7 Haiku for Parsha Bo – Sure, let’s put blood on the door.


I
No, Mister Pharaoh
You can not keep the children
as security.

II
First the locusts, then
a darkness, so pitch dark, it
embarrassed the night.

III
Maybe the cattle
in exchange for freedom? No
conditions at all.

IV
It will happen at
midnight, Pharaoh is warned. God
invents Rosh Chodesh.

V
I’d paint anything
on my door if it meant I
could live through the night.

VI
Midnight came and the
firstborn went. There’ll be no time
to let the bread rise.

VII
Remember this day
with nothing leavened and put signs
on your hands and eyes.


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.

Safety tips when celebrating Passover in Europe


This Passover, travelers to the Tuscany region of Italy can soak up the sun on the beach and eat special, kosher food certified by the Chief Rabbi of Brussels while staying at the Gallia Palace Hotel. 

Or they can celebrate with a whiff of the Adriatic Sea in Dubrovnik, Croatia, or by soaking up the glamour of the French Riviera, where they can stay at the four-star Novotel Cannes Montfleury.

But while Europe may be calling this Passover — resorts offer top amenities and beautiful accommodations — some travelers may be hesitant to celebrate the holiday there due to the recent violence in places such as Turkey, Germany and Belgium. 

There’s also the growing anti-Semitism throughout the continent that could give rise to safety concerns. According to a 2016 Jerusalem Post article, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said anti-Semitism in Europe has increased to an “unprecedented” level. He referred to a statistic that anti-Semitic occurrences in London increased 60 percent during 2015. In the first quarter of 2015, they rose 84 percent when compared with the first quarter of the previous year. 

Despite these concerns, travel agents specializing in Jewish and kosher travel said there is no reason to avoid Europe this Passover. 

“The people who go to Passover programs for a vacation … there is no need to have more security than usual,” said Sam Kroll of Melrose Travel in Los Angeles. 

This goes for both common destinations and remote ones. This year, Eddie’s Kosher Travel and Tourism is offering a remote Passover program in the Italian Alps. CEO David Walles, who is based in Israel, said there should be no worries about anti-Semitism because, “Nobody knows what a Jew is over there.”

When going in and out of the European airports, however, Walles said it may be safer to wear a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, if the person is comfortable doing that. “You have to be sensible. There is no reason to stand out,” he said.

According to Kroll, Jews going to France, especially, are wearing hats or caps instead of yarmulkes in public. When Jews are in the country for Passover and staying with a host family, they should simply follow the precautions the family is taking. He said he heard feedback from travelers who went to England and said they detected an animosity toward Jews, but they didn’t have any safety concerns. 

Even though Bennett said anti-Semitism has risen, Kroll hasn’t experienced the same on his end. “I’m not aware of any [attacks on Jews in Europe] recently. I don’t see any changes.” 

Sophia Kulich, owner of Jewish Travel Agency, said that in places such as Eastern and Northern Europe, it is safe to wear religious items. “I see people in the airports there who wear yarmulkes,” she said.

Walles said that, in general, when traveling around the globe there are basic precautionary tips that everyone should follow. “You need to be vigilant and not hang around public areas unnecessarily. You have to be aware that we live in a very different world than it used to be.”  

And when traveling anywhere, Kulich said, it’s important to buy travel insurance for emergencies and register the trip through the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). The trip is registered with the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to where the traveler is going so that they know about it. The website for STEP (step.state.gov/step) features travel alerts and warnings as well. For example, the latest travel advisory for Europe, released in late November, says to “exercise caution” at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets, and to avoid large groups. 

Travelers should note, though, that when the government puts out travel advisories for certain places, sometimes they are generalizing, Kulich said. “There are many different countries in Europe. Iceland is the safest country in the world. I take groups to Poland, the Baltics and Armenia and it’s pretty much always safe.”

Kulich, who goes to Europe every two months, said that if travelers plan to go to Europe this Passover, they shouldn’t showcase that they are American, either. “It’s also better to avoid political conversations, especially now,” she said, referring to the recent presidential election results.

