The chametz within


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

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

But Pesach is far more than a retelling of history. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A joyous, happy and clean Pesach to all. 

JFS brings seders to seniors


For 34 years, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) has been holding seders for senior citizens across the Los Angeles area, sponsoring services and feeding those who have nowhere else to go during one of the most widely celebrated holidays on the festival calendar. 

This Passover tradition continued on March 10, when JFS hosted seders for 600 attendees and 120 volunteers at Temple Beth Am near Pico-Robertson, Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge and Hollywood Temple Beth El in Hollywood. 

“People are very gracious and appreciative of the fact that they have a place to go and be part of a seder and part of a community,” said Sherri Kadovitz, community outreach and special projects coordinator for JFS. “They’re older adults, and a lot of them don’t have a lot of family here. They are happy to be with friends and that JFS provides this service every year.” 

The services were nondenominational and open to the public, who could register through local senior centers. Volunteers this year included children under 10 years of age, students from Milken Community High School and older adults in their 70s. 

The Temple Beth El meal was geared toward the Russian-speaking community, while Temple Beth Am brought Holocaust survivors together. The third, at Ramat Zion, had no specific target audience. 

Rabbi Helene Kornsgold, who led the seder services for the first time at Ramat Zion, where she is religious school director, said she became involved through Kadovitz, who is a member of the congregation. 

“I really enjoy Passover, and I think everybody should have the opportunity to experience a lively, thorough seder,” she said. “I thought I would be able to provide a meaningful experience for some people if it’s their only seder this year.”

The rabbi said it’s important for everyone to be part of the holiday in some capacity because “regardless of what traditions people do, they remember Passover. They remember being with their families and celebrating the holiday. It seems to be one of those things that sticks with people. It’s a good thing that [promotes] positive Jewish memories.”

JFS has been working with food services company Catering by Brenda for more than 10 years to provide the traditional Passover meals. During the event, there was entertainment as well. A klezmer band performed at Temple Beth El, while singers performed Yiddish music at the others. 

Monique Gibbons was one of the volunteers who helped set up, serve food and participate in the seder this year. The JFS board member, who goes to Temple Beth Am, said, “The seniors get a kick out of it, and they have a great time. It’s a lot of fun. …We have people that come back and volunteer year after year, so we’re friends.”

Gibbons added that due to the seder program, seniors have been able to find their own community and come together during Passover. 

“We are Jewish, and this is what our ancestors have done for thousands of years. It’s nice to see that it’s still important to people,” she said.

Rabbi Gabriel Elias of Congregation Mogen David has led services for the JFS seders more than five times. He said he does it because he likes to help people and give everyone a glimpse into the Jewish past. 

“If we didn’t do it, some of [the seniors] would never do it at all. A lot of them are Russian and Iranian immigrants, and unfortunately they didn’t experience Passover because they weren’t free to [in their countries]. They now have the opportunity to experience something that’s part of their tradition. What JFS does is clearly important and beneficial to the Jewish people.”

The community seders held on March 10 aren’t the only Passover events JFS is involved with this year. The organization is also distributing kosher-for-Passover food through its SOVA Community Food & Resource Program and providing additional meals throughout the holiday. In general, JFS assists more than 100,000 people every year through its numerous programs and food pantry, according to Kadovitz.

Kadovitz said she appreciated the chance to be involved with the seders this Passover. 

“It’s a wonderful experience. I’m thrilled that I am part of this,” she said. “It’s very enriching and very rewarding.” 

Calendar Picks and Clicks: March 16-22, 2013


Looking for Passover events? Check out our Passover calendar.


SAT MARCH 16

“LOVE FROM JEWISH KITCHENS”

Storyteller Karen Golden takes a food-centric journey through the holidays with a buffet of traditional and original stories that highlight how recipes bond generations. A catered nosh — including kugel — follows the performance. Sat. 2-4 p.m. $20. Institute of Musical Arts, 3210 W. 54th St., Los Angeles. (323) 300-6578. lovefromjewishkitchens.eventbrite.com.


