Jewish themes on tap at Sundance festival


“I never sold weed after high school — I swear,” said 31-year-old filmmaker Jonathan Levine.

Instead, he said, “The Wackness,” which revolves around a dealer who trades pot for therapy sessions (and premieres in competition at the Sundance Film Festival this week), was inspired by his teen angst back in 1994, as he bemoaned his social status, bickered with his Jewish parents and obsessed about what he calls life’s “wackness, the awful stuff, rather than living in the moment.”

The movie — which stars Ben Kingsley as a druggie psychiatrist — is among the high-profile films of interest to Jewish viewers at Sundance, where many of the 121 features deal with existential angst and how individuals come to terms with painful realities, often in comic ways.

“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” — also in competition — is adapted from Michael Chabon’s early novel about a young man who crosses his Jewish mobster father (Nick Nolte) and explores his own bisexuality; “The Deal” tells of a suicidal producer (William H. Macy) who cons a studio into financing a $100 million movie with a nonexistent script, starring a black action star who has converted to Judaism; the drama, “Strangers,” spotlights an affair between an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman; and Boaz Yakin’s “Death in Love,” chronicles a Jewish woman’s (Jacqueline Bisset) trysts with a Nazi doctor, and how that later impacts her grown sons. (A documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” recounts the sexual scandal that led the director to flee this country in 1978.)

Yakin (“Fresh,” “Remember the Titans”) previously appeared at Sundance in 1998 with “A Price Above Rubies,” which raised ire in the Jewish community (and earned mixed reviews) for its tale of a Chasidic woman battling her oppressive community.

“People will probably be more upset about this film,” Yakin, 42, said of “Death in Love,” which melds Holocaust themes with explicit sex.

“But it’s not a bone I’m picking with Judaism, as much as it is an expression of how difficult it is to be a human being,” he insists. “Because I happen to be Jewish, the story manifests in that way.”

“Death in Love,” Yakin said, is the most fantastical (in terms of plot) but the most “emotionally personal” screenplay he has ever written. It draws on the time — about five years ago — that he fell into a severe depression as work proved uninspiring, a longtime relationship ended and, he said, “I woke up and went to sleep thinking about suicide.” He said he went back into therapy and delved deeply into “the roots of my own psyche, which includes my relationship to the Holocaust.”

Most of Yakin’s mother’s relatives died in Auschwitz.

“Her parents were the only ones of their respective families who survived, so the Holocaust is deeply ingrained in my psyche and the way I approach Jews and non-Jews,” he explained. “It’s a wariness, and a kind of masochistic relationship to the outside world. In the film I try to explore what I consider to be a kind of sadomasochistic relationship that Jews have had with their tormentors over the centuries — an almost sexual cycle of pain and suffering that keeps this relationship alive.”

The Sundance Festival runs through Jan. 27.

D-A-T-E is just a four-letter word


I’m not sure why this never made any of the 2006 year-end lists, but it seems that — at least for singles — the most confusing question of the year wasn’t “How do you
pronounce ‘al-Zarqawi?'” but the more mundane “How was your date?” To be specific, the confusing part would always be the word “date,” as in, “Was I even on one?”

Because in today’s modern world, a guy and a girl looking for love can make plans, rush home from work, wash extra carefully in certain areas, put on nice clothes, spend three hours in flirtatious conversation at the local sushi joint, say a warm good night and still come home wondering whether what they just experienced was a date or two people who wanted to be on a date but were instead simply “hanging out.”


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I’ve lost count of how many times in the past year I’ve innocently asked friends — male or female — “So, how was your date?” only to get the response, “Well, I’m not sure it was a date…” followed by some analytical drivel I can’t quote here because I wasn’t really listening to the nonsense that came between “And then he said … ” “So I said … ” “But then he acted like … ” “So I couldn’t tell if he thought….”

As a single mom whose social life in the first half of 2006 was as nonexistent as sleep, I couldn’t understand why everyone had suddenly become so squeamish about using the word “date.” Why wouldn’t anyone call a date a date anymore? Like other neutral words that became linguistic pariahs (“Well, I’m not sure I’d call myself a feminist”) had the word “date” acquired a negative connotation during the time I’d been parked in a rocking chair breast-feeding and reading back issues of Parenting magazine?

