The occupation that saved Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Enslaved by politics


One thing you learn by engaging in “dialogue” with Jews is what the essayist Joseph Epstein put this way: “Jews don’t listen. They wait.”

I discovered this truth — yet again — when I served as a guest speaker at an international Passover gathering at a beach resort south of Cancun, Mexico. On the second day of Pesach, I stood in front of a mostly Modern Orthodox crowd from 11 countries and delivered a warning: My lecture, “Seeking Truth: Journalism in the Age of Trump,” was going to be critical of the president.

Before I finished my second sentence, six people walked out.

My premise wasn’t exactly provocative. Anyone who has read a newspaper in the last six months knows that America’s press has taken a beating from Trump — both during his campaign and the first few months of his administration. What I had hoped to do, rather than provoke, was use my Passover pulpit to defend the institution of a free press as an essential feature of democracy — and establish some common ground. I didn’t think it was controversial to draw upon philosophical reinforcement from John Adams, the First Amendment and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To do this, I based my presentation strictly on facts: that is, things that have actually happened. That was my first mistake. We are now living in an “alternative fact” universe where a “fact” is a dirty, politicized word that doesn’t settle a dispute so much as provoke one. A fact used to be a thing that was “indisputably the case,” as defined in the dictionary — a common, shared language, like, “Sugar is sweet.” But now, a fact is considered subjective, open to debate.

I had hoped to have a civil discussion about how we, as a community, could respond to Trump’s effort to repress our press. Instead, what emerged during the Q-and-A after my lecture and in the days afterward was a combination of acrimony, distrust and disrespect that reveals the extent to which deep and ugly political divisions in the Jewish community are tearing us apart.

Here is some of what I heard: My talk was “offensive”; I have “garbage” in my head; I “don’t know facts or history”; political correctness is “fake news”; the media “lost credibility a long time ago,” “doesn’t report accurately,” is “biased against Israel,” “never questioned” Barack Obama; and – my personal favorite – “I wanted to walk out, but I actually came back in because I believe in discourse.”

No kidding!

The broad, sweeping generalizations were astounding. The New York Times might as well be Al Jazeera. There was no acknowledgment that American newspapers employ thousands of reporters worldwide, many of whom risk their lives to bring us information. What does it matter, if it’s information you don’t like?

During a panel I moderated on campus anti-Semitism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), I referred to the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territory — another “fact” that can’t be called a fact because it’s open for debate. A woman approached me at lunch all hot and bothered because how dare I say what I said. “The Arabs want to kill us!” “The Palestinians don’t want a state!” “They weren’t there first anyway!” And she could “prove scientifically” that God exists and the Exodus happened.

I declined the lesson in metaphysics, but when I asked her to address the disenfranchised Palestinian population in “Judea and Samaria,” she said she had no solution. She’s hoping the Messiah will come.

Me, too.

Some of these arguments seem ludicrous, but these are the kinds of statements that earn applause in certain Jewish circles.

During an evening lecture by former Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has spent the last 30 years working on the Middle East conflict under four administrations, Democrat and Republican, a woman took issue with Palestinian self-determination. After going on and on, he finally stopped her. “You’re not going to convince me,” Ross said. “I’ve been working on this issue for 30 years.”

“Unsuccessfully,” she sniped.

The room was silent. But Ross, the consummate diplomat, kept his cool, letting slide a public insult that labeled his career a failure.

Some of us are so far down the rabbit hole of self-righteousness and self-rightness, we have forgotten how to be kind.

The Torah tells us that Moses, the most vaunted leader in Jewish history, was a man of deep humility, a quality our current political discourse sorely lacks. Communal certainty has replaced critical thinking. The State of Israel has become more sacred than the People of Israel.

What is under attack in our community isn’t politics, but pluralism itself. For the right, criticizing or challenging Israel is an unforgivable heresy. For the left, moral superiority has become unassailable orthodoxy. For both, the other perspective is viewed as “destroying the Jewish people.”

And guess what. It is.

Our community will be profoundly compromised if we choose ideology over one another. Communities that prize ideology over humanity are doomed to fail. We know this. We criticize Islam endlessly for the very same reason.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Does that count as a Jewish motive for missing Easter?

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

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

Next Year in Jerusalem – a poem for the waning moments of Passover by Rick Lupert


As long as I’ve been alive
the words next year in Jerusalem
have left my mouth

at the end of every
Passover seder my ancient bones
have reclined at.

My bones in New Jersey cried
next year in Jerusalem and the very
next year I was in Florida.

My bones in Florida cried
next year in Jerusalem and the very
next year I was in Syracuse.

My bones in Syracuse cried
next year in Jerusalem and the very
next year I was in California.

My bones in California cried
next year in Jerusalem and the very
next year I was in Allentown.

We’re holding steady in
Pennsylvania, still crying for the
holy land.

I could just buy a ticket but
the rest of the family has declared
Jerusalem to be in the Rust Belt.

We don’t even gather in
the east end of the house.
This is the funk of diaspora.

This is the Jerusalem we
create in our North American
living rooms.

This is the holy city
whose golden bricks I see
whenever our eyes intertwine.

I’m going to keep crying
next year in Jerusalem.
A promise kept

in whatever city
that cushions
these old bones.


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Hannah Bladon. Photo UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

British student killed in Jerusalem stabbing attack mourned


The British woman stabbed to death in an attack on the Jerusalem light rail was mourned by Israeli institutions at which she had studied and volunteered.

Hannah Bladon, a student in her early 20s, was killed on Friday after being stabbed multiple times by a Palestinian assailant.

The Hebrew University and the Rothberg International School in a statement issued Saturday night expressed “our deep sorrow” over Bladon’s murder. The schools extended “deepest condolences” to her family.

Bladon was in Israel as part of a student exchange program with Hebrew as part of her course of studies in religion, theology and archaeology at the University of Birmingham. She arrived in Israel in January.

The Israel Antiquities Authority also offered its condolences to the Bladon family, saying in a statement that Hannah had recently volunteered in its excavation at Wilson’s Arch in the Western Wall tunnels and was supposed to return to the excavation after Passover. She reportedly was returning home from an archeological dig when she was killed.

Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Saturday that Bladon was standing next to the assailant because she had given up her seat further back on the train to allow a woman holding a baby to sit down.

The Palestinian stabber, Jamil Tamimi, 57, of the Ras al-Amud neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem, reportedly told investigators that he stabbed Bladon because he wanted the soldier standing next to her to kill him. Tamimi reportedly is mentally ill and had recently tried to commit suicide.

The Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, said of the stabber in a statement: “This is not the first time that a Palestinian suffering from personal, mental or moral distress has chosen to commit a terrorist attack in order to escape his problems.”

The Bladon family in a statement issued on Saturday, said that Hannah “was the most caring, sensitive and compassionate daughter you could ever wish for.”

