On Pesach, to resort or not to resort?


God miraculously rescued the Jews from Egypt — so the old joke goes — only to see Jewish mothers slave around the house cleaning and cooking in preparation for eight days of Passover.

Or not. 

At least not anymore, not for the many Jewish families who can afford to have someone else prepare the chametz-free environment and delicious leaven-free meals American Jews require over the holiday, doing their best to serve meals that help guests forget the dietary restrictions Passover demands.

And so Jewish families pay — a lot, often upward of $10,000 per couple — to attend all-inclusive, mega-deluxe Passover resorts as far away as Greece and Italy and as near as Las Vegas and Southern California. These Passover getaway programs can be so large that the arriving Jews (many from colder climates, mostly Orthodox) take over entire hotels for more than a week, enjoying a nearly 24/7 buffet of freshly carved meats, sushi bars, expensive (kosher for Passover) wine, hot tubs, pools, lakes, oceans, boating expeditions, scholars-in-residence, prayer services — you name it.

Ellen Katz, a Los Angeles mother of four and grandmother of two, will drive with her husband to Henderson, Nev., a suburb just outside Las Vegas, for the Katz family’s seventh annual Passover reunion at The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort and Spa for a deluxe holiday program put on by World Wide Kosher Tours, a Los Angeles-based company; rooms this year start at $6,500. 

“We only go away once a year, so this is our only vacation,” Katz said. “It’s nice to go away with your family and not worry about the food-buying. Everything’s in one place, you have entertainment, you have shiurim [Jewish classes], they give babysitting.”

And for someone who never had the Jewish summer camp experience while growing up, Katz said her annual Passover getaway has allowed her to develop some of those seasonal friendships that resume every Passover, just where they left off the previous year.

“I never went to camp,” Katz said, “but like those campers, I have Pesach friends.”

And, of course, there’s the family reunion — an important element as two of the Katz children live in New York and most of Katz’s cousins and relatives live between there and Boston. The annual tradition of cooking for and hosting children, siblings and cousins became exhausting and stressful, so they joined the 1,000-plus Jews, many from Southern California, who do the Lake Las Vegas experience for Passover.

“There’s nothing better in life if you’re healthy,” Katz said about her annual Passover vacation. “I miss nothing at home.”

Just down the street from The Westin, another Passover program — this one run by the New York-based KMR Werner Brothers and primarily attracting New Yorkers — takes over the Hilton. “Every meal is a course in fine food,” states the website, which also describes the program’s outdoor barbecue, on-site bakery and kosher for Passover grocery store, where families can shop for food to take on off-site day trips.

The Westin Lake Las Vegas

Mel Weiss, 94, a Calabasas resident, said he went to Passover resorts with his late wife, Lillian, and their children and grandchildren almost every year for more than three decades, paying anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 as a couple many years. Weiss, a Passover resort world traveler, has been to retreats in Israel multiple times, as well as Italy, Arizona and, this year, he will be enjoying the holiday with his kids in Nevada.

“Everything is taken care of — the whole shebang,” Weiss said. “If I stay home, I have to kosher the whole house, and I live alone. I have to go away.”

But as with so many aspects of the Jewish world, things as seemingly innocuous and pleasure-filled as a luxury Passover getaway are, if not a source of tension, at least a topic that some rabbis think must be regarded with a degree of concern or skepticism. The problem, though, is that few, if any, Jewish community leaders are willing to be openly critical of the phenomenon of turning what used to be days, or weeks, of intense Passover cleansing into simply writing a check and packing a suitcase.

One local Orthodox rabbi, who emailed with the Journal on condition of anonymity, wrote that he believes creating the intergenerational memories and transmitting the lessons and stories of Passover is made more difficult when it’s in a communal setting, even in hotels entirely filled with Passover-observing Jews. 

“There are no preparations for the children to see and share in,” the rabbi wrote. “And even in those [resorts] that are exclusively for frum use, you have some elements of hedonistic and materialistic excess.” He explained that one reason many rabbis may hesitate to speak on the record on this topic is because some of their members attend these programs or even earn their livelihoods running them.

Elchanan Shoff, 32, the rabbi of Beis Knesses at Faircrest Heights, said he and his wife grappled with whether to accept an offer from a Passover program at Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego for Shoff to be a scholar-in-residence, but eventually decided to go, in large part because she’s in her ninth month of pregnancy with what will be the couple’s fourth child.

“It worked out really nicely to not have to make Pesach this year,” Shoff said, noting, though, that he, his wife and their three daughters will feel an “empty space” from not enjoying the time with as much family as they would have had they stayed home. “In the end, we realized that being in the ninth month of pregnancy, the cleaning and the cooking might be really challenging.”

Shoff believes each family needs to decide what will create the most meaningful Passover experience — at home or away. 

“If the mother is going to be cleaning for a month, is short-tempered and has less energy to give her children hugs, it’s really a poor choice for them to make Pesach if they can comfortably afford to go to the hotel,” Shoff said, contrasting that with family experiences where “the cooking and cleaning creates wonderful memories.”

“When it’s waiters and it’s not your mother’s chicken soup or your grandmother’s matzah balls, all the little details that make up so much of our life experience is different,” Shoff said. “It’s not worse or better — it’s just different.”

Chaos and Charoset: A story of Pesach


The Persian seder begins the same way every year: A plate of matzah, veiled with an ornamented white cloth, gets passed around the table until everybody has sung the schedule of the seder. While whoever holds the tray sings, the remaining audience claps or slaps the table in unison to the Hebrew syllables. Inevitably, the vocally ungifted or self-conscious refuse their turn, which then elicits immediate protest. But eventually, however unenthusiastically, even the reluctant ones cave. 

From that point forward, chaos ensues. Children shout and climb chairs, adults crack jokes out of turn, others protest for quiet, and some say it’s too hot or it’s too cold. At my table, my mother and grandmother trade passive-aggressive lines, my cousins whine to their parents, and my stomach groans in hunger, dissatisfied from munching on cilantro dipped in vinegar.

“It’s too hot!” somebody claims.

I turn on the fan so a breeze can settle in to the living room. The 15 of us are crammed around a table that’s meant to fit 10.

Then there’s wine.

“Wind!” shrieks my aunt, who’s always cold. “Wind! We’re going to get sick!”

“Where’s it coming from?”

“I turned on the fan, because people said it’s hot. We can all relax.”

“Wind!” others repeat in fear, as if this wind is on the prowl to harm.

My uncle reads through the haggadah at one end of the table, while the rest of the table engages in an unrelated conversation.

“I want to take a selfie!” a little cousin yells.

“You’re an idiot!” his older brother responds.

I just sit there, doing my best to suppress my frustrations, knowing that in about one hour — dinner time — it will all be worth it. I don’t say it around my mom, but my grandma probably makes the best Persian food in Los Angeles. And on Passover, she takes it to the next level. 

“Jeremy, you’re ugly!” my youngest cousin yells. They all laugh.

“Easy now,” I say. 

My uncle suddenly grabs ahold of my leg.

“How the girls, man?”

“Pretty good, Amu,” Farsi for paternal uncle.

“Do any of them have a sister?” He’s married with children, but makes this same joke almost every time I see him. He laughs every time he says it, too, as if to say that even after years of recycling it, it hasn’t lost any originality or brilliance.

One more blessing, one more cup of wine.

My other uncle has a thick black mustache and fluffy, receding hair. He’s the seder leader. But he treats it more seriously than ceremoniously, quickly reading through the haggadah in mumbled, unmelodic Hebrew and Aramaic. If you let him, he’ll read through the entire seder on his own. Each year, for example, he gets caught reading the Four Questions, not stopping to wait for the kids to answer. “Hey,” my grandma interjects. “The kids are supposed to read this part.”

He keeps reading. The protests get louder. He stops, tosses the Ralphs haggadah onto the table, which produces a thump, then stares at the corner of the room where nothing is happening. I have a total of five younger cousins, and together, after the first five or six words of the Four Questions, they get stuck. They keep repeating those words that everybody knows, the chorus, but can’t pull through the nuanced verses. All this time, I’ve been silent. Although it’s tradition, if not the rule, for the young’uns to have the spotlight at this part, I know I’m the only grandchild who can pull through.

“Jeremy, you read!”

“No, no. It’s their turn.”

“They need you! Come on.”

“Some other time.”

They go on without me.

“OK, OK. I’ll read it!”

We eat some matzah, which I detest, and have one more cup of wine, which I don’t detest. My serious uncle has regained the throne and rips through the Hebrew verses, pausing for nothing. We’re at the four sons section.

I once tried to teach the table the essence of the four sons, because I found it interesting. So I stood up and pontificated about the inclusion and meaning of the four sons text. Unfortunately I was booed off stage before I could finish, so I’ve given that up — but anyway, I read the English translation and get intrigued every year. The four sons section, I think, teaches you “how to win friends and influence people” in four Hebrew paragraphs written thousands of years ago.

The seder’s been going on for an hour now, and people are hungry. There’s still a ways to go, and it’s past 10 p.m. — “10:30,” my mom says to my dad with a condescending smirk. “Does she plan on having us eat tonight? We are starved.” My grandma doesn’t speak English, so my mom takes advantage of this and complains as outwardly as she likes. 

“We’re getting hungry, Ma,” my dad tells her timidly, in Farsi.

“OK, OK. Have some tea, have some fruit,” she responds. My grandma has the tendency to keep dinner until the end, I think, that way she can have the seder drag on as long as possible so as to extend playing host. 

Then we get to Dayenu, which probably sums up the entire experience. Basically, you grab your weapon — long, green onions, however many you can get your hands on — and whack the heck out of whoever you feel like in an effort to recapture the Hebrews being assaulted by their Egyptian masters. 

One seder, I made the mistake of showing up with a freshly dry-cleaned white shirt. I was skeptical but thought I’d try: “Hey, everyone. Just got this shirt cleaned. Would you guys mind not screwing with it?”

An awkward, ominous silence lingered in the air.

“Jeremy, the showoff.”

My uncle cussed me brutally in Farsi under his breath.

“Everyone, hit his shirt. Hit him harder than you would anyway,” my aunt demanded.

“What’d I ever do to you?” I asked.

Before getting an answer, my 10-year-old cousin sneaked around my seat, giggled uncontrollably and slashed me across the chest. Someone started singing “Dayenu,” and within seconds, three or four cousins were smacking me with onions, too. When they’d finished, my white shirt was green.

