Chametz—and pre-Pesach anxiety—smolder at Pico Bi’ur [VIDEO]


In the parking lot of B’nai David Judea, people of all ages from across the Los Angeles Jewish community gathered to burn their chametz. The Jewish Journal was there and captured video of this scene and others from a hectic Erev Pesach.

 

The video was shot and edited by Luke Terrell. Chag sameach!

How to Jew: Passover


BACKGROUND

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

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

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

TRADITIONS

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

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

SPECIAL FOODS

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

Sources: Chabad.org and MyJewishLearning.com

A family re-enacts the oppression that Israelite slaves felt as part of a Passover seder in 2014 in Encino. Photo by Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

10 easy ways to avoid a boring seder


If your Passover seder is anything like mine, it can resemble the world’s most difficult classroom: different ages, ranging from 3 to 93, and varying levels of interest. Some want to read and discuss every word in the haggadah, some just want to get to the food — and everything in between.

Designing a seder that can work for everyone can feel like a challenge for even the most seasoned educator, let alone a busy parent.

But there is magic in the seder. Having loved ones around a table together can feel like a luxury in this day and age, so here are some tips for making the most of the festive meal. I hope these ideas will inspire you to be creative in a way that feels authentic to your seder.

The seder’s purpose is to get people to ask questions, so the more you break the mold of the way you always have done it, the more likely you and your guests will be able to access the true meaning of the holiday. Here are 10 tips to perk up your seder this year.

1. Put out some food earlier. Food always is important at Jewish events and never more so than in the seder. It can feel like a long time until you get to dinner, but after karpas (the green vegetable that comes right at the beginning), you can serve appetizers. Veggies and dip or fruit are good healthy options, but my family also puts out candy, which keeps the kids busy for a little while. If you want to be thematic, there is fair-trade, slavery-free chocolate that is kosher for Passover.

2. Play with your food. Along the same theme, there are fun ways you can incorporate food into the heart of the seder. One friend of ours attaches the parsley to mini fishing rods and uses them to dip the parsley in the salt water. Another friend chops up lots of fruits and nuts (and even some chocolate) and allows the guests to make their own charoset, as long as it resembles the mortar. When it comes time to remember the plague of hail, I have heard of families throwing mini marshmallows at one another. Finally, there is a Persian custom of lightly (or not so lightly) slapping your neighbor with scallions during the song “Dayenu” as a reminder of slavery.

3. Use the table. Put something interesting on the table, either in the middle or at each individual plate. We have used different kinds of frogs, puppets and masks. Perhaps it will inspire a guest to ask a question about Passover, the story or the traditions of your family. At the very least it will entertain those at the table when they need a break.

4. Don’t be a slave to the haggadah. The haggadah is meant as a guide, and you don’t have to read every word to fulfill your obligation to tell the story. Get many haggadot and look for readings and retellings that speak to you and share those at the seder. Or get the kids to write a play about the Passover story and perform it. Or ask your guests to bring something that represents freedom and tell the story of why. As long as your guests are engaged in the story of slavery to freedom, you have done your job.

5. Move around. This is the story of a wandering people. If you have the space, then wander! Do one piece of the seder in the living room, one in the dining room, or even go outside if the weather is nice. Turn a few bed sheets into the sea and walk through it on your way to the Promised Land. Give your guests a chance to be in the story, not just talk about it.

6. Assign pre-seder homework. People always do better if they are prepared, so ask your guests to participate in the seder. Send a question in advance, ask them to bring something or even make decorations for the seder table. Guests, bring a reading or an object that speaks to you. I guarantee your host will appreciate not having to carry the weight of the entire evening.

7. Give everyone a job. Before the seder, make a list of everything that has to be done during the evening, from pouring the wine to serving the soup to clearing the table. Then, assign away. Your guests will be happy to help, and you will be happier if you come out of the seder not feeling enslaved.

8. Sing (or watch videos). There are tons of songs for kids and adults alike for Passover. Google around to find tunes that you like and teach them at your seder. Providing song sheets helps everyone sing along. And if singing is not your thing, a quick search on YouTube for Passover song parodies turns up videos that would be fun to watch before or during the seder.

9. Make something. When I was about 10 years old, I spent hours creating a chart that outlined the order of the seder. I made a small arrow that could be used to show where we were in the progression of the evening, and since then it has been used every year. My mother still brings out Elijah’s cups that my sisters and I made in Hebrew school, and my kids proudly show off their seder plates, Kiddush Cups and matzo covers. If your kids don’t make them in school, these are easy crafts to make at home.

10. Let loose. The point of the seder is to engage people in the questions, both ancient and contemporary, of slavery and freedom. The way you do that is up to you. Try to find a balance between preparing for the seder and obsessing about every detail. And if your kids run in circles screaming around the table while everyone else is trying to talk, as mine have done on more than one occasion, those are memories too. Don’t beat yourself up about it.


RABBI REBECCA ROSENTHAL is the director of youth and family education at Central Synagogue in New York City. Rosenthal and her husband live in the city with their three children.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Words to the whys at your seder


PARASHAT VAYIKRA (LEVITICUS 1:1-5:26)

This week, in many synagogues around the world, we begin to read a new book, Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus. Here we are taught: “No meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 2:11).

The two times the Torah forbids leaven (chametz) is in this verse referring to the altar and also on Passover. What is the link?

According to Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, in his “Ha’emek Davar,” leavened bread is the human attempt to add onto the natural state of creation. The closer we stand in our relationship with God, the less we need to manipulate nature. The altar was in the Beit HaMikdash — the dwelling place of God’s presence on Earth, a place of intense proximity. There is no need for our chametz intervention. Likewise, with Passover, we bind our souls to God as we eat the “Bread of Faith.” There is no need for extra tinkering.

As Vayikra, in ever a slight way, turns
our attention to Passover, let us jump in
with a few holiday-related gems to share at the seder.

Paying for Hope

Buying Chanukah candles and paying for the four cups of wine on Pesach are the only mitzvot that require a poor person to sell their clothes, if need be, in order to be carried out, according to Jewish law. Why only these two items?

Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner explained that at the root of this law is the notion that every poor person must know that even in the middle of their darkest hour and their darkest exile, God brings light. The promise of Chanukah and the hope of the four cups, both of which celebrate pirsumei nisah, the publicizing of the miracle, underscore the point that in the moment when things are most difficult in our lives, we are going to find that salvation.

In the Kiddush, we say that Shabbat is first among our holy days and is “a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.” What does this line mean?

The bodyguard of the Seer of Lublin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, shares his take: The amazing power of the Exodus is imbedded with the ability to help us transcend above levels that we couldn’t ordinarily attain. So the beginning of a great and triumphant renewal starts within the darkness — moments when we thought all hope was lost. Right at that moment, God says, “Hold out your hand, and I will help you move to places you never dreamed possible.”

A Holy Effort

Why does wine have its own distinct blessing? We don’t make a separate blessing on the meat or the chicken that’s brought out later. Rav Chaim Zeitchik says it’s not because of wine’s precious value. I’m sure that we could find a rare food that has a higher dollar amount, perhaps caviar.

You know what’s precious about it? Dvar mitzvah habaah mitoch yagiyah chashoov. Something that comes through work, a process, is more important, much more powerful. The blessing upon wine is special because it took work to get to it. You take grapes, you have to wait for fermentation, you have to press them out in order to bring it to your wine cup.

Something is much greater when you get it through effort. It is for this same reason why the beautiful stones the priests wore in the temple are mentioned last out of all of his clothing in the Torah. According to the tradition of the Talmud, these stones came to us via the clouds. In other words, they were a freebie. We didn’t work to get them and therefore they are less precious to us.

 A Roman Custom

At specifically placed times throughout the seder, we recline by leaning to the left. The Talmud mentions a pragmatic reason for this: so that we shouldn’t choke. The rabbinic tradition favored another reason, and that is that reclining is a symbol of our freedom.

Rabbi Norman Lamm asks a great question: Why did we adopt a symbol of freedom that was synonymous with the Romans, especially given that there are so many beautiful Jewish customs and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Look around. Our seder is incomplete. We are missing the korban Pesach, the Passover offering, which was the highlight of Passover in the ancient Temple. We are missing so much because the Romans laid waste to our divine abode. We went into exile because the Romans sent us into exile. And so, ironically, we recline to display a great remembrance, a zecher l’mikdash. We remember our Temple while those who ravaged it no longer are here. 

RABBI SHLOMO EINHORN is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015). He also holds the record for the longest continuous Torah class at 18 hours.

Children’s books offer new ways to enjoy the holiday


New Passover books for children include a variety of themes that previously have not been explored. There’s a picture book about a Jewish Argentine gaucho, a visit to Moses in a 3-D time machine, and an examination of what it would be like to hold a seder when a grandparent is ill.

Consider these as Passover gifts for some of the youngest participants at your seder this year:

“The Passover Cowboy” by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Gina Capaldi. Apples & Honey Press, 2017.

This Passover-themed story takes place in the early years of the 20th century in Argentina, where (we learn from the author’s note) 25,000 Russian Jews settled with the help of German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Young Jacob is learning how to ride horses like his new friend Benito, and even though Jacob has been in the country for less than a year, he is doing his best to become a typical Argentine gaucho. His mother even offers him a special Passover gift of bombachas — loose, wide pants for riding horses. When Benito arrives as a guest at the family’s seder, he brings Jacob another coveted gift — a lasso to signify that Jacob has been accepted in his new country. The watercolor illustrations are heavily researched and depict the period and the holiday celebration beautifully. 

“Passover Scavenger Hunt” by Shanna Silva. Illustrated by Miki Sakamoto. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017.

book-passover-scav-huntGreat Uncle Harry is terrible at hiding the afikomen. All the kids anticipate his usual hiding places, and so the search isn’t very fun. But young Rachel hatches a clever plan and offers him the option to let her hide the matzo this year. She then creates a family scavenger hunt containing a variety of rhyming clues. With each solved riddle, the other children get a part of a puzzle that, when pieced together, contains the biggest clue about where the afikomen is hidden. Information regarding the symbols on the seder plate is included within the clues, and even Uncle Harry is in on the merriment by the end. A fun game that could become a future family tradition.

“How It’s Made: Matzah” by Allison Ofanansky. Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern. Apples & Honey, 2017.

book-matzahLast year, we learned from this same author-photographer team how a Torah is made. Now, kids get to meet the people who make matzo (heralded as “the ultimate fast food”), either by hand or by machine, but always within 18 minutes. One of the matzah-makers states, “Making matzah teaches us to work together. It is not possible to make matzah alone.” These books are special because of their innovative graphic design, various Passover do-it-yourself projects and depictions of diversity throughout more than 100 engaging photos. Plus, there is a recipe for homemade matzo and, of course, a recommendation to “Watch the clock!”

