Where’s the Passover story?


It’s one of the great mysteries of the Jewish tradition. Every year, Jews around the world gather around a seder table to retell the story of our people’s liberationfrom slavery. You can read a thousand articles, talk to a thousand rabbis, and they’ll all say the same thing: At the Passover seder, we retell the story of the Exodus.

There’s only one problem with this statement: It’s not really true.

At least not if you go by the traditional definition of story.

Pay attention to every word when you go through the haggadah this year, and ask yourself: Where exactly is the story? Especially all you folks in Hollywood — agents, screenwriters, producers, actors — who live and breathe stories every day. Is this an actual story you are reading? Where’s the buildup? The character development? The narrative flow? The climax?

The haggadah, as handed down by our rabbinic sages, breaks all the rules of good storytelling.

Sure, there are snippets of story here and there: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”; “The Egyptians did evil to us and afflicted us and imposed hard labors upon us,” and so on.

But the bulk of the haggadah is a mercurial mash-up of commentaries and biblical exhortations. A minute into the “story,” for example, we are mired in a Talmudic discussion between Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and four other rabbis in Bnei Brak on the subtleties of a particular phrase in Deuteronomy — as they debate not the Exodus itself, but simply when and how often they should study it.

What comes next? Well, had the writers concerned themselves with the basics of storytelling, they might have continued like this:

“The year was 1445 B.C.E. The Israelites are now captives in Egypt, and the time of Joseph, the Jew who became prime minister in Egypt, is long forgotten. The ruling Pharaoh fears their numbers. The Israelites are an estimated 2 million in number. Moses, who had been raised in Pharaoh’s court, is now living as a shepherd in the desert.

“As he is tending to his flock, Moses sees a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. He goes to the bush, and, to his astonishment, God speaks to him from it: ‘Come now, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, so that you may bring forth my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’

“It took some convincing to get Moses to agree to the task. Moses was not a good speaker and he feared that he would fail. But still, he listened to God and set out with his family on the long trek to Egypt.”

The story goes on, and it’s an epic one, full of high drama and human conflict. Unfortunately, most of it is not in your haggadah.

Instead, after the Talmudic debate in Bnei Brak, the haggadah continues with one of the great non sequiturs of Jewish liturgy: The Four Sons. Think about it. What do these four characters have to do with the story of the Exodus? In Hollywood parlance, they don’t even establish a subtext, or plant the seeds for a future plot twist. They just show up.

So what gives here? Why is our annual night of storytelling so devoid of actual storytelling? How can we ask Jews to relive the story of their people if we don’t explain it to them — and make it part of the official liturgy? How can we expect them to embrace and discuss a story that looks so disjointed and full of holes?

Sometimes I think we should contact the Creative Artists Agency and ask them to produce the world’s most compelling retelling of the Passover story. Can you imagine the haggadah that an elite team of Jewish screenwriters and producers could create? Families and seder participants would be riveted to the page. The tension would build as each person would take turns reading from this extraordinary story — and no one would think of asking, “When do we eat?”

This all sounds so logical and wonderful that I feel like calling CAA right away. But before we rush off and rewrite our 2,000-year-old liturgy, it’s worth asking one key question: Why would our brilliant sages tell the story of the liberation of the Jewish people in such a mercurial and fragmented way?

The usual answer is that we are encouraged to fill in the holes with our own questions and discussion. This response has never satisfied me. I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to discuss a story and ask questions if the story is told clearly and completely.

No, I think it’s possible that our sages had something deeper and more subtle in mind. Maybe, just maybe, our sages were elusive in their writing because they didn’t want us to get overly attached — to our own story.

This thought occurred to me during a recent Friday night meal at my place with two great thinkers from Israel (Avraham Infeld and Gidi Grinstein). We were talking about the need for Zionism to renew itself, and in doing so, to make sure it doesn’t stay too stuck to its old narratives. Yes, it is critical to remember the stories and lessons of our past, but not in a way that deadens our thinking in the present or stops us from considering new ideas for the future.

In that spirit, it could be that our sages gave us a more grainy and less explicit version of the Passover story so that we could review it from a healthy distance — and not get so enmeshed in the drama that we fall prey to triumphalism or victimhood. In other words, they wanted us to own the story, rather than have the story own us.

Maybe that’s the great hidden lesson of Passover: We can become slaves to anything, even to our own amazing story.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Food for Thought


Vica is tall, blonde and Jewish. She is my interpreter.

It’s February 2005 and I am in Vilna, Lithuania, at the Baltics Limmud Conference. I am here as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ strategic partnership with the Baltics communities to teach subjects as varied as “Judiasm & Sexuality,” “Conservative Judaism” and “The Meaning of Mitzvah” to a Jewish community whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition was decimated by 50 years of Soviet oppression.

Vica translates what I teach into Russian, the lingua franca of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a remnant from the Soviet era. She is active in the burgeoning Jewish community in Vilna, and comes to Limmud to work as a translator and to participate in learning. Yet she dates a non-Jewish Lithuanian because there are so few Jewish men her age.

When I ask about her Jewish upbringing, she says she didn’t really have any.