“She was driven and passionate and her death leaves so much promise unfulfilled. Our family are devastated by this senseless and tragic attack.”

Marcos Cohen's stage name is Mor D. Hai. Photo courtesy of Marcos Cohen

Chabad Pesach concert with a Latin flavor


The Spanish word for a musical or theatrical performance is espectáculo. With its suggestion of spectacle, it’s an apt description of the show to be presented April 15 by Mor D. Hai, stage name of Marcos Cohen, an Uruguay-born performer who lives in Los Angeles.

“My show has rhythm, humor, a Latin beat and recognizable Jewish themes, like traditional Passover songs and Sephardi music,” Cohen told the Journal.

The elaborate, high-energy production, suitable for children and adults, evokes smiles and tears, hitting emotional buttons and serving as an introductory course in Jewish history: from the birth of monotheism as embodied by the struggles of Avraham Avinu to Sephardic songs composed in medieval Spain; from the hard-won triumphs of the State of Israel to the tragedy of the Shoah; from the Psalms of David to a musical number that brings Arab and Israeli together.

Cohen said he combines his Jewish and Latin roots in the show, with songs in Ladino, Hebrew, English and Spanish, as well as surprising and amusing stagecraft: desert tents, tinted wisps of smoke, film clips, silhouettes of dancing Chabad figures, lighting effects, choreography, audio-visual elements and Hebrew prayers.

Cohen’s talents came naturally. When he was growing up in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, his Sephardic father played a Hammond organ while his Ashkenazi mother performed with an all-woman Jewish theater group.

Though his parents are fiercely Jewish and Zionist, they are not religious. Cohen, on the other hand, is a modern Orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, keeps kosher and observes Shabbat: When he gets work as actor or singer, he stipulates that he won’t perform on Jewish holidays and Shabbat. “The rest of my family calls me ‘rabbi’ since I’m the only one that’s really gotten into Judaism,” he said.

“The show combines my love for music and for religion,” Cohen said. “There are themes with the particular flavor of Brazil; Argentina; of my country, Uruguay. My Latin- American background is always there, but I give everything a Jewish dimension. There’s a well-known tango called Cambalache. In the version that I do, I give it a Jewish twist. When I did it in Argentina and in Uruguay, it was a big hit. I have a Jewish version of Volver [a popular tango], and I also sing ‘My Beloved Jerusalem’ instead of ‘My Beloved Buenos Aires.’ ”

The show has dancing — Israeli hora, tango, samba, bouncy Chabad twirls — and many costume changes, even different head-coverings: When Cohen sings tangos, he wears a fedora, like the one used by legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel; when he
does music from Bukhara, where his father’s family is from, he sports a beige, flat-top kippah, which he made.

Cohen’s concert includes interaction with the audience, especially with children. “I think that the fact that I don’t have kids of my own makes it even more important that I have contact with them,” he said. Single and in his late 40s, Cohen teaches music at a Jewish pre-school and has been a volunteer with Jewish Big Brothers. “I always try to maintain contact with kids, so I can keep that part of me alive that’s always wanted to have kids… When I lived in Uruguay, I wrote plays for children and sang songs for them.”

Cohen said that 20 years ago, when he first came to Los Angeles from Uruguay, he eked out a living doing a clown-mime act at the Santa Monica pier. One day a little boy, with a dollar in his hand, asked him, “Where’s the balloon?” Cohen said he immediately bought an instructional tape and learned how to shape balloons into animal figures.

“I did very well with my balloon act,” Cohen said. “I went along that way for a long time, dressed as a clown and making animal balloons for kids, making good money, when one day a woman comes up to me and says, ‘You are an old soul. And you know you’re an old soul.’ So I challenged her, ‘OK, tell me what you think you know about me.’ And she said, ‘I know you’re a musician. Yes, you’re a musician.’ And she looked straight at me and said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here, doing this. Why are you afraid? Go pursue
your dreams.’ ”

Cohen said that was a turning point: Since then, he’s pursued his dream of being a singer and performer, in L.A., New York, Uruguay — and, for the last five years, again in L.A. Along the way he started using, he said, “a funky version of my Hebrew name, Mordechai, and that’s how I became Mor D. Hai.”

Cohen clearly feels that meeting that woman in Santa Monica was not a random event. In interviews, he often says his life has been blessed by divine touches.

“I feel a special relationship with God,” he said, “and I feel really blessed to be part of a Jewish community. This is important for me, since I came here from another country, without family, without friends. So it’s essential for me to feel that connection.”

His community, Cohen said, is Jewish life in the Pico-Robertson area, where he lives, prays, and where, this weekend, he’ll perform a show he created and stars in, an espectáculo that he calls “A Latin Revolution in Jewish Music.”

Chol HaMoed Pesach Concert, featuring Mor D. Hai Latin Jewish Band, April 15, at Chabad SOLA, 1627 S. La Cienega Blvd. 9 p.m. $13 in advance, $18 at the door. For more information, go to http://www.mordhai.org.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 11. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Spicer, Hitler and the Soup Nazi: Why can’t this White House get the Holocaust right?


We interrupt this Passover to bring you two news bulletins:

Bashar Assad is worse than Hitler.

The Soup Nazi was almost a real Nazi.

Let’s start with the second revelation, since Sean Spicer’s Hitler gaffe is probably better known. Entertainment Weekly reported that, according to a former writer-producer for the sitcom “Seinfeld,” the dictatorial chef known as the Soup Nazi in a 1995 episode was almost given a much darker backstory.

“We joked a whole bunch about an end scene that would take place in the jungles of Brazil, a la ‘The Boys From Brazil,’ where the Soup Nazi would return to the other Nazis — the actual former Nazi war criminals — with his soup recipes,” David Mandel explained. “It was sort of half-serious, half ‘Should we do this?,’ half ‘We’re never going to do it.’ But it was much discussed. Going down a river and seeing lots of young boys with blue eyes from experimentation with the soups — it was a full coming-together of soup and Nazi. Probably just as well that we didn’t do that one.”

“Probably just as well that we didn’t do that one” is probably a phrase the White House press secretary would love to be saying about now after three days of apologizing for having claimed that Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons. Discussing the Syrian dictator Assad’s sarin gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, Spicer asserted, “We had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

The reaction, starting with gasps from the assembled press corps, was swift and withering. Yad Vashem said Wednesday that Spicer’s “inaccurate and insensitive” comments “strengthen the hands of those whose goal is to distort history.” The American Jewish Committee’s CEO David Harris offered, “What did the Nazis use to exterminate millions of Jews if not chemicals in their death camps?”

Spicer responded with a few stabs at clarification that can only be described with the Yiddishism “funfering.”