Europe is just like everywhere else, Kulich pointed out, and people could say that the United States is not safe to travel around because of the recent Florida shootings in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

“Europe is as safe as anywhere else in the world,” Kulich said. “Unfortunately, the violence that is taking place is the new normal that people are getting used to.”

Roman holiday: Pesach vs. Pizza


Ever since I was a teenager, I had dreamed of an Italian honeymoon. Cuddling on a gondola, exploring ruins, feasting on pasta — those to me were the definition of marital bliss. 

So when my husband, Sean, and I booked our post-wedding tickets for nonstop pizza in the piazza, we were rattled when we realized that it was going to coincide with Passover. Neither of us had ever skipped a seder, and we always tried to avoid chametz during the holiday. And yet, would canoodling in Italy be complete without noodles?

We thought hard, and instead of returning our tickets, we made a Passover plan that ensured both a unique and beautiful honeymoon.

We started in Venice a few days before the holiday and began to eat unlimited amounts of pasta and pizza, as well as visit the Jewish museum and the historic synagogues. My idea of Venetian Jewry previously had come from only “The Merchant of Venice” (not the best source material). Despite being ghettoized for centuries (and even inventing the term “ghetto”), the Jews of Venice had a rich, beautiful history and tradition. Unfortunately, we also learned of the dramatically fading Jewish life in Venice: the struggles to put together a minyan, the challenges of getting kosher food, and the community’s aging population. 

Our next stop was Florence, where I had heard so much about the Great Synagogue (or Tempio Maggiore) — its iconic dome, rich mosaics and stunning stain glass windows. So before we headed out on our trip, I bought two tickets online for the synagogue’s community seder. 

We traveled by train and arrived with only enough time to quickly drop our bags, change clothes and walk to the synagogue. We arrived as services were nearing the end. What I had forgotten was that, like nearly all historic synagogues of Europe, this one was Orthodox. Sean and I, both raised Reform, were separated and I had to sit along the side behind a mechitzah, able only to see most of the stunning building through a wooden-gated divider. 

While my view was limited, it also was breathtaking — and not just for its beauty. The building was filled with the chazzan’s boisterous voice, children running around, and even disenchanted teenagers loitering in the lobby. This synagogue was alive — not a beautiful old relic, like so many of Europe’s other old synagogues. 

As services concluded, the majority of the congregants left to attend their family seders. About 40 people stayed behind to attend the community one, which was held in the basement/community room of the synagogue’s administrative office building. Sean and I found a table with a few other English-speaking folks, including an American expat who had been living in Italy for 27 years and, it turns out, used to carpool to Hebrew school in Flint, Mich., with my former boss! 

The seder was led by the synagogue’s rabbi and his family. Little of what was said was comprehensible to Sean and me since it was in Italian, but we got by with the help of our tablemates and the fact that the order of a seder in Italy is the same as one in Los Angeles — some wine, four sons, some plagues, some miracles, some more wine, next year in Jerusalem. 

For the rest of our trip, which was all during Passover, we knew it would be impossible for us to keep strict observance. And considering that our love of pasta is what made us book our trip in the first place, we made the decision to not keep the holiday for every meal but to designate one meal each day as chametz-free. And there were little things that required little sacrifice — instead of getting our gelato in a cone, for example, we ate it from a cup. These sacrifices, though minor, kept us thinking about Pesach even as we spent our days touring the Vatican and exploring seaside villages.

It also helped that we spent the rest of our honeymoon trying to incorporate as much Jewish tourism as we could. Among our stops was Pitigliano, a small Tuscan village known as “La Piccola Gerusalemme” (Little Jerusalem). More than 1,000 feet above sea level, the village was once home to a small but thriving Jewish community for hundreds of years. Now, fewer than 10 Jews live in the city. 

Still, the community’s historic synagogue, Jewish museum and ancient caves that once housed matzo ovens, a mikveh and wine cellars are the top tourist attractions for the otherwise remote and decaying mountain fortress. After a lovely tour, we walked into the gift shop and bought our first box of matzo, which had a sign in English that read “ancient bread.” 