SUN MARCH 17

“CONCENTRATIONARY CINEMA/CONCENTRATIONARY MEMORY”

Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog,” one of the most screened films about the Holocaust, is often criticized for its failure to confront the specificity of the genocide. “Concentrationary Cinema” authors Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman, both professors at the University of Leeds, present their argument that the film’s political aesthetics of resistance might better be approached through the prism of the camps as the core instrument of totalitarianism’s assault on the human condition. Sun. 2 p.m. Free. Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000. hammer.ucla.edu.

“MURDER ON A KIBBUTZ”

Michele Paskow, a lecturer in the Jewish studies department at California State University, Northridge, leads a discussion on “Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case,” a murder mystery by late Israeli author Batya Gur. Today’s event is the first meeting of a book discussion group at CSUN featuring the university’s Jewish studies faculty facilitating conversations about interesting reads. Sun. 2-4 p.m. Free. California State University, Northridge, Oviatt Library, Jack & Florence Ferman Presentation Room, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. (818) 677-4724. http://www.csun.edu/~jsprogr.

DANIEL KAHN AND THE PAINTED BIRD

Fusing klezmer, political cabaret and punk folk, this internationally renowned ensemble, led by Detroit-area native Daniel Kahn plays West Hollywood. The set-list draws on material from the group’s newest album, “Bad Old Songs,” which features polyglot reinventions of Yiddish folk songs and covers of classics from Leonard Cohen and Franz Josef Degenhardt. Notable Russian-Jewish songwriter Psoy Korolenko appears as a special guest. Sun. 7-8:30 p.m. $10. Plummer Park, Fiesta Hall, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (213) 389-8880. yiddishkayt.org.


MON MARCH 18

“TECHNOLOGY … DOES IT FREE US OR KEEP US ENSLAVED?”

Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader of rehabilitation center Beit T’Shuvah, and Cambria Gordon, co-author of “The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming,” discuss mindfulness in navigating today’s technologically dense world during an evening of dinner and learning. Gordon, wife of “Homeland” producer Howard Gordon, who lost control of her SUV while reaching for her cell phone and struck an elderly man in 2011, shares her personal story on the dangers and consequences of distracted driving and the faith-based lessons she learned. Mon. 6:30-8:30 p.m. Free. Beit T’Shuvah, 8831 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 204-5200. beittshuvah.org.

HARPER SIMON

The singer-songwriter, son of folk-rock icon Paul Simon, moves away from his alt country-flavored debut to explore a modern psychedelic folk-rock sound driven by electric guitars as he plays material from his forthcoming sophomore album, “Division Street.” Willoughby, Henry Wolfe and Heather Porcarro also perform. 21 and older. Mon. 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Free. The Satellite, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 661-4380. thesatellitela.com.


TUE MARCH 19

DORA LEVY MOSSANEN

The Women’s International Zionist Organization hosts a special dessert reception and Q-and-A with the acclaimed Israeli writer. A Jewish Journal contributor, Mossanen is author of the historical novels, “The Last Romanov,” “Harem” and “Courtesan.” Tue. 7 p.m. $36. Light in Art Gallery, 8408 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 378-2312. wizola.org.


FRI MARCH 22

“DORFMAN IN LOVE”

Set in Los Angeles’ revitalized downtown and a highlight of the 2012 Los Angles Jewish Film Festival, this indie romantic-comedy follows a nebbish-y young Jewish woman named Deb (Sara Rue). Trapped in the role of caretaker of her unappreciative family, Deb suddenly gets her own life when she volunteers to cat-sit at her unrequited love’s downtown loft for a week. Oscar nominee Elliott Gould costars as Burt Dorfman, Deb’s cantankerous widowed father. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (children younger than 12, seniors). Laemmle’s Noho 7, 5240 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. laemmle.com


ALL WEEK

PASSOVER

Celebrate the Jewish people’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery with Pesach events that begin well before the first seder on March 25. Highlights include musician Craig Taubman’s interfaith experience, drawing Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy to downtown’s Pico Union neighborhood; acclaimed restaurant Jar’s kosher-for-Passover menu, which features crispy potato pancakes, Alaskan halibut and horseradish mash potatoes; and the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles’ women’s seder, which aims to inspire and educate about social justice issues. With events for children and their parents, the elderly, young professionals and for all denominations, there is something for everyone.