“The Family (and Frog!) Haggadah” by Rabbi Ron Isaacs and Karen Rostoker-Gruber. Illustrations by Jackie Urbanovic. Behrman House, 2017.

book-frog-haggadahIf your haggadah is too dull for the kids at your seder table, consider this charming new offering that features the talkative Frog commenting on the traditional text. Large, engaging photos — often paired with interesting family discussion-starters — ensure that this year will be more fun for everyone. Frog is depicted as hopping from page to page as he spreads his froggie puns and wisecracks. Examples include finding a “piece of toadst” while searching for chametz, and penciling in (with green crayon, of course) a suggestion to include a “Frog’s cup” along with Elijah’s. But the strengths of this family-friendly haggadah are in the flow of its storytelling, its compelling content and design, and the inclusion of Hebrew transliterations. The content is mostly English, but main passages such as blessings, the Four Questions, the Ten Plagues and parts of songs are included in Hebrew.

“Meeting Moses” by Robert Chasin. Illustrated by Matt Roussel. Meeting Bible Heroes Publishing, 2017.

book-meeting-mosesThe Exodus story meets H.G. Wells in this tale of Max and his professor dad, who has invented a time-traveling machine. The standout 3-D illustrations will highly engage children. They remind the reader of a mix of Claymation and a video game, and seem to be partially painted and partially computer-generated. The story follows Max, who has inadvertently taken the time machine to ancient Egypt. By the Nile River, he meets young Moses and young Ramses with Pharaoh’s daughter and is taken to meet Pharaoh. Max is imprisoned, but then freed by Moses. The two travel through time together to Mount Sinai so Max can show Moses what his future will be. Exciting illustrations depict the burning bush, how the stone tablets could have been written, the golden calf, and Moses breaking the tablets. Max eventually gets back home to the present day by tricking Pharaoh and using the convenient “rewind” button to delete the experience from the memories of those he left behind. (It should be noted that the author used the term “Old Testament” to refer to the Hebrew Bible.) The book is available inexpensively in e-book format from the author’s website as well as in a hardcover version.

“A Different Kind of Passover” by Linda Leopold-Strauss. Illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017.

book-different-passA young girl practices the Four Questions in Hebrew and travels, as usual, to her grandparents’ house for the seder with her extended family. She loves the repetition of the yearly rituals, but this year her “heart hurts” because Grandpa was in the hospital recently and cannot leave his bed to lead the seder. She cleverly solves the problem of how Grandpa still can be included with the rest of the family and learns that when things change, they also can remain the same in many ways. The well-written and poignant tale provides us with a young person’s view of the meaning of joyful Passover family traditions.

New Haggadot bring fresh takes to the table


Jews sit around the seder table every Passover and use a book called the haggadah for guidance through the story of the Exodus. While some purists may prefer a traditional text, Jews are increasingly adding haggadot to their tables that reflect the Passover story through different lenses — from contemporary social justice activism and feminism to pop culture and humor.

Here are some of this year’s new haggadot and supplements.

“For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them” by Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach.

Anyone familiar with the pedigree of the authors likely would expect this small volume to include more irreverence and humor than education, and they would be correct. Barry has written humorous newspaper columns for more than 30 years; Zweibel wrote for “Saturday Night Live,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”; and Mansbach wrote the book “Go the F— to Sleep” and the screenplay for “Barry.” They draw on their collective and diverse humor experience to retell the Passover story. The narrative, thematically based on the order of the seder, includes a surprising number of “Godfather” references, including the burning issue of which of the Four Questions was asked — and why — by each and of Vito Corleone’s four children, Sonny, Fredo, Michael and Connie.

“The (Unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah” by Moshe Rosenberg.

pass-hag-hogwartsThe rabbi, educator and author of “Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter” takes the Passover story out for a wizardly whirl, comparing the Boy Who Lived to the original iconoclast, Abraham. This haggadah also points out contrasts between what it means to be Voldemort’s “most faithful servant” and what it means to be a servant of God in Jewish texts, and parallels between the Exodus narrative and Harry’s emergence from the Muggle world (where he was forced to live in a room under the stairs) into a world of wizardry and freedom.

“From Ancient Egypt to Modern Israel: The 3,000-Year Journey of the Jewish People” by StandWithUs (over3000years.org).

pass-hag-3000This haggadah “not only teaches about the suffering during slavery and miraculous exodus from Egypt, it also celebrates the 3,000-year-old connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel,” StandWithUs co-founder Jerry Rothstein told the Journal, pointing to “original artwork, traditional text in Hebrew and English, and stirring quotes, all meant to inspire people of all ages about the Jewish connection to our ancestral homeland, Israel.” The center pages are full-color depictions of Israel as a place for Jews who “barely survived, but never lost hope.” It charts the journey from modern Israel’s emergence after the Holocaust and the 1948 War of Independence through the intifadas, culminating in Israel’s modern identity as “Startup Nation.” It also includes readings from a variety of sources, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Shimon Peres and Mark Twain.

“AJWS Global Justice Haggadah: Next Year in a Just Worldby the American Jewish World Service (ajws.org/haggadah).

pass-hag-world (1)American Jewish World Service (AJWS) this year focuses its haggadah on connecting the traditional story of Passover, with its narrative arc of slavery, to freedom and the social activism responsibility of contemporary American Jews. For example, the four cups of wine are meant to symbolize a four-part framework for social justice activism: awakening, solidarity, action and freedom. The collection of sources contains original readings, discussion questions and quotes from leading Jewish public figures, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and actor Mandy Patinkin.

“The Four People” by Repair the World and the Jewish Multiracial Network (werepair.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Four-People.pdf).

pas-fourpeopleThis Passover supplement is meant to spur challenging and meaningful conversations on racial justice. In presenting four people, all on their own racial justice journeys, questions reflect multiple perspectives, various backgrounds, different races and different ages. Through the lens of “What would a questioner/newcomer/Jew of color/avoider say?” the supplement tackles some of today’s activism challenges, examining how people can move toward equality if the tactics and strategies used by racial justice movements make them uncomfortable, how newcomers engage with marginalized communities, and how to overcome fear and start conversations about race.

 HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) Haggadah supplement (hias.org/sites/default/files/hias_2017_haggadah_supplement.pdf)

pass-hag-suppIn light of the debate over President Donald Trump’s executive orders banning refugees, the HIAS supplement focuses on the international refugee experience, relating it to the story of Jews fleeing slavery and searching for safety. Through readings, activities and a guide to aid people in refugee advocacy, it incorporates stories from some of the thousands of refugees HIAS has helped resettle across the United States, and encourages seder participants to identify their own opinions and to work toward creating a group narrative.

Do It Yourself: Haggadot.com

pass-hag-diyThose who prefer their own mix of readings and activities on various themes can cull custom content for personalized haggadot on Haggadot.com. Site founder Eileen Levinson said that this year marks a considerable rise in feminist, activist and political content on the site, where users can create, upload and share their content with others. Some recently uploaded examples of this year’s content include the Beyonceder, a mashup of Beyoncé lyrics and Passover images; updates to the “Women’s Seder Haggadah,” including text and images about and from the Women’s Marches in January; and the creation of the Baltimore Social Justice Seder, focusing on criminal justice reforms and racial bias in incarceration.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

How to host your first seder


Hosting a dinner party can be stressful enough. Hosting a seder for the first time can seem positively overwhelming. There are so many moving parts. We spoke to four veteran hosts who have hosted more than 100 Passover seder dinners between them. Here is some of their advice.

Start Early

“There is a lot of detail with this holiday,” said Liat Miller, 37, of Sherman Oaks. Miller, who identifies as a liberal Conservative Jew, always starts by making a guest list, which dictates whether she needs to rent tables and chairs.

Especially if you’re doing kosher, Miller said, “going to the butcher the week before is a nightmare.” Miller suggests purchasing the meat in advance and freezing it. She generally cooks a brisket two days before the meal. She lets it cool, slices it and pops it in the fridge. “Then you just heat it before you serve it.”

Sandy Croll, 75, of Beverly Hills, whose family worships at Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, said lamb shanks for the seder plate can be hard to come by and often sell out. Make advance arrangements. “There’s no formula [for Passover],” she offered, “except, ‘Be prepared.’ ”

Choose a Haggadah and a Leader

There are so many haggadah options. Find one that resonates with you and is appropriate for your audience. Beverly Hills resident Leanore Saltz, 88, who has long been active in the local secular Jewish community, has a collection of secular haggadot she has acquired over the years, including one from the Sholem Community and another from the Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center, both Los Angeles-based organizations. She likes that they talk about Passover “in an historical sense” as well as “our obligations today as Jews.”

Miller suggests a simple haggadah for first-timers. She and her husband considered the “30 Minute Seder” available on Amazon. Instead, she simply customized one she already had by highlighting portions she found most meaningful. “I can’t get 20 kids to listen for two hours,” she said. “You have to be realistic.”

Make sure you have enough haggadot. Croll recommends one for every other person so people can share easily, if not one for every guest. “It keeps people on track and keeps people involved,” she said.

And even if you envision a very participatory seder, with people taking turns reading or reading together, designate a leader, in advance.

Also, consider reading through the haggadah several days before the holiday to get a better sense of timing and to make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips. For example, Croll said, traditionally at a seder, the leader of the service washes her hands ceremonially. So she sets an attractive bowl and pitcher of water at the table expressly for this purpose.

Don’t Go It Alone

The first seder Evelyn Drapkin, 46, hosted nearly a dozen years ago at her home in Los Feliz might easily have been her last. A member of Temple Beth Hillel, she tried to do everything on her own. “It was really hard,” she said. “Dinner wasn’t on time. It wasn’t as peaceful. … I was like, ‘I’m never doing it again.’ ”

Instead, the following year she asked her guests to bring the side dishes. That has remained her system. Those who don’t cook, she asks to bring wine.

And there’s no rule that says everything has to be homemade. One year, Saltz’s husband made gefilte fish from scratch. “It was so timeconsuming,” she said. Now she buys Manischewitz gefilte fish. To give it additional flavor, she cooks it with sautéed onions and carrots as well as white wine and seasonings. And though she’s never done it herself, she points out that there are plenty of businesses such as Got Kosher? on Pico Boulevard where you can pick up an entire Passover dinner (orders must be placed by April 3).

Consider doing individual seder plates for each guest with the bitter herbs, charoset, vegetable (often parsley) and salt water. This way, Croll said, people aren’t reaching across the table and spilling wine and grape juice and dripping salt water everywhere. “I use little plastic throwaways,” she said.

And make certain you have plenty of matzo.

Consider reading through the Haggadah several days before the holiday to get a better sense of timing and to make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips.

Have Fun

Passover, Saltz said, is a happy holiday. So singing is a big part of their evening. Most haggadot feature several songs. But you don’t need to limit yourself to those. Saltz and her family sing Yiddish songs as well as the Israeli folk song “Zum Gali Gali.”

Croll makes sure every guest has a packet that includes song lyrics to all the tunes they sing, including “Let My People Go” and “The Ballad of the Four Sons,” which is sung to the tune of “Clementine” (Said the father to the children/ At the seder you will dine/ You will eat your fill of matzo/ You will drink four cups of wine). This way, newcomers, or those who may not remember the words from one year to the next, can sing along.

In keeping with the tradition she grew up with in Israel, Miller usually gets something new to wear that evening. So do her husband and kids. “It’s spring, a new beginning,” she said.

Remember the Kids

It’s the rare child who will sit quietly and contentedly through a long seder. Croll always sets up a special kids activity table with Passover-themed coloring pages and puzzles.