“My mother is Jewish and my father is not,” she says. “My mother had forgotten most everything from her childhood and she was not allowed to practice or learn anything, so by the time I arrived she really didn’t know what to teach me. But once we went to shul on Passover, and I do remember the matzahs from the shul. I don’t remember what they were for, but I remember eating matzah once in shul.”

Vica remembers eating matzah. Don’t underestimate the importance of the taste buds. Jews are a smart people. We value good grades and we love a good debate. But at the beginning of all good Jewish learning, there is food.

In traditional communities, the Alef Bet is still taught by feeding Jewish children Hebrew letters covered in honey so they associate sweetness with Torah. After Moses and the leaders of the Jewish people affirm their covenant with God at Mount Sinai and have a dramatic vision of God, they sit down to eat and drink (Exodus 24:12).

On Passover, when the central mitzvah of the seder is to teach our children the story of the Jewish people, we eat. We eat spring and call it parsley. We eat bitterness and call it maror. We eat bricks and call it charoset. We eat poverty and call it matzah.

We teach our children the words, but when our children are denied the story for 50 years, when a mother “has forgotten most everything from her childhood” and “doesn’t know what to teach,” when nothing else remains, matzah, like a stubborn daffodil blooming after a hard winter’s frost, is what Vica remembers.

Why does food work so well?

Scientists will tell you that the senses of smell and taste are most strongly associated with memory. I think eating resembles what learning the Passover story should be — we allow something from outside of ourselves to enter us; we “digest it” and change it (it is we who must tell the story so that our children can hear it) and it changes us and nourishes us and stays with us forever.

The Passover seder is among the most observed holidays in the Jewish world. When other ties with Jewish life have frayed, Passover remains. The food of Passover has much to do with this fact. Too often, Jews feel disempowered to teach their children, or themselves, the Jewish tradition because they feel they do not know enough. But on Passover, the haggadah teaches — “all who are hungry, come and eat.” Everyone can eat. Passover remains.

But Passover cannot be enough. Matzah cannot be enough. During the rest of the year, what do our homes taste like? Will our children remember the taste of Shabbat dinner on Friday night? Will they remember blintzes on Shavuot? Latkes on Chanukah? Honey and Hebrew letters? Will they remember the smell of cooking food to be delivered to a family who is mourning? What will remain beyond matzah?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

 

Humor in ‘Eat’ an Acquired Taste


When Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the nondenominational congregation Ohr HaTorah, saw the new Passover comedy “When Do We Eat?” — he loved it.

“I laughed and laughed and laughed,” he said. He saw the movie three more times, and each time he liked it better.

Hap Erstein, the film reviewer for Florida’s Palm Beach Post, had a different reaction.

Since seeing the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through a Passover seder, “a bad taste has been left in my mouth,” Erstein said.

Where Finley saw a story about the “redemptive power of a seder,” Erstein saw “mean-spirited and low-targeted humor.”

By now, the creators of the film, which has played in film festivals around the country and opens in theaters today, have come to expect such polarized reactions to their movie. Viewers either love it or hate it.

“When Do We Eat?” centers on the Stuckman family, which includes grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman); father Ira (Michael Lerner), who tries to lead “the world’s fastest seder”; his neglected wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren); and their children.

Daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a sex-surrogate. Son Ethan (Max Greenfield) recently became Chasidic, but has a hard time resisting the wiles of his sexy cousin, Vanessa (Mili Avital). Youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is an autistic obsessed with the number seven. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira’s daughter from a previous marriage, is a lesbian and brings her African American girlfriend, Grace (Cynda Williams), to the seder. Zeke (Ben Feldman), a teenage stoner, slips his father some ecstasy halfway through the meal.

Salvador Litvak, the film’s 40-year-old director and producer, co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Nina Davidovich, 38. The way they see it, “When Do We Eat?” fits into a current trend of “in-your-face, proud-to-be Jewish” cultural statements, from Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer whose latest album topped the charts last month; to “Go for Zuker,” the recent German Jewish comedy about a dysfunctional family; to the irreverent, New York-based Heeb magazine.

“Some people get it, some people don’t,” said Litvak, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit and wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to study Talmud. While “When Do We Eat?” opened the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, it did not make it into the Boston or New York Jewish film festivals.

“The people who get it,” he said, “are the people who can laugh at themselves.”

Erstein, in his review in The Palm Beach Post, labeled the movie “lowbrow sitcom” and charged Litvak with “trafficking in broad caricatures and ethnic stereotypes.” In an interview, Erstein said the movie reminded him of “Meet the Fockers” and “There’s Something About Mary,” comedies that use crude jokes to target the lowest-common-denominator viewer.

What bothered him about this movie, Erstein, 56, said, was the way it portrayed Judaism.

“It’s taking cheap shots at it,” he said.

Here lies the central contention, the age-old question: Is this movie, ultimately, good for the Jews?

“Some people seem to have a reaction that it isn’t good for the Jews,” said Davidovich, who co-wrote the film. “I think that’s a short-sighted reaction, because the cause of anti-Semitism through the years — well, a large part of it — has been people’s perception that we think we’re better than them. In this movie, we’re portraying Jews as no better than anybody else.”

But no worse than anyone else, either, Litvak added, explaining that the family was made to be outrageously dysfunctional for comedy’s sake.