The madness happens every year: abundant energy, misdirected anger, taken up physically in the form of whipping each other with onions. The kids duck and jump, yell and scream, whack each other. When the onion’s upper parts break off, some resort to throwing the remaining butts at their targets across the house like snipers. I hold up the paper haggadah and use it as a shield. “Cease fire!” I yell. 

“Enough!” my grandma shouts. “Start cleaning up!” Unfortunately, this only launches the play fighting into real fighting. Now, the little guys are bear hugging, kicking. I watch for a little bit — I went through this, too — but eventually pull them apart. Some of them are red in the face.

If people keep fighting, my uncle sports a more effective means: he undoes his belt, brings it out of the loops. He wraps the belt into itself and holds it in the air. “All right! Who wants it? Who still wants to fight?” The kids start running. He slashes the thin leather together, producing several slick, sharp slaps. He advances, starts hitting inanimate objects, like the table, the chairs, to show he means business. “Who wants it? Who wants it?” That’s when it ends.

Probably one more glass of wine. Some charoset, which shocks me every year. Never has something looked so awful but tasted so great. I’ll never forget offering to share my charoset with a college friend, ChiChi, who was a 6-foot-6 Nigerian. We were in my dorm room playing video games, he munching on his third or fourth piece of matzah. “Have some of this with it, man, you’ll love it” I said, indicating the charoset. His eyes were wide open. “Nah, I’m good,” he said. 

I usually treat myself to another glass of wine, this time without a blessing, just for fun. We clean up the table, trade in all the Passover food for real food: rice, stews, chicken and salad. I stuff a plate with two or three chicken legs, a lot of rice, red khoresht with chunks of red meat and some salad. This is only the first round: Every Passover, and basically any time I see her, my grandma accuses me of looking thin, at which point she almost doubles my already huge serving. I fall into a food coma from being force-fed to a point of seemingly no return. 

I’m eager to get back home and read, or look at pretty girls on Facebook — get back to where things make sense. No more green onions slapping my face. It’s permissible for me to leave; the night’s basically over, but a feeling of nostalgia settles in when I realize I’ve been coming to this specific house consistently for 24 years. I try to take a moment to appreciate it. There’s a gratefulness to be had in being able to celebrate the holiday in Los Angeles without any disturbance — other than, of course, your uncle threatening to lash you with his leather belt.

Moreover, it’s hard to stay close with people, and when you take a step back to realize that Passover — so often torn apart because of our collective disdain for matzah — unites not only your immediate family but also your grandma, cousins, aunts and uncles, and has probably done so for hundreds of years, it’s a beautiful thing. For two years, there’s been a little table stand in the dining room with a close-up portrait of my late grandfather, a little round white candle flickering before it. The seder would probably be more structured if he were still the one leading the table through the haggadah, but for the most part, I imagine he’d be proud. 

Jeremy Ely is a 25-year-old short-story writer in Los Angeles. You can read some of his ramblings on Twitter @jelypoppa.

Pesach without wine


How can we have Passover without wine? This is a question that is asked of me each year as Passover approaches. I always answer that the blessing is over the fruit of the vine and grape juice is perfectly acceptable. I then ask a different set of questions.

Passover is the celebration of our leaving Egypt. It is not a historical event. Yet too many of us consider the Passover seder as a recollection of an historical event. We need to go back to the intent and direction of our haggadah to see ourselves as if we, too, were brought out of Egypt. We have to ask ourselves, “What is the Egypt/Narrow Place I have to leave this year?” All of us have these, be they substances like drugs and alcohol, behaviors like eating disorders, compulsive gambling, etc. We also get stuck in the narrow places of despair, hopelessness, why bother, etc. And we can get stuck in the narrow places of comparing and competing with others, basing our self-worth on our net worth and/or seeking to feel good from outside validation, like lists, who we hang with, etc. 

These are the Egypts that wine could come to blur for us during Passover. I would suggest that everyone abstain from wine and drink grape juice instead this year. I am asking you all to make this an Alcohol-Free Seder so that every person will:

• Look inside themselves and see the narrow places that are keeping them stuck in old thoughts and behaviors.

• Tell the story of their enslavements to others at the seder, and ask for help in getting out and staying out of these narrow places. 

• Offer suggestions to others to help them out of their narrow places. 

• Write down on a piece of paper what the narrow place is, and make these your korban Pesach, your Pesach sacrifice, and burn them all together so that you release your need to run back to Egypt.

• Be present and see how we can work together to get out our comfortable slaveries.

• Make a commitment to be of service to others who are still enslaved and look for the similarities in others. 

In doing this, we will make the seder relevant and we will build stronger relationships through transparency and authenticity. 

It will allow all of us to break our addiction to perfection. We Jews have been telling our story for thousands of years; this year let us make it our story so next year we will be free

Rabbi Mark Borovitz is the senior rabbi and spiritual leader of the Beit T’Shuvah recovery program and Congregation Beit T’Shuvah.

Opinion: Pesach dilemmas in Budapest


Budapest may be the only capital in Europe where a member of Parliament could raise the blood libel accusation against Jews and essentially get away with it.

The blood libel accuses Jews of murdering Christian children to use their blood to make matzah or carry out other rituals.

And in a speech before Parliament less than 24 hours before the start of Pesach, a lawmaker from the far-right, anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and anti-Roma Jobbik Party essentially did just that.

MP Zsolt Barath cited a notorious blood libel case that took place exactly 130 years ago in the Hungarian village of Tizsaeszlar.

In April 1882, just a few days before Pesach, local Jews were accused of murdering a teenage Hungarian girl. The case touched off a wave of anti-Semitic violence and political agitation that lasted for years.

The Jews were eventually acquitted after a lengthy trial. But in his speech last week, Barath questioned the verdict, saying it had come due to “outside pressure” and that Jews were “severely implicated” in the case.

Barath’s speech and the lack of immediate response from top officials shocked and outraged Jews here.

It confirmed for many the widespread perception that  anti-Semitism in Hungary is becoming not just increasingly open, but increasingly tolerated and legitimized.

“Jobbik has already made too many such statements,” said Israeli ambassador Ilan Mor. “It’s time to state clearly that “enough is enough.”

Rabbi Ferenc Raj hammered this home the next night at a communal seder organized by Bet Orim, an American-style reform congregation he helped found. Raj, who left Hungary in 1972, is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and divides his time between Budapest and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Zsolt Barath must resign,” he told the dozens of guests seated at long tables in the auditorium of the modern Balint House JCC in downtown Budapest.

“Hungary’s prime minister cannot remain silent,” he said. “You can’t just sweep it under the rug.”

The degree of anti-Semitism in Hungary has been a constant subject of discussion for years, but the debate sharpened since Jobbik won nearly 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 elections that gave an overwhelming mandate to a right-wing government led by the Fidesz Party.

A report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released last month added fuel to the fire.

Based on a telephone survey in which callers asked 500 people in 10 countries four questions regarding anti-Semitic stereotypes, it concluded that a whopping 63 percent of Hungarians held anti-Semitic attitudes.

The survey prompted headlines in the Hungarian media, with some commentators citing it as proof of a huge rise in anti-Semitism.

But Mircea Cernov, who heads an organization called Haver that teaches schoolchildren about Jews, Roma and other minorities, called it “superficial” and “manipulative” and said it could have a negative impact on organizations like Haver that were trying to carry out serious social action and other educational work.

Sociologist Andras Kovacs, Hungary’s leading analyst of both Jewish communal development and anti-Semitic trends in Hungary, called into question its accuracy on several counts.

Kovacs has been methodically tracking anti-Semitism in Hungary for more than 15 years. He told me that according to his research, the proportion of anti-Semites in Hungary would be 20 to 25 percent.

That still might mean that Hungary is the most anti-Semitic country of the 10 surveyed by the ADL, but it is still much lower than what was shown in the ADL survey.

Kovacs faulted the ADL survey for employing a faulty methodology that favored responses from hard-core anti-Semites.

“People who were undecided or uninterested or who simply didn’t want to reply to such questions from unknown cold-callers on the phone would not have answered,” he said.

In addition, he said, the survey used questions about stereotypes that could lead to ambiguous interpretations.

“We don’t know how much the fact that someone holds a stereotype can be used to measure his or her actual hatred of Jews,” he said.

Naturally anti-Semitism was a theme that came up in conversations I had with my Jewish friends in Budapest before and during Pesach.

It was clear that most were concerned, some of them very concerned, but at the same time, they were not letting fear rule their lives.

“Many people are afraid, but in their everyday normal life they are not in danger,” Andras Heisler, a former president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, the Hungarian Jewish umbrella organization, told me.

They are certainly not cowering behind barred doors.

At Pesach, I made a “seder crawl” that took me to the Bet Orim seder and two others on the first night and one additional seder on the second.

I had been invited to all of them, and seder hopping was how I dealt with the dilemma of having to make a choice about which to attend.

Each was a big communal affair for dozens of people, organized by one of Budapest’s plethora of different Jewish groups and congregations. They all took place in and around the city’s downtown old Jewish quarter, in venues ranging from a modern JCC auditorium to the formal dining room of a popular restaurant to a funky basement youth cafe.

“There are a lot of positive things going on in Budapest,” Cernov told me. “Jewish community life is not about anti-Semitism.”


Ruth Ellen Gruber writes frequently about Jewish life and heritage in Europe. Her books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She also blogs on Jewish heritage and travel at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.

Jewish-Japanese seder honors Boyle Heights history


Tess Friedman passes Ethel Kamiyama a bowl of charoset, and Kamiyama spreads a spoonful of the fruit and nut paste onto her shard of matzah. Kamiyama leans over her plate as the small sandwich crumbles at her bite, and nods at Friedman, signaling that she finds this foray into Jewish culture quite tasty.

Friedman and Kamiyama, along with around 70 other senior citizens, enjoyed a seder together at Keiro Senior HealthCare in Boyle Heights on April 2.

Keiro, a residential facility for the elderly of the Japanese-American community, occupies the site that was the original home of The Jewish Home, and the seniors were together to mark The Jewish Home’s 100th anniversary.

In fact, the home was founded when the Boyle Heights community hosted a seder for five elderly men around 1911.