One year, leading up to the seder, Miller asked one of her guests who is especially good with kids to come up with something to keep the younger guests busy while the main course was being plated. Miller’s friend created a scavenger hunt based on the Israelites. It was a huge hit. Miller also sometimes puts on an animated movie about the Exodus when the kids’ attention starts to fade. “At least it’s in the spirit of the holiday,” she said.

And don’t forget to get prizes for the kids if you plan to hide the afikomen. Also, children can and should help with the preparations. Drapkin shows her two school-age daughters a place setting once the tables and linens are set up, then she has them replicate that.

Know Your Audience

While the desire to include everyone in the festivities is understandable, remember that not every guest is necessarily eager to lead off the group in song or read a passage featuring unfamiliar words. Especially for a child who isn’t a confident reader, “that might be really embarrassing,” Croll said. “I think if there were any doubt, I would check with the parents before.”

Make It Your Own

If there is something you want to do at your seder or put on your seder table, go for it. For the hosts we spoke with, often it is the original aspects, the parts you won’t find in any haggadah, that are most meaningful. For example, several years ago, Croll’s husband introduced a group reading of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at their seder. This has remained a fixture of the gathering.

The Drapkins light multiple yahrzeit candles for loved ones they have lost, including Evelyn’s mom, as well as the Jews who died in the Holocaust, and victims of 9/11. They also invite their guests to light candles for anyone they have lost. It’s a tradition Drapkin picked up from her mother-in-law.

Saltz intends to add an orange to her seder table this year. This was something she learned at a seder hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women, a group she is active in. “The orange symbolizes fertility and that the women did all these things back in the ancient days but were never given credit for it,” she said. “So you put one orange on the table. That orange represents Miriam. She danced and sang. She brought life to the table.”

Consider Hiring Help

“I personally think Passover is the most difficult meal,” Saltz said. “You’re making so many different courses.” She said she uses more dishes than at any other holiday. But she doesn’t find it stressful, in part because it’s very much a group effort at her home, with her husband making his famous double chicken soup a week in advance. Saltz makes the hard matzo balls her family favors the day of, and her adult daughters contribute kugel, vegetable sides and desserts.

“I just find someone to do the dishes,” she said.

That’s an investment Miller wholeheartedly supports. “If you can afford help, you should get help. Give yourself the break of the whole night off.”

Hillary Clinton: Fighting oppression, inequality and injustice on Passover


I didn’t grow up celebrating Pesach.  But over the years, I’ve attended seders where I was inspired by the remarkable story told in the haggadah — a tale of a people who, sustained by fortitude and faith, escaped slavery and reached their freedom. 

As Jewish people around the world prepare for this festival, I wanted to offer a few of my own thoughts on ancient lessons that still hold wisdom for today’s world. 

The first is the importance of religious freedom.  The Book of Exodus recalls how the Pharaoh denied the Israelites the right to worship as they chose.  Today, there are new threats to religious liberty and an alarming rise in anti-Semitism.  In many parts of Europe, we’ve seen synagogues vandalized and gravesites desecrated.  International efforts to malign and isolate the Jewish people – like the alarming “BDS” movement – are gaining steam.

We must confront these forces of intolerance.  As New York’s Senator, I sponsored laws to support restitution for victims of the Holocaust.  And I joined with the Helsinki Commission to help protect and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.  As Secretary of State, I stood up for oppressed religious minorities in China, Iran and around the world.  If I’m fortunate enough to be elected President, I would ensure that America continues to call out and stand up to anti-Semitism.  And just as Jews have always stood up for other communities, we must push back on the rising trend of anti-religious sentiment in any form.

The second lesson is the importance of caring for one another.  After a hasty departure from Egypt, as the Israelites wandered for forty long years in the Sinai, they developed a covenant with G-d and each other, so that no one in future generations would be left out or left behind. 

I believe that same sort of social contract exists in America.  We must fight any effort to weaken or privatize Medicare and Social Security, and we must finally expand benefits for widows.  We must improve housing for low-income families; at their best, public and affordable housing gives families a chance to get back on their feet, afford other essentials, and give their kids a safe and healthy place to grow up.  We should provide $25 billion to build more affordable housing, and up to $10,000 in down payment assistance for families looking to buy their first home.

The third and most important lesson of the Book of Exodus comes at the end.  So that they would never again be subjugated, the Jewish people are set to arrive to their own homeland. I’ve proudly stood with the State of Israel for my entire career, making sure it always has the resources it needs to maintain its qualitative military edge.  I also worked to ensure funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system and saw its effectiveness first-hand when I worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu to negotiate a cease-fire in Gaza.  Since its installation, this technology has saved countless lives. 

Protecting allies and partners like Israel is one of the most solemn duties of any Commander-in-Chief.  Yet others in this race suggest we must remain “neutral” in order to negotiate.  But Israel’s safety is simply non-negotiable.  And it would be a grave mistake for the United States to cede the mantle of leadership in the peace process to anyone else.  For the security of Israel and the world, we need America to remain a respected global leader, and be ready and able to block any international effort to isolate or attack Israel.

There’s one final lesson in the story of the Exodus: the reminder to keep telling its story. To connect the past with the present, participants in every seder are taught to imagine that they themselves were still enslaved in Egypt.

In today’s world, many don’t have to imagine.  Every year, more than 20 million people are trafficked or sold into slavery by modern-day despots and Pharaohs.  In my travels as Secretary of State, I met many who have escaped the contemporary forms of enslavement that continue to plague our planet.  And I believe that our shared traditions – Jewish and American – give us a moral obligation to bring help and hope to those in need.

At a trafficking shelter in Kolkata, India, I met remarkable women and girls who had suffered horrible abuses and were getting their lives back on track.  I’ll never forget meeting one young girl who was born into slavery in a brothel, but managed to escape with her mother.  It would never be easy, but with the help of others, they were finally out of harm’s way and able to reach for their G-d-given potential.

This Pesach, let’s continue fighting all forms of oppression, inequality and injustice.  Let’s take a page from Moses and Aaron, and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.  And let’s never forget to keep drawing attention to the plight of millions of people still in need of their own form of deliverance.

They are out there, waiting for us.


Hillary Clinton is the former U.S. secretary of state and senator from New York and a Democratic candidate for president.

My Passover lesson: Don’t wait for God


The Jewish people didn’t bring down the Ten Plagues on Pharaoh, nor did they split the Red Sea, which enabled them to escape Pharaoh’s soldiers some 3,300 years ago. These were God’s miracles, which we all celebrate during Passover.

This year, I found those miracles a little unsettling.

I wondered: How did European Jews relate during the Holocaust to these divine miracles? How do persecuted Jews of any era relate to God’s biblical miracles? Do they expect God will come to rescue them as He rescued our ancestors at Sinai? How do they explain it when He doesn’t?

It’s easy to celebrate and idealize miracles when we don’t need them, when we don’t feel persecuted. But what about when our lives are threatened?

With the growing threat to Israel posed today by terrorist regimes, this reflection on divine miracles seems especially pertinent. When a country like Iran, for example, talks about destroying Israel, who should Jews look to for protection — God or ourselves? How does our faith in God come into play when we have to deal with violent, anti-Semitic enemies?

Jews have been having this “God versus man” argument for millennia — even over the rebirth of Israel. Many religious Jews felt we should wait for God to take us home to Zion. The creation of the State of Israel, they argued, was a messianic act that was above the pay grade of mere humans.

But mere humans like Theodor Herzl decided they couldn’t wait for God to protect their fellow Jews. They had to create a Jewish homeland. By the time that homeland finally came into being and was immediately attacked by surrounding armies, the die was already cast — Jews would no longer wait for divine miracles to save them.

It’s easy to celebrate and idealize miracles when we don’t need them, when we don’t feel persecuted. But what about when our lives are threatened?

At our first seder this year, we read a beautiful meditation from my friend Rabbi Andy Bachman, a progressive spiritual leader and activist who lives in Brooklyn. Bachman took the seder theme of  “four” — four questions, four sons and four cups — and extended it to the “four legs” of being Jewish. 

Jews, he writes, are a family, a faith, a people/nation and an idea.

In the section on faith, Bachman writes: “We believe in the God of Argument. We believe in the God of Questions. We believe in the God of Doubt.” Our biblical heroes, he says, challenged God. At Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham demands of God: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not rule with justice?”

And when Moses is asked to go free his brothers and sisters from slavery, he says, defiantly: “And who exactly shall I tell them sent me?”

The sobering implication of Moses’ question is that “the very condition of the suffering and slavery may be an expression of God’s perceived powerlessness in the face of radical evil.”

It is this perceived powerlessness that we so easily ignore at our seder tables — and who can blame us? God’s miracles in the Passover story are so colorful and dramatic that they inevitably come to dominate our master story. Part of me loves that. It’s comforting to feel that when our backs are against the wall, an almighty Creator will save the day.

But it is the perceived “powerlessness” of God in the face of radical evil that leaves me perplexed, as when God sat silently while 6 million Jews were being murdered in the Holocaust.

Is it possible that that silence shocked the Jews into taking their destiny into their own hands? I wonder what these “new Jews” of Israel were thinking at their seder tables in 1947 and 1948, when they had to fight off invading armies to protect their new home. How did they interpret the Passover miracles?

And when they successfully fought off their enemies, whose miracle was it? Was it God’s or was it theirs?

One of the lessons of Israel in the unfolding Jewish story could well be to teach us to create our own miracles — to have as much faith in our own power as we do in God’s. The ending of the haggadah —“next year in Jerusalem”— is misleading. It implies that we’re still waiting for our Creator to take us home. That’s no longer the case. Jews have made it back to Jerusalem, and they did it very much by themselves.

It’s not an insult to God to use our God-given talents to create our own miracles right here on Earth. It's a way of honoring Him. In fact, should it not give God a little nachas to see His children become so independent? Does He not also have faith in us?

Perhaps the greatest Jewish miracle, even greater than the splitting of the Red Sea or the rebirth of Israel, is the fact that 3,300 years after our liberation from slavery, we’re still sitting around seder tables in Los Angeles, Paris and Montreal, telling the same stories, reading from the same ancient texts and arguing with God.


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

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.”

How the wicked son became wise: a Passover parable


I’ve spent too many Passovers to count preoccupied with the two choices: the wise son or the wicked son. Was I wise, or was I wicked — hacham or rasha? Wanting desperately to be the wise son, in my heart, in my kishkes, I always knew that I was more wicked than wise. 

After all, wise sons don’t spit on pretty ladies. 

I liked Melinda, thought she was pretty, so that’s why I treated her so poorly that one year when my older cousin, Michael, brought her to the seder at my great-aunt Magda’s house. Melinda had a great smile, an excellent pair of legs and straight, shiny, shoulder-length black hair, like the kind from a Pantene Pro-V commercial. She wore black heels and a black dress the night that I met her. 

Back then, the family always spent one night of Passover at the home of my great-aunt Magda and her husband, my great-uncle Emil, both of whom are dead now. 

Emil was Magda’s second husband — her first husband had died around the same time that Emil’s wife had, and even though Emil and Magda were first cousins, Magda relocated from the East Coast to the West Coast, where Emil was living, and in 1967 they married. It wasn’t weird back then, apparently. They both had their own sets of children, and they never had any children together. 