Then, as soon as I started wearing a bra and reading The New Yorker again, I asked a guy out and the semantic “date” problem became utterly clear. We met for dinner, shared some calamari and banter, and took a quick walk before ending up at my car. I thought it was fairly obvious that there was some platonic but not romantic chemistry between us, which I guess is also why I thought it was fairly obvious that when I hugged him goodbye, it was the same hug I give to all of my friends and even some random strangers.

Admittedly, he did say, “I’d like to take you out again,” which under other circumstances might suggest the words “on a date,” but this is a guy whose neighbor is one of The Beatles. I mean, with that kind of financial picture, I thought, maybe he takes everyone out.

Sort of like the way I hug everyone. In any event, I assumed he knew that although we’d indeed gone on a date, if we got together again, we would be “hanging out.”

Just in case, though — and believe me, I’m not proud of this — when we did make plans the following week, I felt the need to explain that while I was definitely interested in him, I wasn’t interested interested in him. In other words, we’d be setting a date but not going on a date date.

It was a rather unfortunate e-mail, one that still makes me blush with mild regret and severe mortification. Especially since it ultimately turned out that he had zero interest in me — “as a friend” or otherwise. Date schmate.

I realized, in retrospect, that there were good reasons for my never having asked a guy on a date before (or since).

Unconsciously, even before my friends started substituting the verboten words “going on a date” with “having a drink,” “meeting for brunch” or “doing a hike,” I must have known that regardless of whether you used that four-letter D-word, the concept alone could get you into all kinds of trouble. For instance, if I asked a guy out on an explicit date, and he wasn’t interested, he’d have to find a tactful way to reject the offer — and as a woman, I know what an oxymoron “tactful rejection” can be.

On the other hand, if I made a more casual offer, how would he know it was a date? Would he interpret “Want to come to this party on Thursday night?” as “with me” or “to meet other women”? Even worse, what if he knew it was a date and I realized midway through the evening that I just wanted to be friends (or never see him again)? How could I convey my lack of interest in dating him (other than not returning his calls, which he’d interpret as me “playing hard to get,” since I, after all, was the one who expressed interest in the first place)?

My friend Kevin (a friend friend, no dating) said that to avoid this kind of confusion, he goes on what he likes to call “stealth dates.” As he put it, “Most women don’t know I’m asking them out, and 70 percent of the time, they won’t know I’m on a date with them. But I’m having a lovely time.”

It’s an interesting strategy, but my wish for 2007 is that we singles return to the real thing. We may be looking ahead toward a brand new year, but I’m already nostalgic for a good old-fashioned romantic d-a-t-e. If only somebody would be bold enough to unambiguously ask me on one.

Lori Gottlieb is a commentator for NPR and her most recent book is “I Love You, Nice To Meet You” (St. Martin’s Press). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

A Race Against Time and Floodwaters


Stepping up to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, Jewish day schools opened their doors to evacuees, families welcomed strangers into their homes, Jewish rescue squads searched through the storm’s wreckage and Jewish organizations raised millions of dollars for those whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by the deadly storm.

Houston has quickly become a major haven for victims who have been left, for the moment at least, without homes. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston quickly jumped into action to aid the beleaguered evacuees, Jew and non-Jew alike.

“We have mobilized our community around all the areas that seem to be current and potential needs,” said Lee Wunsch, the federation’s CEO. “There’s a lot of activity. People are very generous with their time. Our phones have not stopped ringing.”

Approximately 15,000 Louisiana evacuees were being housed in the Astrodome, the city’s covered sports stadium, after conditions in the New Orleans Superdome grew unbearable. Houston is hosting tens of thousands of evacuees, including an estimated 5,000 Jews.

The federation has joined an interfaith coalition taking responsibility for feeding the refugees in the Astrodome for the next 30 days, a service that the federal government is not providing, Wunsch told JTA. The effort will require 700 to 800 volunteers each day and is expected to cost between $7 million and $8 million.