View more Passover events here.

Poet’s Haggadah story


Every year at Passover, families around the world pull out their Haggadahs for their Seders, and whether they use a traditional text, a modern one, or even Maxwell House, the story and the words remain largely the same.  But one man, Rick Lupert, saw an opportunity to do something more than produce just another slight tweaking of the classic text.  And thus, the Poet’s Haggadah was born.

The idea didn’t emerge out of nowhere, Lupert’s been running a poetry website – Poetrysuperhighway.com—for over a decade, and one of his main goals is getting poets from around the country to connect.  “I’m always looking for different ways to get poets to share their work with each other,” Lupert says.  One year, as Passover approached, Lupert realized that there might be a way to combine his interest in poetry and Judaism in a unique way. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if poets reinterpreted the Haggadah.’”

Lupert put out a call for submissions and turned to some Los Angeles poets whose work he felt might fit.  He had no clue what the response would be, although he hoped that due to the success of past poetry exchanges he’d done, and the large number of poets who visited his site, that he’d get some good interest. 

One of the poets Lupert contacted was Rachel Kann.  “I’ve known Rick for years and years,” says Kann, “through the poetry community…but not through anything Jewish.”  For Kann, the opportunity to connect her poetry with her Judaism was a welcome one.  “I think he knew I’d be excited about it,”  says Kann, “I take my Judaism very seriously.”

Kann was raised in a secular household in a small town, where, she says, she and her siblings made up roughly “50 percent of the Jewish population.”  It wasn’t until she was older, and “tattooed” that she grew into her Judaism, finding inspiration in the writing of Aryeh Kaplan and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.  Kann decided to write a poem responding to the song Dayeinu.  As she describes it, the poem barely made it in the book as she struggled to get it in before the deadline, but Kann is thrilled it did.  “I have so much gratitude (to Rick) for giving me the assignment,” says Kann. “It parted my Red Sea…I was struggling.”

A few months after publishing her poem, a friend invited Kann to read at an event for the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis.  Kann “was freaking out” before her reading.  She wondered how the rabbis would respond to a tattooed outsider reading her potentitally blasphemous poem.

“I was thinking, I’m going to get struck by lightning for reading this poem here,” Kann recalls.  To her surprise, the rabbis “were so supportive. The response I got was very healing for me, very affirming.”  As a Jew who often felt like an outsider, Kann’s poem allowed her to feel like she was accepted.

Poet Larry Colker was similarly solicited for a contribution.  He spent a number of days trying to figure out what to write about.

“I was reluctant because “occasional” poetry is typically a trap for mediocre work,” Colker says.  But because of his respect for Lupert, Colker pressed forward.  What emerged was a poem about Elijah the prophet, which Colker says is “very personal.”  He submitted it despite some trepidation, because he trusted Lupert. “Rick always endows his creations with unique…wrinkles…so I thought it would be fun.”

When Ellyn Maybe, a regular at many LA Poetry events, heard from Lupert, she jumped right in. “It sounded so cool,” says Maybe, who submitted a poem about the “Four Questions” that delves into issues of social justice.  “I think that’s one thing poets do naturally… questioning,” says Maybe. 

It wasn’t the first dip into the world of Jewish poetry for Maybe, who has also written poems on topics like Yom Kippur.  “It’s important to look deeper into things for yourself,” says Maybe about her decision to delve into Jewish holidays.  For Maybe, whose work is usually not so steeped in Judaism,— she’s traveling with her band to the Glastonbury festival later this year to perform—it was a unique chance to explore Jewish themes.

One thing Maybe loved about the project was the “Poets’ Seder” that went on after the anthology was completed.  A number of poets who’d published in the book gathered at Beyond Baroque, an arts center in Venice.  “They came out, we had some music, it was sort of a performance seder,” says Lupert.  The poets in attendance read their work live, and others called in from around the globe.  As Maybe recalls it, “a lot of poets read that night. I think it was moving.  It’s neat when people are in an anthology together and get to hear their work spoken, too.”

The event was a big success and is available to listen to at poetseder.com, where the anthology can also be purchased.