Davidovich stressed that she went out of her way to contradict stereotypes.

“What drives me nuts,” she said, banging a fist on her skirt, “is in popular culture, Jewish women are always portrayed as unattractive, big-mouthed, annoying, bossy women” and “Jewish men are always portrayed as dorky, nerdy, nebishy, insecure, self-effacing.”

So, she chose an all-Jewish, good-looking cast.

Davidovich and Litvak insisted that in the end, their film comes down on the side of Judaism. The movie shows that the Jewish religion, and the Passover seder in particular, can provide a framework for personal redemption, Litvak said.

Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 38-year-old leader of Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, agreed: “This [movie] can really show people what the Passover seder can do, that it can be a really transformative experience.”

Blazer also sees the movie as part of a trend toward Jews’ opening up about Judaism in popular culture. For years, Jews who produced TV shows and movies shied away from discussing their Jewishness on screen, he said. But today, Jews are finally willing to explore the essence of their religion in their art.

Blazer attributed the opposing reactions to the movie to “a generational gap.” Younger Jews do not feel as anxious about seeing Jews portrayed in a negative light as those born closer to the time of the Holocaust, he said.

“Some see this movie, and they worry about the message that it sends,” he said. “They’re worried that it’s going to contribute to anti-Semitism.”

But “for us,” he added, “we don’t have that same level of discomfort.”

For more information on showtimes, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15595

 

Haggadahs for play to keep boredom at bay


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Afternoon naps, a steady flow of food and the promise of an afikomen surprise might keep children awake during the seder, but there is nothing that makes them tune out faster than the formal language of an adult haggadah. Fortunately, there is a growing selection of haggadahs written and illustrated for children of all ages, and finding the right one just might be this year’s best Pesach investment.

Ages 1-3
Children who do not yet read might enjoy simplified haggadahs that include interesting pictures or funny songs.

“My First Passover Board Book” by Clare Lister (DK Publishing, $6.99). This is more of a children’s book than an actual haggadah, but it is great to read to preschool children in the weeks before Pesach and for them to use during the seder. It is a board book, so the pages do not tear, there are good pictures and the story is told in a straightforward way that young children can understand.

“My Very Own Haggadah” by Judyth Saypol Groner and Madeline Wikler (Kar-Ben Publishing, $3.95). This very simple haggadah doubles as a coloring book. The haggadah, which is almost completely in English, reads like a children’s book and includes songs and projects children can do to prepare for the seders.

Ages 4-8
Children who are just learning to read may want more text, while they continue to enjoy beautiful illustrations.

“A Children’s Haggadah” by Howard I. Bogot and Robert J. Orkand (Central Conference of American Rabbis, $12.95). This haggadah, which is published by the rabbinical organization of Reform rabbis, reads very simply, in a way that young children can easily understand. It is nicely illustrated and is almost completely in English, with some transliterated songs.

“Mah Nishtanah? A Passover Haggadah for Children” by Shaul Meizlish (Adama Books, $9.95). This haggadah reads like a children’s story, but it closely follows the structure of the traditional haggadah. It clearly explains what “mommy and daddy” are doing throughout each step of the seder. The photographs of a family preparing for and conducting a seder look a bit dated and the drawings are mediocre, but the text is nicely directed at children.

“The Artscroll Children’s Haggadah” by Shmuel Blitz (Mesorah Publications, $10.99). This haggadah is truly special. It features the full text of the traditional haggadah alongside a simple translation that is aimed at children. Each page includes boxes of stories, explanations and bite-size information that thoughtful children will enjoy using as topics for discussion. The illustrations, which were done by Tova Katz, are superb. They are sure to create excitement about the Pesach story and to capture the imaginations of many children who want to try to follow along with the adults.

“Uncle Eli’s Passover Haggadah” by Eliezer Lorne Segal (No Starch Press, $12.95). This haggadah is more like a funny children’s story that is told in verse by cute characters. For example, Uncle Eli says, “Tomorrow is Passover./You don’t look ready./ We have to remove/Everything that is bready.” Parents might want to read this book to children in the weeks before the seder and older children might enjoy reading this version to themselves or sharing especially funny parts of it out loud during the seders.

Ages 9-12
Preteens may feel that they have outgrown children’s haggadot, but they may not yet feel engaged by their parents’ books. While illustrations are probably still important, older children may enjoy haggadot with age-appropriate commentary, translations, games and humor.

“Torah Tots Family Haggadah” by Reuven A. Stone and Menachim Z. Shimanowitz, (Judaica Press, $10.95). Older children will like following along with this haggadah because of its colorful and jazzy pages, as well as its interesting commentary, fun facts and explanations, which are sometimes told by a cute little character called the Haggadah Maven. Precocious children will enjoy the Maven test at the haggadah’s end.

“The Animated Haggadah” by Rony Oren (Urim Publications, $16.95). This haggadah is based on a claymation film of the same name that children might enjoy watching before the seder nights. The haggadah includes a few recipes, some suggestions for discussion that adults can initiate, and some word games in the back.