“He was not using the gas on his own people, the same way that Assad was doing,” the press secretary said. “There was not — he brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. But I’m saying, in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down, to innocents — in the middle of town.”

Eventually, Spicer told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the son of Holocaust survivor parents, that he was sorry for his “inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which frankly there is no comparison. And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.” The next day Spicer said that he “let the president down.”

Any phrase that includes some version of “even Hitler” is not going to end well. Either you will wind up diminishing the horrific acts carried out by the Nazis or will exaggerate the sins of your intended target. Spicer ended up doing both.

If his point was that “even Hitler” didn’t use gas in the battlefield, his elision of what went on in the “Holocaust centers” — better known as the death camps — would seem to raise Hitler a notch on the morality scale. Maybe worse was his comment that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people.” That is not only false but insidious — as if the 160,000 or more German Jews killed in the Holocaust were the alien “state subjects” that the Nuremberg laws said they were.

Spicer’s comments also seem of a piece with the White House’s inexplicable omission of the word “Jews” from its statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What the two missteps share is the effect of “normalizing” Hitler and the Holocaust. Intentionally or not, this is the message of both statements: “Yes, it is a horrible thing that people died at the hands of the Nazi regime, and in such numbers. But it wasn’t just Jews who were targeted and lost, and even Hitler had limits on the tactics he would use to vanquish his enemies.” In essence, Hitler was bad, but he was no Hitler.

Someone at the White House either doesn’t understand the unique aspects of Hitler’s genocidal “Final Solution,” or finds it ideologically or politically convenient to ignore them.

As for inflating Assad’s crimes, arguing that the Syrian’s use of sarin in the battlefield makes him worse than Hitler is not just a debating point for scholars and historians. Such a stark comparison demands an equally stark reaction. If the administration now regards Assad as worse than Hitler, is it prepared to carry out the kind of all-out war that defeated the Nazis? And if not, does that mean the United States is indifferent in the face of Nazi-like atrocity?

Of course, Assad has carried out atrocity after atrocity, killing hundreds of thousands of men, women and “beautiful babies” with barrel bombs, cluster munitions and incendiary weapons. The West may yet be judged by its failure to intervene and put a stop to the slaughter, but the United States and its allies have neither the stomach nor popular support for the massive intervention that would entail. In this case, as in so many others, Nazi comparisons raise the stakes without clarifying a thing. Or as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman put it, comparing Nazi crimes to current situations “leads to nothing good.”

The Soup Nazi episode of “Seinfeld” was criticized at the time for trivializing the Holocaust. If a chef could be labeled a Nazi for demanding discipline from his would-be customers, the critics argued, then the word “Nazi” has been drained of all meaning.

But “Seinfeld” was a satire, and the joke was on the shallow cast of characters who would blithely use the term “Nazi” to describe someone they found disagreeable. The show’s writers understood that it was a ridiculous conceit (and realized, too, we’re now told, that there were limits to how far they could push the joke). And in understanding the weight of the term, they reinforced the idea that “Nazi” describes the apotheosis of evil, not just another form of it.

It’s a lesson Spicer might want to take back to his colleagues on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Photo courtesy of Four Season Resort and Residences Whistler

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


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

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

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passover and xenophilia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My liberal rabbi changed the subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

From barley to holiness in 49 days


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

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

It turns out it all started with a little barley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Moses


Do you dream of Egypt? Or seek traces
of your journey before God lays you down like Isaac
at Moriah and takes away your breathing?
Do you remember Sinai where you were sorely tried?
Or seek evidence that the lengthy sojourn
in Pharaoh’s court was not of your imagining?
Do you feel the sea tearing in half? Or remember
those who dared to flee into its breach?
Perhaps your feet still move in a desert rhythm
and will not stop even here on Mount Nebo
though you watch the others cross a river beyond you.
Haven’t you pleaded for your life? What have
you to say, Bush of Burning who is not consumed? Mountain
of the Stone Tablets? And you, Moses, do you lie back
upon your rocky bed, close your eyes and feel
the cool kiss of God upon your lips, your soul drawn
out of your body like a hair drawn out of milk,
sons dispersed like seeds, no burial place?


From “Lithuania: New & Selected Poems.” Myra Sklarew, professor emerita at American University, also is the author of “Harmless,” “If You Want to Live Forever” and the forthcoming “A Survivor Named Trauma: Holocaust and the Construction of Memory,” SUNY Press.

Matzah Bruschetta


Improvisational Passover Appetizer: Matzah Bruschetta! Because I’m just too Italian for plain Jewish food, or so I think. And it was a huuuuge hit at Seder last night. Since I couldn’t really rub the “bread” with fresh garlic, as is traditional, I roasted the tomatoes with a little garlic, and thyme too. Enjoy the matzah mania!

Ingredients:

1/3 cup of olive oil + more for brushing the on matzah and drizzling afterwards
1 pint of organic cherry tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon of thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt
2 “balls” of burrata cheese
2 standard size pieces of matzah – regular, spelt, or gluten free
10 freshly chopped basil leaves

Directions:

For tomatoes:

Position oven rack in center to lower third of oven.
Put oven broiler on high.
Cut tomatoes in half and place them on a baking sheet on top of parchment paper.
Drizzle generously with olive oil, sprinkle with chopped garlic, a hearty pinch of salt and several hearty pinches of thyme.
Using your fingers, mix the tomatoes up in the oil, garlic and herbs.
Lick your fingers. You want them to taste good and even a bit over-salted and over-“herbed” because much will burn off in oven.
Put tray in oven and cook for about 7-10 minutes, opening oven at times to give the pan a shake to roll tomatoes around.
The tomatoes are done when the skins begin to bubble and even burn and tomato juices begin to burst.
Let tomatoes rest while you prepare the matzah and burrata.

For matzah:

Turn oven to bake at 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Carefully break the matzah into bite size pieces, approximately 1 inch by 2 inches. It’s okay if they’re not perfect
Brush the pieces of matzah on each side with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt
Place them on the pan and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

To assemble:

Cut the burrata into thin slices. It will get messy. It’s okay.
Top each piece of matzah with a piece of burrata.
Sprinkle with salt.
Put two tomatoes on top and crush down gently with a fork.
Drizzle with olive oil. Top with freshly cut basil.

For more recipes or to take a class with Elana, visit mealandaspiel.com

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

Trump administration to host White House seder


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

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

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

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

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

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

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

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

Why Matzah is Stale – A Poem for Every Generaration by Rick Lupert


In every generation it is the duty of every person
to regard themselves as though they had each
personally come out of Egypt.

There’s a reason the freshest matzah tastes stale.
We brought it out of Egypt three thousand years ago.
Conventional bread loses something the next day.

You can imagine what three millennia did to the dough
we stuck on our backs, that baked in the sun,
that never rose.