In Rome, we toured the Jewish museum and the historic synagogue located in the famous and thriving Jewish ghetto neighborhood. During the tour, I asked, “Is the shul Sephardic or Ashkenazi?” “It’s Roman!” the tour guide replied, explaining that Jews have been in Rome since before the Diaspora and so they predate the concepts of Ashkenazi or Sephardic. 

We spent that afternoon — our last in Italy — shopping in Judaica shops, where we met people who said their families dated back to the days of the Colosseum, when Jews were brought as slaves. As the curtain descended on our Italian-Passover honeymoon, I turned to Sean and joked, “We were once slaves in Egypt; then God freed us. We were once slaves in Rome; then we became tourists.”

Passover: Next year, in Nairobi


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passover: Next year, in Nairobi


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety tips when celebrating Passover in Europe


This Passover, travelers to the Tuscany region of Italy can soak up the sun on the beach and eat special, kosher food certified by the Chief Rabbi of Brussels while staying at the Gallia Palace Hotel. 

Or they can celebrate with a whiff of the Adriatic Sea in Dubrovnik, Croatia, or by soaking up the glamour of the French Riviera, where they can stay at the four-star Novotel Cannes Montfleury.

But while Europe may be calling this Passover — resorts offer top amenities and beautiful accommodations — some travelers may be hesitant to celebrate the holiday there due to the recent violence in places such as Turkey, Germany and Belgium. 

There’s also the growing anti-Semitism throughout the continent that could give rise to safety concerns. According to a 2016 Jerusalem Post article, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said anti-Semitism in Europe has increased to an “unprecedented” level. He referred to a statistic that anti-Semitic occurrences in London increased 60 percent during 2015. In the first quarter of 2015, they rose 84 percent when compared with the first quarter of the previous year. 

Despite these concerns, travel agents specializing in Jewish and kosher travel said there is no reason to avoid Europe this Passover. 

“The people who go to Passover programs for a vacation … there is no need to have more security than usual,” said Sam Kroll of Melrose Travel in Los Angeles. 

This goes for both common destinations and remote ones. This year, Eddie’s Kosher Travel and Tourism is offering a remote Passover program in the Italian Alps. CEO David Walles, who is based in Israel, said there should be no worries about anti-Semitism because, “Nobody knows what a Jew is over there.”

When going in and out of the European airports, however, Walles said it may be safer to wear a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, if the person is comfortable doing that. “You have to be sensible. There is no reason to stand out,” he said.

According to Kroll, Jews going to France, especially, are wearing hats or caps instead of yarmulkes in public. When Jews are in the country for Passover and staying with a host family, they should simply follow the precautions the family is taking. He said he heard feedback from travelers who went to England and said they detected an animosity toward Jews, but they didn’t have any safety concerns. 

Even though Bennett said anti-Semitism has risen, Kroll hasn’t experienced the same on his end. “I’m not aware of any [attacks on Jews in Europe] recently. I don’t see any changes.” 

Sophia Kulich, owner of Jewish Travel Agency, said that in places such as Eastern and Northern Europe, it is safe to wear religious items. “I see people in the airports there who wear yarmulkes,” she said.

Walles said that, in general, when traveling around the globe there are basic precautionary tips that everyone should follow. “You need to be vigilant and not hang around public areas unnecessarily. You have to be aware that we live in a very different world than it used to be.”  

And when traveling anywhere, Kulich said, it’s important to buy travel insurance for emergencies and register the trip through the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). The trip is registered with the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to where the traveler is going so that they know about it. The website for STEP (step.state.gov/step) features travel alerts and warnings as well. For example, the latest travel advisory for Europe, released in late November, says to “exercise caution” at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets, and to avoid large groups. 

Travelers should note, though, that when the government puts out travel advisories for certain places, sometimes they are generalizing, Kulich said. “There are many different countries in Europe. Iceland is the safest country in the world. I take groups to Poland, the Baltics and Armenia and it’s pretty much always safe.”

Kulich, who goes to Europe every two months, said that if travelers plan to go to Europe this Passover, they shouldn’t showcase that they are American, either. “It’s also better to avoid political conversations, especially now,” she said, referring to the recent presidential election results.