“We’re trying to raise the money to make a sizable contribution to that,” Wunsch said.

In the first 24 hours when the fund was opened last week, the federation raised about $75,000 in online donations. Donations are coming in so quickly that by the beginning of this week, the federation had decided to hold off calculating the total until a quieter time.

The Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc. announced it would be donating $1 million to help relieve survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Funds will be allocated as $500,000 grants to both United Jewish Communities (UJC) and Catholic Charities USA.

On Tuesday, UJC said it had raised nearly $4 million, including the Weinberg Foundation grant. The UJC also said that the local federations directly affected by the hurricane were overwhelmed and had asked that those with questions or seeking to make donations contact the UJC directly.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Jews may be among those still trapped in water-inundated homes or missing in the Gulf region, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, Chabad-Lubavitch’s spokesman based in New York.

Chabad rescue teams, comprised largely of New York-based medics and others with relevant expertise, have rescued 32 Jews from their houses over the last several days, he said. The teams are operating both on foot and in boats.

Some elderly Jews resisted leaving their homes, as did one woman who was reluctant to leave her pets behind to fend for themselves. The teams were able to convince some victims to evacuate their homes; others stayed put.

The Hurricane Relief section of Chabad’s Web site asks anyone who knows of people still missing or trapped to provide details through the site (www.chabad.org.).

As of Tuesday, the official death toll in New Orleans was 71, and in Mississippi it was 161. However, those figures were expected to climb into the thousands as floodwaters begin to recede, revealing the true toll of those lost.

Hunger and fear of disease in affected areas engendered anger and disbelief as the federal government’s handling of the crisis garnered sharp criticism. President Bush toured the battered region Monday, comforting victims and vowing to do what is necessary to aid them. In a visit to the area last week, Bush said relief efforts to that point were “not acceptable.”

Jewish organizations in the hard-hit region and beyond pitched in to help those whose lives have been disrupted by Katrina.

Israeli universities are opening their doors to college students whose schools have been shut down by the storm. Tulane University in New Orleans announced that it will not hold classes for the fall semester. Loyola University is also closed though January, and Dillard University is examining its options for the immediate future. The two schools are also in New Orleans.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, MASA — the Gateway to Long-Term Israel Programs and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life have forged a coalition of the five major Israeli universities with study-abroad programs to allow displaced students — Jews and non-Jews — to quickly continue their studies.

Meanwhile, Jewish day school networks across the United States and across the denominational spectrum are working to absorb Jewish students and their families, offering everything from free tuition and school supplies to employment opportunities for parents and living accommodations.

“Jewish day schools across the streams walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.

The UJC and local federations throughout the United States and Canada have also established funds to aid those in need. Numerous other Jewish organizations, both national and local, are also offering help — raising money, coordinating housing and looking into specific medical and religious needs of refugees in their communities.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has composed a special prayer for the victims.

“In the path of Katrina’s destruction, let the good in humanity rise to the top of the flood,” it reads, in part. “Give us strength to console those who have lost family, friends and neighbors. Give us the courage to provide hope to those who despair. Provide us with the guidance to heal those who ail, both in body and in spirit.”

At Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, Pa., congregants are preparing backpacks full of school supplies for young Katrina evacuees who will shortly be enrolling in the Houston public school system.

Each school bag is being filled with grade-appropriate supplies in accordance with Houston school guidelines — younger students may get crayons and markers while older pupils will receive items like graph paper and protractors.

“In terms of rallying the community, it was really wonderful,” said Gari Julius Weilbacher, who is coordinating the synagogue’s effort. “It’s giving people something to do besides writing really, really vital checks.”

Weilbacher said that she expects more than 150 backpacks to come in, and some congregants are writing checks to pay for postage, while others are donating boxes in which to pack the bags for shipment.

The Houston federation is working feverishly to meet Jewish evacuees’ needs.

A number of New Orleans families are now living with families in Houston, Wunsch said, and local day schools are allowing students from New Orleans to enroll for free. The Maimonides Society, a group for local Jewish doctors, has been mobilized to help those evacuees with medical concerns, and several local rabbis are coordinating an effort to ensure that their Jewish religious needs are met.