We’re still eating it. We must have made so much
in that flash of an eighteen minutes. It never runs out.
I remember my first bite, as I fumbled for

my Egyptian passport, which turned out to be a
Green Card. You’d think we would have been naturalized
after four hundred years, building someone else’s cities.

We have memories longer than our physical bodies
can stand. Some of us are still dumping sand out of
our shoes. Some of us have reeds stuck in our teeth.

Some of us have brick-making blisters that will
never heal. I think this is why my mother made me wake up
on Sunday mornings. I know this is why we

make our son wake up on Sunday mornings.
This has been going on for as long as we can remember.
Since a frightened King forgot who Joseph was.

Since a bush burned in the desert.
Since we stood by as the water supply turned red.
Since we pulled our babies out of the river.

I use the word we with a vengeance.
That stale taste in our mouths. This is personal.
This is our obligation.


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Is Trump Pharaoh? Was Obama? What to talk about at the Seder


1.

My monthly New York Times article was just published, and the topic is a timely one. The headline says: Keep Your Politics out of Passover, and I urge you to read it, of course.

Here’s one paragraph:

There’s a growing tendency among Jews — whether rabbis, teachers, community leaders or lay people — to employ Jewish texts to score political points. A Passover Seder during which you spend time criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies or regretting the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Gaza is not a “relevant” Seder, it is a mediocre and redundant one. Passover is for celebrating the transcendent, the mysterious, the eternal, not rehashing worn-out political debates. It is a night to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.

2.

If you wish to understand why this topic seemed timely when I wrote it last week, here’s some proof from the Washington Post:

This Passover, which begins Monday night, the nation’s preoccupation with politics and the flurry of activism since President Trump’s election are inspiring a new crop of amateur writers to try their hand at updating the age-old Passover story. And for some, the big question has become: Is it right to cast the president of the United States as the villainous pharaoh?

3.

Readers have already started responding to my NYT article. As you can probably imagine: Some say Yeshar Choach – so I assume they agree with me. Some say: we disagree. Tamara Cofman Wittes posted on Facebook the following thoughtful response:

Well, Shmuel, I disagree. If all we are supposed to do at Seder is follow the “script,” there’s no way the rabbis stayed up until it was time to recite the morning shma. No, we engage in disputation about our tradition, our laws, and how they apply to our lives – the modern, political, socially active, globally aware lives we actually live. We’re Jews; that’s how we roll.

She says she disagrees with me, but I’m not sure we are in serious disagreement. I can concur with her statement that “we engage in disputation about our tradition, our laws, and how they apply to our lives.” The question, of course, is what do we mean by “our lives.” I believe that the Seder is about “our lives” in a big sense. The meaning of our lives, the meaning of our being Jewish, our history, tradition, obligations. I dislike the idea of using the Seder to discuss “our lives” in a small what-was-on-the-morning-news sense. I do not think that pharaoh-izing Trump (or, a year ago, Obama, or anyone else we watch on TV on a daily basis) makes for a meaningful Seder.

4.

Ben Sales wrote an article titled: Worried about Trump talk ruining your seder? Here’s how to get through it. Here’s a paragraph:

Seders traditionally embrace disputation. The meal’s most known segment is the Four Questions, and several of the Haggadah’s anecdotes retell rabbinic debates. Haggadah commentaries likewise nudge attendees to challenge the details of the hours-long Exodus narrative. Noam Zion, co-author with his son Mishael of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices,” says the original seder was not meant to be a rote reading of the Haggadah but a free-willing symposium on themes of freedom and slavery.

Again – I agree. “To challenge the details of the hours-long Exodus narrative” – that’s good. Objecting to “a rote reading of the Haggadah” – that’s even better (It is possible that my NYT article was not clear on this matter because of my “followed a script” reference). The question is not should we debate at the Seder – it is what to debate at the Seder.

The meaning of the Exodus, Jewish perceptions of freedom, the history of our Seder and the meaning of its many components – sure, let’s debate these, talk about them, and enrich our Seder with knowledge and anecdotes and storytelling. But Trump? Netanyahu? Occupation? Nuances of contemporary immigration law? Why waste such a special evening on those?

5.

Let’s be somewhat blunt. For too many Jews the insertion of politics into the Seder is a way to overcome a Jewish void – having a limited Jewish vocabulary, they turn to the one topic on which everybody seems to know something and have something to say. This is becoming typical of Seders and of other Jewish occasions. And it is a cheap solution to a real problem of lack of Jewish literacy.

Here’s one suggestion: instead of talking about politics, use the Seder to deepen one’s Jewish literacy. That’s the lesson we can learn from the Haggadah: “even if we were all wise, all understanding, all experienced, all versed in the Torah, we would still be commanded to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt.”

Chag Sameach.

 

Community Passover seders


MON | APRIL 10

“King Solomon’s Table” Seder

Chef Akasha Richmond will prepare a Passover feast and seder to celebrate Joan Nathan’s new cookbook, “King Solomon’s Table.” Served family style, the first course features various salads and spiced fried matzo. For the main course, you can choose between braised short ribs, double-lemon roast chicken or Richmond’s eggplant bake with almond ricotta. There also will be side dishes and fried artichokes (Jewish style) to accompany dinner. Passover food rules will be followed strictly and the dinner is “kosher style,” containing no dairy. Officiated by Rabbi Laura Owens, B’Nai Horin. 6 p.m. $95; $45 for children younger 12. Reservations required. AR Cucina, 9531 Culver Blvd., Culver City. (310) 558-8800. arcucina.com.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple Adult Seder

Join Rabbi Susan Nanus and Cantor Seth Ettinger for a musical seder followed by a Passover meal (wine included). Older children and teens are welcome. 6:30 p.m. $40; reservation required. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-2401. wbtla.org/adultseder.

Chabad of Toluca Lake

Enjoy a gourmet Passover seder that is interactive for the whole family. Share and hear meaningful discussion while enjoying a four-course meal and international wines. All are welcome to join, regardless of Jewish affiliation or background. 7 p.m. $40; $20 for children. Chabad of Toluca Lake, 4912 Strohm Ave., North Hollywood. (818) 308-4118. chabadoftolucalake.com.

Chabad of Ventura

“Relive the Passover Exodus” with Rabbi Yakov and Sarah Latowicz. Enjoy a seder with a gourmet kosher brisket Passover meal paired with a variety of kosher wines from Herzog Wine Cellars and authentic, handmade shmurah matzo from Israel. The event will feature an abridged (but traditional) seder, fully illustrated and colorful haggadah in Hebrew and English, contemporary spiritual messages and songs. All are welcome to join this community seder, regardless of Jewish affiliation or background. 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation of $54, $26 for children younger than 10. Nobody will be turned away for lack of finances. Pierpont Racquet Club, 500 Sanjon Road, Ventura Beach. chabadventura.com.

