in Chicago. Her suitcase held slick-backed mustard greens and speckled butter beans — rare finds at the farmers market and a reminder of home.
It was finally time to select the recipes that were going to make it into our seder meal. “What about Boulettes de Poisson en Sauce Tomate?” I asked. “What’s that?” “Fish balls in tomato sauce.” “No.”
And so it went. “Moroccan-inspired Tzimmes” went into the “no” pile, as my husband said tzimmes is too sweet. Sadly, a fried artichoke recipe also went into the “no” pile. Too much could go wrong. Mina was a keeper, although we hadn’t settled on a filling.
Our Persian-Jewish neighbor became my guide and menu vetter. “Do you know what to put on the plate? Do you know where to buy it?” she asked. “Don’t worry about anything; I will help you.”
I took her up on her offer this week. As my son played, she showed me in her kitchen how to make the Persian rice with a crunchy crust. Complicated, but I’m going to try it. She gave me a Persian haggadah. She showed me what should go on the seder plate and where to put it. Some things are different. Vinegar, not salt water. Celery. A chicken wing rather than a lamb shank.
I shared the recipes I had decided upon, hoping that I was in the ballpark. But instead she said, “We never make leek fritters. What is this mina? It’s looks like lasagna.”
She told me that it’s all according to taste, varying from country to country, sometimes even within the same country. I was once again in the land of interpretation.
Then I realized that because this is a Jewish holiday, that’s exactly where I should be.
Darcine Thomas is a writer and producer in Los Angeles.
On Pesach, to resort or not to resort?
God miraculously rescued the Jews from Egypt — so the old joke goes — only to see Jewish mothers slave around the house cleaning and cooking in preparation for eight days of Passover.
At least not anymore, not for the many Jewish families who can afford to have someone else prepare the chametz-free environment and delicious leaven-free meals American Jews require over the holiday, doing their best to serve meals that help guests forget the dietary restrictions Passover demands.
And so Jewish families pay — a lot, often upward of $10,000 per couple — to attend all-inclusive, mega-deluxe Passover resorts as far away as Greece and Italy and as near as Las Vegas and Southern California. These Passover getaway programs can be so large that the arriving Jews (many from colder climates, mostly Orthodox) take over entire hotels for more than a week, enjoying a nearly 24/7 buffet of freshly carved meats, sushi bars, expensive (kosher for Passover) wine, hot tubs, pools, lakes, oceans, boating expeditions, scholars-in-residence, prayer services — you name it.
Ellen Katz, a Los Angeles mother of four and grandmother of two, will drive with her husband to Henderson, Nev., a suburb just outside Las Vegas, for the Katz family’s seventh annual Passover reunion at The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort and Spa for a deluxe holiday program put on by World Wide Kosher Tours, a Los Angeles-based company; rooms this year start at $6,500.
“We only go away once a year, so this is our only vacation,” Katz said. “It’s nice to go away with your family and not worry about the food-buying. Everything’s in one place, you have entertainment, you have shiurim [Jewish classes], they give babysitting.”
And for someone who never had the Jewish summer camp experience while growing up, Katz said her annual Passover getaway has allowed her to develop some of those seasonal friendships that resume every Passover, just where they left off the previous year.
“I never went to camp,” Katz said, “but like those campers, I have Pesach friends.”
And, of course, there’s the family reunion — an important element as two of the Katz children live in New York and most of Katz’s cousins and relatives live between there and Boston. The annual tradition of cooking for and hosting children, siblings and cousins became exhausting and stressful, so they joined the 1,000-plus Jews, many from Southern California, who do the Lake Las Vegas experience for Passover.
“There’s nothing better in life if you’re healthy,” Katz said about her annual Passover vacation. “I miss nothing at home.”
Just down the street from The Westin, another Passover program — this one run by the New York-based KMR Werner Brothers and primarily attracting New Yorkers — takes over the Hilton. “Every meal is a course in fine food,” states the website, which also describes the program’s outdoor barbecue, on-site bakery and kosher for Passover grocery store, where families can shop for food to take on off-site day trips.
The Westin Lake Las Vegas
Mel Weiss, 94, a Calabasas resident, said he went to Passover resorts with his late wife, Lillian, and their children and grandchildren almost every year for more than three decades, paying anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 as a couple many years. Weiss, a Passover resort world traveler, has been to retreats in Israel multiple times, as well as Italy, Arizona and, this year, he will be enjoying the holiday with his kids in Nevada.
“Everything is taken care of — the whole shebang,” Weiss said. “If I stay home, I have to kosher the whole house, and I live alone. I have to go away.”
But as with so many aspects of the Jewish world, things as seemingly innocuous and pleasure-filled as a luxury Passover getaway are, if not a source of tension, at least a topic that some rabbis think must be regarded with a degree of concern or skepticism. The problem, though, is that few, if any, Jewish community leaders are willing to be openly critical of the phenomenon of turning what used to be days, or weeks, of intense Passover cleansing into simply writing a check and packing a suitcase.
One local Orthodox rabbi, who emailed with the Journal on condition of anonymity, wrote that he believes creating the intergenerational memories and transmitting the lessons and stories of Passover is made more difficult when it’s in a communal setting, even in hotels entirely filled with Passover-observing Jews.
“There are no preparations for the children to see and share in,” the rabbi wrote. “And even in those [resorts] that are exclusively for frum use, you have some elements of hedonistic and materialistic excess.” He explained that one reason many rabbis may hesitate to speak on the record on this topic is because some of their members attend these programs or even earn their livelihoods running them.
Elchanan Shoff, 32, the rabbi of Beis Knesses at Faircrest Heights, said he and his wife grappled with whether to accept an offer from a Passover program at Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego for Shoff to be a scholar-in-residence, but eventually decided to go, in large part because she’s in her ninth month of pregnancy with what will be the couple’s fourth child.
“It worked out really nicely to not have to make Pesach this year,” Shoff said, noting, though, that he, his wife and their three daughters will feel an “empty space” from not enjoying the time with as much family as they would have had they stayed home. “In the end, we realized that being in the ninth month of pregnancy, the cleaning and the cooking might be really challenging.”
Shoff believes each family needs to decide what will create the most meaningful Passover experience — at home or away.
“If the mother is going to be cleaning for a month, is short-tempered and has less energy to give her children hugs, it’s really a poor choice for them to make Pesach if they can comfortably afford to go to the hotel,” Shoff said, contrasting that with family experiences where “the cooking and cleaning creates wonderful memories.”
“When it’s waiters and it’s not your mother’s chicken soup or your grandmother’s matzah balls, all the little details that make up so much of our life experience is different,” Shoff said. “It’s not worse or better — it’s just different.”
Exodus, my very own experience
On Passover eve, seder night, Jews from all over the world gather at their homes with family and friends to recite the story of the Exodus. For thousands of years, as children, we were told to tell our children and to tell their children about our ancestors’ slavery and their flight to freedom from the land of the pharaohs. It is incumbent upon us, as we recite the haggadah, to feel as though we ourselves were there, experiencing the Exodus.
In Basra, cold weather in December was very unusual, but in 1949 the temperature was in the 40s, and it was bitter cold at 11 p.m. Sweat was dripping from my forehead like little morning dewdrops. My mind was crippled with fear. My heart was racing. My knees were shaking. I was about to commit a criminal act punishable by long years at hard labor or hanging in the public square. All depending on how much torture I could stand. I was about to leave my country without a passport and an exit visa.
I had put my life in the hands of two Muslim smugglers, and I wasn’t alone. There were 16 teenagers, including my younger brother, Nory. The underground movement to help Jews escape Iraq had arranged for a boat to take us to Iran. We boarded, one at a time, at varying intervals, in order to avoid raising suspicion in the neighborhood. We had no luggage, food or water.
The boat, if it could be called that, was about 30 feet long by10 feet wide. It had no seats, beds, toilets or motors. It moved by rowing and punting, a method of propelling the boat forward with long sticks. It was designed to carry light cargo such as manure or hay to the farmers in the delta. The two smugglers had devised a false space that measured about 10 feet by 10 feet and about
2 1/2 feet high and covered with hay. We crouched in complete darkness in this dungeon.
I was appointed the leader for the journey. The first thing I did was make holes in the hay so that we could breathe. Our escape depended on luck, the tide and the bribed border police. So that our crossing would coincide with the tide, at about midnight, the two smugglers pushed the boat out of the tributary river. Our beacon of hope, Iran, was downstream and across the river, a few hours away.
The sound of water splashing broke the stillness of the night and was sweet music to our ears. As we moved down the main river, Shat el Arab — “the river of the Arab” — our hearts lit with joy and hope for freedom. However, after about an hour, that sweet sound of splashing water stopped. All was quiet except for the sound of the wind. I went out through the hole. The two smugglers looked worried.
“We can’t move,” one of the men said. “The tide is with us, the wind is against us.”
I went back through the hole and told the boys and girls to close their eyes and to sleep, while we waited for the wind to subside. We docked inside a tributary of the river. The hours passed quickly, and I began to worry. My heart was beating faster than the wind, as dawn started to break.
We could not move during the day, for fear of being discovered. Are we were going to miss our rendezvous with the bribed border police? At times the police inserted steel bars to be sure no contraband materials were being smuggled. What about food, drinks or toilets? What if some villagers were to spot us and tell the Muchabarat, the secret police? After all, we were leaving Iraq illegally, and being accused of Zionism was a capital crime.
I began to worry. I could imagine the steel bars going into the human cargo. If caught, what torture would await us? Anxiety began to affect my clear thinking. Sense of responsibility magnified my distress. I couldn’t share my fears and anxiety with anyone. One boy was only 13. He started to cry. I felt the same way, but I held back my tears. Instead, I put on a stoic face and assured them that everything was going to be all right. We had to wait until darkness to move again.
It was toilet time in early morning. One by one we got out of our hole. One boy, a good friend of mine whose brother was arrested on Zionism charges just a few weeks earlier, shook so much when he stood, he couldn’t urinate.
One of the boatmen walked to the village to get some food. I warned him not to buy food in bulk, as that might create suspicion. He returned after nearly two hours with some bread, cheese and dates. Like rats, two or three of us came out of the hole, ate something and went back in, until all the pack was fed. Some went on their knees and drank water from the river. We had no water bottles.
I was in Arab garb, and wore a long white long gown just like the boatmen. I wandered away from the boat and sat under a tree in the shade. I closed my eyes and yearned to sleep.
My life played before me like a movie. I was 11 when I survived the farhud (pogrom) of June 1-2, 1941, in Baghdad. I was 14 when I survived an attack by two Muslims boys who ran after me with a knife. In May 1948, after the failed war against Israel, many Jewish youths were arrested, tortured or simply disappeared. Once again, I survived.