During seders, Magda took care of the cooking, and Emil led the service, doing a full seder, much of it in Hebrew, singing through all of the songs at the end of the haggadah. It was slow and tedious — and I just wanted to look for the afikomen, already. 

Emil was a member of Beth Jacob Congregation. Much to the delight of the family, he also became an accidental rap star. His connections to the Pico-Robertson community led to his participation in the Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List.” The beginning of the film takes place in the present, featuring a man reciting a blessing. I don’t know who the actor was, but the voice belonged to Emil. And Wu Tang Clan, the rap group, sampled that “Schindler’s List” audio clip in a song about the Holocaust called “Never Again.” 

Wu Tang Clan did not pay Emil anything — Emil never even knew that his voice had been sampled until Brandon Tobman, a student at my high school who was in my sister Hara’s class, told Hara that she had to check out this song he was listening to because it was about the Holocaust. 

Hara immediately recognized Emil’s voice. 

Emil died in 2005. I was on summer break following my freshman year of college, traveling around Rome with a buddy with whom I’d just done Birthright Israel. I checked into a hostel and sat down at a computer to open my email. A message about Emil’s death was in my inbox. He was only the second husband of Magda, my grandmother’s sister, but I was close to my grandmother  — an Auschwitz survivor who lived in a small, Beverly Hills-adjacent apartment. So, from that standpoint, Emil was important to me. 

But I didn’t do anything, didn’t return home for the funeral, an Orthodox burial that took place immediately following his passing. Instead, my friend and I went to see a U2 concert at a Rome soccer stadium. 

That wasn’t nice. My favorite Passover memories took place in the home of Emil and Magda, and, after they were both gone, Passover was never the same again. There would be seders at other relatives’ homes, but none had the magic touch of theirs. It was a right place/right time kind of thing — a moment — when I was young enough to still be cute and my sister was young enough to not care so much about only her friends and the unrequited love of one of her classmates; when our cousins, who were the same age as Hara and me and lived in Las Vegas, were friends with my sister and me; when my parents were still happily married, as far as I knew; when everybody still liked each other. 

And it helped that the family — i.e., my father — respected Emil. He was a serious, successful person, worked in the bookbinding business and was actively involved in the Pico-Robertson community, while Magda, who was strong, friendly and lovely, did not speak ill of people or show any cynicism. She was different than her hermetic sister, my grandmother, who survived the Holocaust only to lose her husband in a car accident years later. After that, my grandmother seldom left home: The world had had its way with her, and she struck back at it by not participating. 

My sister and I would tag along when my father visited my grandmother. My mother seldom, if ever, came along, and Hara and I would join the two — my father and grandmother — on the sofa. We would try to have conversations with my grandmother, who spoke Hungarian and broken English, my father speaking loudly and in Hungarian to help her understand what we were saying. She loved watching CNN and had only awful words, even at the time of her death, which occurred several years ago, to say about Barack Obama. Her views affected — or infected — my father’s. In fact, everyone in my family hates Obama. My dad’s sister thinks Sheldon Adelson is a hero. I miss Emil and Magda.

That night I met Melinda, she was seated on the sofa in Magda and Emil’s apartment, a luxurious condominium on Roxbury Drive that was walking distance from the Museum of Tolerance.

I stood before Melinda, behaving like a fool, too young to understand that I was attracted to Melinda — I was 10, maybe — and rather than just keeping quiet and letting my cute looks charm her (like I said, I was very cute), I acted insane around her: dancing, pinching, jumping and yelling, a foreshadowing, I suppose, of how women would make me act for years to come. 

She was unsure how to react to the antics of this crazy boy performing for her — but she was acting like a good sport, smiling, if confused, and then I did it: I spit on her dress. 

I don’t know what compelled me to do it. To this day, my family reminds me of it, and borrowing from the famous Holocaust motto — as well as the name of that Wu Tang Clan song — all I can say is … “Never again.”

Redemption: The good, the bad and the ugly


It should have been that our ancestors’ redemption from slavery meant they were finally free. That was what they had cried out for, after all: freedom from their enslavement. 

Nothing else bad should have happened. They had suffered for years, but finally, God liberated them with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, leading the way through the Sea of Reeds to the base of Mount Sinai. It should have been a straight shot to the Promised Land. No more grieving — only celebrating.

Yet, this is not our story. Our ancestors were pursued out of Egypt and trembled at the sea until it parted. They were terrified of not having water to drink, food to eat, protection from their enemies and safety for their families. They feared for their lives as God prepared to give them the Torah. Life after liberation was complicated and messy. They were freed but did not know what it meant to be free.

And still we critique them for being stiff-necked and stubborn, for their lack of faith and childlike tantrums: “You brought us out of Egypt only to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst!” they scream. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?”

How dramatic, we might say, but that’s how they felt. After years of embittered slavery, here, in a space of freedom, they felt ready to die. Miraculous food could not mitigate their fears. God said, “I am with you,” but they felt alone and vulnerable. Life post-liberation had begun and they could not accept it. They fought against it. “All we have is this manna to eat!”

When retelling our Passover story, we tend to skip over this part — the part where liberation is sometimes hard and lackluster, and freedom is short-lived. We like to focus on the moment of redemption and not the life that follows. We do not mention the return of routine, the ordinary that follows the extraordinary. We do not talk about the disappointment, depression or tragedy that can strike so soon after joy. We somehow justify the injustice of additional pain for a people who already suffered through slavery. 

It should have been that our ancestors’ redemption from slavery meant they were finally free, but life does not always end on a high note. It is a masterpiece that ebbs and flows, reaching and falling. Our ancestors were liberated from Egypt but trapped at the sea. They were redeemed from the water but ensnared by the barren desert. God freed them from hunger and thirst, but they were dominated by their fears. They escaped the Egyptians but were attacked by Amalek. Each moment was a true moment of liberation, worthy of gratitude and celebration, but none finished the story.

So it is with us. A man declared free of cancer still carries the anxiety that his next check-up will reveal its return. A woman who finds love after heartbreak is grateful, but terrified that she may break again. Parents who live through the death of a child may find joy with the birth of a sibling; yet, every day may continue to remind them of what they lost. The day after redemption, we become aware of all the ways we still need to be redeemed. 

The story of the Exodus is the story of our lives, and the honesty of the text reveals the strength and comfort there is to draw from our master story. We were liberated from narrow spaces, but we were not promised a journey free from complication. We were released from a moment of suffering, but our liberation did not exempt us from future pain. Perhaps there can be some comfort in naming that truth: Our moments of liberation are meaningful but, like our ancestors, they are fleeting. To the best of our ability, if we can celebrate them, we should. Loudly, and with timbrels. Because they will not last forever.

We might also try to remember that the only consistency of wandering was God’s presence. Harold Kushner, in his book “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” writes, “God’s promise was never that life would be fair, that if you were a good person, illness and injury would spare you and would happen only to people who deserved it. … God’s promise was that when we had to face the pain and unfairness of a world as we inevitably would, we would not have to face it alone, for God would be with us.” 

The same can be said of redemption: God never promised that we would be free from suffering after slavery, only that the possibility of freedom existed and that we would not have to wander alone. 

This year, as we gather to retell the story of our ancestors’ complicated and sometimes messy Exodus from Egypt, we will also remember that every generation must, and often does, see itself as having come forth from Egypt. The communal and individual extraordinary redemptive moments of our lives are followed often by the ordinary nature of our existence. 

And so we wonder: What will life look like after liberation? Where might each of us gather strength to continue the journey? What will it mean to experience the presence of God beside us, for all of life, now and tomorrow?


Rabbi Dara Frimmer is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah. You can follow her on Twitter @rabbidara.

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 in Baghdad


Spring was always a welcome guest. The winter was wet and muddy and the nights were bitterly cold. The streets in Baghdad’s old quarter (Taht el Takia) where I was born in December 1930 were narrow, twisted and unpaved. Sanitary conditions were poor or nonexistent. There was no sewer system, and central heating was unknown. Drinking water and electricity were intermittently cut off. When the weather warmed up in March and April and the smell of orange blossoms filled the air, I knew Passover was coming.

Of all the holidays, Passover was the one I waited for impatiently. I usually got a new pair of trousers and a white shirt, a new pair of shoes, socks and underwear. I was happy as a lark and looked like a monkey. The trousers were too long, the shirt was too big, and my feet were swimming in my shoes. To prepare for Passover, my mother baked matzah at home. The helpers had to scrub, clean and wash the drapes, sheets and everything else. All pots and pans had to be dipped in boiling water. On the first night of Passover, the table was set lavishly with fine china, fancy cutlery and individual wine cups on an elegant tablecloth. I dressed up in my new clothes.

To start the seder, Dad blessed the wine and blessed us. We all kissed his hand. We gathered around to read the haggadah, the story of the Israelites’ exile that took place some 3,500 years ago.  We read and sang in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand, and translated into Arabic. We read about the Ten Plagues and the parting of the sea, and always wished to spend next year in Jerusalem. I was the seventh of eight children and had a beautiful voice — at least I thought so. I always sang with zest and patiently waited for the charoset, made of date juice and crushed walnuts, and eaten with romaine lettuce and matzah. After that, we had a festive dinner followed by a variety of sweets. Passover was the most joyous time of the year. 

Passover 1941 was different. I was 11 years old. We had moved to a bigger house near the Tigris River a year earlier. My father and my older brothers were sort of looking sad. On April 3, a pro-Nazi coup overthrew the government. King Faisal II and the regent escaped. Rashid Ali al-Gailani became the prime minister. General anxiety overcame the Jewish community. Some Jews were singled out, picked up, tortured and imprisoned. Passover fell on April 12. Our seder was cheerless and gloomy. I was frightened and scared. 

On May 31, British troops arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad. Al-Gailani and his accomplice, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and their clique fled the country. On June 1, crowds aided by police soldiers and slum dwellers stopped the minibuses, singled out the Jewish passengers, robbed them, killed the men, raped the women then slit their throats, and threw the babies in the Tigris River. We locked and bolted our doors and prayed. We were safe.

On June 2, British troops, aided by two brigades loyal to the king, entered Baghdad and stopped the rampage. The official government count showed that 180 Jews were murdered and 240 wounded. Hundreds of homes were looted and businesses burnt. There wasn’t any act of resistance or fighting back. The disaster would have been greater if it were not for the acts of kindness and heroism by some Muslims who protected and sheltered their Jewish friends. 

Life went back to normal, or so it seemed, but future Passovers never were the same. The farhud (looting and killing) of 1941 proved there was no guarantee for the future and safety of the Jews. I, too, felt there was no future for me in Iraq. I studied hard and dreamt of going to America after finishing high school.

Passover of 1948 fell on April 24. It came like a thick black cloud over dark skies. The United Nations had voted on Nov. 29, 1947, for the partitioning of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. While the Jews accepted, the Arab countries rejected the decision. All newspapers and radio stations were calling for the destruction of the Zionist entity and the liberation of Palestine. Zionism was declared treason. On May 15, 1948, the Iraqi army, together with the armies of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, went into battle against the newly created State of Israel. While we were celebrating in our hearts the establishment of the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, we were terrified and uncertain whether Israel would survive the assault. 

Israel survived.