“The Artscroll Youth Haggadah” by Rabbis Nosson and Yitzchok Zev Scherman (Mesorah Publications, $6.99). The haggadah features the full Hebrew text of the traditional haggadah alongside a clear translation that is aimed at slightly older children. Almost every page features interesting commentary and nice illustrations, although they aren’t as dynamic as the ones in the “Children’s Haggadah.”

“The Really Fun Family Haggadah” by Larry Stein (Ruach Books, $9.95). Stein, who serves on the Chicago cabinet of the Jewish Theological Seminary, gives his haggadah an irreverent tone, which preteens might enjoy. He paraphrases Maggid (the Pesach story) and includes many multiple-choice questions with funny answers. This haggadah, which does not have enough illustrations, also includes some standard explanations, songs and discussion topics.

“Uh! Oh! Passover Haggadah With Hidden Objects You’ll (Almost) Never Find” by Janet Zwebner (Pitspopany Press, $9.95). This one is the “Where’s Waldo” of haggadahs. Children who look throughout the fun illustrations, cartoons and mazes to find all of the hidden Passover characters and objects in less than 30 minutes are promised a surprise afikomen present from the publisher!

“Why on This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration” by Rahel Musleah (Simon and Schuster, $13.99). This creative haggadah has the most experiential activities for children, and parents can use different parts of this haggadah for every child. It includes recipes, menus, art projects, a short play to be read or acted out, and funny songs about the Pesach story to familiar tunes. The haggadah also includes interesting discussion topics that go beyond the standard ones. The text, which is mostly in English, but has some Hebrew with transliteration, is directed at children in a poetic, sweet and substantive way. The haggadah also includes artful and pleasing illustrations.

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Tell Me a Story


 

When I was growing up, my family’s Passover gatherings were a joyful blend of holiday traditions, over-eating, stand-up comedy and most important of all — storytelling by our “tribal elders.”

For example, I was always moved by one of my Grandma Lena’s stories from the Great Depression.

“So many people were hungry,” she said. “Occasionally, I would come home from work and find a strange, unshaven man dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table. Your great-grandmother Leba would be serving him an entire meal — from soup to dessert. It scared me that she let strangers into the house when she was alone; she was a tiny, frail woman. But when I asked her how she could this, she simply said, ‘How could I not do this? He was hungry.'”

I never knew Leba Klein, but when my grandmother shared such memories, I learned something real about my ancestors.

I only wish we had recorded those stories.

Passover is a time for families to gather, to enjoy each other’s company and to recall the story of our shared ancient history.

It is also the perfect time to preserve your family’s greatest treasure: the memories and stories of your own family elders.

That’s why this Passover (or Mother’s or Father’s Day), you should create a family project to interview your oldest relatives.

Recording these stories means that they will be available for future generations. Plus, you can avoid regret. I’m constantly hearing people say things like, “We kept meaning to interview my grandparents, but we just didn’t have time. Now it’s too late.”

Also, every person should have a chance to tell his or her life story. One shouldn’t have to have survived horrible experiences, or accomplished the extraordinary, or be a celebrity to have this opportunity.

When we take the time to ask a parent or grandparent to tell us about their past experiences, and truly listen to them, we are acknowledging them for who they are, and for the life they have lived. They deserve this.

And finally, involving children in this interview process creates a meaningful connection between them and their family elders, something that doesn’t often happen these days. They will learn about their roots from a real person.

Not sure where to start? Here are some tips:

1. Get an audio cassette recorder or video camera and tripod. Bring a lot of tapes and back-up batteries. Get an external microphone, so that the recording will be clear. (Get advice from Radio Shack or Fry’s for a microphone that will fit your specific machine and will capture the sound most effectively. Pay extra for a good one.) Be sure to test your equipment before you conduct the interview. Try out different locations for the placement of the microphone to capture all important voices.

2. Plan a family gathering, where the entire family can commit to a few hours together. That in itself is a challenge, I know. But it’s worth it.

3. Determine the best interview subjects. Usually, this would be the eldest relatives who can not only talk about their own lives and experiences, but who also know the details and stories about your ancestors. You also want to choose people whose memories are intact. (My mother’s dementia would sadly rule her out now as an appropriate interview subject.)

In many families there are Talkers and Listeners. Some of the Talkers are great storytellers; some of them are just dominating. Listeners rarely speak up family gatherings.

With Talkers, your job is to manage the conversation, so that the interview moves along. Having a list of interview questions will help.

With Listeners, your job is to make sure they know that you truly want to hear about their life and experiences. Make sure they have their moment in the spotlight by asking them a specific question, and kindly telling anyone who interrupts to please wait their turn.

4. Before your gathering, have everyone in the family write down a list of questions to ask. There isn’t room here to give you an entire list of such questions, but you want to cover every generation that these interview subjects can speak about — their ancestors, grandparents, parents and the subject him or herself.

Your questions should trigger memories and details about different aspects of a person’s life: For example: names of important people, their personalities, the home, the city or town, daily activities, work, education, their experiences of being Jewish, how the family interacted, what they did for fun, what were their challenges and the events and times.

Ask all of the children in the family to make up questions, too. Depending on their ages, children often want to know grandparents’ favorite toys, what school was like or how their grandparents met.

5. Someone may have to play “director” and make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk and that people aren’t talking all at once (the result on your tape will be gobbledygook.)