Just a few days ago, the secret police stopped me at the railway station when I arrived from Baghdad. I was with my brother and two other boys. One of the policemen asked me my purpose in coming to Basra. I told him that I was visiting my cousin. When I mentioned his name, Agababa, the policeman’s eyes lit up and the tone of his voice changed. He became sweet and gentle, and said he knew my cousin well. He got his Arrow shirts from my cousin. I knew that what he meant was that he got his shirts for free from my cousin, like all the secret police did. I survived again. The other two boys were returned to Baghdad. We never heard from them, or saw them again.
Back on the boat, the hours passed slowly. This was the longest day of my life. A river patrol passed by, unaware of the human cargo hidden in the stack of hay. I was frightened and frustrated. I began to pray, “God, please let it be night so that we can make our final escape.” I went back into the hole. I assured everyone that by the next morning we would be in Iran and that in a few days we would be in Israel.
Finally, night came. My angels worked overtime. We had the tide and a favorable wind. At the precise time we moved, and before dawn we crossed the river. Three worried men were going crazy looking for us on the other side. They had been there from the night before. “We are safe, we are in Iran,” I shouted happily. One by one, my fellow travelers came out of the hole, drained and haggard; some with tears, others with a smile as wide as the river we had just crossed.
But for me, the needs of so many other people outweighed the needs of family and others who were already free, young as they may have been. Instead of accompanying my brother to Israel, I remained in Iran for two grueling months to assist others fleeing Iraq. Unfortunately, not all succeeded as readily as we had in our escape.
After that difficult boat trip, each one of us, 16 children really, went our separate ways — driven by history and its forces. But in the midst of the sadness and loss of leaving home and family grew the seeds of our future and of the Jewish people.
On March 2, 1950, I kissed the ground when I landed in Israel. On April 3, my exodus ended with my celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, as a free man.
After a public viewing of the movie “The Last Jews of Baghdad,” while I was discussing my escape, a member of our synagogue, Kahal Joseph Congregation, whom I had known for years, came forward. He said, “I was with you on that boat, when we got stuck for a day.” His name is Haskel Abrahami. He had been the 13-year-old boy on that journey long ago.
Joseph Samuels was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in December 1930 and fled for Israel in December 1949. He served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. Samuels has been living in Santa Monica for the past 36 years with his wife, Ruby, and his family. He is a retired real estate developer and currently serves on the board of JIMENA Los Angeles.
Jews combating modern slavery, and an anti-trafficking bill that stalls in the Senate
Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s seder this Passover will look and feel somewhat different from those in most Jewish homes in America. As one of the leading figures in American Jewry raising awareness about modern slavery and trafficking, Orenstein and thousands of other Jews are making Passover not just about slavery’s past, but about its present.
For one, her seder plate will have a padlock. Two, she plans to share the testimony of a freed modern-day slave. Three, her table will include some “coupons” to educate guests on the financial side of slavery — how much does it cost to buy a slave? How much to free one? Where should you spend your money on fighting slavery and trafficking?
“Eat an extra measure of maror and explain that there are still people enslaved in the world today,” Orenstein said in a telephone interview from New York. After 18 years as a teacher at American Jewish University and also the former spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles, Orenstein is now the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, N.J.
An award-winning author and a radio and television guest, as well as an op-ed contributor (including to this publication), Orenstein is now also one of the American rabbinate’s leading advocates for raising awareness of modern-day slavery and human trafficking; current approximations are that 21 million to 36 million people are victims of slavery and trafficking, a wide-ranging estimate because of the illicit industry’s underground nature.
“Millions of people are going to sit around the Passover table and talk about going from slavery to freedom, and they won’t be aware and won’t mention that there are, by estimates, somewhere around 30 million slaves in the world today — 60,000 in the United States alone,” Orenstein said.
To jumpstart the dialogue on today’s slaves, Orenstein partnered with Rabbi Erin Hirsh of Gratz College and with Free the Slaves — a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and anti-slavery lobby based in Washington, D.C. — on several projects, among them Seder Starters, a new Passover table companion guide (
“Eat an extra measure of maror and explain that there are still people enslaved in the world today.” — Rabbi Debra Orenstein
Seder Starters includes revisions to Passover rituals, such as sitting upright instead of the customary leaning, in order to “remain alert” to those people whose realities are bitter like maror. Orenstein and Hirsh also just launched with Free the Slaves a curriculum of slavery-themed lesson plans for children and adults, in Hebrew and English, written by Jewish educators from across the religious spectrum.
And, until early March, all of this positive momentum to fight the scourge of human trafficking had come just in time for what was expected to be a rare moment of cordial legislative consensus among Democrats and Republicans. But it was not to be.
The “Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015,” a bill that had already passed the House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee, appeared headed for bipartisan passage in mid-March when it was stopped by a filibuster by Senate Democrats. The Democrats accused Republicans of sneaking into the bill an amendment known as the Hyde Amendment, which has been attached to spending bills since 1976 and aims to prohibit the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life.
Democrats admitted that a Senate staffer had known the language had been included in the bill, but had failed to raise the alarm. The Democrats pointed out that while the Hyde Amendment typically needs to be renewed annually, this bill would only require it to be renewed every five years.
The stalled trafficking law would add an additional layer to existing legislation that criminalizes human trafficking in the United States. Its main component would create a Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund paid for by $5,000 penalties assessed on anyone convicted of a range of offenses that fall under the umbrella of human trafficking — including slavery and sexual exploitation of minors. The Department of Justice would have the authority to use the fund to issue grants to groups like law enforcement agencies and NGOs with expertise in finding and helping victims of human trafficking.
But given the standoff in the Senate, the bill’s prospects for passage appear low unless five Democrats join the 51 Republicans and four Democrats who are trying to reach the filibuster-proof 60-vote mark, or unless the Republican Senate leadership decides to remove the Hyde Amendment from the bill and, at the same time, convince enough fellow Republicans not to jump ship.
Groups that combat human trafficking are agitated that what they see as a no-nonsense, bipartisan bill (and one funded by fines on convicted sex traffickers, not new taxes or borrowing) has stalled as a result of abortion politics.
“The language was intended to make pro-life donors happy, even if it would have little practical effect,” Autumn Hanna Vandehei, a former Republican staffer and founder of the Advisory Council on Child Trafficking, and Michael Wear, a former Obama administration official, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “What seems most likely is not that Democrats were caught off guard that the language was there, but that this time their favorite interest groups would not accept it.”
Jessie Kornberg, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit that offers pro bono legal services for needy residents of Los Angeles County, said her organization is currently handling multiple human-trafficking cases. Kornberg said Bet Tzedek’s trafficking caseload typically involves domestic workers.
“The legislation is absolutely necessary,” she said. “It has been our experience both in terms of collection of evidence and in terms of referring cases to us for assistance that those local law enforcement resources are really critical in identifying and servicing victims of human trafficking.”
The law isn’t without its detractors, though, most notably civil libertarians skeptical of granting the Justice Department new powers.
“There’s a real danger in making criminal justice funding contingent on arrests and convictions,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in The Week. Brown is an editor for reason.com, a libertarian magazine. One of her several objections to the bill is that it would give police an incentive to entrap people who pose little threat to public safety but whose convictions could help fill the anti-trafficking fund’s coffers.
Barring an unexpected move in the Senate or a surprise retreat by pro-choice and anti-abortion groups (which could give some Democrats and Republicans, respectively, political space to change their votes), the bill could remain stalled until the Senate turns over in 2016.
As Orenstein said, “There’s no grand political gain to be made by freeing slaves.”
At seder, don’t bite the hand that serves
At your seder, you just might be the Egyptian.
Consider what it means to be an Israelite and an Egyptian in the Passover story. The Israelites have no power and are at the whim of those they serve. And what about the Egyptians? They have all the power, but their morality is tested by how they treat the Israelites in their midst. The Israelites are slaves — the Egyptians control their lives and behavior and direct their choices.
In many Jewish homes at Passover seder, the meal will be served by non-Jews who are there to help. Of course, they are not slaves, but they are subject to the desires, directives and the treatment of those who are in “power” — those who pay them, determine their work and who choose how to speak to them. We have been embarrassed at times by the way some people treat those who work for them. How often have you seen people be unkind to the very people who feed them, clean their homes, even take care of their children? In such a case, who is the Israelite and who is the Egyptian?
When confronted, the normal excuse for such mistreatment is to say, “But I’m paying them.” So we should be clear — no amount of money entitles one to be a jerk. Such behavior is not a monetary but a human decision. Thoughtlessly injuring another is an aveirah, a transgression. This does not diminish as income rises.
Who has not been at restaurants where the server, working hard and trying her or his best, is treated shamefully by the patron? Such behavior is not only wrong but profoundly un-Jewish.
Recall the story of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter who observed his students wash their hands with copious amounts of water before a meal to demonstrate their piety. When he used a very small amount and was asked why, he explained that he was thinking of the servant who had to go fetch the water from the well, and whose work was made harder by their extravagance.
All of us have the urge to edit the tradition to suit our preferences. But anyone who reads the prophets and the rabbinic tradition that follows knows that a special burden to goodness falls upon us when dealing with those who work for us or who are poor. When Amos thunders at the people that they “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” he goes on to ask, in God’s name, “Shall not the earth tremble for this?” (Amos 8:6,8.) No amount of Pesach cleaning will wipe away the stain of abusing someone in your service.
In addition to the demands of simple humanity, there is an element of self-interest. I am more careful to be nice when I am wearing a kippah in public. I try not to do anything that would discredit Jews, like get angry or act ungenerously. People who work in Jewish homes or serve at Jewish functions observe the behavior of those whom they help, so it is especially gratifying to hear positive comments, as I often do, about how well people are treated at Jewish institutions or how welcome they feel in Jewish homes. And it is just as painful to hear the opposite. Communal pride in our tradition and our people should lead us to be particularly careful about being kind to those who work for us.
Most of the people who work at synagogues and Jewish institutions are treated well and speak kindly of their employers. Most of the homes I have visited and the people with whom I interact are, in fact, very solicitous of those who help them. I know of Jewish families that have supported others for citizenship and paid for schooling for their housekeepers’ children, or who donate clothes and other items to their employees. Such actions are befitting the rabbinic description of Israel as a “compassionate people and the children of compassionate people.”
In the Torah, midwives Shifrah and Puah are singled out as heroes. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is deputized to find a wife for Isaac. In Chasidic stories, Elijah would often appear as a wagon driver or even a beggar. Judaism is filled with images of people whose lives are in service and whose souls are exalted.
Family functions are often fraught. Emotions can run high at holiday time, and nerves are often on edge. There is a temptation to strike out at the people who cannot strike back. And I’m sure Egyptians, when they gave Israelites an extra slap, made excuses similar to those you hear today: “Ach, I’ve had a really tough day.” But of course there is never an adequate excuse for mistreating someone who is subject to your wishes.