Europe is just like everywhere else, Kulich pointed out, and people could say that the United States is not safe to travel around because of the recent Florida shootings in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

“Europe is as safe as anywhere else in the world,” Kulich said. “Unfortunately, the violence that is taking place is the new normal that people are getting used to.”

Can you rest in peace while your stuff rests in a dumpster?


When my mom died, I had to find a home for her panther. Not an actual endangered wild cat, a lamp.

Picture a glossy, garish panther base topped with a cherry red, tiered lampshade, exactly like the hats once worn by the members of the alternative, new wave band Devo. I had seen that lamp my whole life on her nightstand and the only thing I ever wanted to do was “Whip It.”

But after she died, I was haunted that I had left the panther in her condo in Las Vegas, to be dealt with by some shady dude our real estate agent knew, who agreed to show up with his pickup as soon as we were done taking what we wanted and remove whatever was left. Where it went after that, I’ll never know, but I’m guessing there’s a decent chance the panther spent some time at the bottom of a dumpster getting the stink eye from the ruddy-cheeked plaster of Paris orange that lived in my mom’s kitchen, cheering me up and creeping me out in equal parts. My mom knew how to put the kitsch in kitchen. 

She never met a flea market or garage sale she didn’t like. 

Did she have great taste? I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder, but it is safe to assume not a single person who ever beheld my mom’s collectibles thought, “Wow. That’s a style I’d like to emulate.” Still, there’s something about her relentless dedication to her own aesthetic that you have to respect. If she couldn’t figure out how to be refined and elegant, she wasn’t even going to try. Her choices added up to a cluttered, confusing, cacophonous visual environment. If her decorating style were a song, you would have to change the station, immediately. But it was her song, and over the years, she did nothing but turn up the volume. She cranked it. And now, she’s gone. The music ended but the stuff remained. And as her daughter, and her only surviving child, it was on me to reckon with all of it when she died two months ago. 

The sorting of the stuff, for me, and I’m guessing for others in the same chipped gravy boat, is one of the most visceral experiences of loss. 

In a way, we are like that jaunty orange, those three sets of schnauzer salt and pepper shakers, that gilded frame flanked by brass peacocks: important and cherished in the context of belonging to the person who is gone. Now: value unknown

You might think, when faced with mountains of your mother’s tchotchkes, she’s gone, what does it matter if I give my baby-sitter a fishing tackle box of vintage Mexican silver bracelets, large-scale brooches, faded Bakelite cuffs? What does it really matter if her print of a hula girl ends up in a thrift store in unincorporated Clark County?

Personally, I don’t have room for much stuff, fruit-themed Chalkware folk art or otherwise. I don’t live in a world where there’s much call for speckled, pastel Bauer nesting bowls or an embroidered Ukrainian silk shirt from the old country. I’m all full up with the batting gloves and flash cards and Spider-Man costumes that likely fill the home of any mom of two young boys.  

What’s more, to me, a produce curio is a gateway knickknack, inevitably leading to harder stuff. One minute you’re propping up your sentimental smiling citrus fruit, the next, you’re climbing over seven mint green midcentury modern pitchers just to get to your Mr. Coffee. Don’t get me started on the framed photos. My mom and I had a complicated relationship, but in the end, I was the only person she wanted to see when she was dying, and, apparently, she also wanted to see plenty of me around her home, where there were images of my brother and me on just about every available square inch of wall space.

Perhaps I’m making her home sound more hoarder-like than it was. It was cramped, but tidy enough, with no discernible scent other than what I might describe as “top notes of leather handbag.” To be fair, she downsized like most of our parents will at some point, but while her living space shrank, the number of lamps and pitchers and photos never did. 

And, of course, there were the paintings.

A seascape by Nota Koslowsky.

Let me double down on doing away with objects important to dead people. In particular, I’m talking about oil paintings by my dead mom’s super dead uncle, who died before I was born.

At one point, Nota Koslowsky was a fairly well-respected artist and teacher who made extra money illustrating books, including a popular Passover haggadah published in 1944. My mother had several of his works, which she’d held onto since her married days in the San Fernando Valley, through her single mom days in San Francisco, up until the very end. Picture a young shepherd girl playing a flute, wearing a red scarf. Well, Nota did, and he painted her and she had her charms, but in the end, only his dark, woodsy forest scene made the cut. 