For more Chabad Passover events, visit chabad.org.

Jem Community Center

Relax as you relive this festival of freedom and take a journey through the haggadah with traditional songs, stories and spiritual insights. Enjoy a gourmet Passover dinner, original handmade shmurah matzo and four glasses of kosher wine. Everyone is welcome and nobody will be turned away due to lack of funds. 8 p.m. Second night seder at 8 p.m. April 11. $60; $30 for children. JEM Community Center, 9930 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 772-0000. jemcommunitycenter.com.

TUES | APRIL 11

Hollywood Temple Beth El Sing-Along

Enjoy a kosher meal and the telling of the Exodus story in song at “Some Enchanted Pesach Seder.” Sing along to parodies of music from Disney movies and by Stephen Sondheim, the Beatles and Adele. Kosher for Passover. 6 p.m. $80; subject to availability. Hollywood Temple Beth El, 1317 N. Crescent Heights, West Hollywood. (323) 656-3150. htbel.org.

Temple Etz Chaim Family Seder

Enjoy a seder with the family led by Rabbi Richard Spiegel and Chazzan Pablo Duek. 6:30 p.m. $55; $32 for children ages 6-12; $20 for children ages 3-5. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891. templeetzchaim.org.

Calendar: April 7-13


FRI | APRIL 7

ENTERTAINMENT AND MEDIA NETWORK SHABBAT

Celebrate the end of the week with Young Adults of Los Angeles, tasting wines and food while welcoming the start of Shabbat. 7 p.m. $36; tickets available at eventbrite.com. The Blending Lab, 7948 W. Third St., Los Angeles. yala.org.

SAT | APRIL 8

“WAYNE NEWTON: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL”

Wayne Newton makes his return to Beverly Hills with his new production, “Wayne Newton: Up Close and Personal.” The entertainer known as “Mr. Las Vegas” will sing crowd favorites including his signature hit, “Danke Schoen,” interact with the audience and play an assortment of instruments. The opening set will be by modern adult-contemporary/smooth jazz artist and songwriter Carly Robyn Green. 8 p.m. $38; tickets available at tikly.co/events/1856. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. sabanconcerts.com.

REBBESOUL HAVDALLAH CONCERT

International recording artist RebbeSoul is back in the United States from Israel with his unique blend of ancient and modern music. Come enjoy an evening of music, storytelling, noshing and mingling with the community. 8:10 p.m. $25; tickets available at eventbrite.com; $29 at the door. Address given upon RSVP, Santa Monica. (310) 430-9864. holisticjew.org.

SUN | APRIL 9

PASSOVER FAMILY ADVENTURE AND FUN DAY

Travel back in time to biblical Egypt and relive the Exodus. Watch the Ten Plagues come to life in the Land of Egypt (aka Shemesh Organic Farm), meet animals at the Pinat Chai Animal Center, bake matzo on the open fire, make charoset in the “Jamba Jews” Bike Blender, and enjoy games plus arts and crafts. The day will be filled with activities, snacks and a kosher lunch. 10 a.m. $10; free for kids 6 and younger; tickets available at eventbrite.com. Shalom Institute, 34342 Mulholland Highway, Malibu. (818) 889-5500. shalominstitute.com.

GENEALOGY RESEARCH DAY

Need help finding a genealogical record or a ship manifest? Do you know what sources to use? Or do you need family documents translated? Yiddish, Russian, German, Polish and Hebrew translators will be on hand to help answer your questions in an event hosted by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. Sessions include Barbara Algaze on genealogy research at the Family History Library and a Q-and-A on DNA topics moderated by Brock Shamberg. 12:30 p.m. Free for members; become a member at the door for $25 (or $30 per family). Los Angeles Family History Library, 10741 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. jgsla.org.

WED | APRIL 12

PASSOVER CLEANSE

Join Netiya for a six-day Passover virtual cleanse that features a daylong retreat on April 16 in Sherman Oaks. Instead of a week of eating heavily processed foods full of additives, sugars and salt, you can choose to join Neitya for a virtual cleanse that includes daily prompts with nutritional and health tips, emotional and spiritual probes and quotes, Passover Torah and optional daily conference calls for support. Includes a suggested menu of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, soups and teas. Participants will pot and take home edible plants, sing freedom songs and close with a mikveh. netiya.org.

THURS | APRIL 13

BLACK AND JEWISH FOODWAYS

Michael Twitty, the acclaimed African-American Jewish food writer and culinary historian, will explore race, culture, food, faith and history through what he calls “Kosher/Soul.” Twitty will share his personal journey and discuss the experience of being both African-American and Jewish. The 8 p.m. event will feature a sampling of recipes from his forthcoming cookbook, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American Culinary History in the Old South.” 2 p.m., free; 8 p.m., $20, $15 for members, $10 for students. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.    

Tips and tales from a seasoned seder leader


What kind of leadership style works best for a seder? During a period when we are experiencing a shake-up in national leadership, you may want to re-examine the relationship that exists between leader and participants at the Passover meal.

Though seder leaders and participants are not elected, there is still a seder mandate that governs your relationship: Everyone present — the wise, the wicked, the simple, and even the one who does not know how to ask a question — are all involved in the evening’s proceedings.

Attending a Passover seder remains an “extremely common practice” of American Jews, according to Pew Research Center, with approximately 70 percent participating. Despite its broad mandate, however, meaningful seders rarely function as true democracies. The seder is a complicated undertaking with symbolic foods, actions and storytelling, and on this night that is different from all others, the call is for an assertive leader who can guide a tableful of guests through a sea of ritual needs.

Since Passover is an eight-day holiday of freedom, and the seder a celebration of the going out from Egypt, you may think the people are clamoring for a democratic free-form kind of dinner — from chanting the kiddush to singing “Chad Gadya.” But after leading a family seder for more than 30 years, my experience has been that if I give everyone a free hand to comment and question, and the seder runs long, revolution erupts, with the guests vigorously chanting “When do we eat?” And if I try to rule the table with an iron Kiddush Cup, my poll numbers plummet, especially among the restless, 20-something contingent that starts texting madly under the table, presumably plotting a resistance.

Defying typical political alignment, I have found that on the nights when the seder works — when most every question has been asked, and tradition and innovation have been shared — my style of leadership has fallen somewhere between being a benevolent dictator and a liberal talk-show host.

I say “benevolent dictator” because it is part of the leader’s job to find a way for everyone to retell the Passover story and ultimately exit the slavery of Egypt — even though they may not necessarily feel the need. Going around the table urging guests to share the reading is one way, and calling up guests beforehand to discuss and assign a specific section of the seder is another. Especially for whomever is going to lead the Four Questions — at our table, usually the youngest who can read Hebrew — it helps to ask them personally beforehand rather than springing the task on them on the night of the seder. Such quiet lobbying helps reorient one from being an audience member into one, as the haggadah says, who can see themselves as if they had left Egypt.