Synagogues in the Houston area are providing free Shabbat meals and are expected to open their doors to evacuee families, both in the immediate future and during the High Holidays.

At Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, members are making room in their homes for those with no place to go and have prepared welcome packages of toiletries, snacks and beverages. The synagogue was also arranging kosher meals for those who want them, and sent about 250 volunteers to the Astrodome this week.

The community response has been swift and overwhelming, say those involved in coordinating area relief efforts.

“I’m 150 e-mails behind,” said Adam Bronstone, who fled New Orleans on Aug. 27 and has since been working at the Houston federation office and living with a friend. “There’s one guy here answering four phones at a time.”

The situation, Bronstone said, is “crazy, it’s surreal, it’s loving, its warm. It’s the worst of times — but it’s also the best of times.”

Hurricane damage in the region was staggering. The full extent of damage to sites of Jewish concern remained uncertain. West Esplanade Avenue in Metarie, La., is home to about five Jewish institutions.

Rabbi Yossie Nemes, who rode out the storm at his home there with his family and four others seeking refuge, saw downed trees, power outages, some damage to roofs and up to two feet of water.

Those with knowledge of New Orleans geography said that based on news reports about damage to particular neighborhoods, they suspected that some other buildings, including a Jewish museum, were badly damaged or destroyed.

As Nemes, his wife, seven children and four house guests sat on the second floor of his home — winds howling outside, water rising on the bottom level, rain pelting the sturdy brick home’s protective hurricane shutters — they prayed and played board games.

“We weren’t worried for our lives,” he recalled on Tuesday from Chabad’s offices in New York, where he had arrived by car in the morning after three days in Memphis. “But it was very, very nerve-wracking. We were hoping and praying for the storm to end.”

Things grew more tense, he said, when some of the city’s levees broke. At that point, Nemes had no idea how his neighborhood would fare. In the end, the power went out and his house took in about two feet of water — but everyone got out safely.

“All the appliances and furniture are damaged,” he said. “It’s dirty, bacteria-filled water. There’s extensive damage, but I don’t believe it’ll be condemned.”

In addition to those who landed in Houston, Jews also ended up in Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Dallas; cities in Florida; and elsewhere.

Many also fled to Memphis. The Orthodox Union (OU) dispatched Rabbi Chaim Neiditch on a fact-finding mission to Tennessee.

“They’re living Jewish lives as best as they can,” said Neiditch, the director of the southern region of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. They are attending prayer services and eating kosher food, he said, but there is a real fear that the community, stretched to its limits by the influx of evacuees, will run out of kosher food.

“There is a sense of despair and worse — every single possession is lost, jobs gone,” he said. “They are separated from family and friends. They have no means of communicating with each other. It is beyond comprehension what is going on.”

Â

Love the Stranger


The freeways were quiet and the city seemed peaceful at 4:30 a.m. as I drove to the hospital. I was going to see Thelma before she was taken in for surgery. I thought about the time just over a year ago when Thelma arrived at our house at 3 a.m., tiptoeing in so as not to wake Rachmiel as my husband Jonathan and I slipped out to go to the hospital. My water had broken and our daughter, Kinneret, was on her way.

Thelma has been our children’s nanny for four years, and I always thought of her as a member of our family. Then I considered the words of Leviticus 19:34: The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.

It is interesting that the golden rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," is reiterated here with the stranger who resides with you. The verse would make sense without it, however by nestling the positive commandment to love in the center, we realize that it is not enough to act justly toward the stranger who resides with you. It is not enough to pay her on time, treat her with respect. It is not enough to say, "It is as if she is family," or "as one of your citizens." Rather, strive to love.

We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and it turns out, she was, too, for just as God redeemed us with an outstretched hand, God also redeemed her from her own land.

But how can I love her if I don’t know her story?

Although Thelma’s English is good, I hired a translator and invited her to my office so that I may learn her whole story, the stranger who resides with me.