6. Remember, this is something that deserves your family’s time and energy. The payoff is a precious experience and a record of your heritage. Have fun!

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and owner of Living Legacies Family Histories. She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net.

 

Let My Old Passover Programming Go


 

Why is this night different from all other nights?

For one thing, it’s the food — or, rather, the food that’s featured on television. But there’s also plenty of food for thought in the form of Passover-related travel and Jewish news features.

Food for Filling Up

Get Passover cooking with some fresh ideas from the Food Network’s “Essence of Emeril,” “Wolfgang Puck” and “Sweet Dreams.”

On “Sweet Dreams: Passover Favorites,” host Gale Gend and chef Ina Pinkey showcase recipes that are heavy on matzah meal and potato starch to achieve a consistency more like regular desserts. They make apple tea cake muffins from matzah meal, a savory alternative to plain matzah for breakfast. Their practically solid chocolate cake looks rich, while the untraditional Passover cobbler makes for a lighter alternative. The Food Network, April 19, 9:30 a.m.

In “Wolfgang’s Passover Feast,” viewers get a backstage pass into the celebrity chef’s kitchen as he leads a seder at one of his restaurants. The show features commentary on the holiday from Rabbi Arnie Rachlis of the University Synagogue in Irvine. Puck’s contributions are not especially user friendly, though. He fails to give precise measurements for ingredients in his recipes, while also using cooking equipment not found in noncelebrity kitchens. Some of his concoctions are kosher and some not — he shows how to make a not kosher for Passover but tasty-looking matzah with herbs in the dough. Watch Puck for entertainment or concepts, but not specific recipes. The Food Network, April 20, 10 a.m.

Kick your seder up a notch with a Passover segment of Emeril Laggase’s “The Essence of Emeril.” He may be out of his element when pronouncing Jewish foods such as charoset as “ha-ro-SET” instead of “cha-ROH-set.” Or when he tries to explain the seder plate. But he’s the expert when it comes to cooking. In his charoset, he uses practically a whole bottle of Manischewitz, when his own recipe only calls for two tablespoons. I guess good chefs really don’t measure. His matzah farfel kugel looks delish — with plenty of his signature essence. He also does a flavorful recipe for brisket, stuffing garlic cloves in the meat, and coating it with chili sauce and onions. The Food Network, April 21, 2 p.m. All Food Network Passover recipes can be found at foodtv.com.

Food for Thought

While digesting all these new treats you’ve just cooked, continue the Passover theme with Jewish Television Network’s (www.jewishtvnetwork.com) one-hour specials: “Exodus to Freedom” and “A Passover Celebration.”

The thought-provoking tone of “Exodus to Freedom,” hosted by Dick Cavett, would appeal more to adults and older children. It examines the lives of eight extraordinary individuals who overcame oppression. These stories aren’t just about the Jewish experience, but about the universal experience of exodus. Liz Murray grew up homeless with two drug-addicted parents, but turned her life around, eventually attending Harvard (her story was told in a 2003 Lifetime movie, “Homeless to Harvard”). Azar Nafasi led an English literature-reading group in Iran during a time of extreme Islamic fundamentalism. Francis Bok, a Sudanese man, was captured and sold as a slave, before escaping and later immigrating to the United States. Hungarian Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos worked in a forced labor camp during World War II, and now is a Democratic congressman representing the San Mateo area. Airs April 26, 10 p.m. on KVCR 24 in the Inland Empire; Channel 55 in desert cities.

“A Passover Celebration,” hosted by Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) embodies a lighter tone. The St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble and New York Concert Singers sing Passover songs from “Chad Gadya” and “Dayenu” to Sephardic and Ashkenazic renditions of “Adir Hu.” Irwin Kula of “Simple Wisdom” narrates Passover tales, as well personal anecdotes of his family’s emigration from Poland to the United States. On the craftier side, TLC host and Jewish Journal singles columnist Teresa Strasser shows how to make various colorful Passover creations. These include a matzah box centerpiece, a clay encased Elijah cup and a reverse-decoupage seder plate to brighten up the Passover table. For the little ones, there’s an “Aleph, Bet Blastoff” segment featuring Dom DeLuise as a comic pharaoh, with a kid-friendly amount of menace. The final segment, a mouth-watering chocolate matzah creation by chef Jeff Nathan, looks simple enough even for the cooking averse. Airs April 24 on KLCS. Check klcs.org for scheduled times.

Kids Meal

The Rugrats get locked in the attic with Grandpa Boris, and he narrates the Passover story as seen through the eyes of 3-year-old Angelica (who takes on the role of a pharaoh who won’t “Let My Babies Go”). “The Rugrats Passover Special” airs April 24, 7:30 a.m. on Nickelodeon. For more information, visit www.nickelodeon.com.

Food to Go

Among other thrills, experience a hot-air balloon ride over the pyramids. (Consider them, in Cecil B. DeMille terms, a testament to the Jewish work ethic.) “Globe Trekker: Egypt,” hosted by Megan McCormick, airs April 21, 8 p.m. on KCET. For more information, visit www.kcet.org.

Yesterday we were slaves in Egypt; today we are free to choose our Passover programming.