As “liberal talk-show host,” I get that the haggadah is filled with questions that must be questioned as well. I once opened a seder by asking, “What does it mean when the haggadah says: ‘Let all those who are hungry come and eat with us?’ ” Especially in a year such as this one, when even benign conversation is abuzz with politics, there are going to be varying responses, from the bitter, like maror, to the sweet, like charoset.

At the time, you may not think that these opposing points of view are what binds together a seder, but recall that in the haggadah, when the five rabbis are sitting in Bnei Brak telling and interpreting the story of the Exodus, each has something different to add, and it is the whole of their interpretations taken together that heightens our understanding of the text.

Those not leading but participating in the seder, don’t think that you are off the hook in setting its tone. In his book “Keeping Passover,” Ira Steingroot points out that being a seder guest “doesn’t mean that you have to be the life of the party or a maven (authority), and you certainly do not want to monopolize the conversation, but you have a role to play in the drama of the seder.” In fact, it is your responses and feelings that determine whether everyone at the table makes it past the plague of ennui. To aid in that quest, be sure you are following along, asking questions and responding to the leader’s prompts.

I have also learned that regardless of leadership style — some of us are like Moses pointing the way, others are more like Miriam, leading through interpretation and song — you will still need to do your homework. Steingroot’s book is a great source, as well as “Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration” by Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver, and “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah,” by David Dishon and Noam Zion.

Taking my own advice, a few nights before our first encounter with all things matzo each year, I go through the haggadah and annotate, searching for my afikomen: a way to connect the story of traveling from slavery to freedom to the lives of my guests. One year, I held up a Passover chocolate bar and referred to it as “the bean of our affliction,” calling attention to the children who are sometimes exploited to harvest cacao beans and as a way to discuss if we, too, were participating in slavery.

This year to provoke discussion, before we open the door to Elijah, I plan to ask guests to imagine what would happen if the prophet, as we imagine him — a robed and perhaps turbaned man from the Middle East — was detained at airport customs. n

In praise of the simple son


Of course I wanted to be the wise one.

Like most young nerds, I relished the opportunity to read from the haggadah about the son who asks his father the meaning of all the commandments, laws and practices — even down to the law of the afikomen. Recently, the wicked son has become popular — challenge the establishment, speak truth to power, yada yada yada. So much so that many haggadot describe him as the rebellious son, an evocative but not-fully-accurate translation.

But the simple son? Who cares?

Rarely has a major figure in Jewish liturgy been so misunderstood — the son’s simplicity is actually a form of wisdom.

Let us begin by considering his description in Hebrew: tam. Tam can mean simple in the intellectual sense, but it does not need to. It can mean just innocent; in the Talmud, an ox that has never gored anyone is referred to as tam. And just as often, it means something closer to “pure” or even “perfect.” The infamous Red Heifer that is to be sacrificed and its ashes to be used for the purification of the impurity of the dead must also be tamimah (Numbers 19:2-3).

It’s more than animals. The prayer Tziduk Ha-din, said at every Jewish funeral, declares that all the works of God are “perfect” — Tamim. This is not a liturgical accident. In “The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides refers to God as “He who is without matter and is simple to the utmost degree of simplicity” (I, 58).

What is so perfect about simplicity? And thus, what might be so perfect about the simple son?

Well, let us recall that the sons ask questions. And the simple son asks the most perfect question of all: What is this? That might seem simplistic, but if we think about it for a moment, the simple son is trying to determine the essence of the Pesach celebration.

The Greek philosopher Archilochus remarked that “the fox knows many things, and the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Playing off of this, the 20th century British political theorist Isaiah Berlin divided the history of Western thought into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples: Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust), and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples: Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce).

If we think about it for a moment, the simple son is trying to determine the essence of the Pesach celebration.

The wise son is the omnivore, the fox. He asks, “What is the meaning of all the laws, statutes and commandments of Passover?” We are supposed to tell him everything, down to the smallest details.

The simple son, on the contrary, is the hedgehog. Put another linguistic emphasis on his question: What is this? What is the essential meaning of this?

On my third date with the woman who is now my wife of 13 years, and who is not Jewish, I was explaining to her about the differences between Jewish denominations, and how I never felt fully comfortable in any of them. Then she stopped me and said: “So why is it so important to you? What does it mean to you?” That forced me to think and reflect in a way I never had before. (We got engaged eight months later). It was the simplest question — and the most perfect.

Often, the most perfect questions are those that are the most simple, because they get to the essence of the issue. (This is why Maimonides said that God is perfect, and thus simple: God’s essence is existence, he is completely incorporeal, and God cannot be compared with anything in our world — although fully understanding this is for another time).

If the simplest question is the most profound, however, the rabbis present us with an equally profound irony in the answer that one is supposed to provide to him: “With a strong hand the Almighty led us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage.” This response does not answer the question. The Almighty did not lead us out of Egypt. God led our ancestors out of Egypt. Yes, we are supposed to act as if we personally were liberated from bondage, but why? Why does that help? Is it even possible? What is it supposed to make us do, or feel, or experience? What is this?

Is this interpretation overly generous to the simple son? Hardly; it will be familiar to anyone who has parented a preschooler. At some age — usually around 3 or 4 — the child starts to ask “why?” about everything. Providing an answer simply will generate another “why?” In one of my few successful parenting exercises, I resolved to continue to answer these questions until my daughter got tired of it. But I found it to be very enlightening, not least because the series of “whys?” very often got me to the point where I could not answer the question. I didn’t know.

And not infrequently, when I said I didn’t know, my daughter would ask, “Why?” Why didn’t I know it? Because I had never thought about it deeply enough. What is this?

Thinking it through deeply challenges us: Why do we do this? Why is it important to us? How is it supposed to change us? How does it define and redefine our commitment to God and the Jewish people? We cannot answer these questions in one seder, or one Pesach, or perhaps one whole year. They demand an accounting and understanding not only of our souls, but of our relationship to our people. That takes a long time. Sometimes, often, usually, the simplest questions are the most complex.


Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

How to Jew: Passover


BACKGROUND

Passover, or Pesach, is the holiday during which Jews celebrate their liberation from Egyptian slavery. It lasts for eight days, from the 15th of Nissan to the 22nd, with the first two days and last two days traditionally being full-fledged holidays during which no work, aside from cooking, is permitted.

The Exodus from Egypt came about after God sent Moses to warn Pharaoh to free the Jews after generations of bondage. When Pharaoh refused, God punished Egypt with 10 plagues: Water turned into blood, frogs crawled from the water to cover the land, lice and other biting bugs rose out of the dust, flies swarmed, livestock became diseased, the Egyptians suffered boils, hail stormed down, locusts covered everything, the sky was dark for three days and, finally, all the firstborn Egyptians died. To save their firstborns, the Jews marked their doors with lamb’s blood so God would “pass over” their homes.