After the Iraqi army failed to eliminate Israel, the Iraqi government turned against its Jewish citizens, especially the youth. Many were picked up, accused of Zionism, tortured and imprisoned. This harassment culminated with the indictment and public execution of a prominent Jewish merchant, Shafiq Adas. When I saw the picture of his body hanging, on the front page of the newspaper, I was frantic and hysterical. 

I kept a low profile. It took me more than a year to get my student visa to the United States, but I could not get an exit visa to leave Iraq. Things were getting worse, with more arrests and disappearances. It was time for me to get out. In December 1949, I traveled with my younger brother, Nory, to the port city of Basra, and from there I was smuggled out to Iran. The Iranian government, headed by Prime Minister Muhammad Said Maragai, was gracious to let me and thousands of Iraqi-Jewish refugees pass through to Israel. On March 2, 1950, one day before the festival of Purim, I kissed the ground when I landed in Tel Aviv.

I left my home in Baghdad; I left my culture and history of 2,500 years; I left behind my faithful friends, among them Muslims and Christians; I left behind memories of fun and fear, of hope and despair, and I left behind my past and future dreams, never wanting to look back. I was certain of one thing — that I was lucky to be out and alive from that unpredictable heaven and hell. 

I became a homeless and penniless refugee, among the hundreds of thousands of other Jews who arrived in Israel from Arab lands. The only thing I had was my youth, my love of life and the determination to succeed. To allow the nightmares of the past to enslave my future would have made me a victim. On April 1, 1950, I truly celebrated Passover as a free man in Jerusalem.


Joseph Samuels was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in December 1930 and fled for Israel in December 1949. He served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. Samuels has been living in Santa Monica for the past 36 years with his wife, Ruby, and his family. He is a retired real estate developer and currently serves on the board of JIMENA Los Angeles.

Believing is Seeing (Exodus 33:12-34:26)


The reading for Shabbat Chol HaMoed, the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Pesach (and Sukkot), describes one of the more exciting moments in Torah: the closest encounter any human has with God.

Following the sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ advocacy for the people, he makes a personal request. He asks to see God. This is somewhat surprising, as we have just been told that God, in the form of a cloud, regularly meets with Moses “face to face” in the Tent of Meeting.  But this is apparently not enough, or not the real deal. Moses ups the ante and requests to see God’s kavod, a term usually translated as “honor,” but in this context, clearly refers to God’s physical being. 

Impossible, retorts God, “Humans may not see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20).  This lesson is learned later by Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, after they bring an unauthorized sacrifice in the Tent of Meeting. Explaining their resulting death, God says, “Through those close to me, I am sanctified” (Leviticus 10:3), intimating that those who get too close to the Holy One are no longer for this world.  

But the danger does not deter Moses. It is easy to understand why. This is the apogee of the spiritual quest: to be close with the Source of all.

Contrast this with the great distance between the Israelites and God during the Golden Calf episode.  God is absent; the relationship with the people is broken by their sin. Afterward, the relationship is renewed but reflects the distance.  The stern, punishing Judge exacts a terrible price for idolatry and disobedience (Exodus 32:35).

In this context, Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai is especially instructive. God agrees to Moses’ request, and after Moses climbs the mountain, God places him in the cleft of the rock. There he is protected from direct contact with God’s “face” or front as God passes by, but Moses is able to see God’s “acher,” apparently God’s back (there are numerous interpretations).

That is as close as any human can be to God’s direct, unmediated presence. The message is clear. There are limits to the encounter with God. There are limits to our understanding. The “face” of God remains a mystery.  

Still, not all is mystery. God communicates with humans. The revelation on Sinai shows that God’s ways can be known.  

The gap between two humans in a relationship can be measured by physical proximity, and it can also be measured by the emotions and behaviors in a relationship — expanded by hatred and jealousy, or closed through love and respect.  

So, too, in the relationship with God. In the next chapter, the question of how to maintain the proper distance with God is fleshed out in non-physical terms: Eschew other gods, forsake idols, bring first fruits, appear before God three times a year (a reference to later times when Israelites went up to Jerusalem on the pilgrimage festivals) and, during Passover, refrain from leavened foods (Exodus 34:10-26).  

Perhaps this is why we read of Moses’ encounter with God on the Shabbat of Pesach. Chametz, the yeast, the defining characteristic of that which we are forbidden to eat on Passover, puffs up the dough. It is likened in our sources to an unhealthy, infatuated-with-oneself ego, the urge that leads people to overreach, even if reaching for the holy.  

Chametz also symbolizes human creativity. While God is responsible for wheat, we humans make bread. We are so successful in manipulating our world, we might think that humans can truly be independent and in control. But once a year (and every Shabbat) we accept God’s limits on our industry, reminding ourselves that we can easily forget God’s role and become obsessed with our part of the creative process and the illusion of our power.  

The proper relationship with God — close but not too close — is the fruit of what the Torah later calls Moses’ greatest virtue: humility.  

On the mountain, when Moses is near, yet far enough away to be protected in the cleft of the rock, God proclaims what we humans can know: God’s attributes and God’s ways, “… compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity … (Exodus 34:6-7).” 

Here we do not see the harsh Judge, but the Compassionate Leader or Parent. As God describes it, when we are close but not too close, “I will make kol tuvi, all My goodness, pass over you” (Exodus 33:19).

Six Israelis dead, dozens injured in holiday car accidents


Six Israelis died and dozens were injured in car accidents during the Passover holiday.

Israel Police recorded 160 car accidents from Tuesday to Thursday. Magen David Adom emergency services treated nine people with serious injuries, as well as 13 with medium injuries and 146 people who were lightly hurt.

One accident in southern Israel claimed the lives of two mothers.

Outside Dalyat al Carmel in the Haifa area, a 19-year-old man was killed when his car slammed into an electricity pole.

Near Tel Aviv, a young man was killed after his car collided with a tractor.

Another man was killed in a fatal collision near Beit Zarzir east of Haifa and another woman died in an accident near the south-central city of Kiryat Gat.

Among the critically injured was a 13-year-old boy who was riding an all-terrain vehicle in Yavne, a city situated south of Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv. The boy was being filmed for a video clip ahead of his bar mitzvah celebration, Army Radio reported.

Obama quotes Hatikvah in Passover message


President Obama cited the Israeli national anthem's invocation of an ancient Jewish longing for a homeland in his Passover message.

“Last week, I visited the state of Israel for the third time, my first as president,” Obama said in his message reeled Monday just hours before the start of the holiday. “I reaffirmed our countries’ unbreakable bonds with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Shimon] President Peres.

“I had the chance to speak directly with young Israelis about the future they wanted for their country, their region, and the world,” Obama continued. “And I saw once again how the dream of true freedom found its full expression in those words of hope from Hatikvah, lihyot ‘am chofshi be’artzeinu, 'To be a free people in our land.'”

The Obamas on Monday evening hosted a seder, a White House tradition begun by Obama.

Included in the seder was a seder plate given as a gift by Sara Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister's wife, to Michelle Obama, the first lady.

Earlier Monday, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser who helped plan Obama's trip last week to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian areas, briefed Jewish and Arab American leaders about the trip in an off the record call.

Separately, the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella body for the Conservative movement, wrote Obama thanking him for the trip, saying it had created a “personal and intimate bond” between Obama and Israel's people.

“It is our fondest hope that this new and powerful connection, characterized by enhanced trust and respect, will open the door to renewed progress in the quest for an enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” said the letter.

Obama’s Middle East visit: 50 shades of gray


On March 21, four days before Pesach, Sarah Chazizza was at home in Sderot, doing what people do before Pesach. She was cleaning. It was still early in the morning, but the weather was getting warmer and the windows were wide open to let the dusted furniture breath. So the sound of the siren, and then the sound of an explosion, could not be missed inside Sarah’s home. Not that she ever missed it. 

She knew it was coming; she knew it was coming, she said later. As soon as President Barack Obama landed, she knew it was only a matter of time until someone in Gaza would send the American president a message by way of targeting her family. Luckily, no one was hurt this time. But after the first 24 hours of celebratory mood, hyped by the usual media frenzy, that sound of a siren was a wake-up call for everyone: As nice and as friendly as the president might be, the Middle East doesn’t change as a result of eloquent speeches and cheery ceremonies. It doesn’t change by making people more trustful of faraway leaders’ promises to have one’s “back.” It doesn’t change by leaders being nice to one another. 

That same Thursday morning, a telling caricature appeared in the pages of the Maariv daily newspaper. It was the familiar scene from “Casablanca,” with Netanyahu playing Bogart and, shown from the back, he is telling Obama, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In the caricature, though, unlike the movie, Obama’s response makes the punch line: “Let’s not overdo it.” Obama and Netanyahu went out of their way to make Obama’s first visit to Israel as a sitting president a success, to keep up spirits and open a new page of better relations. In many ways, it truly was a success (or so it seems as I write this from Tel Aviv, when Obama hasn’t yet left the country). A better mood makes it easier for both leaders to communicate; it reduces the level of mutual suspicion; it gives both leaders’ aides some breathing room.

That Obama was finally able to make this trip and take this must-visit burden off his shoulders barely changed any well-established realities. This three-day visit was meant to make it easier for the two leaders to navigate the coming three years — or maybe four (Obama will be in office until January 2017, Netanyahu publicly talked about the next “four years,” meaning he doesn’t quite buy the gloomy projections for his new coalition’s longevity). And surely, having an open and tension-free dialogue between Obama and Netanyahu can help. But even while Obama was still here, still trying to be nice, disagreements were evident and the potential for future trouble obvious.

It begins with priorities. Netanyahu made sure to begin his part of the shared press conference by talking about Iran, and left the Palestinian issue for the end of his speech. Obama began with Israel’s security needs and then turned to the Palestinians. He left Iran for the end, and on Iran the president had little to offer. “We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran,” Obama said. This is present tense — still leaving the door open to future decision that, had the diplomatic course been a failure, it is better to turn to containment rather than military action.

Obama, as expected, reiterated the worn-out “all options on the table” formula. It’s old news, and overly vague. All options can mean war, or containment. If Netanyahu believes — as he was adamant in repeating — that only a “clear and credible threat of military action” will make diplomacy useful, that “threat” was nowhere to be found in Obama’s words. The president said, “There is not a lot of light, a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now.” However, there’s clearly daylight between the prescriptions the two leaders have for the road ahead. Netanyahu would like to see a threat that America refuses to provide. All Obama has given him is: “I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country — any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security.” In other words: You can go it alone for all I care, the United States still doesn’t see the Iranian threat as one for which it is currently willing to commit to war.

Obama speech in Israel

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast policy on March 21 at the Jerusalem Convention Center. Photo by REUTERS/Jason Reed 

A lot of advice was given to Obama as his visit began, framed in ways such as how to “speak Israeli” (Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic) or “The Ten Commandments of Visiting Israel” (Oren Kessler, Foreign Policy). While offering some great advice, all this still takes a somewhat dim view of the Israeli mind — as if what motivates Israelis to dislike of Obama (just 12 percent saying he is “pro-Israel” on the eve of his visit) is his inability to kindle the magic by sending soothing messages to “the people.” As if a couple of nice speeches and warm receptions could make all disagreements go away and be forgotten. Dignifying Israelis with more rational motivations would be proper at this moment. Israelis might exaggerate the extent to which Obama is cool toward Israel; they might not give him enough credit for the many great things he has done to help Israel. However, they also might have a legitimate case for remaining skeptical with regard to his policies — policies that no speech can hide and no smile can erase. 