Lupert hopes the book will find a place at the seders of people around Los Angeles and around the world.  “I didn’t think anyone would necessarily use this as a Haggadah,” Lupert says, though he did just that at a seder at his in-laws.  Lupert hoped that the book could supplement a traditional Haggadah at a seder, and that it would “be an interesting read, whether or not people used it for Passover.” 

“Everyone has their own sensibility about what they enjoy,” Lupert says.  He doesn’t expect that every person will love every poem in the anthology, but he hopes that through its diversity it offers something for everyone.  And if you enjoy poetry, you may want to pick up a copy for your own seder and see for yourself.

Card-Table Tales


 

I confess that most of my childhood Passover memories have nothing to do with the Passover story itself. How could they when seders were family dramas enacted against a backdrop of matzah and gefilte fish? Like most American Jewish kids, I started out observing the proceedings from a card table, fidgeting while the grown-ups read from the haggadah.

I remember my cultivated Grandma Lil, relishing dunking her finger into her cup and flicking wine out while reciting the 10 plagues. She always tried to avoid the eyes of my Grandpa Herman, her ex-husband. I think the tyrannical Herman, an esteemed ear-nose-and-throat doctor, had been one of her private plagues. But love Herman or not, Grandma tolerated him at seders. The didact in Grandpa Herman embraced the lecture component of seders. He had a little notebook full of Pesach cartoons and poems that he called a Children’s Haggadah. He dragged it out every year to show us the same poems and pictures. My grandmother just rolled her eyes. We kids humored him.

I also remember heated arguments about the Vietnam War, with my then-hawkish, young, dentist father vs. his UCLA sociology doctoral-student brother and Berkeley undergraduate sister. My father’s brother had a long, hippie beard that shook like a burning bush when he shouted, “We’re killing innocent children in ‘Nam!” My father’s sister’s breasts shook (she must have burned her bra during a protest at People’s Park) and cords stood out on her neck when she yelled at my father: “You’re sounding like one of the pigs.”

My father’s genial father stepped in with his Yiddish-accented English and said, “Quiet, we’re trying to have a seder here. What will the children think?”

He motioned at me, age 6, and my sister, age 4. The seder went on.

As I grew older and more responsible, I was allowed into the grown-up sanctum, the actual dining room. I felt almost adult as I carried steaming bowls of matzah ball soup, cleared the dishes and conversed with my elders. At age 15, as I cleared the dinner plates from the grandparent section of the table, I heard my sweet, widowed, little Grandma Bea sucking the marrow from a thick chicken bone. Suddenly, tyrannical Herman screamed at her from across the table, “That’s disgusting! You’re not living in the shtetl anymore. You’re nothing but a peasant.”

Grandma Bea ignored him and sucked louder.

“I’m done now, Sharon dear,” she said. “You can take my plate.”

I scooped up her plate and tried to dash for the kitchen. Grandpa Herman grabbed my forearm, fixed his blue eyes on mine and said, “I hope you won’t behave like her in polite society.”

I wanted to cry. But I followed my grandma’s example, ignored him, and walked out. Although Grandpa Herman’s rages were getting scarier with age, I learned to cope.

My Grandma Lil, tyrannical Grandpa Herman, genial Grandpa Fred and my father are all gone now, but these seder memories remain. I try to view even the painful memories as a blessing. Growing up, these experiences taught me that despite difficult relatives and challenging situations the seder must go on — the story must be told, the wine must be drunk and the songs must be sung. Doesn’t that somehow seem like a metaphor for the Jewish people’

My once wild-bearded sociologist uncle is now a retired college professor with very little hair remaining on his head. He conducts the seders much like my father did before him, and my grandfather before him. His past political outrages have been muted by time. But somehow the seder remains the same.

Now that I’ve graduated to near the head of the dining room table, I sense a lot more people around me then I did in the card table days. I feel the presence of all the dead relatives I remember from childhood on, and see a new crop of children sitting at the card table. From generation to generation, in my mind’s eye, everyone is around the table. That’s the power of seder I hope to pass on to my own children.

Sharon Rosen is a mother of three and is currently working on her first novel.