After the 10th plague, Pharaoh expelled the Jews from Egypt. The Jews left so quickly that the bread they were baking did not have time to rise. 

TRADITIONS

To prepare for Passover, we traditionally clean our homes of all the chametz, or leavened grain. The night before Passover, it is customary to do a search for chametz in the home with a candle, feather, wooden spoon and bag. On the morning before Passover, all the chametz is burned. The chametz that cannot be disposed of can be sold to a non-Jew until the holiday ends.

On the first two nights of the holiday, we hold feasts known as seders (literally, “order”). During these festive meals, we follow a particular order as we take turns retelling the Passover story, reading from our haggadahs. We eat matzo to commemorate the unleavened bread the Jews made while escaping Egypt, and we drink four cups of wine or grape juice to celebrate our freedom. An extra cup, known as Elijah’s cup, is left untouched, in honor of the prophet whose reappearance will signal the coming of the Messiah.

SPECIAL FOODS

We eat matzo throughout the seder and the holiday. On our seder plate, we traditionally include a lamb shank as a symbol of offering for the Temple (zeroa); an egg to symbolize rebirth (beitzah); a bitter herb like horseradish as a symbol of our bitter enslavement (maror); parsley or another nonbitter vegetable dipped into salt water to represent our tears (karpas); a nut, apple and wine mixture to symbolize the bricks and mortar used by the enslaved peoples (charoset); and a second bitter herb like romaine lettuce (chazeret).

Sources: Chabad.org and MyJewishLearning.com

The bitter truth: A Sephardic reflection on maror


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Rabbis dish on the seder plate


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

BEITZAH

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

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

— Rabbi Zoë Klein, Temple Isaiah

CHAROSET

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

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

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

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

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

— Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Kehillat Israel

KARPAS

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

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

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

— Rabbi Kalman Topp, Beth Jacob Congregation

MAROR/CHAZERET

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

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

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

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

— Rabbi John L. Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood

ZEROA

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

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

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

SALT WATER

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

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

— Rabbi Sarah Hronsky, Temple Beth Hillel

MATZO

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

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

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

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

— Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple

ELIJAH’S CUP

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

— Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Pico Shul

ORANGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Each person eats a slice of orange.]

— Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

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

My Exodus: A very Persian Passover


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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to get burned!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s complicated!” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“It’s complicated!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you leaving?”

I closed my eyes and nodded my head in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer state, South Sudan, on Feb. 26. Photo by Siegfried Modola/Reuters

The Passover paradox


In early March, the United Nations announced that the world is facing — and this is not hyperbole — “the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945.”

If you’re thinking Syria or European migrants, you’re wrong. Neither of those issues was mentioned once.

Right now, the great humanitarian crisis of our world is food insecurity — a condition afflicting tens of millions of people who have limited or uncertain access to nutritional and safe food. 

According to the U.N., an estimated 20 million people will face the threat of starvation and famine this year in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria. The New York Times devoted a special section on April 2 to the stories of 130,000 people forced from their homes by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, who have camped next to a highway in the Niger desert in search of food and water.

UNICEF is warning that “1.4 million children could starve to death this year.” And I hesitate to describe the accompanying pictures of children already in peril — their faces sunken, desperate, nearly deformed from malnourishment.

Now comes Pesach, a harvest festival. It arrives every spring when the earth is bursting with blooms, when crops are growing and nature renews itself, offering its bounty.

And yet, it forces us to confront hunger.

The relationship between hunger and the Passover seder is so central to the holiday that reiterating the connection is stating the obvious. Early on, before we do almost anything else, we hold up the matzo, and we sing “Ha Lachma Anya” — behold, the bread of affliction. The central symbol of Pesach literally is the poor man’s bread: It is the bread of the persecuted, degraded and displaced who could not afford to waste a single second letting dough rise when the moment for liberation came.

On Pesach, our task is to relive the experience of slavery and its infinite deprivations so deeply, so viscerally, it should be as if each one of us had personally gone out of Egypt.

And yet, when I think of the modern Jewish seder table, I think of abundance. Most of us probably enjoy multiple courses of food, flowing wine, crystal glasses, fine china, luxurious table linens. Others partake of popular Pesach “vacations” with kosher buffets so ample they could feed a king, a queen and their court. And I wonder if all of this abundance on the holiday when we are meant to recall deprivation is missing the point. Slavery is having to do without; but our seder tables sometimes are paradigms of excess.

The year 2016 was the second year in a row in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development named Los Angeles as the city with the most chronically homeless people in the country. An estimated 44,000 people sleep on the streets of our city each night. On Pesach, we’ll sing, “All who hunger, you are welcome here,” but how many of us will invite a hungry person to eat at our table? How many of us will welcome the stranger, the orphan, the refugee?

Our tradition is clear about our obligation, as Jews, to make the world better. We all understand this. That’s why we give to charities, and pay taxes, and support food kitchens, and engage in the fight for political equality and justice. The Shulchan Aruch demands that every Jewish community establish a kupa, a welfare fund to be distributed to those in need. It also prescribes a tamchui, a communal kitchen that provides food for the poor. 

But it doesn’t end there.

Our tradition also recognizes that something different happens when you invite a hungry person into your home. That it is spiritually elevating to break “bread” with someone who is not like you — who does not share your background, your skin color, your socioeconomic status. The holiday table can become an extraordinary equalizer in allowing us to realize our shared humanity. What makes us human is not what we have; it is what we have to give.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to invite one of my mother’s former students to spend Shabbat with my family and me. He is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who lost nine family members in a horrendous slaughter. He and his brother, a former child soldier, and a young woman who also survived the conflict sat in my grandmother’s living room as we lit yahrzeit candles together and remembered all of the people we had lost. That night, we counted more dead among us than living. It was one of the most profound moments of human connection in my life. A Shabbat meal bound me to refugees as we ate, sang, shared and danced to real African drums.

What would it look like if more families modeled this kind of exchange the way my mother did for me? What is the point of digging into our formative pain as a people if it does not awaken us to the pain of others? It’s not enough just to tell the story.

Our communal destiny is to write a new one.

Chag sameach.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

On Passover, Why Do Jews Ban Leavening, of All Things?


My editorial column this week is a reflection on Passover.   I know the rabbis teach that we do without leavening during Passover to remind us of the time we were slaves, but in this column I ask, Is there a deeper reason behind the reason?  I write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And precisely because of that starter, I do.

To read the rest, click here.

 

 

 

What sourdough taught me about Passover


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

After a while, my wife came out.

“What are you doing?”

“Reading.”

“No, I mean, what’s that?”

“My sourdough starter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And precisely because of that starter, I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Passover.