I had to make choices, parse all the stuff, select just a few things to keep (like the jade pendant I’m wearing as I type this), a few things to pass along to relatives and everything else to leave for the random guy and his truck. Did that mean it was right to 86 Nota’s portrait of a lighthouse? I don’t know. I have to talk myself down off a rocky seaside ledge of guilt every time I think about it. But in my haste and grief, that’s what I did.

I admit I probably did err on the side of chucking too much, too fast. But my mom had died just days before, four months to the day after my brother died of cancer at 47, and I had just had too much, too many dead relatives, too many folded letters and fading photos gathering in shoe boxes in my closet, too many overlapping stages of grief. My boys were bounding around her condo, leaving a light dusting of road-trip Bugles wherever they went, and the clock was ticking on their ability to hang out patiently while I sorted and cried. Plus, there was only so much I could fit into my minivan, or for that matter, my home, my life. 

As it happened, just before my mom died, I had read the best-selling Japanese organizing book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Cleaning and decluttering icon Marie Kondo didn’t write it for grieving daughters on cleanup duty, but some of the principles spoke to me nonetheless. 

“Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them,” she writes. “No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past.”

Kondo’s guiding credo is that you should physically handle each item in question and keep only those that spark joy. “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past,” she explains. So maybe it follows that in handling the things left by a departed loved one, you are also processing your relationship with that person, your own grief, your own past. 

In my mom’s congested Vegas bedroom, on a tray covered with opened mail and random pens, was a clay craft I had made as a child one summer at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department day camp. I remember sitting with a bunch of kids I didn’t know, doggedly rolling out pieces of clay into little worm shapes, stacking them together in a circle, making a lid that didn’t quite fit, painting the entire thing pastel yellow and pink after they baked it, and later handing it over to my mom, who was underwhelmed, to say the least. 

“Well, maybe crafting is not your thing,” she said laughing, this drooping, sad, clay atrocity in her hand. It was a parental slight I had never forgotten, a moment encompassing my mom’s sometimes brutal honesty, her awkwardness in relating to children, her inability to read the sadness on my face, the long days she parked me at various lame city camps at dodgy urban playgrounds. When I held the bowl, I thought about how long she had kept it, how many decades, how many moves, how she had chosen to keep it up until the end, and I just cried right into that crappy little craft because she was gone, and until the very day she died I could never just let her be, imperfect as she was, and accept her anyway. I felt the paint, smooth and cool against my hands, brushed my fingers across the too-small lid resting at the bottom of the bowl. I showed it to my boys. Then I tossed it. 

Letting her things go with gratitude was right, but I still felt a pang when I thought about Nota’s lighthouse, or the Chalkware cherries that lived alongside the grinning orange, or the panther that once prowled Mom’s nightstand next to her black-and-white TV, the one we would watch together in her room at night when I was little, on the rare occasions she would let me sleep with her, when I was too scared or lonely to resist breaching her private space. She was generally pretty reserved when it came to doling out maternal warmth, stressed by her two jobs, detached, overwhelmed, but on those nights, she would sing me a lullaby she made up consisting mostly of just my name, “Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, Mama loves Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, Teresa.” As a mother, she cycled wildly and unpredictably between overbearing and almost criminally negligent, but letting me watch a rerun of “Taxi” at 11:30 p.m., letting me be close to her, her voice in my ear, Louie De Palma cracking wise in the background, that was a memory of her I wanted to keep, a memory that was now mine alone, mine and the panther’s. 

The sorting and tossing actually asks what is arguably one of life’s central questions, one we don’t ever want to think about until we’re holding a batik scarf, dangling it over a “maybe” pile, wondering while it hovers: Can she see me now, or is she just gone? 

This just got heavier than a box of blue glass vases headed for a landfill in Henderson. 

And that’s where an organizing book is one thing, and a spiritual guide is another. I turned to Rabbi Naomi Levy, the founder and leader of Jewish spiritual outreach program Nashuva, and author of several best-sellers about faith, God and loss, including “To Begin Again.”