 

All Haggadahs Great and Small


 

The Do-It-Yourself Family Haggadah

Conducting the family seder, attorney Robert Hirschman became frustrated with commercial haggadahs, so he made his own.

“I was put off by the often cryptic language of the usual haggadahs, which were not accessible and lacked historical context,” the Tarzana resident said.

After some 50 hours of research and labor on the home computer, the Hirschman Family Haggadah was completed and printed in a limited edition of 25 copies.

Most striking are the four full-page color maps, created by Hirschman, to illustrate the history of the Jewish people.

Starting with the wanderings of Abraham from Babylon to Hebron around 2000 B.C.E., the maps trace the ancient fall of Jewish independence, to the United Nations partition and to present-day Israel.

While generally following the traditional order, stories, prayers and songs, Hirschman has simplified and personalized the language to make it more meaningful to the children and to add historical lore.

For instance, the 30-page haggadah explains the breaking off and finding of the afikomen as “a sign that what is broken off is not really lost to our people so long as our children remember and search.”

It also stresses the evolution of monotheism and the equality of all men and women before God. As an integral part of the seder, the 16 family members and guests recall some of their individual life experiences and what the seder means to them personally.

The first step in creating a family haggadah is to draw up a working outline and “then it’s easy to flesh out,” Hirschman said.

He assigns 20 percent of his workload to research and 80 percent to putting everything together, “enjoying every minute of it.”

It helps that Hirschman is computer-savvy and accustomed to writing. He lays out the text and art and then has a commercial shop reproduce and bind the copies.

Hirschman is not the only do-it-yourselfer in the family. His wife, Leslie Aranoff-Hirschman, produces an annual haggadah for the Passover celebration of fellow volunteer docents at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Almost all of the 45 to 65 docents at the seder are women, so the Skirball haggadah emphasizes the role of Miriam, the sister of Moses, and all present dance and sing “Miriam’s Song.”

In the same vein, an orange is added to the seder plate to symbolize the emergence and presence of women in Jewish life.

Additional readings include Passover-related excerpts from the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel and David Ben-Gurion.

Aranoff-Hirschman describes the haggadah as a collaborative effort, in which “everyone brings in her favorite passage” and then reads it.

She and her colleague Sandra Berube do the final editing to assure the flow of the reading.

The Skirball seder concludes with “The Passover Song,” to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” One stanza goes:

Matzah and karpas and chopped up charoset;
Shank bones and Kiddish and Yiddish neuroses;
Tante who kvetches and uncle who sings;
These are a few of our Passover things. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Secular Haggadah Takes Modern Turn

There are more than 3,000 printed versions of the Passover haggadah in existence, according to educated estimates, not counting the private haggadot, custom made on the family computer.

It’s a far cry from the 13th-century Spanish version, believed to be the first stand-alone haggadah. In the following centuries, the haggadah has been adapted, at times almost beyond recognition, by environmentalists, humanists, feminists, vegetarians, socialists, gays, lesbians and others.

In other editions, the original focus has shifted to recognize the Holocaust, creation of Israel, and various political and ideological causes, with quotations ranging from Anne Frank to Ho Chi Minh.

Use of a specific haggadah may be restricted to a single family or become a commercial marketing tool by a coffee maker, to the point that one commentator credited a citation to Rabbi Maxwell House.

One of the latest entries is the slim, updated, Yiddish-leaning “Sholem Family Hagada For a Secular Celebration of Peysakh.” It is published by the Sholem Community of Los Angeles, a 50-year old secular Jewish educational, cultural and social institution, edited by the group’s vegvayzer (guide) Hershl Hartman and Jeffrey Kaye and illustrated in full color by Kevin Bostwick.

Like other secular or humanistic haggadot, the Sholem edition rejects the recitation of “deistic formulas or acceptance as literal truth of the myths of the traditional hagada.”

It seeks to honor “the folk traditions that took inspiration from the [Exodus] legend to imbue generations with a commitment to social justice and equality.”

Editor Hartman said he had made a special effort “to keep the language fairly accessible to children, while avoiding the childish tone that might repel or bore adults.”

There are some innovations in the new version that might startle most synagogue Jews, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox.

For instance, the frogs and boils of the traditional Ten Plagues have been replaced by such man-made miseries as “the plague of homelessness… war… poisoned air and water… the nuclear shadow over our lives.”

Besides the prescribed bitter herbs and charoset on the seder plate, an orange is added to symbolize “those not fully recognized by the Jewish community … women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.”

“The Sholem Hagada” pays special tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during Passover 1943 with the singing of the Partisan Hymn and recitation of Binem Heller’s moving poem, “Peysakh Has Come to the Ghetto Again.”

In at least one important respect, tradition has remained unchanged in the rousing rendition of “Had Gadya,” the song about the kid my father bought for two zuzim.

For information and to order the Sholem Hagadah, phone (818) 760-6625, or visit www.sholem.org/hagada.asp. — TT

Haggadah With Some Bling Bling

Twelve months ago, Israeli landscape artist Avner Moriah was busy promoting his illuminated haggadah. He teamed up with calligraphist Izzy Pludwinski to create a limited collector’s edition leather-bound Hebrew-only haggadah with a price tag of $4,000.