Jews know better than to confuse power with dignity. In our long history, many people have had power over us, but far fewer have borne themselves with dignity. The prophets sought to teach us that we cannot escape responsibility for our own actions toward any other human being. There is no gradation in being an image of God; the Torah begins with Adam, not Abraham. All human beings are equally God’s children — the one who serves the soup no less than the one who asks the Four Questions.
The seder is a time to teach our children. As all parents know, what we teach our children comes from our actions more than from our words. If we talk about the deliverance and goodness of God and how we were saved from being under the power of others, then turn to yell at someone who works for us, or keep them until late hours without extra pay, or do not thank and acknowledge them as if they were invisible, our children will see it. They will learn that it is OK to victimize others if we pay them, or if they have no recourse. That is not the lesson of Passover, or what we need to teach our children, the scions of our good fortune.
This lesson is not limited to Passover, of course. It is equally applicable at the carwash and the supermarket, the hair salon and the restaurant. At a bookstore with a friend a few weeks ago, a salesperson complained to me that some customers yell at him for charging 10 cents for a paper bag, which is the law and not even a bookstore policy. He thanked us for understanding and being nice about it. I felt good, and not only because my friend and I were both wearing kippot.
Although kindness matters in every situation, there is a special mandate on Passover, when we celebrate our freedom and understand the peril of being in another’s power. “Let all who are hungry come and eat” sounds ironic if the person who is serving you has not eaten.
So please, this Passover, when you are in the position of an Egyptian, remember to act like an Israelite. If Elijah does come, he will be proud of you.
Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood.
Preserving Yiddish in the seder
Nowadays, it’s rare to find a Passover seder that doesn’t deviate from the traditional haggadah. But the Erev Shabbos Discussion Group, formed in the San Fernando Valley about 50 years ago, has been doing it its own way for decades — keeping the story secular, social justice-oriented, and drawing from Yiddish and other traditions.
On March 29, 76* people gathered for a seder at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley. The seder combined Yiddish, Hebrew and English poems and songs, and paid tribute to the founders of the community.
Erev Shabbos grew out of the Valley Kindershule and Valley Mittelshule, a Jewish school founded around 1960 by Yiddish-speaking Jews who had recently moved to the area. The school met on Saturday mornings, mainly at the former Valley Cities Jewish Community Center. The Valley shules (Yiddish for schools) were an outgrowth of the existing shule movement that dates back to the 1930s in Los Angeles. While the Valley shules ended around 1980, the former students continue to stay in touch, and several graduates reunited at the seder to sing Yiddish songs from their childhood, such as “In Dem Land Fun Piramidn.”
The kids’ parents wanted to pursue their own formal Jewish education, and so began a Friday night study group in around 1967. Decades later, they continue to meet, now on Sunday mornings. They began hosting seders for their children, with Torah stories geared toward young people. Children would sit on tablecloths on the floor and draw with crayons. Over time, as those children became parents themselves, the seders became more adult-centered.
“Because we are secular, we don’t include any prayers. We include a lot of songs about justice and freedom and world peace. Certainly the themes might be the same that are included in a religious sense, but it’s from a different perspective,” said Sylvia Brown, 90, a Valley Village resident and founding member of Erev Shabbos along with her late husband, Murray. She also served as the principal of the Kindershule.
Members of Erev Shabbos created their own haggadah, a process that took several months. The group incorporated segments of several haggadot, while adding Yiddish and English poems that were meaningful to the group. It’s been revised every few years. “It’s an enormous amount of work,” Brown said.
Near the beginning of Sunday’s seder, Barbara Bickel read from the haggadah, “Whoever enlarges upon the telling of the Exodus from Egypt, those persons are praiseworthy.”
The Erev Shabbos seder focused on the Holocaust and the resistance movement. The group lit six candles in honor of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II. They also recited “Peysakh Has Come to the Ghetto Again,” excerpted from a Yiddish poem by Inem Heller and translated by Max Rosenfield. One part of the poem reads:
In face of the Nazi — no fear, no subjection!
In face of the Nazi — no weeping, no wincing!
Only the hatred, the wild satisfaction
Of standing against him and madly resisting.
Also included was the Yiddish poem “Zog Nit Keynmol,” written in 1943 by poet Hirsh Glik in the Vilna Ghetto, which became the anthem of the Jewish partisan movement. One refrain reads:
Never say that there is only death for you.
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of blue.
Because the hour that we have hungered for is near.
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: “We are here!”
The haggadah also nodded to other peoples’ struggles for freedom. The group sang the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” itself inspired by the Exodus story. Following the second cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet, the group filled a goblet of water for Miriam, Moses’ sister, who lead the Israelites in singing and dancing after crossing the Red Sea. The Erev Shabbos group brought out tambourines and maracas and sang Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song,” as the women held hands and circled the room in a line dance.
“Miriam’s Song” was added to the haggadah by Cindy Paley, a Kindershule graduate and music educator, and one of the main organizers of the seder. She said her fellow students received an unusual education, studying Yiddish as well as workers’ rights.
“It’s a very socialist, left-leaning group. [The tradition] came from the Bund in Eastern Europe. When we were in Kindershule in 1967, we went up to the peace march in San Francisco against the Vietnam War. I remember it was a very political group in those days,” Paley said.
“The shule network in L.A. — which was the most attended Jewish educational system in the city from the 1930s unil the early 1950s — spanned the political spectrum from socialist to communist-affiliated working Jews in the city,” said Yiddishkayt director Rob Adler Peckerar.
Many of the Kindershule graduates credit that school and their liberal secular upbringing for shaping who they are today.
“It defined how I was Jewish,” said Robin Share, an instructional coach for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Going to Kindershule and Mittelshule formalized and put a sort of stamp of approval on that experience and the way we understood our role in the world as Jews and as progressives.”
“I think it was my really early introduction to liberal politics,” said Avital Aboody, a community organizer and social justice activist working in San Diego, who attended these seders as a child, when she and her friends would act out the Passover story with costumes and props.
Many of the group’s founding members have died. “We started with about 14 couples. There are only two [of those] men left, and seven women,” Brown said. “This year, we lost two members.”
Another former Kindershule student is Aaron Paley (founder of Yiddishkayt and a co-founder of the popular CicLAvia bicycling events held regularly throughout Los Angeles). He announced to Sunday’s group that he is currently working on “The Shtetl in L.A.,” a documentary about the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and the Erev Shabbos Discussion Group. He asked the guests at the seder to record interviews with the elders of the community, and to digitize and submit their archival photos and videos, as well as to contribute financially to the project.
“We’ve lost so many people. It’s really something that we’re still here,” said Sabell Bender, 88, a West Hollywood resident and one of the original Erev Shabbos members.
But with the now-grown children and grandchildren attending the annual meal and keeping the community intact, there’s new life to the group. “We hope it’s going to continue with the same spirit that it’s had before,” Brown said.
*We originally reported the number as 60.
Although matzah is a symbol of our exodus from Egypt, it is, for some, a literal bread of affliction. Traditional matzah is made of flour milled from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. All of these grains — except oats — contain high levels of gluten, a protein that, if ingested by someone with celiac disease, can lead to serious health problems. Although there is no gluten in pure oats, they are almost always cross-contaminated by other grains in the storage process (they also have a protein called avenin that is similar to gluten and induces a negative reaction in 10 to 15 percent of people with celiac disease). One in 133 Americans is believed to suffer from celiac disease, which slowly (and painfully) destroys the villi, or fingerlike projections, that line the small intestine. Nearly 18 million Americans have what scientists theorize is “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” a condition that, though not as severe as celiac disease, can cause digestive upset.
This time of year, many Jews who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity ask themselves: “How can I fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah if I know it will make me sick?”
Of course, no denomination of Judaism would ever suggest that a person who has celiac disease or gluten intolerance should eat a traditional matzah. The question is whether the person is morally exempt from partaking in the ritual. The answer, like many in Judaism, can be found in technicality and interpretation. Jewish law states that we can eat and say blessings only over matzah that is made from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. At the beginning of a seder, one of three matzahs is broken in two. As the seder progresses, participants recite a general blessing over grain (ha-Motzi), then a specific blessing over matzah. They must then eat the matzah. A person with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can recite blessings and break matzah but cannot fulfill the mitzvah of eating it. One must ask: Are people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance spiritually exempt from fulfilling the mitzvah or are they bound by law and excluded from performing this basic — yet fundamental — Jewish ritual?
Are they excused from the law or are they unwillingly breaking it?
Jewish law prioritizes physical health over ritual. For example, people who are ill or pregnant cannot fast on Yom Kippur. Gluten in matzah, though seemingly inconsequential, leads to an unexpected ethical gray area. Every denomination of Judaism will provide a different answer. Luckily, modern gastronomy has cooked up a tasty option that can help some Jews break their matzah and eat it, too.
Enter the Passover of the future: Made from tapioca and potatoes, gluten-free “matzah-style squares” are delicious and completely kosher for Passover. However, it is important to remember that “kosher for Passover” does not necessarily mean that the food can be used during ritual to fulfill a mitzvah. In its most literal interpretation, Jewish law does not permit a person to substitute traditional grain matzah for a gluten-free option (unless it is made of oats, which, as previously stated, can cause similar digestive problems). Therefore, companies cannot market their non-oat, gluten free crackers as “matzah” (they must use “matzah-style squares” instead).
A Reform person might argue that the spiritual and emotional act of eating matzah is more important than what is actually in the cracker and that traditional matzahs can be easily substituted with gluten free matzah-style varieties. Matzah-style squares may have complicated the Passover scene, but they also provide new alternatives for people who have struggled with both stomach and Scripture.
If a person allows him- or herself to substitute traditional matzah with a gluten free “matzah-style” cracker, he or she will get to fully participate in a seder. Although the market for gluten free matzah isn’t exactly saturated, two kosher brands are leading the movement. Manischewitz’s Gluten Free Matzo-Style Squares are made with tapioca and potato starch instead of the five traditional grains. Yehuda’s Gluten Free Matzo-Style Squares are also made from tapioca and potato starch and are certified gluten free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO). Both varieties can be ordered online and at some Ralphs locations.
Easy floral arrangements for your Passover table
You’ve been cooking for days. You got the good dishes out of storage. The silver is polished. And in the midst of getting all the preparations ready for the big seder dinner, the last thing you probably want to think about is a floral centerpiece.
The reality is, centerpieces just aren’t that practical for the Passover table. The table is already crowded with dishes, glasses, the seder plate, Elijah’s cup, Miriam’s cup and bowls of saltwater. You know that as soon as the brisket comes out, that centerpiece is getting moved to the living room.
But flowers add so much to the Passover table. They signify spring and new life. And the beauty of the blooms brightens the entire evening.
Here, then, are four ideas for seder dinner floral pieces that are easy to whip up, and take up very little room on the table. We’ve expanded the definition of “florals” to include herbs and succulents; while not florals in the technical sense, these organic elements are a popular alternative to flowers.