 

Ritualized Equality


Woven into many Jews’ seders when they sit down to celebrate Passover this year will be a spate of new traditions.

A Miriam’s Cup next to Elijah’s represents the role of the prophetess Miriam in the Exodus and highlights women’s contributions to Jewish culture. A seemingly out-of-place orange on the seder plate represents how women — traditionally thought to have no place in Jewish study — have introduced their voices to Judaism.

Through integrating each of these into our retelling of the Exodus, the voices and perspectives of women are unearthed and brought into the present, where they add to the vitality of contemporary Judaism.

Like them, another relatively recent innovation — the simchat bat, or welcoming ceremony for Jewish baby girls — focuses on the feminine voice and is becoming so widely practiced that it is taking on the weight of tradition.

For centuries, Jewish communities from North Africa to Eastern Europe welcomed their baby girls with a range of customs, though none carried the same sense of religious importance as the commanded brit milah, or ritual circumcision, always has for boys. And as those communities were dispersed into Diaspora or destroyed by anti-Semitism, the customs regarding girls’ births all but died out.

Though the Sephardic community in America still customarily welcomes its new daughters with singing in synagogue and a party, in most American Jewish families little was done, until recently, to recognize the birth of a girl through religious ritual.

Traditionally oriented fathers go to synagogue on the first day that the Torah is read after the birth of a daughter, to name her and ask God to watch over her and help heal his wife. Rarely are the mother and baby present.

Today, in liberal synagogues, the entire family is often called up for an aliyah when family members first return to synagogue on Shabbat. They bless the Torah, and a blessing is said to name the new daughter and offer hope that she will grow into healthy adulthood.

But in recent years, the simchat bat has also been available to Jews wanting to welcome their baby daughters into the covenant and into their families with the same marriage of ritual seriousness and joy as they accord their sons.

The simchat bat (celebration of the daughter) or brit bat (covenant of the daughter), as it is often known, was first created in the early 1970s by Rabbis Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Dennis Sasso, and, separately, by Rabbi Michael and Sharon Strassfeld. They were connected with the chavurah and Reconstructionist movements, which created the new ritual out of a desire to renew Judaism spiritually and to include the female voice equally.

Since that time, especially during the last five years, welcoming the birth or adoption of baby girls has become a quiet revolution in all sectors of the Jewish community, with Jews from Humanist to Reform to Orthodox welcoming their daughters with rituals they compose and hold at home.

“Thirty years ago nobody even asked the question of whether a girl should have a ceremony,” said Rabbi Nina Cardin, who was involved early on in the creation and dissemination of welcoming ceremonies for girls. Cardin now works as director of Jewish Life for the JCC of Greater Baltimore.

“There is a huge awareness that has developed over a relatively short span of time, and it has bubbled up from the bottom,” Cardin said. “These ceremonies were a very radical expression back then, and nowadays they’re not.”

While the mainstream movements’ rabbis’ manuals today all include brief synagogue-based rituals to welcome girls, a growing number of families are opting to hold a more complex ceremony at home. There they welcome their daughters with rituals as unique as their families.

Adina Kalet and her husband, Mark Schwartz, who belong to a Conservative synagogue and live in Brooklyn with their son and daughter, knew that they would welcome their daughter with a simchat bat after they adopted her from Colombia, at age 4 months, just over a year ago.

“We were eager to celebrate publicly her coming to us, and we’ve always turned to our own traditions as much as we could,” Kalet said. “Even during five years of infertility we looked for Jewish rituals” to help work through it. Having a simchat bat to welcome Sara “just seemed like the natural thing to do,” she said.

Incorporated into Sara’s simchat bat were elements representing her heritage. An aunt sang her a song in Ladino, the language of Spanish-speaking Jews. Kalet and Schwartz dipped Sara’s feet in water, similar to the mikvah in which she had just been immersed to be converted to Judaism, and spoke movingly of their long journey in bringing her into their family.

Kalet also wore a necklace of a gold Colombian fertility goddess, which they had purchased when they went to get Sara.

“To have a ritual way of welcoming her was just so meaningful on so many levels. It helped us focus on the transition from being infertile to having it all be over and having her be with us,” Kalet said. “Plus it was just fun to have a party.”

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