This year Moriah is back with his illuminated haggadah now in a glossy coffee-table format. “The Moriah Haggadah” has English translation, extensive commentary by Rabbi Shlomo Fox, and is available for only $150 from the Jewish Publication Society.

Moriah’s haggadah places a strong emphasis on telling the ancient exodus story but with modern diagrams, commentary and interpretations to help people find significance in an event that many today find difficult relating to.

Much of his work also highlights the importance of the role of women in the exodus story. In fact, the inspiration for many of his trademark watercolor roundels came out of two murals he created for the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York titled, “The Gathering at Mount Sinai” and “Women of the Zodiac.”

On one level, Moriah’s pictures reveal the Israelites’ ancient struggle for freedom after having been enslaved, but they are also imbued with modern day references of man’s struggles with the drudgery of day-to-day living and the search for freedom.

Moriah’s own struggles also formed much of the inspiration for the haggadah. His wife, Andi, was diagnosed with leukemia and the paintings came out of his owner emotional and spiritual journey as she successfully battled her illness. As he states in his introduction to the haggadah, “I felt what it was like to be on the threshold of the inferno and to find strength to overcome my despair and make something creative out of the experience.”

There is much to read into the myriad diagrams with their overlapping modern and ancient references and the accompanying textual interpretations. But, you may not want to bring this glossy, hardcover haggadah to the seder table for fear of spilling one of the four cups of wine over it. Which is why Moriah is hard at work on making a softcover edition, hopefully in time for next Passover. — Kelly Hartog, Staff Writer

Seder Plate Memories

Barbara Rush’s “Passover Splendor: Cherished Objects for the Seder Table” (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, $19.95) is like a seder plate for your living room. But instead of exploring the Passover story through symbolic foods, this book featuring a seder plate on the cover. Once opened, the book tells the narrative of post-exodus Passovers over time and around the world through ritual objects.

Among these objects are ornate decorated haggadahs, seder plates, cups, textiles and a section with Pesach blessing and songs. This book is great to read on its own or as a visual supplement to the haggadah during the seder, as it could be used to illustrate other examples of the ritual objects.

Some of the colorful decorated haggadot highlights include a haggadah cover circa 1740 from Hamburg, Germany, depicting Moses parting the Red Sea in bright rich colors, and a 14th-century Spanish cover depicting Miriam and her maidens dancing. The standout seder plates include a tiered version made by Franz Stobk in 1814 Vienna, which feature Moses and Israelites with cups on their heads to house the various symbolic foods, and a plate depicting the 12 tribes of Israel, made in Baghdad in the 20th century.

“Ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever” (Exodus 12:14). This book obeys this quote, creating a feast for the eyes and intellect to reflect on the meaning of Passover in every generation, and reminding of us of the splendor of our enduring tradition. — Emily Pauker, Contributing Writer

 

A Hero for Seder


I don’t remember how long ago it was that Michael visited Los Angeles. Fifteen years? Twenty? I do remember that I was driving him around the city when he said, “Could you stop the car for a moment? I would like to photograph this.”

I was puzzled. “Photograph what?” I asked.

There was nothing remarkable that I could see. Michael laughed.

“The street sign, of course. They named a street after me.”

Sure enough. There it was. Sherbourne Drive. I am certain that whoever named it had never heard of Michael Sherbourne. A pity. He deserves having a street named after him.

Later that day, he told me of another honor.

“I am probably the only Jew who was promoted to a member of the British nobility by a communist newspaper,” he said.

In the 1970s, Pravda, the major Soviet newspaper, ran a lengthy editorial about that “Zionist provocateur and a typical representative of the rotten British ruling class, Lord Sherbourne.” Michael never asked Pravda for a correction. The truth is that Michael’s father, who escaped from czarist Russia to England, was a sailor on a British merchant vessel in 1914, when England went to war with Germany. The other sailors gave him a hard time because they though he was German — his name was something like Ginsburg or Friedman. When the ship returned, Michael’s father got a copy of “Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage,” a listing of all the titled names, found a name he liked and had his name changed to the, oh-so-very British Sherbourne.

Michael and his wife went to a kibbutz in British-ruled Palestine in the 1930s. He joined the navy when war broke out and later ended up teaching French and metal shop at a London high school. It was there that he accepted a challenge that changed his life. A colleague sneered at French as a language. It was too easy, he said.

“Now Russian is a tough language. I bet you couldn’t learn Russian,” he taunted.

Michael smiles when he tells the story.

“It was tougher than I thought,” he said. “I was in my 40s by then, and I almost gave up a few times. But I did it eventually.”

He did indeed. Last time I saw him was in London in 1999. My formerly Muscovite wife Ella, Michael and I were having a sandwich in a London deli, with Michael chatting away in pure and fluent Russian with Ella. She asked him if he liked Russian literature and what he thought about the great Russian poet Pushkin.

“Pushkin?” Michael said. “I love Pushkin. His poetry is like music. Just listen.”