During Monday’s seder, Rabbi Anthony Elman, the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home, introduced the Keiro residents to the Exodus story and the symbols on the seder plate, and led the group in singing “Mah Nishtanah” and “Dayenu.”

Elman pointed out similarities between the two cultures — respect for the elderly, close-knit families, the importance of passing traditions from generation to generation, and a history of suffering.

“Today we are celebrating the season of our freedom,” Elman said. “In your community, you too have known the ugliness of bondage and internment, and of course the blessings of freedom.”

Hideyuki Watanabe, sitting at a table with two women from the Jewish Home, lived in three internment camps as an adolescent.

“But the persecution the Jews had was a lot worse,” he said, explaining that as a child he didn’t grasp the sense of betrayal his parents felt.  “We could sneak out. We didn’t get shot at if we left.”

Shawn Miyake, president and CEO of Keiro, said the Jewish Home and Keiro both grew out of a need to create institutions at a time when minorities were being excluded from the mainstream. Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who grew up and still lives in Boyle Heights, attended the seder. He said inclusion is a point of pride in the neighborhood.

“One thing I know is we always welcomed everyone, no matter what part of the world you came from,” said Huizar, noting that Boyle Heights never had any restrictive covenants limiting who could reside in the area.

Miyake said Keiro owes its existence to the Jewish Home.

Keiro purchased the site from the Jewish Home in 1974, but while Keiro was able to raise $400,000 for the down payment, it was left with nothing for operations, Miyake said. The Jewish Home board, which had already agreed to very favorable terms, voted to loan back $150,000 to Keiro and also left much of its equipment.

“We have such deep feelings for the Jewish Home. If not for the Jewish Home and all the things they did for us 50 years ago, we would not be here today,” Miyake said.

The Jewish Home grew out of the Hebrew Sheltering Society, which in 1911 began helping the community’s downtrodden — the homeless, the indigent and the elderly. It purchased a small house in Boyle Heights in 1912, and soon acquired more property. The home opened a larger branch in Reseda in 1962, but kept the Boyle Heights site open until it moved the rest of its residents in the early 1970s. By that time most Jews had left Boyle Heights, which had been the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1950s. Only a handful of Jews remain in the area today.

Miyake said most of the Japanese community has also moved out of the area to places like Gardena, Monterey Park and Orange County.

Keiro and the Jewish Home have hosted Japanese and Jewish New Year celebrations for each other in the past. Molly Forrest, director of the Jewish Home, says she and Miyake have a close working relationship, sharing best practices and discussing common challenges.

The Jewish legacy is still visible at Keiro.

A large Japanese koi pond graces the front of the Emil Brown Auditorium, an old brick building with Brown’s name, flanked by two Stars of David, engraved into a large stone ribbon above the arched façade.

Brown was the uncle of philanthropist Annette Shapiro, a board member at the Jewish Home, and she told the crowd that she remembers her grandfather, David Familian, celebrating his 60th birthday in the very room the seniors sat in for their seder.

A five-story building, The Mary Pickford Building, was named after actress Pickford made a donation to atone for an insensitive comment about Jews that she had made to Carmel Myers, a silent-screen actress and daughter of Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Isadore Myers, according to Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Pickford hosted teas for the Jewish Home at her Pickfair Estate long after she became a recluse, and her foundation continues to support the home, Sass said.

The synagogue on the site was used for many years by a Japanese church, but was red-tagged after the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake.

The Home was the last functioning Jewish institution in the area, though the nearby Breed Street Shul is now undergoing a revival as a multi-use facility for the Jewish community and the neighborhood. 

Joe Pavin, a Jewish Home resident who was at the seder, remembers High Holy Days at the Breed Street Shul. He grew up in Boyle Heights, and he said he had friends of Japanese-, Mexican-, Russian- and African-American descent, in addition to his Jewish friends.

Jewish Home resident Grace Friedman, 87, lived in a small duplex on Sheridan Street in Boyle Heights with her extended family until they moved west to the Fairfax area.

Today, she is back in Boyle Heights, and after the saltwater, matzah and wine are cleared away, caddies with soy sauce and chopsticks come out. The Keiro chef — who had once worked at a kosher restaurant — has prepared a celebratory bento box lunch and was careful not to include any shellfish or other ingredients that might clash with Jewish culture. Residents enjoy sushi, edamame, baked fish and rice out of black lacquered boxes.

Over lunch, the residents get to know one another. Several tables share stories of nieces, nephews or grandchildren who are in Jewish-Japanese marriages.

Watanabe, who came dressed for seder in a jacket and tie, his white hair combed into a perfect flat-top, says he hopes to be invited to the Jewish Home for a meal on Japanese New Year, something his flirtatious tablemates promise to make happen.

Kamiyama has taken some notes — how to spell seder and matzah, and contact information for her tablemates. She frets about the grape juice that has dripped onto her pad of paper, but is assured that wine stains are part of the Pesach tradition. And as she finishes up her bento box lunch, she keeps her hand on a few strips of matzah carefully wrapped in a napkin to take home for later.

Opinion: Liberation


It’s fashionable to look at Passover as a universal idea. This makes sense; after all, how much more universal can you get than the theme of human freedom? Also, it’s a lot easier these days to be outer-directed and feel outrage at injustice. Thanks to the Internet, millions can now watch YouTube clips of people being oppressed in the Sudan or demonstrating in the Middle East.

So, when Passover arrives, it’s not surprising that many of us would associate this powerful Jewish holiday with tikkun olam — with the global struggle for justice and freedom.

But there’s another dimension to freedom that has little to do with what’s happening in Africa and everything to do with what’s happening inside each one of us. This is a deeply personal and intimate view of freedom, and Passover is an ideal time to try to connect with it.

I got an unexpected lesson on this subject the other day when I asked my friend Rabbi Yoel Glick, a teacher of “spiritual wisdom” who was visiting from his home in the south of France, to share some thoughts on Passover.

“Our personal journey of freedom is reflected in the four names we use for the festival of Pesach,” Glick told me over coffee. “Each name represents a different step in this journey.”

In other words, each step is like a “mini seder” that we must experience before moving on to the next step. As Glick went on, I thought: “This is so Jewish. As soon as you think you’ve accomplished something, a little voice tells you: ‘Don’t get too excited — you’re not done yet.’ ”

The first name for Pesach — Chag HaHerut (the festival of freedom) — represents the first, basic step of our liberation, when we are released from physical bondage. It’s not a coincidence that one of the seder rituals at this stage is to break off a small piece of matzah (yachatz) and put away the larger one. This is a sign, according to Glick, that there’s still a lot more work to be done.

What is that work? It is to realize that the freedom to do anything is not the same thing as the freedom to do the right thing.

This is the second level of freedom, as symbolized by the second name of the holiday — Chag HaPesach (the festival of Passover) — which features, among other things, the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb.

Here, we are called upon to sacrifice our animal natures for the sake of our higher selves. Just as Moses sacrificed the material benefits of being a prince for the spiritual benefits of doing God’s work, we are challenged to rise above our animal desires — such as unbridled hedonism — and use our newfound freedom for a higher purpose.

By now, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, this is a pretty high level. What else can God want from us?” Well, like I said, with Judaism there’s always something.

As Glick explained it, once we have managed to discipline our animal bodies and to make the right choices, we slowly realize there is yet another bondage that has a hold on us — the bondage of the mind.

We are enslaved to prejudice, dogma and ideology.

So, the third step in our journey to personal liberation, which is symbolized by the third name of Pesach — Chag HaMatzot (the festival of unleavened bread) — is to free ourselves from dogmatic thinking.

That’s why this step is symbolized by the matzah, the flat bread that is made without yeast and is not allowed to rise. Yeast represents the ego, and the unleavened matzah represents the freedom of an open and expansive mind.

But hold on, we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s still the fourth name for Pesach — Chag HaAviv, the festival of spring — which ushers in the final level of personal liberation.

This final step is when we are liberated from our most fundamental fears, such as the fear of old age, sickness and death.

Glick calls it “joining the mind of God,” which represents the eternal and the timeless. We no longer fear the end because, at this level of spiritual consciousness, there is no end, only constant renewal. As we recite the final psalms of Hallel, we are reminded that there’s also no end to God’s love, and we experience a state of “never- ending spring” when every living thing is part of one single great consciousness.

Now, if you’re wondering how you can experience all this spirituality while the wine is flowing, the kids are yelling and the guests are arguing over whether Obama is good for the Jews, here’s some good news: After the seder, you still have 49 days to go. According to the kabbalah, we are to use the 49 days between Passover and the festival of Shavuot — the days of the counting of the Omer — to reach higher and higher levels of spiritual perfection.

And for those of us who preach tikkun olam, I have no doubt that this spiritual process includes the obligation to help with the liberation of others.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being Jewish, it’s that no matter how spiritually elevated we get or how many good deeds we’ve done or how much we’ve learned or how many people we’ve helped … we’re never done.

And that’s a pretty universal idea.


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

DIYers take on Pesach


At first glance, it’s hard to tell if Eileen Levinson’s Alternative Seder Plate is deeply thoughtful or merely playful. Or perhaps just coolly irreverent.

Levinson adapted her Alternative Seder Plate concept to design the ” title=”Theres an app. for that” target=”_blank”>There’s an app. for that]

Levinson’s art taps into the ethos today’s young adults are bringing to their seders. They want seders where the conversation is collaborative, the themes personally relevant and socially aware, and the resources as diverse as the people around the table. Traditions are important and respected, but also might be idiosyncratically altered or eliminated. A leader may be appointed to keep things moving, but the hierarchy is flat — the seder is a crowd-sourced effort that aims, ultimately, to produce a spiritual/socially relevant/Jewishly connected experience.

And it’s not only young people who are checking it out. Increasingly, adults of all ages are looking past the irreverence to see the potential for relevance in these new do-it-yourself seders.

“You are applying Passover to a generation of people who really enjoy creativity and getting their hands dirty as part of understanding something,” said writer/director Jill Soloway, founder of East Side Jews, an organization that holds monthly events “at unlikely venues during unpopular holidays for Jews with confused identities,” according to its Web site.

East Side Jews hosted a panel discussion that included Soloway and Levinson this week at Skylight Books focusing on the “New American Haggadah,” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and exploring ways to personalize seder.