Because the arrangements are small, you can create multiples to scatter across the tabletop, perhaps one in front of each person’s place setting. And their low height means you will have no problem seeing across the table as each of you reads a passage from the haggadah. These also make great favors that guests can take home to remember the evening.
Red endive is sometimes used as a bitter herb on the seder plate, but it also makes a colorful foundation for this quick and easy arrangement. Endive leaves are wrapped around a glass votive holder to form a vase and fill with flowers or, in this case, fragrant mint leaves.
Place a rubber band around a glass votive holder. You can also use a shot glass or a small juice glass.
The egg has so much symbolic significance during Passover celebrations, it’s only fitting to incorporate it in the flowers. These hollowed egg shells act as a miniature vase, as if the eggs are hatching spring’s new possibilities.
Break the tip of the egg with a knife, and pour out the egg yolk and whites to save for cooking. Wash the inside of the egg and let it air dry.
Mason jar succulents
For a unique twist on Passover flowers, try these succulents arranged in mason jars. Beautiful, resilient succulents can grow in the harshest environments, and they represent the hope that was ever present, even in captivity in Egypt.
Cut succulent blooms from existing plants. Allow them to sit out for about a week so a scab forms where you cut them.
It’s a Passover miracle! These flowers are standing on their own, without a vase. It may not be the parting of the Red Sea, but you have to admit, it’s pretty nifty. The trick is magnets at the base of the stems, and a hidden piece of metal under the tablecloth.
Hot glue a magnet to the head of a nail. Flat neodymium magnets are perfect for this, but keep the kids away — they are harmful if swallowed.
Chaos and Charoset: A story of Pesach
The Persian seder begins the same way every year: A plate of matzah, veiled with an ornamented white cloth, gets passed around the table until everybody has sung the schedule of the seder. While whoever holds the tray sings, the remaining audience claps or slaps the table in unison to the Hebrew syllables. Inevitably, the vocally ungifted or self-conscious refuse their turn, which then elicits immediate protest. But eventually, however unenthusiastically, even the reluctant ones cave.
From that point forward, chaos ensues. Children shout and climb chairs, adults crack jokes out of turn, others protest for quiet, and some say it’s too hot or it’s too cold. At my table, my mother and grandmother trade passive-aggressive lines, my cousins whine to their parents, and my stomach groans in hunger, dissatisfied from munching on cilantro dipped in vinegar.
“It’s too hot!” somebody claims.
I turn on the fan so a breeze can settle in to the living room. The 15 of us are crammed around a table that’s meant to fit 10.
Then there’s wine.
“Wind!” shrieks my aunt, who’s always cold. “Wind! We’re going to get sick!”
“Where’s it coming from?”
“I turned on the fan, because people said it’s hot. We can all relax.”
“Wind!” others repeat in fear, as if this wind is on the prowl to harm.
My uncle reads through the haggadah at one end of the table, while the rest of the table engages in an unrelated conversation.
“I want to take a selfie!” a little cousin yells.
“You’re an idiot!” his older brother responds.
I just sit there, doing my best to suppress my frustrations, knowing that in about one hour — dinner time — it will all be worth it. I don’t say it around my mom, but my grandma probably makes the best Persian food in Los Angeles. And on Passover, she takes it to the next level.
“Jeremy, you’re ugly!” my youngest cousin yells. They all laugh.
“Easy now,” I say.
My uncle suddenly grabs ahold of my leg.
“How the girls, man?”
“Pretty good, Amu,” Farsi for paternal uncle.
“Do any of them have a sister?” He’s married with children, but makes this same joke almost every time I see him. He laughs every time he says it, too, as if to say that even after years of recycling it, it hasn’t lost any originality or brilliance.
One more blessing, one more cup of wine.
My other uncle has a thick black mustache and fluffy, receding hair. He’s the seder leader. But he treats it more seriously than ceremoniously, quickly reading through the haggadah in mumbled, unmelodic Hebrew and Aramaic. If you let him, he’ll read through the entire seder on his own. Each year, for example, he gets caught reading the Four Questions, not stopping to wait for the kids to answer. “Hey,” my grandma interjects. “The kids are supposed to read this part.”
He keeps reading. The protests get louder. He stops, tosses the Ralphs haggadah onto the table, which produces a thump, then stares at the corner of the room where nothing is happening. I have a total of five younger cousins, and together, after the first five or six words of the Four Questions, they get stuck. They keep repeating those words that everybody knows, the chorus, but can’t pull through the nuanced verses. All this time, I’ve been silent. Although it’s tradition, if not the rule, for the young’uns to have the spotlight at this part, I know I’m the only grandchild who can pull through.
“Jeremy, you read!”
“No, no. It’s their turn.”
“They need you! Come on.”
“Some other time.”
They go on without me.
“OK, OK. I’ll read it!”
We eat some matzah, which I detest, and have one more cup of wine, which I don’t detest. My serious uncle has regained the throne and rips through the Hebrew verses, pausing for nothing. We’re at the four sons section.
I once tried to teach the table the essence of the four sons, because I found it interesting. So I stood up and pontificated about the inclusion and meaning of the four sons text. Unfortunately I was booed off stage before I could finish, so I’ve given that up — but anyway, I read the English translation and get intrigued every year. The four sons section, I think, teaches you “how to win friends and influence people” in four Hebrew paragraphs written thousands of years ago.
The seder’s been going on for an hour now, and people are hungry. There’s still a ways to go, and it’s past 10 p.m. — “10:30,” my mom says to my dad with a condescending smirk. “Does she plan on having us eat tonight? We are starved.” My grandma doesn’t speak English, so my mom takes advantage of this and complains as outwardly as she likes.
“We’re getting hungry, Ma,” my dad tells her timidly, in Farsi.
“OK, OK. Have some tea, have some fruit,” she responds. My grandma has the tendency to keep dinner until the end, I think, that way she can have the seder drag on as long as possible so as to extend playing host.
Then we get to Dayenu, which probably sums up the entire experience. Basically, you grab your weapon — long, green onions, however many you can get your hands on — and whack the heck out of whoever you feel like in an effort to recapture the Hebrews being assaulted by their Egyptian masters.
One seder, I made the mistake of showing up with a freshly dry-cleaned white shirt. I was skeptical but thought I’d try: “Hey, everyone. Just got this shirt cleaned. Would you guys mind not screwing with it?”
An awkward, ominous silence lingered in the air.
“Jeremy, the showoff.”
My uncle cussed me brutally in Farsi under his breath.
“Everyone, hit his shirt. Hit him harder than you would anyway,” my aunt demanded.
“What’d I ever do to you?” I asked.
Before getting an answer, my 10-year-old cousin sneaked around my seat, giggled uncontrollably and slashed me across the chest. Someone started singing “Dayenu,” and within seconds, three or four cousins were smacking me with onions, too. When they’d finished, my white shirt was green.
The madness happens every year: abundant energy, misdirected anger, taken up physically in the form of whipping each other with onions. The kids duck and jump, yell and scream, whack each other. When the onion’s upper parts break off, some resort to throwing the remaining butts at their targets across the house like snipers. I hold up the paper haggadah and use it as a shield. “Cease fire!” I yell.
“Enough!” my grandma shouts. “Start cleaning up!” Unfortunately, this only launches the play fighting into real fighting. Now, the little guys are bear hugging, kicking. I watch for a little bit — I went through this, too — but eventually pull them apart. Some of them are red in the face.
If people keep fighting, my uncle sports a more effective means: he undoes his belt, brings it out of the loops. He wraps the belt into itself and holds it in the air. “All right! Who wants it? Who still wants to fight?” The kids start running. He slashes the thin leather together, producing several slick, sharp slaps. He advances, starts hitting inanimate objects, like the table, the chairs, to show he means business. “Who wants it? Who wants it?” That’s when it ends.
Probably one more glass of wine. Some charoset, which shocks me every year. Never has something looked so awful but tasted so great. I’ll never forget offering to share my charoset with a college friend, ChiChi, who was a 6-foot-6 Nigerian. We were in my dorm room playing video games, he munching on his third or fourth piece of matzah. “Have some of this with it, man, you’ll love it” I said, indicating the charoset. His eyes were wide open. “Nah, I’m good,” he said.
I usually treat myself to another glass of wine, this time without a blessing, just for fun. We clean up the table, trade in all the Passover food for real food: rice, stews, chicken and salad. I stuff a plate with two or three chicken legs, a lot of rice, red khoresht with chunks of red meat and some salad. This is only the first round: Every Passover, and basically any time I see her, my grandma accuses me of looking thin, at which point she almost doubles my already huge serving. I fall into a food coma from being force-fed to a point of seemingly no return.
I’m eager to get back home and read, or look at pretty girls on Facebook — get back to where things make sense. No more green onions slapping my face. It’s permissible for me to leave; the night’s basically over, but a feeling of nostalgia settles in when I realize I’ve been coming to this specific house consistently for 24 years. I try to take a moment to appreciate it. There’s a gratefulness to be had in being able to celebrate the holiday in Los Angeles without any disturbance — other than, of course, your uncle threatening to lash you with his leather belt.
Moreover, it’s hard to stay close with people, and when you take a step back to realize that Passover — so often torn apart because of our collective disdain for matzah — unites not only your immediate family but also your grandma, cousins, aunts and uncles, and has probably done so for hundreds of years, it’s a beautiful thing. For two years, there’s been a little table stand in the dining room with a close-up portrait of my late grandfather, a little round white candle flickering before it. The seder would probably be more structured if he were still the one leading the table through the haggadah, but for the most part, I imagine he’d be proud.
Jeremy Ely is a 25-year-old short-story writer in Los Angeles. You can read some of his ramblings on Twitter @jelypoppa.
Tips for hosting a disabilities-friendly seder
I knew when we got to the drawing of the sad-looking lamb that I had exactly one page before showtime.
As the youngest daughter and cousin on both sides of my family, reading the Four Questions was always my job at the Passover seder. Since my severe obsessive-compulsive disorder compelled me to recite everything exactly right, the job was so nerve-racking to me that I often started panting days before.
For some children, the seder means delicious jellied candies and afikomen hunts. For others it can mean terrifying public reading and unbearable amounts of sitting still at the table. And for those disabilities – whether psychological, developmental or language-based – it’s clear this night is different from all other nights. But can somebody slow down and please explain why?
According to the U.S. Census, 18.6 percent of Americans (approximately 1 in 5) have a disability. Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which promotes and funds inclusion in the Jewish community, estimates that 2 million Jews are among that 18.6 percent. Many disabilities are undetectable to the naked eye, but whether it’s a child with Attention Deficit Disorder who finds it hard to sit still at the table or an adult in a wheelchair who cannot get to the table, guests with disabilities often require some modifications in order to feel welcome and included at the seder.