And then he began reciting “Evgeny Onegin,” chapter after chapter, by heart, without a pause.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when the Soviet Jewry movement in the West was born as a reaction to Soviet anti-Semitism, Michael became the voice of the Jews in the West to the refuseniks and activists in the USSR. He made hundreds, maybe thousands of phone calls in Russian to the Jews who didn’t know whether their voices were being heard in the West. He knew the phone numbers and names of all of them — all the activists who were harassed, arrested, tried and sentenced by the authorities who couldn’t understand what motivated the handful of Jews to fight the Soviet superpower. He was the indirect conduit and lifeline to thousands of others. The information he gathered helped us fight the Soviet Jewry battle in the West.

He used different names, but the authorities knew who he was. An operator in Moscow told him so when he pretended to be a Russian engineer calling from Dnepropetrovsk.

“We know who you are, Mr. Sherbourne,” she laughed.

Michael called me a few months ago to tell me that he was coming to spend the Passover with his granddaughter who lives in Washington, D.C.

“Why don’t you come and join us for a Russian seder in Los Angeles,” I asked.

Michael was surprised.

“A Russian seder?” he asked.

I explained that Los Angeles has been celebrating Passover with a community seder for the last 10 years. It started out as a joint project of the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews and the Association of Soviet Jewish Emigres. We produced a Russian-language haggadah; invited Svetlana Portnyansky, a major international singing star to serve as our cantor, and I appointed myself to conduct the evening. The first year about 150 people showed up. They were senior citizens with vague childhood memories of Passover. As time went on, attendance grew and more younger people and children came. For the last three years, we had to have it on both nights to accommodate the more than 600 people. This year we held it at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills on April 16 and 17.

There was a moment of silence on the line.

“A Russian seder? Really?” And then, “I would love to come.”

And so, on April 17, Michael had a chance to take a look at what the challenge by a colleague 35 years ago had wrought.

I wish I could add “Michael” to the Sherbourne Drive street sign so that there really would be a street here named after him. He deserves it. And he doesn’t need to be a real lord to be one of the noblest men I have ever known.

Cherishing Passover


As a child, Passover seders in my family were rushed affairs more about the meal than the meaning of the holiday. Hungry children and adults quickly read through the haggadah.

Surreptitious bites of matzah were silently swallowed. And all the while the aromas from the kitchen tickled our noses into reading as fast as we possibly could.

If you had asked me what Passover was about, I could tell you of all the delicious foods that were served, but not why my family gathered together to endure this strange ritual each year. And the finale was the biggest mystery of all. "Next year in Jerusalem" was a meaningless phrase we all shouted with glee — probably because we knew the night was ending.

As an adult I made a conscious effort to learn about my Jewish roots, which commence with the reason we commemorate the events of the very first Passover.

One of the purposes of the Passover seder is to teach our children the story of how the Jewish people came to be. Passover is a history lesson taught not by impersonal teachers in a sterile classroom, but by our families seated around the dining room table. When done correctly, the Passover seder should instill a sense of pride. Because with knowing who we are, we should feel proud to be Jews.

Passover commemorates the departure of the Jewish people from Egypt some 3,000 years ago and marks the birth of a nation. This is as much a celebration of our spiritual freedom as it is a jubilation of our physical liberation from slavery.

During our time in Egypt we were greatly afflicted. We were slaves of the lowest order. The men and women were separated so that no new Jews would be born. Yet, the women defied this pharoah’s edict. They snuck into the fields where the men slaved away and had relations with their husbands. No matter how hard pharoah tried, Jewish babies continued to be born. The women recognized that the nation’s existence was in danger and they took action to assure that not only would the nation continue to subsist, but it would grow and thrive as well.

We can easily draw a parallel to the Holocaust. Despite the attempts of Hitler to wipe out European Jewry, babies continued to be born in the camps, in the ghettos and in the forests.

One of the Passover lessons we need to teach our children is that the will of the Jewish people does not crush easily. We are a people to be reckoned with and we do have a place in this world. Just look at Israel today. Despite the constant threat of terrorist attacks, life goes on, babies are born.

This year, we mark the one-year anniversary of the Passover massacre at the beachside Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel. On the day we commemorate our roots and proclaim our physical and spiritual endurance, a terrorist walked into the dining room of the hotel and detonated an explosive device. Of the 250 people attending the seder, 29 were killed and 140 people were injured, 20 seriously. Victims ranged in age from 25 to 90, and Holocaust survivors were among them.

Yet, we continue to defy our enemies. In Egypt we slaughtered sheep, the animal most worshiped by the Egyptians. In essence, we threw their holy sheep in their faces. We defied Hitler by surviving. Today we defy the Arabs by our very existence.

The Passover seder is instrumental in strengthening our will and our continued defiance of our enemies. It is at the seder that our children learn who we are and where we came from. They hear the first instance of a nation’s defiance and the miraculous way in which our nation was born. The seder you have today will shape the Jew your children will be tomorrow and will ultimately affect the future path of all Jews.

Passover is a yearly proclamation to the world, but more importantly, to ourselves, that the Jewish nation is alive and well and will continue to exist and thrive despite the best efforts of our enemies and detractors. Passover is our yearly reminder to ourselves that to be a Jew is something special to be cherished and protected, nurtured and prized, relevant and treasured.

And we finish each seder with the words "Next year in Jerusalem." Next year — meaning we will be around next year, and we will continue to outlive our enemies, to defy all predictions of our demise.


Marisa N. Pickar is a freelance journalist living in Laguna Woods.

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