A TRADITION OF REVOLUTION

To be sure, tinkering with the seder is hardly a new idea — in fact, it is built into the holiday and may be one of the reasons Passover is the single-most observed holiday on the Jewish calendar. Thousands of versions of the haggadah have been produced over many centuries.

“In every generation, you are obligated to see yourself as if you yourself left Egypt,” the haggadah demands.

And later on, “Whoever discusses the story extensively is praiseworthy.”

Will Deutsch’s sketches provide a caricature-like nostalgic take on Passover moments. A search for the afikomen.

“The haggadah gives you permission to make the seder experience speak to you, where you’re at, right now,” said Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of “Passover: The Spiritual Guide for Family Celebration” (Jewish Lights). “The seder is not supposed to be a history lesson. It’s supposed to be a multisensory experience of the Exodus from Egypt itself, and whatever Egypt is constraining you now. That ought to be the topic of the evening — how to place yourself not in history, but in the ongoing story of your spiritual life and your connection to Judaism.”

And Jews have read themselves into the haggadah for centuries. Artwork portraying the four sons, for instance, has included communists, emancipationists, Israeli pioneers, Chasidim or American rebellious teens as the simple, wise, wicked and nonverbal children.

In 1969, 800 blacks and whites attended the first “Freedom Seder,” which Rabbi Arthur Waskow hosted in the basement of a church in Washington, D.C., on the first anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The 1973 “Jewish Catalog,” a countercultural Jewish playbook by Richard Siegel and Michael and Sharon Strassfeld, suggested vegetarians might use a beet on the seder plate in place of the zeroa, traditionally a lamb shank, and the vegetarian “Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb,” edited by Roberta Kalechofsky, appeared in the mid-1970s. Feminist seders continue to be popular today.

21st CENTURY SEDER

So if all that started in the 1960s, what’s so revolutionary about today’s seders?

For one, many in the Jewish community never embraced the seder revolution of the 1960s and ’70s but instead stuck with the old take-turns-reading-out-of-the-Maxwell-House-haggadah model. And within families that have added more interaction, more theatrics, more activity to the seder, this next generation is simply eager to add its own layer to the story.

A 21st century seder uses technology to access a vast spectrum of resources, and it lets ideas emerge from conversation and activity rather than being frontally presented. The seder is less likely to be singularly themed — feminist or civil rights, say — than to incorporate a patchwork of personal and societal ideas that make up the hybrid identity of this generation.

They want ownership and personal meaning, and are not willing to wait for the natural turnover of generations so they can take the lead.

“I went home two seders ago, and at the end of it, I was like, ‘I can’t do that again,’ ” said Tami Reiss, a 30-year-old Web product manager who lives in Los Angeles.

Reiss’ parents live in Florida and are Orthodox; each year they go through the entire text of the haggadah, mostly with her father leading.

“I think there is a big difference between a patriarch leading the seder and being the main source of information, as opposed to everyone bringing some level of curiosity and ability to ask and reply to questions,” Reiss said. “When one person is leading, it’s harder to get that sense of ownership.”

Last year, Reiss hosted her own seder, with the benefit of a grant from Birthright Next. The organization reimburses alumni of Birthright Israel trips who host guests for Shabbat and Passover in their homes. Nearly 550 hosts have signed up through Birthright Next this year, with 35 seders in Los Angeles.

Reiss and her co-host supplied some prompts, but, for the most part, they let the conversation flow. She wrote the Passover timeline out on cards, which she handed out, asking her guests to organize themselves according to the chronological order of the events on their cards.

“It was vegetarian, and we had fun; we played interactive seder games — it was kind of everything I ever wanted a seder to be at my parents’ house,” Reiss said.

Ayana Morse, community director of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, said that non-Jews who have attended her seder have been impressed with the depth of conversation.

“It sort of epitomizes the Jewish idea of the importance of asking questions by providing this forum for guided dinner-party conversation. I think people are sort of desperate for that deeper engagement with friends and peers,” Morse said.

A Passover Surprise in Patagonia


“So, where are you doing the seder?” asks my mother, on the other end of my computer’s crackly speakers.

I had just arrived in Patagonia, a beautiful region of Argentina, blessed with sparkling blue lakes, snow-capped mountains and forests on fire with the colors of fall.

My plan was to find a shul and hopefully meet someone who would invite a wandering Jew home for Pesach. I had tried to do something similar in La Paz, Bolivia, but the homely service at the highest synagogue in the world did not lead to any home-cooked chicken soup.

Here in the town of Bariloche, I did not have to go far looking for a seder. It found me.

There are hundreds of young Israelis traveling throughout South America; so many in fact, that many hotels and restaurants cater specifically to them. Hebrew signs can be found in many tourist areas, and some youth hostels are known in traveler circles, unfortunately, as Israeli ghettos.

All the Israelis I have met regret such a situation exists, but it is nevertheless a reality. One of these was Shahar from Tel Aviv, and it was she who told me about what must be one of the most remarkable seders anywhere in the world.

The five-star Llao Llao Hotel and Resort outside Patagonia is widely regarded as the best hotel in Argentina. Nestled against the dramatic mountains of the Andes, adjacent to a lush natural reserve and a crystal lake, the Llao Llao (pronounced Shau Shau) attracts an elite, international clientele.

Ma Nishtana? Because on this night, the Llao Llao invited more than 400 traveling Israelis, and a handful of other traveling Jews like myself, for a service and complimentary seder.

“You have to fax through your passport,” Shahar explained, and then call to confirm. She had found out about it through an Israeli travel Web site. This was the seventh year the Llao Llao had opened itself up for the well-traveled, jeans-clad, unshaven, but very enthusiastic guests.

There were still a few days before the seder, so I promptly faxed off my passport and called as instructed. The woman on the phone was abrupt: “No cameras, no bags, be here at 7.” Then she hung up.

As more Israelis arrived, there was genuine excitement in the air, enough to attract several non-Jewish travelers to the idea of a free meal at an exclusive resort hotel. I would have liked to invite everyone in the spirit of Pesach, but considering there are thousands of backpackers in Bariloche, I can understand that the hotel sets limits for its free seder. It was, I would later find out, the most expensive seder in all of Argentina, and I guess charity does have its limits.

The temperature had plummeted when we arrived by bus at the hotel. The sun was setting behind the granite-spired mountains, casting a mirror reflection on the lake. I arrived with the first group of Israelis, together with a Jewish girl from North London.

We showed our passports to guards at the first checkpoint, walked past another, and found an X-ray machine, guards with wands and officials checking our passports against a list. No doubt security was tight, a sad reality even in such a beautiful setting as this.

Through the necessary hurdles, we entered the magnificent hotel. For eight days, the hotel becomes fully kosher, catering exclusively to a Jewish clientele from around the world. Inside the rich, wooden interior were religious families, black-hat Lubavitchers, smart-dressed couples — and all were about to be invaded by hundreds of backpackers speaking Hebrew.

“Seven years ago, I was hiking and came across a group of Israelis,” said Eduardo Elsztain, chairman of IRSA, Argentina’s largest real estate company, and the man responsible for this most unusual event. “I invited them back to the hotel for seder, but they didn’t believe I was Jewish. I threatened to pull down my pants and prove it.”

The following year there were 25, then 50, then 150, until today there are more than 400 Israelis finding surely the largest seder anyone here has ever been to. Besides myself and Jackie from London, there was only one other non-Israeli in the room, a girl from the United States.

The sheer diversity of attire — hiking boots and leather shoes, piercings and ties — created a surreal, but very moving religious service before the seder, which featured siddurim in both Hebrew and Spanish. Singing, dancing and clapping, the men snaking through the converted hall, dreadlocks followed by tzitzit followed by Savile Row.

At the conclusion of the service, we exited the hotel’s theater, which in 45 minutes was converted into a makeshift dining hall. A seder plate lay on every table, together with grape juice and matzah.

The seder was led by a young, highly enthused rabbi, and a representative from each of the 30-odd tables stood up to read a portion of the haggadah. Hearing a chorus of hundreds of excited — not to mention hungry — travelers singing “Ma Nishtama” and “Dayanu” induced goosebumps.

Rumors that whoever found the afikomen would win a free night at the hotel proved unfounded, but it didn’t matter — spirits were high.

We started our meal at midnight, which is normal in a town where locals usually eat out at about 11 p.m. Smart-clad waiters served up salad, soup and chicken.

Seder sponsor Elsztain stood and announced to the crowd: “Your energy is vital for this hotel, for it is just a building. Our guests are all commenting that your presence has made their Pesach extra special. It is my wish that this energy you bring tonight will return with you home, and perhaps one day there will be seders like this all over Israel.”

One kosher-observant backpacker stood up, unable to contain his gratitude: “I haven’t eaten any meat for months!”

I stood up to offer my own thanks, to Eduardo, and to the Israelis for traveling so prolifically.

“If it wasn’t for you,” I said, “I wouldn’t have found this amazing seder. And that, let me assure you all, must make my mother very happy!”

Robin Esrock, travel columnist for the Vancouver Sun, is wrapping up a year spent traveling to 24 countries on five continents. Follow his adventures at

PASSOVER: The 11th Plague: Boredom


Not all seders are sit-down affairs.

When “Dayenu” begins at the home of Simone Shenassa of West Orange, N.J., everyone takes bunches of scallions and hits everyone else, to imitate the whipping of the slaves.

“It’s very much a free-for-all,” Shenassa said of this Persian custom. People get up from their chairs to whip others across the room, and children are even allowed — just this one time — to strike a grandparent. To end the ruckus, guests bite the scallion in the middle, signaling that the whip has been broken, and they need to clean up the mess and resume singing.

At the extended family seder of Noah Kussin-Bordo, 11, “Dayenu” means getting up from the table, grabbing a pair of maracas and taking his place as head of the Dayenu Band. Noah and his younger cousins march around the house with their tambourines, kazoos and hand-held drums, singing full-blast while the grown-ups remain seated, watching the commotion.

“We know that when ‘Dayenu’ comes, we actually have something to do,” said Noah, 11, who lives with his family in Tarzana.

Noah and his cousins, typical kids who normally would be bored by the second glass of grape juice, are among those finding new ways to take part in the family rituals.

No longer forced to remain silent and solemn while an elder speed-reads in Hebrew through the entire haggadah — called upon only to read the Four Questions and steal the afikomen — kids today are engaging in family-created rituals with wind-up toy frogs, edible centerpieces, Hillel sandwiches made from mounds of pyramid-shaped charoset and Wheel of Matzah games.