Good things happened though during Obama’s visit here, and not just between him and the prime minister. He made clear his unwavering commitment to an Israel that is “Jewish”; his acknowledgement of the historic ties of Jews to Israel stand out, correcting somewhat the erroneous message of the president’s Cairo speech in 2009. “More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here,” Obama acknowledged right when he landed on the afternoon of March 20 at Ben-Gurion Airport. Truly, this wasn’t the first time that Obama has amended his previous message, however doing so in Israel, as he was going to visit the burial site of Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, made it noteworthy. 

To have had such a friendly visit is important, not just for the sake of diplomacy but also for political reasons: to calm the Israeli opposition’s talk of the government ruining relations with the United States and possibly, hopefully, sending a clear message Obama’s supporters at home. Last week, in one of a series of Israel-related analyses released by Gallup, an emphasis was put on the gap between Republicans and Democrats regarding Israel. It is — not for the first time — one of a handful of countries on which the gap is widest. “The current 18-point gap in views of Israel, with Republicans’ 78 percent favorable rating compared with Democrats’ 60 percent, is the only double-digit difference in which Republicans are the more positive group.” A positive Obama visit, and a positive Obama message are important, if one believes that nudging Israel into a partisan corner doesn’t truly serve the nation’s long-term interests.

Whether Obama can change Democratic perceptions though is unclear, considering the results of a previous Gallup analysis showed that Republicans want more American pressure on the Palestinian side (net “more pressure on Palestinians” +47 percent), while Democrats want something Obama didn’t quite provide: more pressure on Israel (net pressure on Palestinians -4 percent). In a shared press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Thursday afternoon, Obama acrobatically avoided any harsh criticism of Israeli settlements and made very clear that he sees no point in a continued Palestinian insistence on a settlements freeze as a precondition to future Israeli-Palestinian talks. In that, he made good on keeping differences with Israel tamed and refrained from reigniting the debates that marked his first term. He also told the Palestinian leadership that it’s time to climb down from the tree on which they’ve been sitting to a large extent because of their belief that the American president would coerce Israel into more concessions.  

Obama and Abbas

President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authorty President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 21. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

Minutes after the Obama-Abbas joint appearance, Israel’s deputy foreign minister – the newly appointed Likud hawk Ze’ev Elkin — made no attempt to hide his satisfaction. When he was reminded that Netanyahu had renewed his commitment to a two-state solution during the visit, Elkin appeared barely disturbed. Do you support it, he was asked. Now it was his turn at the acrobatics-linguistic machine. “Personally,” he still opposes the two-state solution, but as a member of the government he would have to “represent” the “view of the prime minister,” and, he was quick to add, all this seems quite irrelevant at this time. As long as the Palestinians stay on the sidelines, there’s no point in wasting time on internal disagreements. 

In Obama’s much-anticipated speech in Jerusalem to young Israelis, he seemed more eager than Elkin to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state. However, his message was not necessarily more concrete. We all know that peace is necessary, and coveted, and that it would make Israel more secure — that is, if a secured peace actually is within reach, which most Israelis greatly doubt, before and after Obama’s visit. The president urged Israeli youngsters to “demand” peace. They can make such demands if they want. Alas, the new senior member of Netanyahu’s coalition, Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi, quickly responded to Obama’s call by saying that the people of Israel can’t be called occupiers within their own country. So clearly, the “demand” would not go very far with Bennett.

Which leaves us essentially where we began. And leaves this article conflicted in a way that newspaper editors don’t always like. To grab readers’ attention, a writer is driven to make a choice — either this visit was essential and very successful, or it was a failure, a shame and a waste of time. Black or white. Shades of gray are popular only in steamy books of a bluish nature.

The truth though, is that Obama’s visit was a grayish event. It was a feel-good trip offering the hope to better relations and to clear the air, making future debates between the two governments less contentious. That has merit and should be enough to have made Obama’s trip a worthy one. 

But we should make no mistake: a civil debate is still a debate; a polite and contradictory assessment of threats remains a contradiction; a respectful disagreement is still a disagreement. And so, the potentially explosive Middle East looked at Obama’s visit and returned to business as usual.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

The Bronfmans’ New Haggadah


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Cover of the newly released "Bronfman Haggadah."Cover of the newly released “Bronfman Haggadah.”

For Passover this year, Rizzoli has just released “The Bronfman Haggadah,” written by the businessman, philanthropist and Jewish community leader Edgar Bronfman Sr., illustrated by artist Jan Aronson, who is also Bronfman’s wife. Unlike other haggadot, this version includes the role of Moses in the story of the Exodus (read Bronfman Exodus Story on page 19). In his introduction, Bronfman suggests that the omission from the traditional telling may be because the rabbis who wrote the early haggadot “viewed Moses as a dangerous hero — one who could easily upset the religious hierarchy.” On the occasion of the book’s release, Bronfman and Aronson talked about why and how they created the book, rethinking the role of the haggadah to tell, in their own way, the tale of Jewish Exodus and liberation. The following is an edited version of that conversation:

Tom Teicholz: Why a new haggadah?

Edgar Bronfman: What I think should be done in the 21st century [is] to have a haggadah that teaches young children what Judaism is all about. And I think it’s all there in the Passover story — if you know how to tell it properly. What I’ve done is written a haggadah that I think children today can relate to — and not just on Passover.

TT: How is this haggadah different from all other haggadot?

EB: It’s different in a number of ways. First, and this was my wife’s idea: Why do you want to feed Elijah after you’ve finished your meal? If Elijah represents the poor of the world, then surely you should let him in to share the meal with you. Young people will learn that feeding the poor — that’s very Jewish. The second thing that’s different, very much different, is I don’t talk about the four children; I talk about the four different kinds of Jews there are in this world and how we have to have open arms to all of them to bring them back into our fold. The third thing that’s different, I don’t stop at the Red Sea and I don’t call it the Red Sea. I call it the Sea of Reeds — a shallow part of the Red Sea that the Jews crossed without thinking, but that when the Egyptians with their chariots and their armor came, they sunk. That put the Jews on the other side of the Red Sea. No one’s chasing them now. And they’re free. Free to do anything and everything, and that becomes chaos. So Moses leads them to Mount Sinai and gives them the Ten Commandments, and this the Jews accept because they can’t stand the chaos either. And that’s where I end [the narrative], rather than at the Red Sea.

TT: You mention the four types of Jews (the wise, rebellious, simple and indifferent). Who do you see as the audience for this haggadah?

EB: I see the audience for this haggadah as the young people who have not left Judaism but are not affiliated. … Hopefully this revives some interest — just like a Birthright trip to Israel revives interest in Judaism.

TT: Throughout your life, you’ve set yourself the task of very large projects, whether it’s running Seagram’s or leading the World Jewish Congress or addressing the third phase of life. Why did you, at this point in your life, decide to tackle one holiday, one night, one meal?

EB: I think Passover is the most important of the Jewish holidays. … [It’s] the night we became a people. … I think all the elements of Judaism are encapsulated in this story. … [Also], when children come to the table at Passover, they are happy … that’s a good time to teach them a little Judaism.

Jan Aronson and husband Edgar Bronfman in 2011. Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

TT: Ms. Aronson, tell me a little about your artistic journey with this project.

Jan Aronson: With this particular project a couple of things happened that were unique in my career. Number one, I was able to do a lot of research into how I wanted the imagery to cohere with the history of certain aspects of the haggadah. [For example,] I thought it would be interesting to put in a biblical map, which is not something I’ve ever seen in a haggadah. … I added the map [to] put some interesting context and historical references that we are talking about in a visual form. …

My work is very painterly. … This gave me an opportunity to branch out and do other things with my work that I’d never had the opportunity to do. I was also able to draw on some of the skills that I had but hadn’t used in a long time. It was a chance to play and have a good time with patterns and imagery and go outside the box with certain illustrations.

TT: Did working on these illustrations give you any deeper insight into the haggadah?

JA: I thought a lot about which concepts I wanted to illustrate. The ones that were very important to me [from] a spiritual, metaphysical and also ethical standpoint were the ones I was drawn to. [For example,] the burning bush in my concept … [occurs at] sunrise while [Moses] is meditating on his life. … The sun is rising and the color is coming through the shrubbery of the desert. He decides to go back and deal with what he left in Egypt as well as meet his brother, whom he had never met. …

TT: On a lighter note, this haggadah does not make the seder shorter.

EB: My idea was not to make it short. My idea was to make it so that when you were finished with it, you had really done the seder and you had squeezed out a lot of knowledge of Judaism from it.

TT: You left songs for the end rather than integrate them in the seder. Any reason for that?

EB: I think singing is fun, but the [songs] don’t have much to say much Jewishly. … Well, at the end you’ve had your fourth glass of wine, you’re kind of relaxed. It’s fun to sing. If the children have gone to bed by then, we don’t care. What I care about is what we can teach them up until the time of the dinner.

TT: You introduce quotes from Frederick Douglass, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and Marge Piercy as part of your seder.

EB: My rabbis.

TT: Your rabbis. To that point, this struck me as a secularist haggadah. The magic of faith doesn’t seem to play as great a role.

EB: The magic tricks and all that are good storytelling. I’m not sure it all happened, and I don’t think it teaches very much.

TT: As I read it, there is one omission in your haggadah, and please correct me if I missed it. We are commanded at the seder to feel as if we were slaves in Egypt. For me, the great contribution of Judaism to the world is first, monotheism and the notion of a living God that is not embodied in literal idols and is an abstract concept; and second, this commandment at the seder that speaks to empathy, one of the greatest features of the Jewish faith. But you don’t mention this commandment.

EB: [As to the contributions of Judaism to the world] I say a little more [about this] at the end, where the [Israelites] are all fighting and killing each other. It’s chaotic. Then Moses gives them the Ten Commandments. By accepting the Ten Commandments, they become God’s people. I want to leave it at that … because it’s impossible for most people to really imagine themselves as “this is the night we were freed from Egypt.” That’s a stretch. Nice words, but it doesn’t mean very much.

TT: Each of you has worked for many years in your separate spheres. Can you talk about working together?

EB: For me, that was a joy. What I did was I asked my wife if she would illustrate the haggadah. She said, “But I’m not an illustrator.” I said, “I want someone who’s fresh, and not encumbered.” I know my wife is bright and smart, and I know what a great artist she is [and that with her participation], I’m going to go from what I know is a good haggadah to a great one, by having it become beautiful.

JA: I had the opportunity of a lifetime. Number one, to collaborate with my husband, whom I adore and I respect, on a project that he already had worked five years to perfect … and he said, “Here, just take it and fly with it” — it was a tremendous opportunity and a lot, a lot of fun. I had total freedom, and when I would go into Edgar’s office and show him one of the paintings I had done. … He was always really happy with it. So it was a wonderful collaboration in a very special way.

TT: On that note, let me say: Hag Sameach.

EB & JA: Hag Sameach to you, too.

Tracker Pixel for Entry A version of this article appeared in print.