Fortunately, such modifications are not difficult and can make the seder more enjoyable for everyone. After all, who hasn’t at least occasionally experienced seder table boredom?
Meredith Englander Polsky, co-founder of Matan, a New York nonprofit that advocates for Jewish students with disabilities, says the seder is “the perfect opportunity for inclusion” because it involves multiple senses and learning styles: “taste, touch, acting things out, singing, speaking and listening.”
Here are some tips:
1. Give a sneak preview!
Talk to children beforehand about what exactly the seder will look like. They can also help prepare the seder plate: a great opportunity to sniff the bitter herbs, taste the charoset or even crumble the matzah.
Both Matan and and Gateways, a Boston program that helps Jewish day schools and congregational schools be inclusive of students with disabilities, have numerous downloadable materials on their websites, including “seder trackers” and Passover Bingo cards that spell out the order of events in bright pictures. Gateways has just published a colorful new Haggadah designed specifically for children with disabilities. Another possibility: Passover toys, like matzah juggling balls or plague finger puppets, which can be found in many online outlets and Judaica stores.
On www.challahcrumbs.com, an educational website she started, Devorah Katz suggests on her site creating your own family Haggadah with your favorite photographs. Whatever you choose to bring to your seder, make sure everyone feels welcome to participate.
2. Set the mood
Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founder and head of The Shefa School, a pluralistic Jewish day school for children with language-based learning disabilities, suggests conducting the first part of the seder in the living room. It’s a much more relaxed environment than sitting at the table, and guests can get up and walk around if they need to, or even have a few snacks. Matan’s Polsky says it’s also good to set aside a “quiet space” to relax for guests who become overwhelmed by crowds or noise.
3. Lights, camera, action!
This seder tracker is one of many free downloadable resources available from Gateways and Matan. (Matan)
The maggid (recitation of the Hagaddah) is the longest stretch of time for children to be at attention, so it’s imperative to make it exciting and interactive. Some suggestions from Polsky and Ruskay-Kidd:
Pyramid building: You can set up stations in your home or on the table. Use Legos, Lincoln Logs, MagnaTiles or any other building materials you find. A delicious option: try mini-marshmallows and toothpicks. Everyone gets to build a pyramid that can later be gobbled up for dessert.
Schlep: Ask children to act out being a slave by carrying a heavy bag of books over his or her shoulder and pretending that it is bricks.
Split the sea: Hold up blue sheets and have children walk through them.
Play out the plagues: Act out the plagues such as jumping like frogs or falling over like cattle. Download Matan’s visual Ten Plagues so everyone can see them and debate whether they’d rather be a grasshopper or a locust. You can “paint” the doorways with a paintbrush and water so the Angel of Death knows to pass over.
Cut to the chase: If guests are getting too hungry or restless, it’s best to skip a few pages or cut to the songs. The maggid can be two minutes or two hours, but the message will only resonate if people are engaged.
Giving everyone a break is vital to the seder experience. Ruskay-Kidd says, “We don’t want our kids to experience enslavement during the seder.” After the intermission (and before things start getting messy with the Hillel sandwich, etc.) is a great time to get people seated at the table.
5. Invite questions
The Passover seder is full of timeless questions, and there is no one right answer. Encourage everyone to pose a question.
Polsky points to the maror as a jumping-off point. She asks everyone to name something “bitter” they would like to fix in the world and how they plan to do it.
6. Get loud!
Whatever makes everyone join in singing is the way to go. Polsky notes that“Who Knows One” can be difficult for people with disabilities because there are so many verses and it is frequently sung fast.
Download Matan’s visual version of “Who Knows One” so everyone can follow along; percussionists and yodelers encouraged. Shouting is a form of singing, too.
In fact, Ruderman, of the Ruderman Family Foundation, says there’s an old story about a boy in Eastern Europe who couldn’t read or write. He came to the High Holidays services and kept on shouting in the synagogue while people were trying to pray. Many of the congregants wanted to have him kicked out but the rabbi stopped them and said, “Just listen. He’s expressing his prayer in the purest way.”
I think of this boy and his direct connection to faith.
I think of my younger self, trembling in my seat, reciting Mah Nishtanah under my breath.
I think of the 2 million Jews estimated to have disabilities who will hopefully be participating in the seder this year. And I promise this: I won’t be the youngest at the table this year, but I do intend to be the loudest.
Most likely off-key too.
(Abby Sher is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of “Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things)” and “Breaking Free: True Stories of Girls Who Escaped Modern Slavery.” Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Elle magazine, among other publications.)
Redesigning the seder plate
In addition to being a time of remembrance, Passover is a holiday for special foods, special dishes and family heirlooms, notably the seder plate. The most common is a porcelain plate with a Star of David or the Hebrew word Pesach — for Passover — inscribed in its center, surrounded by six indentations, each labeled for the symbolic food it’s meant to contain.
There is maror and chazeret, the bitter herbs — perhaps a romaine leaf, a hunk of horseradish or a shoot of green onion. There’s charoset, that sweet mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine. Karpas, usually parsley or celery, dipped into a bowl of salt water. Zeroa, a roasted lamb or goat shankbone. And beitzah, a roasted hard-boiled egg. The plants recall the misery of slavery; the animal products commemorate the sacrifices made at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Any plain, unadorned plate can also fulfill this function, but the seder plate is to Passover as the turkey is to Thanksgiving. It’s the centerpiece of the meal. So it’s no wonder that a number of contemporary artists have adopted the seder plate as a medium for which to explore and question Jewish traditions and values.
Among them is Laura Cowan, a Judaica designer based in Tel Aviv. Her elegant, square-shaped Moon seder plate contains six lunar-like craters and draws inspiration from the 1960s space race. “I used the aesthetics of moon craters and created gentle dips on a solid sheet of polished aluminum to create a modern seder plate that combines a geometric and organic look,” Cowan said.
Dune Seder plate by Laura Cowan
Another of Cowan’s seder plates was inspired by the gentle curves of desert dunes, “reminding us of the exile from Egypt through Sinai.” The artist cites a concept in Judaism called hiddur mitzvah — a directive to make a mitzvah beautiful, “creating aesthetics that encourage us to practice Jewish rituals,” Cowan said.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles said the reimagining of the seder plate falls in line with the Jews’ long history of crafting beautiful and ornate menorahs, Kiddush cups, tzedakah boxes or Shabbat candleholders.
“It’s true that they technically could be ordinary and mundane and merely functional,” Leder said. “But we have at least a 2,000-year history of artistic embellishment, as a way of showing our commitment, and joy, really, of celebrating these festivals and obeying these commandments. So the seder plate is part of that larger story, of making the commandments more beautiful and enhancing them with our artistic abilities.”
Leder’s own family uses the Villeroy and Boch Precious Legacy seder plate, a replica of a seder plate designed in 1900 for the world-famous exhibit of Judaica in Czechoslovakia. The object was later looted by Nazis for a museum conceived by Adolf Hitler to show the lost culture of the Jews. The porcelain plate has a delicate pattern of blue and white flowers and birds, with six heart-shaped recesses surrounding a Star of David.
“I like to use it because, in the end, of course, we know Hitler lost and wasn’t able to eradicate the Jews, just as Pharaoh wasn’t able to eradicate the Jews,” Leder said. “So, for me, it’s a perfect seder plate, because it’s making this very old story new again.”
Yet the act of redesigning the seder plate is not merely an aesthetic exercise. It can also provide a way of recontextualizing the liberation story for modern times. “The idea of reinventing ritual is intrinsic” to Passover and to Judaism, said Lori Starr, executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. “And each year we always call to mind, ‘Who is not free right now?’ We were fortunate to gain our freedom, but in this world, as we speak, people are enslaved; people are experiencing oppression, prejudice, discrimination.”
The Contemporary Jewish Museum held an artist invitational show in 2009 titled “New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table.” The more radical interpretations of the seder plate went well beyond functionality. Harriete Estel Berman created a four-sided pyramid plate using recycled materials, such as tin cans and bits of steel appliances. She attached pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, suggestive of a more recent Exodus. Another seder plate included a holographic projection. Others were made of wood, paper, glass, even linen and thread.
Besides those one-of-a-kind plates, there are many other contemporary seder plates to choose from. Pamela Balton, director and buyer for Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, said technological innovation is driving some of the new designs.
“There is specifically a lot of laser-cut metal,” Balton said. “And I think as the technology develops, that technology is being used to make some of the seder plates.” So expect a 3D-printed seder plate any day now.
New York ceramicist Isabel Halley opted for a simpler, minimalist look. She designed a plate and six bowls out of glazed white clay with gold edges, the texture dimpled using a traditional pinch pot method. She was inspired to create a seder plate after she searched for contemporary designs online and felt underwhelmed by her options.
Isabel Halley seder plate
“I can never get over the symbolism,” Halley said. “A bone, to me, is such a cool thing to have in a religious tradition. So I can’t ever believe when I look at these seder plates that nobody’s doing anything to take away or add to it. I feel like all the Jerusalem seder plates take away from the symbolism, and it’s nice to do something more simple.”
The Futura seder plate, created by New York designer Jonathan Adler, is an abstract, modernist take on the traditional plate, made of glazed porcelain with real gold accents.
Michael Aram seder plate
“The seder plates created by contemporary artists today will become family heirlooms passed down to future generations,” Leder said. “These ritual objects become as much a part of the holiday as the foods, the music and the people themselves.”
Three seder meditations
Who Teaches Whom?
One the most famous questions asked on seder night is, “Why isn’t Moses’ name mentioned in the haggadah? He’s the one who took us out of Egypt! Surely, if anyone is featured, it should be him!”
The truth is, Moses’ name is mentioned, but only once, and it’s easy to miss unless you are paying close attention.
The question is, why?
My rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach, explained that there are two kinds of teachers:
The first kind is exemplified by Moses.
The second by our parents.
Yes, Moses is the star of the historical event that we commemorate. But the seder is about our other holy teachers, our parents, who, on this night, are the ones who pass down our holy tradition to us, instilling us with emunah — belief — in the deepest, deepest way.
Yachatz: The Journey of Creation
One of the deepest moments of the seder is yachatz. That’s when we take the middle of the three pieces of matzah on the seder plate and break it in two. The larger piece is hidden away and becomes the afikomen, which symbolizes the korbon Pesach, the Passover offering. At the end of the seder, our children find it and bring it back to us for a reward.
This is so deep! With these actions, amazingly, we are acting out the entire history of the world, from before creation until the final redemption.
Let’s try to understand how this works.
Before HaShem created the universe, all that existed was Him alone in His Oneness.
After HaShem created the world, there is still only HaShem, but now, after creation, there began the illusion of duality: Heaven and Earth, good and evil, body and soul, male and female, the material and the spiritual, the written Torah and the oral Torah, and perhaps most important, free choice — the ability to choose between one thing or another.