“The real purpose of the seder is to re-enact the story, but people need permission to do other than the model we grew up with,” said Ron Wolfson, education professor at Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and author of “Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003).

Family educator Alice Langholt has been using her own kid-friendly, interactive haggadah at her seders in Cleveland, Ohio, since 1999. For the plagues, she sets each place with items such as Band-Aids and Neosporin to represent boils, sunglasses for darkness and toy cows for pestilence. At the appropriate time, guests use construction paper and crayons to draw a representation of their plague, which they then explain to the group.

For the 10th plague, the slaying of the first-born, Langholt asks all the first-born guests to rise and recite a passage from “A Common Road to Freedom,” an alternative, Jewish/African American Haggadah, which begins, “Each drop of wine we pour out is hope and prayer that people will cast out the plagues that threaten everyone everywhere they are found.”

Balancing tradition with innovation is not a modern phenomenon that can be traced back only as far as the matzah of Hope, introduced in the 1970s to draw attention to the plight of the Soviet Jews. New York author and Jewish researcher David Arnow says that creating personalized seders “really reaches back to what the original designers of the seder had in mind.”

Indeed, what may be the earliest known haggadah, dating back 1,800 years to the Mishnah, contains some fixed rituals, such as drinking four glasses of wine, reclining and eating bitter herbs and matzah. But it also includes some ad-libbing. The child, while not required to recite the Four Questions, was expected to pose other questions throughout the seder. The father would then answer those questions with a Midrash — or explanation — that was adjusted to the child’s level of understanding.

“Over the generations, the spontaneous parts became prescribed,” said Arnow, author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004). “Where we are now is trying to recreate the balance with seders that are meaningful and engaging and yet tied to the roots.”

And it’s not only the youngest children who need to be drawn in.

Several years ago, to grab the attention of teenagers, Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue in St. Louis bought a deep fryer and held a “burgers and fries” second seder for his then-adolescent son and cousins.

“Teenagers are the classic second child,” said Fasman, referring to the wicked child, and burgers and fries, along with a driver’s license, are their ultimate symbols of freedom.

“As soon as I said, ‘This is your seder,’ the kids were able to take it seriously,” Fasman added.

Some people extend this analogy even further.

“Pretend that the four children — wise, wicked, simple and the child who does not know who to ask — are models for the people at your seder, and plan activities for all four levels,” advised Rivka Ben Daniel, director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West in Agoura. Ben Daniel teaches a workshop for parents in which she gives out 100 seder ideas.

At her own family seder, a six-hour extravaganza which she conducts, she employs a mixture of seriousness, such as philosophical discussion and prepared Torah commentaries, and lightness. In the latter vein, one of her favorite activities involves having the guests grant Pesach “Ruach” (spirit) Awards to each other. Some of the 10 categories include Most Creative Midrash, Most Active Participant and Best Dessert.

Shiela Steinman Wallace of Louisville, Ky., enables everyone — those Passover-savvy and not, those Jewish and not — to participate in her seder by asking them to bring something to share and then to determine when during the seder to interrupt and talk about it.

One year her father brought the shirt her grandfather wore on his 1912 voyage from Ukraine to the United States. Another year her son shared the rod used to repair his broken leg. Wallace makes bringing an item “a condition of acceptance.” Other stipulations, which she spells out in a pre-Passover e-mail, include coming hungry, not bringing food items and understanding that all questions are welcome.

And in Los Angeles, Sara Aftergood has been captivating her guests with innovative seders for the past 20 years, originally motivated by a desire to reinforce her children’s Jewish day school studies.

A recent invention occurs at the seder’s conclusion, around midnight. Bringing out a silver platter, she distributes to her 40 costume-clad guests seder fortune cookies, consisting of two long, broken pieces of matzah, each pair concealing phrase and tied with ribbon. Guests then take turns reading their fortunes. They range from quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about the importance of learning Torah to “Isn’t the hostess pretty?” and “I simply insist on staying to clean up this mess.”

But none of this should replace the actual reading of the haggadah, Wolfson and other educators insist. Rather, they recommend that families use them to punctuate the reading.

“Passover is the most observed holiday of the whole year,” Wolfson said. “It’s thrilling to think that this ritual has been transformed into something accessible and celebratory that gets the message across that once we were slaves and now we are free.”

 

PASSOVER: Songs for a Swinging Seder


Of all the Jewish holidays, none is so firmly rooted in the home and so joyously celebrated with song as Passover. This simple fact would lead you to expect an avalanche of Passover records, but this year the avalanche is more like a mild rain of pebbles, at least in the quantity department. The quality is pretty high, but don’t count on finding much for your own seder table. These records should come with the warning: “Trained singing professionals; do not try this at home.”

The two most unusual and interesting of the four new CDs both use hip-hop as a touchstone. Samples, cut-ups, rapping, multiple overdubbing with hard beats — the usual package — used artfully by Craig Taubman on “The Passover Lounge” (Craig + Co.) and Josh Dolgin, better known as SoCalled, on “The SoCalled Seder: A Hip-Hop Haggadah” (JDub).

Taubman’s outing is more musically conservative, generally staying close to the familiar holiday tunes and drawing on a trippy vibe that nicely complements his breezy tenor singing. Co-producer Luke Tozour provides some tasty beats and samples and a lot of friendly ambient sound. (Hey, guys, my seder never sounds this mellow — where is all the screaming and yelling?) It’s a nice little package that turns the Four Questions into juicy, dreamy funk and the recounting of the plagues into something like “old-skool horror” rap. If Taubman has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, the humor is affectionate and endearing.

SoCalled, unsurprisingly, is after something tougher, with more street cred and a straight-razor edge. Taking samples from old how-to-do-a-seder records and slicing and dicing them into a bubbling stew of breakbeat sounds, scratching from P.Love, klezmer instrumentals from Elaine and Susan Hoffman Watts, high-powered sax funk from Paul Shapiro, and a startling rap from Killah Priest on the plagues, he has created a Pesach for downtown hipsters. I love it but I’m pretty sure my zayde would not. As the old joke goes, if he were alive, this would kill him. Be forewarned.

If you are seeking a more traditional Passover recording, you might be more comfortable with “The Spirit of Passover: Voices of the Conservative Movement” (Cantors Assembly/United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), a sampler that was actually released last year but which didn’t turn up on my desk until a few weeks ago. The current issue of Judaism is devoted to a long discussion of the current state and possible future of the Conservative movement, but if you want a truly vivid portrait of the many directions in which its adherents are pulling, this CD is the thing.

The record opens with a burst of Hollywood Strings-style kitsch that suddenly turns into a veritable explosion of “Ki Lo Na’eh/Had Gadya” sung by the Three Jewish Tenors. Meir Finkelstein, Alberto Mizrahi and David Propis sound like the musical equivalent of human cannonballs on this gleeful tribute to Moyshe Oysher, but it’s not a great idea to open a record at this energy level, because anything that follows is bound to be a letdown.

And much of what follows is a new-agey, Celine Dionish ode to Rebbe Nachman written by Jeff Klepper and sung by Eva Robbins, although nothing is quite so dire as “The Empty Chair.” Things couldn’t get worse than that and, fortunately, they don’t. Indeed, there are some real high points: a lithe “Dayeinu” performed by the Syracuse Children’s Chorus, a supremely simple but powerful “Hodu Ladonai” from Sam Weiss, a haunting “Livbavtini” in which a multitracked Ramon Tasat duets with himself and an audacious “Prayer for Dew: Tal” in which Moshe Schulhof sings with a recording of the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt. If you look up “chutzpahdik” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a photo of Schulhof, but to his everlasting credit, he holds his own with the man most consider the single greatest hazzan of all time. (Available from www.TheSpiritSeries.com.)

The final entry in this year’s Pesach sweepstakes is a somber one, Max Helfman’s “Di Naye Hagode” (Milken Archive/Naxos). Helfman’s oratorio is not, strictly speaking, a Passover commemoration in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a 1948 piece he wrote in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on Passover in 1943. Using the seder as a structural armature on which to mount “di naye hagode,” that is, “the new telling,” Helfman wrote a frequently powerful, occasionally bombastic piece for choir, narrator and orchestra. This recording features particularly forceful contributions from the Choral Society of Southern California, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale and narrator Theodore Bikel, who never succumbs to the temptation to “emote,” wisely allowing Itzik Fefer’s stark, bleak text to do the hard work. The CD also features an effective rendition of Helfman’s “Hag Habikkurim” and a surprisingly mournful “The Holy Ark.” The result is one of the best releases in the Milken Archive series to date.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

 

PASSOVER – The Model Seder Begets Model Students


Lingering clouds huddle at the eastern edge of Los Angeles’ clear blue skyline, casting a dusty shadow over the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. Follow one of those meandering white trails down the mountain, and you’ll find yourself at Weizmann Jewish Community Day School in the eastern foothills of Pasadena, where 38 students and 11 staff members occupy a stronghold of Jewish education in an area of Southern California not known for its overall Jewishness.

On this day, two weeks before Passover, it’s time for a model seder.

The time-honored ritual of the classroom model seder, which happens everywhere from Chasidic preschools to confirmation classes at Reform temples, makes the seder familiar and comfortable. And here as elsewhere, the school ritual gives students knowledge and expertise to take home.

Prior to the start of the event, excitement is brewing in the classroom off the garden courtyard, part of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, a 400-family Conservative synagogue where the 23-year-old school is housed.

The 12 kids in the combined first and second grades are eager to get started, ready to recite the story of strangers in a strange land.

Restless feet in sneakers or party shoes swing under the table, while kids remind each other to be on their best behavior.

“Remember, there’s a reporter here!” they scream-whisper across the table.

“The model seder makes me feel good because Pesach is my favorite holiday,” begins Joette Labinger, who has been teaching at the school for 17 years.

Labinger has set the table with everything from flowers to saltwater, and the group begins with the blessing over the wine (grape juice in this case).

Before each child a paper plate is arranged with seder foods — a sprig of parsley, some celery sticks, a mound of charoset, a glob of red horseradish and a hard-boiled egg.

As some moms bring around a bowl and a pitcher of water to wash small hands, arms shoot up into the air to answer Labinger’s question about why Jews do karpas.