Thelma spoke of the illness of her 10-month-old son, Carlos, the way he looked at her when he was placed in isolation at the hospital, his angelic face, longing for her to comfort him. He died before she ever held him again. I thought about the day when my son was 10 months old and closed a drawer on his finger. He cried so hard he passed out and his lips turned blue. I now understood better the layered terror that Thelma experienced in reviving him.

When she spoke of the reasons she ran from Guatemala and the journey to full citizenship in America, I felt as if I was hearing the Exodus firsthand.

She told me of the Jewish families she worked with: the family for whom she worked 12 hours a day, who, when her own shoes wore out, bought her a new pair and deducted it from her pay. The family with whom she lived that would lock the house so she could not come "home" and withheld her pay while they enjoyed vacations. And she was never invited to eat with the family.

I filled pages and pages of notes listening to her story.

You shall love the stranger as yourself.

Thelma was in her hospital bed when I arrived. She was in pain and had been diagnosed with ampullary cancer — cancer of the bile duct. I sat on the edge of her bed.

She took my hands and said she felt in her heart she was Jewish. She had questions about Judaism and months ago I had bought her a basic Judaism book in Spanish, as well as a stack to leave in our synagogue lobby where many nannies wait while their charges are in class.

Just then her cell phone rang, and I was shocked to hear "Hava Nagila" as her ring tone.

She said she did not want to go into surgery without a blessing from me. I lay my hands on her head and recited "Misheberach." She opened her eyes and there were tears in them.

"I had a vision of Jerusalem," she said. "Everyone was wearing white, praying in a great courtyard."

I felt as if I had been blessed by her.

Thelma started chemotherapy last week. Someone said to me, "You should keep her away from your children to protect them from being sad while she is sick."

I couldn’t even understand the terrible advice. "The stranger who resides with you … you shall love [her] as yourself."

Think of the people who "reside with you," who work with you, for you, beside you. Ask them for their stories, and consider not only treating the stranger "as citizens," but how our love can indeed make them strangers no longer.

Seeking Redemption


In college, I tutored in a maximum-security prison for kids
who had committed violent crimes. I met a 17-year-old boy there who
had killed a 16-year-old boy earlier that year. He had been
tried as an adult and sentenced to life. Though we were only together for a
couple sessions, he left an impression that to this day still haunts me.

He kept a cracked, yellowed newspaper photo of his victim in
his pocket. And he would constantly pull it out, unfold it, gaze at it, then
put it back in — only to remove it again and stare at it some more.

The sentencing judge not only made the boy finger his
victim’s personal effects, he also made him wear the dead boy’s clothes. The
boy told me he even had to put his victim’s jacket, and it made him feel
“spooked.” “Like I didn’t know that this kid was, like, a human being or
something,” the boy said. It was the judge, in fact, who told him to keep the
boy’s photo.

But the judge never told him he had to look at it forever.

And yet he couldn’t let it go. It was as if by staring at
this two-dimensional image he was trying to reconstruct some three-dimensional
persona. As if a kind of understanding would emerge, a way of grappling with
the magnitude of his actions.

It was this relationship — these two boys, total strangers
now bound forever by one horrible deed — that was the initial inspiration for
“Levity.”

In researching the movie, I spent time with a lot of people
who had committed murder when they were kids. I met some through youth groups,
others through church and community programs. Some I interviewed extensively,
others I just followed around for a while. They were all different ages, yet
each had in common that he was trying to come to terms with the consequences of
what he’d done. Some (those who believed in God) were trying on a spiritual
level, others (those who didn’t) on a secular level. For all of them it was a
kind of obsession.

The other thing they had in common was a sense of futility.
At the end of the day, none actually thought he could ever make up for his mistakes.

When I sat down to write the script, I called a friend,
Naomi Levy, who was a rabbi at a Conservative temple in Venice. I told her I
wanted to tell a story that questions whether any number of so-called “good”
acts can outweigh one very bad one. And I told her I want the central character
to not believe in God. (It seemed to me that if he believed in God, there would
be more of a proscribed path for him to follow, and that was too easy.) I asked
her what my protagonist might have read that would underscore his belief that
he would never be redeemed.

Naomi pointed me to Maimonides, a 12th-century Talmudic
scholar who wrote about the five steps one must follow to achieve redemption.
The last three involve making right with your neighbor, making right with God
and being in the same place and behaving differently.