Fascinatingly, we see this dynamic at work in the very first letter of the Torah — the letter bet — which in gematria corresponds to the number 2.
This of course makes perfect sense, as we know that the Torah is the blueprint of creation. And thus, the first letter of the Torah announces and describes for us the world that has been created.
Now, back to yachatz.
When we do yachatz at the seder, we begin with an unbroken matzah, which stands for the Oneness of HaShem before the world was created. Then we break it in two, which stands for the duality that now exists — or, put another way, the illusion that there is any power other than God.
But why do we hide the larger piece?
Because HaShem is infinite. The world, on the other hand, is finite. We hide the larger piece because the larger piece of reality is hidden from us.
But this will not always be the case. The world is destined to bask in the revealed Oneness of HaShem, and this will happen when Mashiach comes.
The Koshnitzer Rebbe explains when our children bring the larger piece of matzah, the afikomen, back to us, we have them to thank for restoring our sense of wholeness and destiny.
Thus, the seder night is not just about parents giving to their children, it’s also about children giving back to their parents.
As to the custom of rewarding the children for finding the afikomen, on the deepest level, this act symbolizes the reward all of us will receive for our mitzvot when Mashiach comes.
Loving the In-Between
During the seder, we drink four cups of wine. I want to share with you one of my favorite teachings about wine.
Carlebach once said that everybody loves you when you are a finished product. Everybody loves you when you are a grape or when you are wine.
But do you know what a grape has to go through before it becomes wine? How much it has to be crushed, and stepped on?
Then he asked a searing question. “Who loves you when you’re in-between — when you’re not a grape or wine? The people who do — those are your real friends.”
I’d like to add to this teaching. Right now, the world is in between. Mashiach isn’t here yet, and there is still evil. The people who love HaShem now — those are His real friends.
May I conclude on a personal note? On seder night, I go up to each of my children and whisper to them, telling them that just like HaShem promised He would take us out of Egypt, and He kept His promise and took us out, so, too, He promised us that He will bring Mashiach, and He’s going to keep that promise too, and redeem the world. Tonight, we are filled with so much love and confidence, we are celebrating it happening already.
Let it be soon, let it be soon, let it be right now.
Make your Seder pop
Every year, millions of men, women and children gather at the seder table and read from the haggadah in what seem to be a million different ways.
Some use the familiar Maxwell House version; others find the Four Questions in “The Family Haggadah.” Recent years have offered updates with modern twists, such as 2012’s “New American Haggadah,” which features commentary from contemporary writers and thinkers in the Jewish world; and the “2010 Facebook Haggadah,” a satirical Web site with humorous status updates from Joseph, Moses, Pharaoh and the rest of the story’s key players.
This year, Melissa Berg, a Toronto resident, released “Pop Haggadah,” which draws its inspiration from modern art.
“The title refers to pop culture and art,” she said. “The images and the colors pop. You can make your Passover really stand out and pop.”
“Pop Haggadah” is full of bright, lively colors and a variety of fonts on every page. Separately, each page is a piece of artwork in and of itself. It’s meant to keep kids focused and adult readers intrigued throughout the several hours it usually takes to get through it.
The book also contains cartoon-esque visuals drawn by Berg, a hobbyist illustrator. The pictures — which include a plane with large bird wings (after “Next Year in Jerusalem”) and a ram falling into a swirling vortex — were inspired by art from the 1960s and ’70s.
“I like Warhol, and I looked at album covers from the 1970s for this,” she said.
Along with the drawings, the 156-page text consists of blessings, instructions and Hebrew translations found in a traditional haggadah, as well as fun facts. After a “l’chaim,” for example, Berg adds that resveratrol is “an antioxidant found in grapes, believed to have many health benefits.”
Although “Pop Haggadah” is meant for an Orthodox seder, Berg believes that everybody can find something they like in it.
“I wanted it to appeal to all different sects of Judaism and make Passover fun,” she said. “It’s my favorite holiday because I’m able to get together with my whole family.”
Berg, 30, grew up Conservative, but became Modern Orthodox as she grew older. She works for Raphael Shore, a film writer and producer who has made movies about Jewish issues and national security, including “Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel” and “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.”
When she’s not working at Shore’s production company, she’s taking on artistic and Jewish-themed endeavors like “Pop Haggadah.” Her next project, which she is currently working on, is going to be a biblical comic book.
“I’ve always been interested in writing, and it’s something I wanted to do,” she said. “I like to create. … I really enjoy doing things that are artistic.”
“Pop Haggadah,” which Berg self-published and sells for $25.95 on ModernTribe.com, took her a year to write. To compile the seder instructions and blessings, she sought inspiration and found text from other haggadot. Her sister helped by translating the Hebrew sections.
Because Passover is a crucial time for the Jewish people, and a period in which it’s imperative to be joyous, Berg wanted to help that happiness come to fruition for others.
“It’s such an exciting holiday,” she said. “Sometimes during the seder you have people slipping and not knowing where they are in the haggadah. I wanted to do something that was fun. Passover should be about celebrating. It’s important to celebrate and have things that are happy and lively.”
Community Seder round-up
Discover the eternal meaning of the haggadah and enjoy a seder complete with hand-baked matzah, wine/grape juice and your favorite traditional meal at Chabad of Simi Valley. RSVP by April 9. Suggested donation ($30 adult, $18 child). April 14. 7:30 p.m. 4464 Alamo St., Simi Valley. (805) 577-0573.
Join Chabad of Beverly Hills for its traditional Pesach seder. No one will be turned away due to lack of funds. RSVP by April 7. $50 (adult), $26 (child), $126 (family). April 14. 7:30 p.m. 409 N. Foothill Road, Beverly Hills. (310) 859-3948.
Traditional seders on the first two nights of Passover at Hillel at UCLA will be interactive celebrations incorporating the recitation of the haggadah, a festive holiday meal, study and song. They will be led by Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan. (A liberal seder on April 14 will take place at 6:30 p.m., led by Rabbi Aaron Lerner and student seder captains.) Students, parents and community members from all backgrounds are welcome. April 14 and 15. 8 p.m. $54 (adults), $36 (UCLA students), $27 (children 3-6). 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081.
Rabbi Zachary Shapiro and Cantor Lonee Frailich celebrate another engaging and memorable seder at Temple Akiba. RSVP by April 7. Space is limited. April 15. 6 p.m. $70 (adult members), $80 (adult non-members), $20 (children 12 and under). 5249 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 398-5783.
Married? Single? Lots of kids? No kids? This seder at Temple Beth Am is for everyone! April 15. 7:15 p.m. $50 (members), $55 (non-members), $25 (children 4-12), $10 (children 2-3). 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7354, ext. 217.
Imagine jumping inside the haggadah and experiencing the seder from the inside out. This is “2nd Night: Not Your Zayde’s Seder” at Temple Judea. Have an adventure you could never have if you stayed at home. April 15. 5 p.m. $45 (members), $60 (non-members), $25-$35 (children 12 and under). 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800.
Jar, the highly acclaimed restaurant by chef Suzanne Tracht, plans a special Passover dinner designed to bring families and friends together. This multicultural seder offers an opportunity to meet three teens visiting from Israel and listen to their experiences with Ultimate Peace, a groundbreaking program that unites Jewish and Arab youth using the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. Tracht, who was a 2009 contestant on “Top Chef Masters,” features a four-course dinner that merges her family’s holiday traditions with the flavors of Jar’s modern chophouse style. $130 (adults), $55 (ages 12 and under). April 15. 5:30 p.m. Jar, 8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 655-6566.
The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) invites you to its annual women’s seder, “Experience the Seder Through the Eyes of Women,” with Cantor Mimi Haselkorn. Men are welcome. Space is limited. RSVP by April 8. $40 (members), $50 (non-members). April 17. 6 p.m. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8512.
Save the self-pity, choices abound for Passover meals
For the many who feel overwhelmed by Passover because of the demands of cooking without leaven, a word or two: That should not be an obstacle.
After all, on this most celebrated of Jewish holidays, we are allowed to eat fish, meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, fruits, most vegetables and fresh herbs.
All of the recipes featured here are nutritious, attractive, flavorful and easy to prepare. They emphasize fresh, seasonal ingredients, fewer complicated techniques, and stylish, elegant dishes. What more would you want for Passover?
The seder meals, when we recount the Exodus story, are the most important events of the holiday. Most people, like myself, favor their own traditional menu. Each year I repeat the seder menu as a way to hold on to cherished family traditions.
The recipes are from the new cookbook “Helen Nash's New Kosher Cuisine” (Overlook Press).
With their magnificent color, delicious flavor and vitamin richness, beets are one of my favorite vegetables. In the summer I serve this soup at room temperature; in the winter I like it hot.
1 1/4 pounds (570 g) beets, plus 1 small beet for garnish
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 McIntosh apple, peeled and sliced
4 1/2 cups (1.08 liters) vegetable broth
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
Peel and slice the beets (see note below). Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion, garlic and apple, and saute for 5 minutes. Add the beets and broth. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the beets are tender. Cool a little.
While the soup is cooking, wrap the reserved beet tightly in foil. Bake in a toaster oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 Celsius) for 30 minutes, or until just tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife. Cool, slip off the skin, and grate.
Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Season to taste with the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper.
To serve, garnish with the grated beet; makes 6 servings.
Note: I always wear thin plastic gloves when I work with beets, as this avoids staining my fingers with beet juice, which can be hard to remove.
CHICKEN SALAD WITH RADICCHIO AND PINE NUTS
This is a colorful and delicious salad with an interesting mixture of textures and tastes. The currants and pine nuts add an unusual Mediterranean piquancy.
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for greasing the chicken
Freshly ground black pepper
1 head radicchio, shredded
1 to 2 bunches arugula, leaves torn if they are large
1/2 cup (20 g) loosely packed flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Place the onion slices in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Place in a large serving bowl.
Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and grease with oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Place each chicken breast in the center of a piece of cling wrap and wrap it so that it is completely covered. Place the packages in a steamer, cover and steam over high heat for about 9 minutes. (The inside of the chicken should still be pale pink.) Turn off the heat and let stand for 1 minute.
Remove the chicken and cool, still wrapped. When cool, unwrap the chicken and cut it on the diagonal into thin strips. Place in the bowl with the onions; makes 6 servings.
SWEET AND SOUR DRESSING
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70 g) pine nuts
1/2 cup (115 g) raisins or currants
2 tablespoons Marsala wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the pine nuts and raisins and saute over low heat until the pine nuts are lightly golden. Remove from the heat and add the Marsala and vinegar.
Add the radicchio, arugula, and parsley to the chicken and onions; toss with the dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
This is a variation on the traditional pickled salmon sold in every Jewish delicatessen. The difference: The salmon is more delicate and less vinegary, and has a richer color. It makes a perfect Sabbath luncheon dish.
6 skinless center-cut salmon fillets (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil for greasing the pan
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200 F (95 C). Grease a glass or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold the fillets in a single layer.