“For spring,” one child answers.

“We dip it in saltwater to think about the tears of the slaves,” another answers.

The kids have been learning about Pesach since the day after the Purim masks were stored away. There’s a lot of material to get through, and Labinger’s goal is to make the children feel comfortable at any seder, and to be able to follow in their own hagaddah.

As the participants dip into the karpas, some choose celery while others brave — and a few even profess to like — the parsley.

Some of today’s bounty was picked from the kids’ garden right outside the classroom, part of an integrated learning approach at Weizmann. When the third- and fourth-graders learned about California, for instance, they planted and harvested native plants, and sold them at the local farmer’s market, sending the proceeds to a local food bank, explains Lisa Feldman, the school’s principal.

Activities with a service and science bent are strong here, which seems to fit the proximity to JPL and Caltech, where many parents from the school work or are students. The service component, Feldman says, includes going next door monthly to visit a retirement home, and the school has an ongoing relationship with the Eaton Canyon Nature Center up the block.

Labinger teaches both Judaic and secular studies to her class. So for Passover, the kids practiced reading English and Hebrew in the hagaddah, and used math skills for all the counting and measuring the seder requires.

The work is paying off, as the kids proudly read in perfectly accented Hebrew, a product of their five hours a week of language immersion with a Hebrew specialist.

The students count off the plagues — and come up with 11. They get 10 on the second try.

After a rousing rendition of “Dayenu,” they are ready for matzah. They joyously crunch while suspiciously eying the gnarly horseradish root.

“Does it taste like ginger?” Sharon asks optimistically.

The kids all take a dab of the red horseradish, tempered by a dip into the sweet charoset, and after the requisite wrinkled noses and mock heaving, Sharon announces definitively that maror does not taste like ginger.

The charoset is a hit, and the kids are invited to eat whatever is on their seder plate before they start the afikomen hunt.

In a snap, Maia finds the unleavened loot hidden in the bookshelf. She later reveals that her older sister cut a deal: She would tell Maia where Mrs. Labinger usually hides the afikomen, if Maia promised to give her sister one of the two Bazooka bubblegums the winner always gets (everyone else gets one). As afikomen bartering goes, it seemed fair — and enterprising.

By the time the kids get to the blessing after the meal and the concluding songs, it looks like a real seder — the table is decorated in purple stains and matzah crumbs, and the kids are slap-happy on four cups of grape juice.

The bubble gum treat is still sitting in front of them, and the chorus that brings this seder to a close is nothing if not universal — “It is time for dessert yet?”

 

Seders: Not Just for Pesach Anymore


Every holiday has its aura. Pesach has a scrubbed cleanliness; Purim, a cookie-dough indulgence, Sukkot, a back-to-nature thankfulness. Rosh Hashanah has its aura, too. For most of us, it’s one that begins a season of awe, judgment and repentance.

For me, the start of a new year is a time of blessing and renewal, a different focus than what often feels like a lofty liturgical solemnity. I’m not suggesting party hats and confetti, just a little more optimism and joyfulness. Except for dipping apples in honey and sharing a holiday dinner, home rituals that create memory are largely missing from Rosh Hashanah.

In this respect, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we hold a special ceremony at home, during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the new year. The ritual is called a seder yehi ratzon (may it be God’s will) because we ask God to guide us and provide us with bounty, strength and peace in the year ahead. Many of the foods are blessed with puns on their Hebrew names that turn into wishes that our enemies will be destroyed.

The Talmudic origins of the seder dates back to a discussion by Rabbi Abaye about omens that carry significance (Horayot 12a). He suggested that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets and dates. Jewish communities throughout the world have adapted this practice, creating seders of their own.

So my shopping list for Rosh Hashanah includes fat, juicy, red-skinned pomegranates; glossy, sticky-sweet dates; apples that will blush spicy pink when they are cooked into preserves with a drop of red food coloring and whole cloves; savory pumpkin; pungent leeks or scallions, foot-long string beans (available in Indian shops), and deep-green spinach. Often, my parents and my children prepare the foods together. It’s an art to separate the jewel-like pomegranate seeds without splattering their scarlet juice all over the kitchen counter; to split the dates, stuff them with walnut halves and arrange them in concentric ovals on a newly polished silver dish.

The foods become vessels for meaning, effective because of their tangibility.

“The physicality of the seder is what makes it special,” says Rabbi Karyn Kedar, author of “Dance of the Dolphin: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives” (Jewish Lights, 2001), who has adopted the practice through her Sephardic husband. “It’s not just cerebral. It’s ‘getting dirty’ with Judaism. It starts with cutting onions in the kitchen and ends with blessing. Both converge in being Jewish.”

We begin the seder itself with a series of biblical verses that carry mystical significance, followed by a declaration that always sends shivers down my spine: Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the year begin and all its blessings!

Then come the blessings: First, the dates. “May it be your will, God, that all enmity will end. May we date this new year with peace and happiness. (The word for end, yitamu, sounds like tamar, the Hebrew word for date.)

Second, the pomegranate: May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.

Apples: May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a year as good and sweet as honey.

String beans (rubia or lubia): May it be Your will, God, to increase our merits. (The word for increase, irbu, resembles the word rubia, bean.)

Pumpkin or gourd (k’ra): As we eat this gourd, may it be your will, God, to guard us. Tear away all evil decrees against as our merits are called before you. (K’ra resembles the words “tear” and “called.”)

Spinach or beetroot leaves (selek): May it be your will, God, to banish all the enemies who might beat us. (Selek resembles the word for banish, yistalku.)

Leeks or scallions (karti): May it be your will, God, to cut off our enemies. (karti resembles yikartu, the word for “cut off.”)

Originally, the seder called for a fish head to represent fertility, and a sheep’s head to symbolize our wish to be heads, not tails — leaders, not stragglers. The sheep’s head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac’s life. We recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In my family, we discontinued using these last two items: the fish because its Hebrew name, dag, sounds like the Hebrew word for worry, d’agah; the sheep’s head, for obvious reasons.

What does it mean to ask for a good, sweet year? What constitutes sweetness? What shapes goodness?

I think it’s harmony and wholeness we are asking for — the ability to take the parts of our lives that may satisfy us disparately and put them together so that they create contentment. Through these simple foods, we ask for the ability to appreciate the basic goodness of our lives.

Rabbi Kedar, who lived in Israel for 10 years, recalls that after a terrorist attack, mothers who picked their children up from school let them pick any candy or ice cream they wanted from the corner grocery store.

“We wanted to bring sweetness and comfort to their lives in the guise of chocolate,” she said. “Blessings, like chocolate, sometimes seem like a luxury.”

Because the seder doesn’t focus exclusively on sweet symbols, it mirrors the realities of our lives. The bitter truths, fears and enmities we live with mix with the sweetness. Life is not just beginnings; it is also endings. It’s not just honeyed dates, it’s also the sting of scallions. It is about uncovering blessings despite the elusiveness of peace.

After I take the tiniest bit of scallion possible for the blessing, I wash away the unpleasant taste with sweet apples and dates. Maybe it’s just my aversion to scallions, but through this small act, I can increase the positive while asking to be shielded from the negative.

Finding direction and beauty in our lives through the basic fruits of the earth allows us to push aside the chaos that clutters our days and uncover the goodness and sweetness of time. Often, said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, we use up so much energy deflecting the onslaught of the world that we become numb to its beauty.

“It’s like being in a bakery too long,” Cardin explains in her book, “The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events” (Behrman House, 2000). “The smell is still there, but we no longer notice.”

She recommends trying to move through our days as if we always had a 5-year-old at our sides to point out all the important things we usually miss: the bugs on the sidewalk, whose turn it is to sit in the front seat, the color of the M&M that tastes best.

The seder points to a specific direction by which to achieve sweetness: the blessing of the pomegranate asks that our lives be filled with mitzvot. Some mitzvot — like lighting Shabbat candles and blowing the shofar — are a language of action that marks us as Jews, Cardin writes. A second type of mitzvah includes acts of fairness, justice and lovingkindness that we do for each other, from honoring parents to visiting the sick. “Our lives are lived in the details of the everyday,” she says. “Taking a co-worker to lunch for a job well done, writing to praise a company for its stance on the environment, thanking a teacher for an inspiring lecture, showing good humor and patience with those around us while waiting in line — each of these brings a bit more goodness into the world. They are the keys to the storehouse of holiness. It is in the performance of these humble deeds that we become more.”

While it is up to each of us to take responsibility to “become more,” we ask for God’s partnership in the process. That’s how our Rosh Hashanah blessings differ from secular New Year’s resolutions. God’s guidance enables us to rely on our own strengths.

“The Jewish new year isn’t about losing 10 pounds or quitting smoking,” Kedar said. “Nor does ‘shanah tovah’ translate as ‘Happy New Year.’ The word ‘tov’ — good — is not ‘Was the movie good?’ It resonates back to Rosh Hashanah as the time God created the world and saw that it was good. Shanah tovah means that we hope the foundations of our lives should have a goodness to them.”

Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its goodness and all its blessings.

Rahel Musleah wrote “Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah” (Lerner/Kar-Ben, 2004). Her Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.

 

Let My Students Go


 

To celebrate Passover, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy preschoolers spent time in ancient Egypt.

Teachers and students transformed hallway bulletin boards into a colorful representation of the story of Passover. The journey begins with the pyramids, and then students pass through a parted Red Sea with thick tulle and crinkled tissue paper on either side — some gauze and cellophane even hang above. Life-size kindergartners silhouettes represent the Israelites dancing at the other end of the sea, coffee-stained butcher paper evokes the desert, and the trip ends in Jerusalem.

“[The artwork] makes the holiday come alive for the children, so that it’s just not just a flat learning experience,” said Cecelie Wizenfeld, the school’s early childhood director. “They’re a part of it.”

Wizenfeld is not alone in her efforts to find memorable ways of helping children connect with the holiday. While model seders, seder plate illustrations and handmade afikomen bags have become standard educational fare in the classroom, many Southland religious and day school teachers are finding that creative and unusual holiday projects make more of an impact.