Sober seders spreading


It’s rare that an Orthodox rabbi chooses to omit an important Jewish ritual in his holiday celebrations.

But in the spring of 2000, Rabbi Yosef Lipsker cleared his living room of furniture, set up three large dining tables and invited dozens of people to a special seder that included all the standard Passover observances — except for one.

“When it comes to seders, everybody thinks of the four cups of wine drunk during the service,” said Lipsker, a consultant at the Caron Treatment Center for Substance Abuse and Chemical Addiction in Reading, Pa. “But we said, ‘Listen, we’re going to have you at the seder, but you’re going to have four cups of grape juice instead.’ ”

Lipsker’s guests all were recovering alcoholics and drug addicts and their families, and his seder was devoid of wine. Lipsker is not the only rabbi organizing sober seders — a dry version of the standard Passover evening ritual. In the late 1990s, several Chabad rabbis across the country, unbeknownst to one another, were organizing sober seders geared toward Jewish recovering alcoholics.

In a little more than a decade, the practice has spread far and wide. This year, sober seders will be held in Miami, Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and London. Hundreds of recovering addicts are expected to attend, raising a glass of grape juice in celebration not only of the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt, but also of their own sobriety.

Participants in sober seders say the absence of wine not only doesn’t detract from their enjoyment of the event, but can even enhance it. They connect the struggles of recovering from addiction to Passover’s theme of breaking free from servitude.

“It was great,” said Ricky, a 56-year-old recovering addict from Montreal, referring to his first sober seder. “I sat at a table with the rabbi’s wife, kids and other addicts in recovery, and I felt great, like I had a real a sense of belonging.”

Ricky credits Rabbi Benyamin Bresinger, who with his wife runs a Chabad addiction clinic in Montreal, with saving his life. He points to the 2008 seder as a life-altering event and continues to attend sober seders each year.

“Before and after the seder we sit around and talk,” he said. “Many of us know each others’ stories by now. For the newcomer coming to the sober seder, there’s a belonging. It’s a celebration rather than a regular AA meeting.”

The sacramental consumption of wine is commonplace in Judaism, used to mark the beginning of nearly every major holiday and the weekly Sabbath dinner. On seder night, tradition calls for the drinking of four glasses as a sign of liberation. Wine also figures in other seder-night rituals: Many Jews have the tradition of removing drops of wine from their cup for each of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, and a cup of wine traditionally is set aside for Elijah.

Naturally, the ubiquity of drink poses problems for alcoholics and addicts of other substances.

“Jewish law says everyone has to drink wine during the seder,” said Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, who runs the Jewish Recovery Center in Detroit. “But for an alcoholic, it’s a danger of death.”

Pinson cited “pikuach nefesh,” the Jewish principle that saving a life takes precedence over other religious strictures, in skipping the wine drinking in Jewish rituals. He noted that Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a prominent psychiatrist specializing in addiction, sanctions abstinence for Jewish addicts as a life-saving measure.

Pinson also hosts a sober seder.

“We ask people who attend the seder, ‘What is your personal story of freedom? How did you break free from the shackles of addiction?’” Pinson said. “Obviously, we read the haggadah. But we also talk about where we are in life. It’s fresh on their minds. They feel the wounds.”

For Greg, 24, from New York, seders used to be an opportunity to binge. “Every Pesach, by the third ‘Chad Gadyah’ we were singing it backwards,” he said.

The son of a Charedi Orthodox rabbi, Greg’s family moved around a lot when he was growing up. The first time he got drunk was on Purim at age 10. It was a sign of things to come. By the time Greg met Lipsker in his early 20s, he had become addicted to painkillers and cocaine. With the rabbi’s help, Greg said he managed to overcome his demons.

“For the first time in 23 years, I could be at a seder, feel real liberation and not be finished by the end of it,” he said of his first sober seder with Lipsker.

Greg’s life is now back on track. He has a job working in finance in Manhattan and says he has found value in his Jewish identity. On weekends, he often drives out to see Lipsker, who lives a two-hour drive away. He said Lipsker is saving him a seat at this year’s seder. 

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.

Is there a shortcut to redemption


Pesach – the Hebrew name for Passover– comes from the Hebrew root PSH which means to skip over, to pass over. It appears first in the context of the ten plagues, in which God skipped over the homes of the Israelites while the rest of Egypt suffered.

On a deeper, more fundamental level, the Passover festival is based on this idea of passing or skipping over the regular order of things. The Jews did not leave Egypt as part of an evolutionary process. Their departure was a leap, a shortcut. While the exodus was a move from slavery to freedom – a practical, political situation – it was also a transition from oppression to redemption. From beginning to end, the Passover redemption is a leap over an orderly, consistent historical course into a new, different and better state, and into a much higher level of existence.

The Israelites were not just enslaved. In Egypt they had become slaves in their mindset, their world-view and their sense of personal self-worth. While the sons of Jacob and their families surely had a spiritual and religious legacy, it was not well defined and had no specific rites, that legacy was practically non-existent. Possibly, the Israelites in Egypt did retain some elements of their past, but they surely became more and more assimilated into Egyptian culture and its atmosphere. The forms of their religious worship were likely not very different from those of the Egyptians – although they were probably not permitted to practice the Egyptian religion as equals.

The exodus from Egypt, then, called for a very profound change in the entire psyche and social makeup of the Jewish people.  The act of releasing a slave – one who was born into bondage and with an entire life spent obeying orders – calls for a thoroughgoing personality change. Those who came out of Egypt were immersed in the lowest levels of Egyptian culture. They had to detach themselves completely from their old life and acquire a new set of concepts. Being free was a foreign notion that required a much, much higher degree of abstraction and the acquisition of a whole new universe of ideas.

All the slips and failures of the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert are therefore totally understandable. Yet despite all these personal, social and cultural impediments, this broken and naked nation successfully became a new national entity and began taking a new path. The prophet Ezekiel, in his poetic style, compares the Jewish nation that is redeemed from Egypt to a poor girl, saying (Ezekiel 16:6-7): “And … I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live … yet you were naked and bare.” Thus, over and above all the miracles – in the sky, on earth and in the water – of the Exodus, the greatest miracle of all is that Jewish people did indeed come out of Egypt and became a nation. The entire Exodus then represents a quick leap into redemption, passing over the life of slavery that had lasted for hundreds of years.

There is a great lesson here for every individual in every generation: everyone can “pass over,” make a leap. Not only slow, painful and indecisive changes are possible; we all also have an inborn ability to make quantum jumps. People can, even by the power of their own decision, make transitions that are not gradual but almost revolutionary. The “passing over” of Passover teaches us that such a jump is possible and inspires us to do so.

Passover represents the promise that we will indeed be able to leap over the multitude of small and big obstacles in our path and reach a better, more perfect state of things, both physically and spiritually.


Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, world-renowned scholar, teacher, mystic and social critic, has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. The rabbi’s life-long mission is to make the Talmud accessible to all by bringing the study of Jewish texts to communities around the world. Thel Fourth Annual Global Day of Jewish Learning will be on November 17, 2013.

Our Passover challenge


I have long believed that Judaism is a system of vocational education – that is, of education for a vocation, a calling  (from the Latin vocare, to call).  I needn’t elaborate here on the substance and texture of that calling.  I note only that such questions as ayeka (“Where are you?”) and such injunctions as shma (Listen up!) suggest an active calling – and an expectation of response.

If we accept the idea of vocational education, then we can experience renewed appreciation of Pesach, which is, I believe, the most ingenious element of our curriculum.  Pesach is a teaching moment, if ever there was one.  In a dozen different ways, it offers essential lessons regarding our collective calling.  Again and again I am struck, for example, by the two words avadim hayinu (we were slaves), words that could have but were not framed quite differently, as in avadim hayu avoteinu v’imoteinu (our fathers and mothers were slaves).  The internalization that is expected of us is not limited to the thundering b’chol dor va’dor – in every generation, and so forth).  It is an ongoing theme of our seder. 

We look backward to the classic redemption in order to be enabled to look forward to the promised redemption.  That is, as Arnie Eisen has eloquently taught, our confidence that redemption is possible is based on the precedent we celebrate at our seder.  We infer not only a promised land, but also – l’shanah habah b’yerushalayim (next year in Jerusalem) and karev yom (“a day draws near that is neither day nor night”) a promised time.

Each cup we raise this night is an act of memory and of reverence.  The story we tell, this year as every year, is not yet done.  It begins with them, then; it continues with us, now.  We remember not out of curiosity or nostalgia, but because it is our turn to add to the story.

Our challenge this year, as every year, is to feel the Exodus, to open the gates of time and become one with those who crossed the Red Sea from slavery to freedom. 

Our challenge this year, as every year, is to reach out to all those in every land who have yet to make the crossing and help them enter freedomland.

We know some things that others did and do not always know – how arduous is the struggle, how very deep the waters to be crossed and how treacherous their tides, how filled with irony and contradiction and suffering the crossing, then the wandering.

How can we not know such things?  Did we ourselves not wander in the desert for forty years, and have not those forty years been followed by twenty-five centuries of struggle and of quest?  Heirs to those who struggled and quested, we are old-timers at disappointment, veterans at sorrow, but always, always, prisoners of hope.  Hatikvah — the hope – is the anthem of our people, and the way of our people.

And for all the reversals and all the stumbling-blocks, for all the blood and all the hurt, hope still dances within us.  That is who we are, and that is what this seder is about. 

For the slaves do become free, and the tyrants are destroyed.  Once, it was by miracles; today, it is by defiance and devotion.

Yet this year, as in years past, we scarcely need to be reminded how much work there is yet to do if all are to be free – free from fear, free from abject poverty, free from plague, free from tyranny, free, above all, from fear; how much work there is yet to do, and how frightfully complicated are the decisions that need to be taken along the way.  This year, yet again, we see with our own eyes how bloody the struggle can be, and how riddled with doubt.  We call especially to mind this year the ongoing slaughter (70,000 dead so far, and counting) in Syria, as also  the struggle of people on every continent to achieve greater freedom and dignity than they have had, and we hope and pray that they will finally enjoy the blessings of freedom.  And we call to mind, yet again, the endless insult and injury that is both seed and fruit of the bitter conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. 

But though the path be brambled and twisted, the goal is clear.  So when we raise our first cup of wine, let it be for those who suffer still, in the hope and the prayer that they, too, will know the freedom that is our blessing.  And let it be for those in every land who give freedom a face and a name, whose lives nourish the blossoms of freedom around the world and enable us to hope. 

Let us give thanks for the freedom that is ours, for family and friends, and let us never ever take that freedom, those friends, our families, for granted.  Next year, may all who are today denied freedom dwell in the Jerusalems of their longing, united with their loved ones, together, at home, at last. 

I wish for you and yours what I wish for myself and mine – the anticipation, the joy, the urgency of memory and the connected urgency of hope, and the sweetness that this holiday enables.

Dr. David Hartman’s essay in “I am Jewish”


Dr. David Hartman was one of the most respected Jewish theologians in the world. He was the founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a frequent lecturer in the United States, and author of several widely acclaimed books, including two winners of the National Jewish Book Award.

“God has burdened human beings with the task of being the carriers of God’s vision for human history. The law and the commandments express not only God’s legislative authority but also, and above all, God’s need for human beings.”