Pat the fillets dry with paper towels and season them lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Place them in the dish and bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cooked to your taste.
Remove the baking pan from the oven, cover with foil, and let cool completely. (The fish will continue cooking outside of the oven.)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons rice vinegar (for Passover, replace with white wine vinegar)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced (see note below)
15 dill sprigs, snipped finely with scissors, plus 2 sprigs, snipped, for garnish
In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and salt. Add pepper to taste. Pour the marinade over the salmon, add the onion and sprinkle with the 15 snipped sprigs of dill.
Cover the dish with wax paper, then foil and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days without turning.
To serve: Bring the salmon to room temperature. Place on individual plates along with some of the marinade and onions. Garnish with the fresh snipped dill; makes 6 servings.
Note: I use a mandoline to slice the onion, as it makes the cutting easier.
CHICKEN WITH POTATOES AND OLIVES
I am always pleased to come up with a dish that is a meal in itself — one that combines either chicken or meat with vegetables. This is one of my favorites, and because it is so easy to make, I often serve it at Passover. I bake it in an attractive casserole, so it can go directly from the oven to the table.
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
9 garlic cloves
1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
Leaves from 10 thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
5 plum tomatoes
1 pound (450 g) Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled, quartered
1/2 cup (67 g) pitted black olives, quartered
Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C). With 1 tablespoon of the oil, grease a glass, ceramic or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold all the vegetables in a single layer.
Coarsely chop 4 of the garlic cloves on a cutting board. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and, using a knife, crush them into a paste. Place the paste in a small bowl and combine it with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the oil, half of the thyme leaves and pepper to taste.
Pat dry the chicken breasts with paper towels and season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Coat the chicken with the mixture and set aside.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water; bring the water back to a boil and drain. Core the tomatoes and slip off the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half widthwise and squeeze gently to remove the seeds. (Some seeds will remain.) Cut the tomatoes in quarters.
Thickly slice the remaining 5 garlic cloves and spread them in the prepared baking pan along with the tomatoes, potatoes, olives, the rest of the thyme leaves, and the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until almost tender.
Place the chicken breasts on top of the vegetables and bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Turn them over, spoon on some pan juices and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the chicken is slightly pink on the inside. Cover with foil for 1 minute; makes 4 servings.
This is a delicious recipe that captures the very essence of spinach. Now that prewashed spinach is available in almost every supermarket, you can prepare this dish in minutes.
20 ounces (570 g) prewashed spinach
1 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Break the stems off the spinach leaves and discard.
Roast the pine nuts in a toaster oven on the lowest setting for 1 or 2 minutes, until they are golden. (Watch them carefully, as they burn quickly.)
Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add the oil. Add the spinach and stir quickly until it is just wilted, no more than a minute. Season with salt and pepper. With a slotted spoon, transfer the spinach to a serving dish. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top; makes 6 servings.
CHOCOLATE MERINGUE SQUARES
These meringue squares are like cookies, but they are light, chocolaty and surprisingly low in calories. I often serve them at Passover.
1 tablespoon (15 g) unsalted margarine for greasing the pan
1/2 pound (225 g) blanched almonds
6 ounces (170 g) good-quality imported semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
8 large egg whites (see notes)
1 cup (200 g) sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Line a 9-by-13-by-2-inch (23-by-33-by-5 cm) baking pan with wax paper and grease the paper with the margarine.
Chop the almonds in a food processor, in two batches, until medium-fine. Transfer to a bowl. Chop the chocolate in the processor until fine, and combine with the almonds.
Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Using the balloon whisk attachment, beat at high speed until foamy. Gradually add the sugar and beat until stiff.
With a large rubber spatula, gently fold the chocolate-almond mixture into the egg whites, making a motion like a figure 8 with the spatula. Do not overmix.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out
Cool on a wire rack. Invert onto a cutting board and peel off the paper. Cut into 1 1/2-inch (4 cm) squares; makes 3 1/2 dozen squares.
Notes: It is easier to separate the eggs straight from the refrigerator, when they are cold. Make sure the whites have come to room temperature before beating.
To freeze the squares, place them side by side in an air-tight plastic container, with wax paper between the layers.
Exodus script: For your seder table
The following text is excerpted from “The Bronfman Haggadah,” written by Edgar Bronfman with illustrations by Jan Aronson (Rizzoli, 2012).
NARRATOR: Four hundred years before the Exodus, a Hebrew named Joseph lived in the land of Egypt. Originally from Canaan, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. His extraordinary ability to interpret dreams eventually won his freedom and rose to prominence in Egypt.
NARRATOR: When a severe famine ravaged the area, Joseph reconciled with his brothers and brought his extended family from Canaan, settling them in Goshen, one of Egypt’s most fertile regions. As Joseph’s brilliant rationing strategies spared Egypt the worst of the famine, he was revered by the Egyptians.
NARRATOR: This love extended to his tribe — the Hebrews, or Israelites. But hundreds of years later, a Pharaoh came to power who didn’t know of Joseph and his legacy. And this Pharaoh feared the Israelites’ numbers.
PHARAOH: Our land teems with Israelites! Should war break out, they could easily side with the enemy. We must keep them from multiplying!
NARRATOR: So Pharaoh assigned two Hebrew midwives — Shiprah and Puah — with the terrible task of killing all the Hebrew boy babies at birth. But the midwives thwarted Pharaoh’s order.
NARRATOR: So Pharaoh set taskmasters over the Israelites, hoping to deplete their vigor with hard labor. Still, the Hebrew population swelled. Furious, Pharaoh ordered his soldiers to find every firstborn Hebrew boy and cast him into the Nile.
NARRATOR: Now there was a Hebrew mother named Jocheved. Often she’d seen Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants bathe in a pool sheltered by reeds. So Jocheved, with her daughter Miriam, set to work, daubing a bulrush basket with pitch and clay. With the watertight basket, they set off for the pool. Once there, they placed the little ark among the reeds.
NARRATOR: Unable to watch her child be claimed by another, Jocheved returned to Goshen. But Miriam stayed behind, wanting to know her baby brother’s fate. Soon Pharaoh’s daughter came to the river. When she spotted the basket, she commanded a servant to draw it from the water. Looking down at the little face, her heart filled with compassion for what she quickly realized was a Hebrew infant, most likely hidden by a desperate mother. She turned to one of her servants.
PRINCESS: My baby needs a wet nurse. Find one!
NARRATOR: Miriam stepped out from hiding.
MIRIAM: I know a woman who can nurse your baby.
PRINCESS: Well, go then and fetch her!
NARRATOR: Miriam hastened to Jocheved and told her what happened. And Jocheved suckled the baby, whom the princess named Moses — a common Egyptian name, but one that in Hebrew means “drawn from the water.”
NARRATOR: Moses grew up with Pharaoh’s son. They played together, rode horses together, and were like brothers. But Moses often felt a strange longing — especially when he watched the Hebrews toiling under the scorching sun, forced to build the treasure cities of Ramses and Pithom. The feeling deepened until one day when, as a whip whistled over the back of an elderly Hebrew, it erupted.
MOSES: Stop! You must stop!
NARRATOR: When the slave driver ignored Moses’ command, Moses killed him and hid the body in the sand. But one of Pharaoh’s men witnessed the killing. When he learned of it, Pharaoh shouted:
PHARAOH: Find Moses! He must be punished!
NARRATOR: But Moses had already escaped. He was now sojourning in the desert, seeking a home far from the tyranny and temples of Egypt. When he reached a place called Midian, he married a young woman named Zipporah — daughter of Jethro, a priest and shepherd. And Zipporah bore him two sons, and Moses dwelt with his family in Midian for many years.
NARRATOR: One day, while tending Jethro’s flock, Moses found himself at the foot of Mount Horeb, also known as Sinai. A bush was shimmering with fire, though its leaves and branches were not consumed. Suddenly an otherworldly voice boomed:
GOD: (VOICE IN THE BURNING BUSH) Moses, come no closer and remove your sandals — you stand on holy ground.
MOSES: Who are you?
GOD: I am the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As you’ve been living your simple shepherd’s life, I’ve watched my people suffering in Egypt. Unable to bear their bitter bondage, they have been crying out to me. So you must go, Moses, down to Egypt — and bring them to this mountain. After this, you will lead them to Canaan — the large and lovely land I promised your ancestors.
MOSES: No one will believe I am your messenger. My tongue is slow and my speech is not eloquent. My words will rally no one!
GOD: Fear not, Moses. What is that in your hand?
MOSES: A shepherd’s rod.
GOD: Cast it on the ground.
NARRATOR: Moses cast his rod down. Instantly it turned into a serpent. God then told him to grasp the serpent by the tail. At his touch, the snake turned back into a rod.
GOD: Now, Moses, slip your hand into your cloak and remove it.
NARRATOR: Moses obeyed. When he withdrew his hand, he gasped. His healthy flesh was now white and flaky as snow. At God’s command, Moses slipped his hand back into his bosom. When he removed it his scaly flesh had been restored to health.
GOD: If the people do not believe these signs and wonders, there will be others. And do not fear your slow speech. Your brother Aaron will serve as your spokesperson.
NARRATOR: So Moses and his family set off for Egypt. Halfway there, he met Aaron. When the two brothers reached Egypt, they arranged for a meeting with Pharaoh. Speaking on behalf of Moses, Aaron said:
AARON: Our God commands you to release his people so they can honor him with a three-day feast in the wilderness.
PHARAOH: Who is this god of yours? And why should I let my slaves worship him? They worship me alone! What can your god do that I cannot do myself?
NARRATOR: Moses threw down his rod and it turned into a serpent. But when Moses grasped the snake, it stiffened back into a rod.
PHARAOH: Nothing but a cheap trick. My magicians can do the same!
NARRATOR: Pharaoh summoned his magicians and commanded them to throw down their rods. They changed into small snakes. In the next moment, the larger snake of Moses swallowed the magicians’ serpents.
NARRATOR: But Pharaoh was unimpressed and refused to let the Hebrews go. Instead, he increased their burdens, withholding the straw they needed to bind the bricks. God then instructed Aaron to stretch his shepherd’s staff over the streams, the rivers, and the ponds of Egypt.
NARRATOR ONE: When Aaron did so, the waters turned to blood — even the water in the stone and wooden vessels turned to blood. Miraculously, the water in the slave province of Goshen remained pure. Still, Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews go. God then said to Aaron:
GOD: Stretch your staff once more over Egypt’s rivers, canals, and ponds!
NARRATOR: As Aaron did so, thousands of frogs leaped up and hopped through Egypt, entering the dwellings of royalty and commoners alike. They wiggled between the bedding, they sprang into the cooking pots, and they filled up the urns, temple bowls, and kneading troughs. The only place free of frogs was Goshen, home of the Hebrew slaves.