Second-graders at Adat Ari El Day School will reenact the Exodus from Egypt as they embark on a two-hour journey around the school grounds. Head of School Lana Marcus will play the role of Moses, while sixth-grade students will dress up as taskmasters, following the children. Other journey highlights include the parting of the Red Sea (the sprinklers will come on), receiving “manna” from heaven (teachers will drop marshmallows from above) and finally, the arrival to the Promised Land (a grassy area on the property) and pitching tents, eating, singing and dancing in celebration. Afterward, teachers will lead a discussion about the journey.

By second grade, the children have a familiarity with the holiday, but “acting out the story of Passover makes the children think what [the Exodus] must have been like for the Israelis,” said Sari Goodman, the school’s general studies director.

Rather than focusing on the journey like the students at Adat Ari El, this year the kindergartners at the Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple decided what material things they would bring on such a journey and, in turn, what they value. Each child decorated a “Passover backpack” and chose a few items from home to bring to Israel. In past years, these prized possessions have included teddy bears, prayer books, baseballs and pictures of family.

Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, who oversees the Judaic studies department, said that these activities allow the children to “enter into the text of the haggadah in a new way.”

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Temple Isaiah’s religious school experienced yet another aspect of the Exodus when they attended a special weekend retreat at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu on April 15.

One of the weekend activities was a homelessness simulation in which students received “eviction notices” on their cabin doors. Students worked together to combat their plight and attempt to get back on their feet.

“We’re equating homelessness with the Exodus of the Jewish people,” said Lisa Greengard, the synagogue’s youth group director. Greengard hopes that this modern take on one of the key aspects of Passover will help children empathize with our ancestors and ultimately, make the holiday more meaningful.

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students will indulge in a “chocolate seder” in which the regular items on the seder plate are replaced by their supposed chocolate equivalents. Roasted eggs are substituted with chocolate eggs. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, the students will dip strawberries in chocolate sauce. Chocolate milk will replace wine. Trail mix with M&Ms is the new charoset.

Carrie Frank, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical student who is interning at Temple Israel, adapted the chocolate seder — a concept typically aimed at college students — to make the experience more relevant to younger students. Her goal is to help the children move beyond the story of Passover and take in the core values of the holiday and the concept of enslavement.

By getting the kids’ attention with tasty treats, Frank hopes to touch on deeper issues. She replaces the 10 plagues with what she deems the “10 modern plagues,” so the seder will include more familiar issues like hunger, inequality and disrespect. When the youngsters sip their cups of chocolate milk, they will be reminded of the things for which they are thankful.

“With the kitsch thrown in, it allows you to sneak in some of the good stuff, like values,” Frank said. “And they will absorb that.”

 

Pesach Trip Options Beyond the Ordinary


 

Passover travel once meant shlepping to Miami Beach, where great operatic tenors like Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce would conduct the seder at a fancy-schmancy hotel, or to the Catskills, which was more haimish but just as fattening.

But Passover travel options today have expanded to include experiences ranging from Disney World to the Caribbean to a dude ranch in Wyoming. And you can get some decent deals on Miami Beach, too.

In fact, the entire kosher travel business — especially around the United States — has grown dramatically in recent years, according to industry executives.

“It’s exploded,” said David Lawrence, an executive with Kosher Expeditions, which has offices in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles and offers kosher-catered trips to places ranging from Alaska to Zimbabwe.

Lawrence attributes much of the increase in kosher travel to the situation in Israel, where the intifada has discouraged many would-be tourists from vacationing in the Holy Land.

“We’re getting a lot of day schools that used to go to Israel but are now looking for other options,” he said.

Kosher Expeditions and other travel companies are also becoming more adept at reaching specific Jewish market segments, according to Margo Dix Gold of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

“Trips are no longer marketed only for seniors and empty-nesters,” said Gold, noting that more and more vacations are being designed for singles or for people desiring adventure travel.

For example, Kosher Expeditions’ Lawrence said, his company can provide food for observant Jews who want to take a leisurely cruise or climb Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro.

“Kosher-trained chefs and mashgiachs [kosher inspectors] travel with our groups,” he said, “and we’ll fly in food if necessary.”

The Jewish travel business is especially good around Passover, Atlanta’s Gold said.

“Passover is the most celebrated holiday amongst Jews, even for those who are not very observant,” she said. “Almost all Jews will celebrate Passover in some way.”

And that has led a variety of companies to offer Passover vacation packages.

For example, MatzaFun Tours offers Passover at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Orlando. In addition to all the Mickey Mouse you can stand, the package features three gourmet glatt kosher meals daily and traditional family seders, daily synagogue services, guest lecturers and nightly entertainment. Included are children’s Park Hopper passes for full-stay guests and transportation to all Disney theme parks. For more information, visit www.matzafun.com.

If you prefer to spend Passover at sea, the Ontario Travel Service is booking passengers aboard the Deep South Caribbean kosher cruise, departing from Ft. Lauderdale on April 22. The cruise package includes seders on the first two nights of Passover conducted in a separate area of the dining room under Conservative supervision.

Greg Bernhardt took the cruise with his mother and daughter, enabling him to spend Passover with his mother for the first time in years since he became observant.

“People who do not keep strictly kosher feel comfortable on the cruise, and the kashrut was good enough for me,” he said. “But the best part was re-uniting the family and spending the holidays together.”

At one point during the cruise, Bernhardt recalled, Jewish passengers who were not part of the kosher contingent asked if they could participate in the Yizkor service, while another passenger — an adult — celebrated his bar mitzvah with the group. That kind of cohesiveness appealed to Bernhardt and his teenage daughter, who made friends from Scotland and Ireland while on the ship.

The Deep South itinerary includes stops at Martinique, Barbados, Antigua, St. Maarten and the Bahamas. For more information, call (800) 893-5617.

For something really different, Kosher Expeditions offers a dude ranch adventure in the not-so-wild West. Participants can ride horseback, go white-water rafting, relax in a hot spring and explore nearby Yellowstone National Park.

Joel Weinberger took his two daughters on the dude ranch trip a couple of years ago. “My kids got the experience of being out there in rural America,” he said.

All meals were glatt kosher, served family-style in the ranch’s dining room with several barbecues during the week. There’s no roughing it, either. The Kosher Expedition’s package includes modern cabins with private baths and maid service. For more information about the dude ranch adventure, call (800) 923-2645.

For something a little more laid back, Club Kosher offers their yearly package dubbed, Passover in Paradise, with two destinations: Cancun and Tuscan, Ariz.

The Cancun trip offers guests typical resort amenities and expansive child-care programs at the Hilton, as well as atypical Mexican fiestas for those looking for a good party.

In Arizona, spa delights abound and the resort features an expansive golf course. There will also be ample opportunity to explore spiritual realms with scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Manis Friedman. For details, visit www.ClubKosher.com or phone (866) 561-4312.

If San Juan or San Diego appeals to you, Afikomantours offers two resort packages featuring glatt kosher meals, seders and children’s camp. For more information, call (888) 234-5669.

And there’s always Miami Beach, where several hotels offer complete packages. For more information, visit

Spiritual Cleaning


More than 3,300 years ago, God swept us out from our slavery in Egypt, where we had toiled for more than 400 years. He did not wait for a United Nations resolution on the matter — the Almighty acted unilaterally, and for this we are forever grateful. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is central to our lives as Jews — so central, in fact, that we mention it in the “Shema” every single day, as well as in the “Kiddush” on Friday night.

And yet there’s something very ironic about Pesach. Why is it that getting ready to celebrate our liberation from slavery involves so much hard work? First, we need to remember that during Pesach we are not allowed to eat, own or even benefit from the type of leavened products, or chametz, that we normally enjoy all year round: bread, crackers, pasta and even wheat germ. Who enjoys wheat germ, you ask? Well, I do. It’s in my favorite shampoo, so during Pesach the bottle gets booted into the garage with all the other verboten chametz.

The haggadah is our Passover playbook, which tells us that God took us out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” These are useful images to keep in mind, because when you are preparing for Pesach you’re going to need both a mighty hand (two would be better) and an outstretched arm to get to those hard-to-reach crevices behind the couch where your kid stashed a packet of Oreos a few months back.

While cleaning for this Festival of Freedom, many of us will scrub our homes to within an inch of our lives, finally sitting down to the seder tired, yes, but serene in the knowledge that our homes are not only sparkling clean, but, more importantly, kosher for Pesach. Yet many women (who generally do the bulk of the Pesach cleaning) can get carried away with it all. In their zeal to create a kosher-for-Pesach home, they run themselves ragged and may be so exhausted by seder night they can barely stay awake past the soup. Frankly, women like this make me nervous. I’m just not willing to begin Pesach cleaning the day after Purim (besides, we need another week to finish the shalach manot) but I also don’t want to feel behind in the Pesach-cleaning Olympiad. I take comfort from the assurances I have received from several esteemed Orthodox rabbis who wish that the women would calm down about this. They say that one should be able to clean a home for Pesach (not including the kitchen) in just a day or two. If you insist on cleaning the ceiling, they say, it doesn’t make the home any more kosher, and if the cost to the woman and her family is needless stress, it’s surely not worth it.

In a way, our ancestors were lucky. When Moses gave them the green light to escape from their Egyptian taskmasters, there was no time to say, “Wait! I didn’t finish sweeping the floor yet! And the pots and pans still need to be put away!”

No siree.

When Pharaoh finally agreed to let our people go, we had to skedaddle. Little could we guess that we wouldn’t enter the Promised Land for another 40 years.

So why can’t we just commemorate our liberation with some traditional Jewish comfort food, like chicken chow mein? Why does scrubbing down the house and eating hard, crummy matzah, which tastes stale even when it’s fresh, remind us of freedom?

The answer, I believe, is that freedom is not just a physical reality — it’s a spiritual condition. And without a structure to our lives, there’s no freedom; there’s only chaos. It’s kind of like how gravity works: without gravity, every thing and every one of us would just float up into the atmosphere, hither and thither. Similarly, our value system is our “spiritual gravity” — it’s the structure that keeps us grounded morally. It gives us enough space to grow, but not so much space that we’ll just float around aimlessly, experimenting with potentially disastrous lifestyle ideas. It’s no coincidence that God gave us the Torah — His blueprint for living — after our liberation from slavery. As slaves, we weren’t free to make choices for ourselves. But as a newly liberated people, we needed guidelines. And who better to give them than the Creator Himself?