Despite the varieties of lifestyles and outlooks among Jews today, there are certain organizing principles that cut across many of these differences and underlie the sense of common destiny and interdependence that so many Jews feel. From my own experience, the concepts of relationship and memory are two such fundamental categories. The Jewish concepts of God and of mitzvah (commandment) and the biblical narratives of creation and of history are interwoven into Jewish practice, producing a distinctive outlook that shapes Jewish identity.

[Remembering Rabbi David Hartman: Community voices]

RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND COVENANTAL CONSCIOUSNESS

In contrast to the self-sufficient God of Aristotle, the biblical God was considered philosophically “scandalous” because of the notion of a God who was vulnerable and affected by human history. Aristotle’s God was totally unmoved and oblivious to human beings, whereas the biblical God was, as A. J. Heschel wrote, “in search of man” or, as Professor Lieberman remarked, “the most tragic figure in the Bible.”

The idea that divine perfection is a relational category involving interdependence begins in the biblical story of creation. The idyllic description of an omnipotent God, whose unbounded will is automatically realized in the material world (“Let there be … and there was …”), abruptly changes with the creation of human beings, who challenge and oppose the divine will. In the Bible, the development of the notion of covenantal history is related to the transition in the character of God from an independent, unilateral actor to a God who recognizes that only through human cooperation can the divine plan for history be realized.

Abraham is the first covenantal figure because of the presence of mutuality in his relationship with God. Abraham’s appeal to principles of morality—“Far be it from You … to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty.… Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:23–25)—reflects his unqualified belief in his intuitive sense of justice and love. His ability to judge God’s intended actions without having to “quote Scripture” reflects the dignity and self-assurance of being in a covenantal relationship with God.

The covenants with Abraham and later with the people of Israel at Sinai express the principle of divine self-limitation that makes room for human involvement in determining history.

RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND INTIMACY

The God I meet in history is not an omnipotent, perfect, overwhelming presence that crushes my sense of worth and empowerment. Covenantal consciousness begins with the awareness that God has burdened human beings with the task of being the carriers of God’s vision for human history. The law and the commandments express not only God’s legislative authority but also, and above all, God’s need for human beings. In addition to the normative moral content of religious life—the pursuit of justice, love, and compassion in our personal and collective lives—the covenant at Sinai expresses the interpersonal intimacy of God’s relationship with Israel.

THE JEWISH YEAR: JEWISH IDENTITY AND COLLECTIVE MEMORIES

The notions of relationship and interdependence expressed in the Jew’s theological universe of discourse play an important role in defining the meaning of being a Jew and living a Jewish way of life. Being a Jew is first and foremost being part of the collective history of the Jewish people. In Judaism, you meet God within the framework of the collective history and practices of the Jewish people.

The individual’s journey of discovering the meaning of being a Jew begins with the collective memories of the foundational events of the Jewish people. By appropriating these memories, the individual becomes part of a Jewish “we” that precedes and shapes the emergence of his or her Jewish “I.” How you understand these foundational events determines the meaning of your individual Jewish identity within the collective life of the community. The Pilgrimage Festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, filter how a Jew understands the everyday meaning of being Jewish.

Pesach (Passover) negates the idea that the ultimate purpose of being Jewish can be realized by an individual’s “leap of faith” or by fulfilling the commandments at Sinai. The conventional notion of religion as private faith and good works is incompatible with the message of Passover, which reminds me that I must first identify with my people’s struggle for freedom and security before I can pledge covenantal allegiance to God at Sinai. We begin the annual pilgrimage of Jewish self-understanding by recollecting and identifying with the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. We begin by retelling the story of our struggle for liberation: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”—with the emphasis on the fact that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

Empathy and solidarity with the political, social, and economic conditions of the Jewish people are necessary conditions for any “leap of faith” or spiritual journey within Judaism. We do not  approach the sacred moment of the Sinai revelation as individuals. We hear the word of God and receive the Ten Commandments as “we.” Heresy in Judaism is separating oneself from the collective experience of the Jewish people. The “wicked son” of the Passover Haggadah is he who addresses other Jews as “you” (“you and not him”). Jewish heresy is an existential state of excluding oneself from the destiny of the Jewish people.

Passover thus begins the yearly celebration of our collective memory by situating the individual within the historic drama of the Jewish people. Passover leads into Shavuot, the time of receiving the Ten Commandments, the normative way of life known as Torah and mitzvot. This festival is essentially a holiday of freedom, the freedom of living a disciplined, normative way of life.

While identification with the suffering in Egypt is necessary for developing a collective consciousness, the memory of suffering is not in itself constitutive of Jewish identity. Although our oppression in Egypt could have become the predominant motif of our collective identity, the tradition took the experience of victimization and transformed it into a moral impulse. At Sinai, the memory of Egypt becomes a compelling reason for aspiring to the collective ideals of justice and love and becoming a holy people. “And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19; see Exod. 23:9, Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:17). At Sinai, we are challenged by God to take responsibility for our daily lives and to aspire to the freedom of being claimed by a normative vision of life.

Freedom involves the capacity for self-transcendence, for being claimed by what is other than myself. For Jews, the law is not a source of guilt, as the Christian apostle Paul claimed. We are not paralyzed by the elaborate structure of Halakhah and mitzvot. On the contrary, the Law (our Torah) gave us a sense of personal dignity—the dignity of beings accountable before God. At Sinai, we heard a God address us as responsible moral agents in spite of our human vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It is for this reason that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is so central to Jewish life. Yom Kippur provides us with hope and renewed conviction to begin anew and not to revel in the failures of the past.

After Shavuot, the next Pilgrimage Festival, Sukkot, evokes the desert experience and the yearning to reach the Promised Land. The land adds the dimension of the realization of our values and ideals within the total life of community. God desires that the material conditions of history, the social, economic, and political realities in which we live, mediate the divine presence. God’s command to pursue justice and compassion cannot be fulfilled unless the public frameworks of communal life reflect these normative ideals. The land takes holiness, k’dushah, beyond the private realm of the individual, or even of the enclave, into the public marketplace, the factories, the hospitals, the welfare system, the military—the vast array of living frameworks that make up human society. Without the land, we are a family. With the land, we are a people in the fullest sense of the term. Our family circle of values, ideals, and responsibilities expands to embrace the total Jewish people.

By appropriating the memory of Passover, I learn that I can never forget Auschwitz or be indifferent to any manifestation of anti-Semitism in the world. Yet, no matter how powerful and compelling the experience of the Holocaust is for Jews today, we must not define ourselves as victims but must move from Auschwitz to Jerusalem. Like the movement from Egypt to Sinai, we must learn to celebrate our people’s yearning to build a new future by taking responsibility for our lives as individuals, as a people, and as a country.

Our return to Israel as a sovereign nation can be understood figuratively as a reenactment of the drama of Sinai, where we learned not to define ourselves as victims but to take responsibility for how we lived. In the Land of Israel, the voice of Sinai speaks to Jews, holding them accountable for all aspects of their lives.

THE CREATION NARRATIVE AND JEWISH IDENTITY

While the festivals indicate the importance of the historical narrative in organizing Jewish identity, there is another type of narrative, the narrative of creation, that informs Jewish consciousness every week through the observance of the Sabbath. The Jew’s perspective on life is nurtured not only by the collective memories of the Jewish people but also by awareness of the shared condition of all human beings.

The creation story is about the common source and condition of all humankind. The biblical description of the first human being as a creature is a graphic representation of the normative rabbinic principle “beloved is every human being who has been created in the image of God.”

The historical narrative develops a sense of intimacy with the Jewish people. Through it we become a family and embrace our particular identity with joy and love. But the family narrative is not our only living framework. Every seventh day we interrupt the flow of our tasks and ambitions and stand quietly before God the creator.

The dialectic between our particular and universal identities, between the God of Israel and the God of creation, is the fate and challenge of being a Jew.


The above excerpt by Dr. David Hartman is from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. © 2004 Dr. Judea and Ruth Pearl. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091 www.jewishlights.com.

Pesach 5772: Lessons my grandfather taught me


Every Passover, as I sit with my family at our seder, I inevitably think of my paternal grandfather, after whom I was named. I never met him. He died five years before I was born, and I was born on the anniversary of his burial. But from earliest childhood, I felt that my grandfather was present, teaching me the values that helped shape my life.

My grandfather was an outstanding Torah scholar. He was ordained at the famous Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania before immigrating to the United States with his parents and siblings around 1910. He served as a rabbi in Chicago, where he was respected as one of the city’s leading Torah scholars. He was a prolific author who published widely in Torah journals, and co-founder of the Chicago yeshiva Hebrew Theological College.

One of the most important aspects of my grandfather’s legacy is a lesson I discuss at our seder. My grandfather had a tremendous commitment to religious Zionism that affected my family and inspired my late father and his siblings. Israel was so important in my grandfather’s life that, during the 1920s, he purchased a parcel of land in the N’Vai Yaakov section in northern Jerusalem. At that time, the Religious Zionist Mizrachi movement had built a synagogue in N’Vai Yaakov, and I guess my grandfather thought that this would be a good place to settle if he moved to Israel.

Although he never was able to realize this dream, he gave my parents the deed to that parcel of land when they attempted aliyah in 1949. Unfortunately, they soon found out that north Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation, and at that point in time their deed was worthless. After the Six-Day War, my grandmother tried to validate her deed, but this time the State of Israel itself intervened. Under the power of eminent domain, it had claimed the land for an army base. My grandmother received a little compensation but not the ownership of my grandfather’s dream.

I recall this story every year when we reach the section in the haggadah that recounts how the five great sages, Rabbi Akiva among them, were so engrossed in their discussion of the Exodus story that they needed to be reminded by their students that the night had passed and it was time to recite the morning Shema. My grandfather, in his commentary on the Bible, Hadat V’Hachayim, noted that the Shema contains an important message that should not be lost on the reader. In the second paragraph, it begins in the plural with the words, “And you [plural] are to teach them to your sons and speak of them.” But suddenly, in midstream, the verse turns to the singular form and declares, “when you sit at home, and when you journey on the road, and when you go to sleep, and when you rise.”

Why the switch? My grandfather answered that the verse reflects the reality of Jewish education. On the one hand, the verse begins with the plural, representing the community’s responsibility to ensure that educational institutions exist in a community. So important is this aspect of communal life that the Talmud powerfully warns every community not to fail in this realm: “And Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah, ‘I have received the following tradition from my fathers … Any town in which there are no schoolchildren studying Torah is eventually destroyed.’ Ravina said: ‘It is eventually annihilated’ ” (Shabbat 119b).

But the community is only one partner in education. The Torah switches from plural to singular to tell us that the other partner must be the parent. Each Jew must be an educator. The community can build wonderful educational institutions, but it can’t by itself instill the love of our heritage, and in particular the love of Israel. Parents must impart to their children the stories that will create the bond between them and the Land of Israel and they must encourage direct involvement in helping Israel.

If we supplement the community’s job of instilling the love of Israel with parental involvement, we will impart the emotional connection that is needed. My grandfather taught me that lesson many years before I was even born, and it still resonates with my family to this very day.

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.

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.

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.

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.

California on Passover [VIDEO]