“Levity’s” central character, Manual Jordan, knows he can’t
return the dead boy like a stolen chicken. And he doesn’t believe in God. And
since he is convinced that time makes certain one is never in the same place
twice, Manual knows there’s no hope for him.

But Manual has a conscience, and he’s obsessed with trying
to salvage some version of a life. And even though he knows his is perhaps a
lost cause, he desperately wants his somewhat hesitant presence on the planet
to not be wasted. So he bumbles and stumbles, disconnected from the flow, never
really knowing where he’s going, yet somehow guided by what may be seen as his
best intentions.

So often I think we feel our behavior as individuals doesn’t
have any effect; that what we do doesn’t really matter. “Levity” looks at how,
to the contrary, the world around us can actually hinge on our individual
actions. What we do can have direct, instantly determinable consequences, or
our words and actions can ripple away behind us, in subtle ways we never know
and could certainly never predict.

For instance: the boy who started this whole thing off. At
18 — just two weeks after we met — he was transferred to a state penitentiary.
I never heard from him again. My guess is he’s still there. And he’d certainly
have no recollection of our time together — I was one of dozens of tutors. So
there’s no way he could possibly imagine how our brief conversation had any
effect on anything. Most likely, he was just trying to get out of talking about
math and English.

But, looking back, if I follow the steps that lead to this
very moment, right now, as I sit at this table writing this piece, I arrive at
that image of that nearly 18-year-old staring at that photograph of that
eternally 16-year-old.

And I think about how those two boys — completely unknowingly
— changed my life. Â


Ed Solomon makes his feature directing debut with “Levity,” which he also wrote. The film opens April 4 in Los Angeles and New York.

All Who Are in Need


Passover is a holiday of remembrance, a time to recall and
retell the story of the deliverance of the Jewish people from generations of
Egyptian bondage. But there is also a different kind of remembering that takes
place each Passover, in which memory is personal, not scripted. We
spontaneously recall, often vividly, the many different seders we have attended
over the years, both as a child and as an adult.Â

My own memories begin in the early 1960s, when our family
went to a seder or ritual Passover meal each year held at the Chicago home of
my Aunt Fella and Uncle Morris. Almost every adult in attendance was from Eastern
Europe; boredom among the children was rampant. My cousins and I would
inevitably end up crawling under the table for a mischievous rendezvous, a
distraction from the relentless Yiddish-accented recitation of “The Maxwell
House Haggadah.” (Literally translated as the telling, the haggadah recalls the
Israelite Exodus from Egypt and indicates the rituals performed at the seder.)
Eventually, our impatience was rewarded by my aunt’s amazing Passover
delicacies. I don’t ever recall understanding what was going on, but I still
looked forward to going. It was comforting and predictable — the same relatives
came each year and the same food appeared on the table.Â

Because the seders I attended growing up always had the same
cast of characters, it was an exciting break from routine when someone
unfamiliar showed up. One year my older cousin brought a boyfriend, and it
noticeably changed the seder dynamic. When I went away to college, it was my
turn to become the unfamiliar face when I attended my first seder with a family
other than my own. It was then that I really started to appreciate what a
mitzvah it was to extend invitations to strangers, especially those unable to
spend the holiday with family. Since then, I’ve been a guest at many different
seders. It is still a comforting ritual for me, even though the faces are new,
the accents American and the dishes different. But it is never a predictable
experience. While the haggadah is always the road map, each new seder takes
different side roads on which I never traveled.Â

It was a marvel the first time I attended a seder conducted
by Jewish educators.Â

While the seder was lengthy, everything was discussed,
explained and analyzed. I acquired many new insights and went home fervently
wishing that such an innovation had been introduced to my Chicago relatives.Â

Another seder, early in my career as a “Seder Stranger,”
caught me by surprise.Â

Still fully in possession of childhood naiveté, I was taken
aback when I encountered non-Jews at the table, friends of the host family.
Their questions reminded one of the simple child of the haggadah, and it turned
out to be a lovely experience to see the ritual through their eyes.Â