Similarly, the chametz that we search for before Pesach isn’t just physical. Our sages teach that the chametz is a metaphor for the “leavening” in our own personalities — the arrogance and egotism that can puff us up higher than a loaf of freshly baked bread. That’s why preparing for Pesach means more than looking for an old candy bar left in a jacket pocket. It means spring-cleaning our souls, trying to rid ourselves of pettiness, selfishness and tunnel vision. We’re multitasking — vacuuming with one hand, but also taking an inventory of our character, and trying to refocus on the things that really matter: our families, our values, God and the Torah He gave us to help us live a meaningful life. Only when we have swept this spiritual chametz away can we really connect with the deeper meaning of Pesach.

If we can manage to take this spiritual inventory, then when we sit down to our seders, we will be free — truly free — to enjoy this pivotal rendezvous with God, just as our ancestors have done for more than 3,300 years. We will be celebrating not just our liberation from slavery, but our reconnection to the tradition that has ensured our miraculous survival as a people.

Who knows? Perhaps any people able to digest this much matzah must surely be an indestructible people indeed.


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” humor column, available on her Web site, www.judygruen.com. She is also a columnist for Religion News Service.

A Date With Passover Memories


Once a year, soon after Purim, my parents lug down the hydraulic press from their attic. For those of us more comfortable in the world of DVDs and CD-ROMs, a hydraulic press is an old-fashioned contraption that looks like a wooden bucket perched on a little metal table, with a metal pole you turn to squeeze whatever you put inside — often, grapes to make wine. My parents use it to make halek, the date syrup that is the Iraqi-Indian version of charoset.

I won’t give too many details about the arduous process that results in the glossy brown, intensely sweet halek, but for starters, let me just say it ain’t easy. My parents produce enough halek not only for themselves, but for three daughters, eight grandchildren and numerous seder guests. Halek remains a favorite breakfast and snack food during the week of Passover. That’s a lot of halek, so my parents begin with 15 pounds of pitted, crushed dates. After the dates are soaked overnight, the hydraulic press strains and liquefies the fruit so that the halek retains every drop of honeyed essence. The liquid is then boiled until it thickens; it is mixed with ground walnuts before serving.

I know some families who make halek without the dramatics of the hydraulic press (a cheesecloth and hand-squeezing can do the trick). But my parents wanted to reproduce the exact process they knew from India, for my great-uncle Elias — the family’s master halek-maker in Calcutta — used a hydraulic press. In fact, Uncle Elias used to send us halek in sealed containers for 15 years after we moved from Calcutta to Philadelphia. When my parents bought the hydraulic press in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, they continued the tradition on their own.

The haggadah tells us that on Pesach we must re-enact the story of the Exodus. But for many of us, Pesach is also a time to re-enact the customs of our parents and grandparents. Elana Goldberg of Teaneck, N.J., doesn’t have a hydraulic press, but she devotes hours to making a sweet dish the way her bubbe did. The fried dough cake filled with raisins, prunes and raspberry jam, then soaked and baked in honey, lemon juice, cinnamon and sugar, brings back a taste she treasured as a little girl.

"I thought it was heaven. It was the highlight of the seder for me," Goldberg remembers. Today, with two sets of twins, 8 and 5, and a 3-year-old, Goldberg still puts aside a whole night to recreate this piece of her grandmother.

"Somehow it’s not Passover without it," she said, "and the only way to get it is to make it myself."

Journalist and author Patricia Volk ("Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family," Knopf, 2001) sets her table with an inventory of heirlooms: Aunt Lil’s nut dish with squirrels on the side for charoset; Granny Ethel’s silver platter for matzah, and "place plates" to put under each place setting; Poppy’s silverware; Aunt Dorothy’s stemware; Nana’s "peacock plates" and salt cellars in peacock-blue clear glass; her father’s silver repoussé kiddush cup, and great-grandmother’s vase.

Looking for the afikomen is the thread that takes Ed Koch back 50 or 60 years.

"My father always hid the matzah under the sofa pillow, year after year," recalled the former mayor of New York. "But we always played the game. We’d look everywhere, and then look under the sofa pillow. We received a few coins, but for a 7-year- old, it was a treasure."

Today, when Noah and Jordan, his 5-year-old grandnephew and 8-year-old grandniece, look for the afikomen, "there’s no fix. You gotta really find it."

Their reward?

"We’re up to a dollar," Koch said. "You don’t want to spoil the kids."

At the Passover workshops he presents, Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of the University of Judaism and author of "The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder," (Jewish Lights, 1996) suggested matching the four cups with different varieties of the many good kosher wines now on the market. Last year, however, Wolfson got a complaint from a participant after Passover.

"Your idea backfired," the man said. "Everybody was looking for heavy Malaga. That’s what they remembered from their youth."

"That taught me an important lesson," Wolfson said. "The great attraction of Passover is that we not only recite the haggadah — this historical document — but we also live and breathe and eat and touch and smell the history, with the additional layer of family memory. The seder becomes a family reunion, a powerful reliving of family history."

Wolfson enjoys reliving one particular episode of his own family history that took place on Passover, although he may not have relished it as much years ago.

"I almost didn’t get engaged to my wife because of gefilte fish," he recalled. "When my future in-laws came to our family seder for the first time, they offered to make the gefilte fish. We sometimes had up to 50 guests, so they bought 100 pounds of fish, and worked for a week preparing it. They chopped it up by hand in a gehocker [a cleaver], poured cups of sugar on it, shaped it into balls, stuffed the mixture into the fish skins and sliced it. That was their tradition from Germany and Poland. My family, originally from the Russian Pale of Settlement, never saw gefilte fish like that before. They never tasted gefilte fish like that before. They expected it to be bland and unsweetened, and they were in shock."

"Familiarity is comforting," said Dr. Rhonda Yoss-Kaplan, a psychologist in Port Washington, N.Y. "It’s grounding. It connects you to your own personal history and identity, to what’s gone before and what you will hand down to your children."

The discomfort associated with change, she added, is the unknown aspect of things that are new and different.

But traditions don’t have to be rooted in history. Anyone can start a tradition at any time, Wolfson pointed out.

"I would welcome anything that opens up the seder as an interactive experience that has the family’s mark on it," he said.

He enhances his own seder in numerous ways. Steamed artichoke hearts for karpas (the green vegetable that serves as the appetizer) allow nibbling until the meal is served (there’s parsley for the traditionalists). A "Chad Gadya" competition engages anyone who wants to prove they can get through the long last verse in Aramaic or English without taking a breath.

Aliya Cheskes-Cotel, director of education for the New York Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, listed many customs she follows from her childhood: the kids hide the afikomen and the adults search for it; everyone sings two songs off-key, the way Grandpa Isaac did; each person saves a piece of the afikomen and puts it away in a drawer until next year’s seder, when it is eaten.

So it does, in this era where the new rubs shoulders with the old. Miriam’s Cups, puppet shows, magic tricks, updated plagues, kosher-for-Passover pasta and nouvelle cuisine notwithstanding, an element of the old persists. Zinfandels and Cabernets haven’t yet totally supplanted Malaga. Some things change, it’s true, but it’s also comforting to know that some things don’t.

So when I asked my 9-year-old daughter, Shoshana, what one thing she would want to make sure her seder included when she grows up, I wasn’t surprised that she answered me without hesitation.

"Halek," she said, licking her lips.

I’d better learn to use that hydraulic press.


Rahel Musleah, the author of “Why on This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration” (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Chametz 101


In the dark of night, guided only by a slight illumination, we search the house. Carefully, we stride from room to room, investigating corners, checking furniture, examining windowsills. Finally, the search is complete: ‘Tis the night before Pesach, and all the chametz (leavened food) has been swept away.

Swept away, yes, and set aside, but not fully eliminated. That happens the next morning, in the bright light of day. Traditionally, we search for chametz the night before seder, and we destroy it the following morning (this year, on Wed., March 27). The destruction is called bi’ur chametz — the burning of the leavened food — and actually involves setting a small fire and turning our last bits of bread into ashes.

Why the search-and-destroy mission? Why does the Jewish tradition promote such complete obliteration of leavened food products before Pesach? Chametz is forbidden not just for consumption during the holiday; we are taught not to eat it, not to own it and not even to have it in our possession for the days of Pesach. It’s got to be expelled and eliminated.

What’s so bad about chametz?

Over the generations, scholars and commentators have wondered about this, too. Maimonides, the classical Medieval philosopher, notes that leavened bread is not only prohibited on Pesach; it also was forbidden on the desert tabernacle altar and in the Jerusalem Temple. In ancient times, the surrounding non-Jewish cultures used leavened bread for their idolatrous practices — and so Jews should avoid it in their holiest places. The mystical text, the Zohar, actually compares any Jew who eats chametz on Pesach to an idol worshiper. In other words, chametz symbolizes lack of full faith in God.

Other thinkers understand chametz in more interpersonal ways. Talmudic rabbis suggest that chametz symbolizes arrogance and ego. "What prevents us from doing the moral thing? It is the ‘yeast in the dough,’" says one teacher. Just as yeast causes the bread to rise and be full, our inflated egos cause us to be haughty and self-important.

Why are we permitted to eat chametz at all? Or, at least, why don’t we eschew it during the High Holy Day season, when our entire focus is on cheshbon ha’nefesh (accounting of the soul)?

Perhaps the chametz means something else. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, a Russian 19th-century rabbi, suggests that leaven represents man’s intervention in God’s world; while matzah, in its simplicity, utilizes no more than the basic elements of flour and water. Chametz represents human technological ingenuity and creativity, allowing us to raise the dough beyond its simple state. This time of year, we focus on God’s unassisted deeds.

Pesach tells the tale of a people who (literally) walked, unscathed, from slavery to freedom — due completely to divine intervention. Just this one week a year, we give God all the credit. The exodus story is all about God’s miracles. So, we step away from our own powers and stand in awe of God, contemplating the ways that God intervened in the lives of our ancestors — and how God plays a role in our own lives as well.

So why not avoid bread all year? Shouldn’t we celebrate God’s "strong hand and outstretched arm" every day? Does not God’s spirit lead us from slavery to freedom each day in every generation?

It does, but for only one week a year should we remove ourselves from the equation. God has a role to play, but so do we. During Pesach, we give God all the credit but also contemplate our own intervention. God is not alone in making the world a better place for freedom, mitzvot and healing: We are God’s partners — we are the yeast in the dough.