“I believe that there’s another dimension and it’s not a far dimension,” the rabbi explained to me over the phone, her voice calm and measured, her words thoughtful and deliberate. “I don’t believe heaven is a faraway place; it’s like a simultaneous place that we get small glimpses of in life. The soul comes from a place of eternity, from another dimension, and it descends to this world, this material world, and it’s here for a mission — to create connections and healings — and there are daily missions and there are missions that take a lifelong period of time. But when it’s time, the soul returns to its place of eternity and the body returns to the earth.”

And the stuff that once belonged to that body and soul? 

“I just feel very strongly that the part of your mom that collected stuff is gone,” Levy reassured me.

“The part of the soul that remains is the part that’s connected to things of eternity, not temporality: beauty, divinity, oneness and love.” 

So while the part of her that cared about possessions was gone, my mother, according to Rabbi Naomi, was not. 

At that point, she admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that she still has a box of her own mother’s sweaters in a box under her bed. Though she lost her mom several years ago now, the sweaters still carry her smell, and every now and again she takes them out to get a whiff. That’s how I feel about the few things I kept, like the jade charm. It touched her and now it’s touching me, so there’s a sensory reminder of the deeper spiritual truth: “Souls who loved us are never far away.” 

Stuff can help us mourn, but that doesn’t mean my mom is in heaven having a conniption because I subtracted her Russian nesting dolls.

Whatever and wherever her soul is, a part of her showed up on my doorstep last week. She arrived courtesy of the Neptune Society, in a cardboard box shipped for $63.01.

As to where to scatter her ashes, she left that up to me. I guess I will return them to the earth. Most likely, the earth underneath a flea market, where the vintage lace doilies are plentiful, the plaster fruit always smiles, and the ceramic creatures roam free.

Tamara Strasser


Teresa Strasser is an Emmy- and Los Angeles Press Club Award-winning writer and author of the best-selling memoir “Exploiting My Baby” (Penguin). Currently, she co-hosts “The List Weekend,” a syndicated TV show from the E.W. Scripps Co. She lives in Phoenix with her husband and two sons.

Orthodox Jewish woman suing former employer for Passover sanctions


An Orthodox Jewish woman has gone to a federal appeals court in her lawsuit against a former employer with claims she was punished for taking off time for the Passover holiday.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the American Jewish Committee each filed a friend of the court brief on Tuesday with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, on behalf of Susan Abeles, who retired involuntarily in 2013 after working for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for 26 years. She was accused of being absent without leave on the last two days of Passover that year and suspended for five days without pay.

A federal district court in Virginia ruled against Abeles on April 1 on her lawsuit filed in May 2015.

In the suit, Abeles says she requested and received time off each year to observe Passover in accordance with her Orthodox Jewish beliefs and that in 2013, like every other year, she followed proper procedure, including giving ample notice and several reminders.

Upon returning to work, the suit claims, her superiors accused her of failing to follow proper protocol for obtaining leave and sanctioned her, which led to her early retirement.

Passover is observed for eight days each spring, and Jewish religious law prohibits work during the first two and last two days.

The airport authority argued that it is not strictly a government entity and thus does not have to follow the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents religious discrimination in the workplace.

The suit asks the court to order the airports authority to rescind the absent without leave designation and remove all references to it from her personnel file, and calls for the authority to reinstate Abeles to her position if she so chooses. It also asks for a financial reward to cover lost income, lost pension income due to the early retirement and remuneration for pain and suffering.

“It takes some chutzpah for the government to punish a Jewish woman for celebrating Passover,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund. “That didn’t work out so well for Pharaoh.”

“This case is just one more example of the rampant anti-Semitism that Orthodox Jews face every day,” he said.

Abeles is being represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin in Washington.

On Nat Geo show, Morgan Freeman sits down for Seder


While the prophet Elijah remains conspicuously absent, one Passover Seder in Jerusalem received a more well-known guest.

Morgan Freeman, the well-known actor and voiceover artist, attended a Seder held by Rabbi Maya Leibovitch, the first woman born in Israel to become a rabbi. Footage of the evening aired on May 8 during the sixth episode Freeman’s National Geographic show, “The Story of God.”