NARRATOR: When the Egyptian people became ill, Pharaoh had no choice but to summon Moses and Aaron back to his court.
PHARAOH: If your god removes these frogs, I will allow your people to make their three-day feast in the wilderness.
NARRATOR: So God caused the frogs to die. The Egyptians heaped them into enormous piles and set them ablaze. A terrible stench hovered over the land. But the moment the foul odor died away, Pharaoh withdrew his offer.
GOD: Moses, say to Aaron: Stretch out your rod and strike the dust of the land!
NARRATOR: Aaron did as commanded, and instantly the dust turned to lice. And the lice burrowed into the hair of humans and the fur of beasts. The Egyptian magicians attempted the same, but their powers were too weak. Afraid, the Egyptian magicians pleaded with Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.
NARRATOR: When Pharaoh dismissed their pleas, God unleashed clouds of winged pestilence. And the buzzing clouds of gnats and midges and flies covered Egypt, causing the people to wail in misery. Only the Hebrews were spared. Pharaoh summoned Moses.
PHARAOH: Tell your god to remove this scourge! If he does, I will release his people.
NARRATOR: Again, Pharaoh reneged on his promise. And God had no choice but to send more plagues. First, wild beasts ravaged the land, and then disease killed all of Egypt’s cattle.
NARRATOR: After that, boils bubbled up on the bodies of the Egyptians, and then hail the size of fists battered the fruit trees, breaking their boughs; only Goshen’s trees were spared. And when the hail hit the ground, it burst into flame, and the fire ran in rivulets through the city streets — except for the streets of Goshen.
NARRATOR: Yet Pharaoh’s heart remained stubborn; he refused to let the Hebrews go. So God blackened the sky with locusts. And the ravenous insects devoured every leaf and growing plant — other than those in Goshen. Facing mass starvation, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron.
PHARAOH: If your god crushes these locusts, I will let your people go!
NARRATOR: Moses implored God to remove the locusts from Egypt. God obliged, sending a stiff wind that swept all the locusts into the sea. As before, Pharaoh failed to honor his promise.
NARRATOR: At God’s command, Moses and Aaron stretched their hands to the heavens, causing a dense fog to roll across Egypt. The darkness was so thick it could be felt on the skin; the only gleam of light was in the slave quarters of Goshen. Terrified, Pharaoh called out to Moses and Aaron:
PHARAOH: Remove this suffocating darkness! If you do, you can take your people out of Egypt — though you must leave all your flocks and herds behind!
NARRATOR: But Moses refused to leave without the Hebrews’ livestock.
PHARAOH: Then you and your accursed people will never leave! Now go away from me! I cannot bear the sight of your face!
NARRATOR: Moses returned to God, who revealed to him the awful details of the tenth and final plague.
GOD: In ten days’ time, every firstborn male in Egypt will die at midnight. Not one will escape — neither the firstborn of Pharaoh nor the firstborn of the prisoner in the dungeon. And a loud cry will resound throughout Egypt — a cry that has never been heard or will ever be heard again.
But I will spare your children, Moses, and the children of your people. Tell the Israelites to slaughter an unblemished lamb. Then, with brushes of hyssop, instruct them to daub the lamb’s blood on their doorposts and lintels. Seeing these markings, the Angel of Death will pass over them.
Ever afterward, this day shall be celebrated as a memorial. And this memorial shall be called Passover, and each generation shall tell the next how their ancestors were delivered from bondage in Egypt. And you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord.
NARRATOR: Everything happened as God foretold. At midnight, the cries of mothers and fathers resounded throughout the towns and cities of Egypt. His own son destroyed, his will crushed, Pharaoh cried to Moses:
PHARAOH: Begone, Moses! And take your wretched people. And take the cattle and sheep you’ve so unjustly demanded! Go from here and never return!
NARRATOR: Fearful that Pharaoh would change his mind, the Israelites hastily prepared to leave, not even waiting for the bread in their kneading troughs to rise. And thus the Hebrews departed — six hundred thousand strong. And they journeyed far from the borders of Egypt, toward Canaan — the promised land of milk and honey. By day, they were guided by a whirling pillar of cloud; by night, a brilliant column of fire.
But Pharaoh’s heart hardened again, as did the hearts of his courtiers.
EGYPTIAN COURTIER: Why have you done this? Why have you released our slaves?
EGYPTIAN COURTIER: How will we till our land?
EGYPTIAN COURTIER: How will we feed our people?
EGYPTIAN COURTIER: We are ruined!
NARRATOR: Aware of the folly he’d committed, Pharaoh commanded his generals:
PHARAOH: Bring them back — every single one!
NARRATOR TWO: The Egyptian troops sped after the fleeing Hebrews. Soon the Israelites, camped on the shore of the sea, could hear the rumble of the approaching chariot wheels. They cried to Moses:
ISRAELITE: We are trapped! We will be killed!
ISRAELITE: Why have you taken us from Egypt just to die in the wilderness?
ISRAELITE: He is right! Better to have remained slaves in Egypt!
ISRAELITE: You have not led us to freedom — you’ve led us to death!
MOSES: Fear not. Stand still, and see what God shall do for you.
NARRATOR: Moses then stretched out his rod, causing an easterly wind to blow. With Egypt’s militia bearing down fast, an Israelite named Nahshon broke from the crowd and boldly stepped into the sea. The wind stirred up the water, heaping it into two growing walls with a wide, dry path running in between. The Israelites followed Nahshon across the divided sea.
NARRATOR: The Egyptian army soon charged behind. But Moses did not panic. It was only when his people had reached the other side that he stretched his rod again, making the walls of water to roll back into place. For a few minutes, the Egyptian troops floundered in the waves. But quickly they were covered, and their cries were heard no more.
NARRATOR: Moses’ sister Miriam rushed to the shore. As her tambourine jingled, she joyously sang:
MIRIAM: Who is like you, O God, among the gods? You triumphed gloriously; throwing horse and driver into the sea!
NARRATOR: And thus Israel was out of Egypt. And all day and night the Israelites celebrated, dancing and singing, oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead. (break in storytelling)
MIRIAM’S CUP AND TEN DROPS OF WINE
LEADER: We now pause in our storytelling and turn our attention to another ritual item on our seder table. This is known as Miriam’s Cup. The item was inspired by a midrashic legend of a miraculous well that traveled with the Israelites as they trekked through the wildness. Although it is never mentioned in the Exodus narrative, it became known as Miriam’s Well. According to the midrashic account, it disappeared when Miriam died.
CELEBRANT: The purpose of Miriam’s Cup — a relatively new seder object — is to honor the Prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, along with all other women — biblical, historical, and contemporary — who have worked so tirelessly for freedom on behalf of Jews and non-Jews alike.
LEADER: Miriam’s Cup also provides us with a chance to personally honor a special woman in our lives — a mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, or other. As we pass around Miriam’s Cup, we each add a drop of water from our glasses. As we add this drop, we reflect on the warmth and love of the special woman we’ve chosen to remember tonight. (Leader pours drop of water into Miriam’s Cup and then passes the cup to the next person; each celebrant adds a drop of water as the cup circles the table.)
CELEBRANT: At this juncture in our seder, we point out a midrash associated with the parting of the Sea of Reeds. The term “Sea of Reeds” is not a misnomer or alternative name for the Red Sea. It was a part of it, with shallow waters. While the Israelites could wade across it, the Egyptians, in their armor and their heavy chariots, drowned in it. Although the biblical account describes the Hebrews singing at the destruction of the Egyptians, the midrash tells another story.
CELEBRANT: In that version, the angels are cheering as the waters roll back into place, plunging the Egyptians to their deaths. But when God hears the angels’ rejoicing, he grows angry and admonishes them: “Stop cheering, those are my people, too.” Most of us don’t believe in angels, but this story imaginatively makes an important point: While Jewish tradition sanctions the right to self-defense, it instructs us to always celebrate life, not death — even the death of our enemies. This lovely midrash teaches us that Judaism considers all people precious.
LEADER: This concept is expressed in the traditional Passover custom of casting drops of wine from our glasses onto our plates. With a finger, we each remove ten drops — one for each plague — and cast them onto our plates. This custom expresses our aversion to the punishment meted out to the Egyptians during our ancestors’ deliverance. As long as others suffer — even our enemies — our own joy, symbolized by the wine in our glasses, is lessened.
CELEBRANT: As we perform this ritual, we reflect on the calamities plaguing our world today: the slaughter of innocents — both humans and beasts — as well as the pillaging and crowding of our planet, the plundering of our seas, the corrosive poverty, and the unjust wars. As we lessen our joy, let’s silently commit ourselves to kedoshim tehiya — the striving after godliness and righteousness. Together, we now perform this ritual. (Participants dip one finger into the wine remaining in their glasses, casting ten drops onto their plates.)
LEADER: We now finish our second cup of wine and return to our story.
NARRATOR: Week after week, the Israelites journeyed south through the blistering heat of Shur. Finally, they reached an oasis called Marah. In huge throngs, they raced to its shining pools. But the water proved bitter and they spat it out.
ISRAELITE: What shall we drink?
ISRAELITE: We shall perish of thirst!
NARRATOR: Once again, Moses called out to God. And God told him to take the limb of a tree and cast it into the pool. Moses did so, and the waters of Marah turned pure and sweet. After satisfying their thirst, the Israelites journeyed on. As long as they had food, they remained calm. But once their stores ran out, their voices rose again in anger.
ISRAELITE: Moses! What are we supposed to eat? We will die of starvation!
ISRAELITE: He is right! Better we had stayed in Egypt!
ISRAELITE: We may have been slaves, but at least we had bread!
ISRAELITE: You’ve brought us from Egypt only to kill us with hunger!
NARRATOR: With each passing day, the accusations grew stronger. Fearing the people might stone him to death, Moses called out to God. And God said:
GOD: Tell the people I will bring them meat and cause bread to rain down from the sky. And from this time forth, they will be able to gather their portion. But warn them not to gather in excess. And on the sixth day, they must gather a double portion — for the seventh day must be a day of rest.
NARRATOR: That very evening, a flock of quail flew into the camp. And the people set up nets and caught the birds easily. In the morning, the ground was dotted with sticky, wafer-like flakes that tasted like honey.
NARRATOR: The Israelites called this delicious foodstuff manna. And the pillar of cloud whirled on, leading them by day, and the pillar of fire burned brightly, guiding them by night.
NARRATOR: Finally, after forty-nine days of journeying through scorching heat and howling winds, thirst and hunger, the assembly reached the plains near Mount Sinai. Leaving his terrified people camped on the plains, Moses ascended to the smoking peak. When he returned, he held two stone tablets inscribed with the spiritual imperatives known as the Ten Commandments. (Storytelling ends.) n
Reprinted from “The Bronfman Haggadah” © Rizzoli, New York, 2012. Illustrations copyright 2012 © Jan Aronson.