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

Don Rickles

A moment on silence for Don Rickles


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The 4 cups of wine


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A boy displaced by fighting in South Sudan arrives in Lamwo on April 5. Photo by James Akena/Reuters

A Passover without sustenance in South Sudan


Each year, we gather with family and friends for our Passover seder. We lift the matzo and remember how we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. We talk about the blood, locusts, boils, hail and so on, then we dig in to our “festive meal.” We remember, and then we eat. How lucky are we?

This year at Jewish World Watch (jww.org) — the anti-genocide organization where I serve — we are going beyond remembering the traditional Exodus story of the Hebrew slaves. Our Passover conversation also remembers the fleeing, homeless refugees and displaced people worldwide whose number, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has officially topped 65 million. They, too, are innocent people who’ve lost their homes and their livelihoods through violence perpetrated, in many cases, by outright hostility from their own governments.

Bombs, not hail, have fallen from the skies over Syria and in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Deliberate acts of arson, not frogs, have destroyed the farms of peace-loving South Sudanese. And rampant sexual violence against women and children — there are too many places to name where that behavior is just a fact of life.

What do these stories have to do with Passover? For those who survive the modern-day plagues to flee, these are their Passover stories. We need alter our haggadah only slightly to see the parallels: We must remember that we were once refugees from the land of Egypt. We fled from the torment of a greedy and vicious head of state — Pharaoh —  who profited from our labor and tortured us because we were ethnically different, and because we sought freedom from his tyranny.

But in our flight, we had an extraordinary asset: Moses, a stalwart, though initially unlikely, leader who stood up for our rights and dignity. An inspirational, albeit flawed, figure who tried to advocate peacefully before leading us out of bondage.

And we had matzo. As flat and tasteless as it still may seem, we brought it with us as sustenance as we headed to the desert where, unbelievably, we were gifted with the manna that kept us alive.

We must ask ourselves: Who is Moses for today’s refugees?

We must ask ourselves: Who is Moses for today’s refugees? And where is the matzo — and the manna — for the famine-afflicted people attempting to find food for their children and themselves in civil war-infested South Sudan? I call out South Sudan, in particular, because it is one of the countries in which Jewish World Watch has long invested. So, at our Passover meal, we will remember that, despite the efforts of Jewish World Watch and many other international nongovernmental organizations, innocent people in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, are dying of starvation because of a senseless civil war. 

The United Nations reports that more than half the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, with 1 million people at risk of famine. And just two years after the country became an independent nation, 1.9 million people in South Sudan have become internally displaced. Another 1.6 million people have exited its borders as refugees. Many of those refugees are children orphaned by the civil war.

Who will be Moses for the people of South Sudan? Who will save lives by offering support and sustenance? It’s up to you and me to help fill in the gap. Jewish World Watch is embarking on an emergency campaign to help respond to this crisis. 

Most of all, we must recognize that the humanitarian crisis will end only when South Sudan’s leaders are forced to end the civil war and address the corruption, poor governance and fractures within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. A united effort to put pressure on the key actors and their warring factions in the conflict must come from all of us, and from the United Nations, the African Union and the United States.

We cannot stand idly by.


SUSAN FREUDENHEIM is executive director of Jewish World Watch.

A dysfunctional family’s long journey to seder in a dystopian America


All the stars are in alignment for a remarkable new book by novelist and short-story writer David Samuel Levinson, “Tell Me How This Ends Well” (Crown Publishing/Hogarth). Set in a dangerously dystopian Los Angeles a scant five years in future, the story focuses on the Passover gathering of the Jacobson family in Calabasas, and the author’s timely commitment to truth-telling in the guise of a comic novel is evident from the outset.

A Passover seder at the Jacobson house, we are told, is “like a terrifying golem made from the clay of behavioral tics and personality disorders — a litany of ills and a penchant for hypochondriasis and full-blown neurosis, with bouts of accompanying sanctimony, blinding narcissism, and a plain, old-fashioned, wrath-of-God-style guilt.”

The prime mover of the Jacobson family’s dysfunction is Julian, the paterfamilias, who possesses an “obscenely pronounced underbite, which went hand in hand with the rest of his handsome albeit cavemanlike face, thick, bushy eyebrows, broody, overhanging brow.”  Julian is the problem to be solved by his three long-suffering adult children, Jacob, Moses (known as Mo) and Edith.

Jacob is a gay man with a problematic German lover, and his siblings call him “Gay-Jay.” Mo is a “registered dietician and semifamous actor.” Edith adopted the nickname Thistle in early adolescence, and Jacob describes her as “our Thistle of the Congregation of Least Resistance.” We see the story through the eyes of each sibling in turn, but it is Gay-Jay who first imagines taking the final Oedipal step to protect their ailing mother from what they fear are the evil intentions of their father, a notion that may or may not be a joke.

“[Jacob] had a sneaking, awful suspicion, though, that because he was the youngest and thus usually dared and bullied into mischief by his older brother and sister, it would fall on him to interview the hit men, whomever Mo had found to do it, probably former, disbanded Mossad operatives — the USA was rife with them,” Levinson writes. Mo has a different idea: “If we were keeping with the Passover theme, then we’d drop him off in the middle of the desert without food or water,” Mo cracks. “He wouldn’t last forty hours, much less forty days in that heat.”

But the author’s anxieties transcend those of the Jacobson family, which is why “Tell Me How This Ends Well” has been compared to Philip Roth’s memorable novel about an anti-Semitic version of the history of the United States, “The Plot Against America.” Levinson imagines that an isolationist American president has refused to come to the aid of Israel in a war with Syria, Iran and Lebanon, a catastrophe that has resulted in the destruction of the Jewish homeland, a massive influx of Israeli refugees, and an upwelling of violence against Jews: “[A]nother torched synagogue, another murdered youth, another suicide bomber on the 405 or the 101, the anti-Semitism that swept across L.A. with the tenacity of a wildfire.”

So Levinson dares to play out a worst-case scenario that overshadows the woes of all unhappy families: “They’d given Israel back, yet the world still came for them,” muses Edith, who happens to be a professor of ethics. “How could anyone have guessed that a mere eighty years after the end of World War Two the Jews would be made to roam the world yet again?”

Levinson has been compared by the early blurbers of his book to authors ranging from Roth to Nathanael West to Flannery O’Connor. (I would add Joseph Heller to the list.) But Levinson also deserves to be praised for qualities of his own — a mastery of verbal invention and rhetorical pyrotechnics, an imagination that shocks us by showing us an alternate future that is all too plausible nowadays, and a gift for humor so dark that we find ourselves dancing on the edge of the grave.

By the time we reach the Passover seder itself, the opening words of the Four Questions (“Why is this night different from all other nights?”) suggest a new, different and especially terrifying answer.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.