One year, my seder experience was a disappointment. I call
this one seder-lite.Â

It was a perfunctory matzah and wine tasting accompanied by
a riffling of the haggadah pages that figuratively stirred a cool breeze, but
didn’t warm my heart.Â

In a subsequent year, I was delighted and entertained at a
seder orchestrated especially for children, with wind-up frogs and finger puppets.Â

Perhaps the most memorable seder I attended is the one I
call, both wryly and fondly, the last supper. It was led in Manhattan by Rabbi
Shlomo Carlebach at his Upper West Side shul. Seventy of us from all over the
country listened to stories and sang wordless chants until 3 a.m. When I
finally left, the seder still had a few hours to go. Reb Shlomo died the
following fall. This seder turned out to be the last one he led.Â

Drawing from my own enriching experiences, I am now an
enthusiastic advocate of inviting strangers to one’s seder.Â

Many families do this routinely, reaching out to welcome
various categories of Jews as well as non-Jews.

Naomi Osher of Newton, Mass., recalls her parents having
20-30 people each year at their Cincinnati home, a number of them Christians.
Her parents’ born-again housekeeper always looks forward to the tzimmes, a
sweet carrot dish.   Â

Fred Kahn of Buffalo Grove, Ill., remembers the time, when
he was a boy, that his mother called the Hillel at Northwestern University to
see if any students wanted to come to seder. On the night of the seder, seven
students from the dental school showed up at the door, causing the family to
scramble for seats and plates.

Rabbi Sheldon Ever and his wife, Reva, before immigrating to
Jerusalem, made sure each year to invite local widows and widowers who had
nowhere to go, drawing from the large elderly population of their Miami Beach
neighborhood. On occasion, attendance at their seders was as high as 40.Â

Having strangers at the seder can generate some comical
moments, especially when the guests aren’t Jewish. Mary (not her real name),
grew up in Detroit, attended Catholic schools as a child and never learned anything
about Judaism. As an adult, she befriended a man whose father was a cantor, and
the family invited her to their Passover seder. She was very excited at
attending her first Jewish event, and wanted to bring a very special gift. So
she looked hard to find the one item that she knew symbolized Judaism. She
still turns purple every time she describes the look on the faces of her host
and hostess when she presented them with a challah.Â

Both guests and hosts benefit when strangers are invited.
Individuals who are single, widowed, away from home, newly converted or unable
to conduct their own seder are deeply grateful for an invitation. Unaffiliated
Jews strengthen their connection to Judaism, and those experienced at seder
participation pick up new insights and ideas for future seders. Guests who
aren’t Jewish often find the experience fascinating, although it is probably a
good idea to prepare them in advance for the unfamiliar ritual aspects of the
meal.Â

Hosts gain in a variety of ways. Jewish affiliations for
young children are reinforced when they see strangers sing the same songs and
perform the same rituals as their parents. Family tensions can be eased when
strangers are present, as difficult relatives are more likely to be on their
best behavior. Â

Strangers contribute new songs, melodies, stories and
interpretations, help out in the kitchen and entertain the kids.Â

Their questions can bring out new understandings and make
the experience continually meaningful. New friendships and connections often
emerge.Â

If you are inspired to invite one stranger or many, here are
some people and places you might call to find guests:Â

Your rabbi, synagogue office or a synagogue located in a
neighborhood that is no longer predominantly Jewish, where remaining members
are likely to be elderly;Â

An assisted-living center or geriatric home;

The Hillel or Chabad House at your local college or
university;

Chaplains at local hospitals or military bases;Â

Jewish community centers;

Food pantries, social service organizations and
immigration organizations;

Reform or Conservative organizations that conduct classes
for converts;

Organizations that provide interest-free loans or tzedakah
to the Jewish community.Â

Remember, by opening your home to others on Passover, you
fulfill the appeal of the hagaddah liturgy: “Let all who are hungry, come and
eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Passover meal.”Â

Reprinted from JewishFamily.com, a service of Jewish Family
Life! Â


Mark I. Rosen is the is the author of “Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing With Difficult People” (Harmony Books, 1998).

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