Purim, Pi, Patrick, Passover!

shamrock

OK, I admit it: I love alliteration, and that title was just too good to pass up. We just celebrated Purim. Pi Day is today (yay! Pie in the oven right now!) St. Patrick‘s Day is soon, and all this takes place in the midst of Passover preparations (there’s another P!)

This does have a point.

I celebrate Purim and Passover specifically because I’m a Jew. I understand myself to be obligated to celebrate them. They are required for me, optional for any Gentiles who wish to celebrate, although they are certainly welcome at my table.

I celebrate Pi Day with other members of my Jewish community. We celebrate it because (1) we love pie,  (2) we love puns and similar geekery and (3) some of us love math. I would never have met any of those friends were it not for the fact that we happen to go to the same synagogue. We weren’t friends before synagogue; we are dear friends now. Pi Day is neutral religiously, but it offers the added Jewish benefit of using up flour before Passover.

Which brings me to the other P: Patrick. St. Patrick’s Day is a bit more complicated. Start with the “Saint” bit. First, Jews do not celebrate saints’ days. Not our tradition. There are people in our past whom we revere, but we tend to call them tzaddik (righteous person) or chasid (pious person) or we use their names with a certain hush. Second, Christian saints in past centuries were often hostile to the Jews, to put it mildly: see the writings of Ambrose or John Chrysostom. Third, certain Christian holidays became days with excuses for being nasty to Jews: that’s where Patrick gets into the mix.

I am a Jew of Irish-American descent. That ancestry is an important slice of my identity, as important in its own way as “Californian” or “expatriate Southerner” or “queer.”  It’s so important that had one of my sons been a daughter, she’d have been named Bridget. My grandmother’s stories, handed down from her grandmother, about the Famine and our arrival in America were key narratives in my childhood. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day is the day to celebrate that heritage.

Unfortunately, when I wear my bit of green on March 17, I am sure to hear a story or three from Jewish friends and colleagues about their childhood experiences of St. Patrick’s Day. Their memories are of hostility from Irish-Americans that day: pinching (“Where’s your green?”) and excuses for the ongoing antisemitism of the schoolyard: people throwing pennies at the Jew, etc. I don’t recall ever witnessing such as a kid, but since I was part of the majority (at school, not in the culture) I may well have overlooked it.

I still wear green on March 17. I embrace the contradictions, because face it, I embody them. I eschew the leprechauns and green beer because they only play into the worst stereotypes: there is more to Irishness than superstition and alcohol. I don’t celebrate the conversion of Ireland, but I celebrate Irish culture, Irish art, and Irish literature. I celebrate Irish-American grit, and stubbornness, and enterprise. I celebrate my grandmother and her stories and her love.

And yes, as a Jew, it’s complicated, that particular P.

Pi, anyone?

Preparing for Exodus: Books

syzk

For Jews, the month before Passover is busy, busy, busy. We have a house to clean, seders to plan, lists to check. The same old decorations may be getting a little shabby – time to spruce things up!

In just the same way, the knowledge of Passover acquired in Hebrew school might not really meet our needs as adults. The same old thoughts are feeling, well, same and old. If you’d like to refresh the inside of your head as well as the inside of your house (or if this whole thing is new to you) it might be the time to check out some pre-Passover reading.

If you are struggling to come up with the right “hostess gift” to take to a seder, a good book is always a welcome addition to a Jewish home. Some of these are inexpensive, some are extremely so, but any would make a lovely gift.

About the Seder

Steingroot, Ira, Keeping Passover – This is a personal favorite of mine. The book is simple enough for beginners and informative enough for those looking to deepen their practice. I like that he encourages freedom in producing a very personal seder for your family.

Arnow, David,  Creating Lively Passover Seders Arnow offers wonderful suggestions for enriching your seder.

Arnow, David and others, My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts & Modern Commentaries, (2 vols) These volumes, like those from the popular series My People’s Prayer Book open up the haggadah in multiple ways for learners.

Tabory, Joseph and Stern, David: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah. This is a heavy-duty scholarly commentary on the haggadah, not for beginners or the faint of heart, but very satisfying for some.

Art Haggadot

The tradition of making beautiful illuminated haggadot goes back centuries. We can learn from texts, sure, but we can also learn from illustrations.

The Moss Haggadah: A Complete Reproduction of the Haggadah Written and Illuminated by David Moss for Richard and Beatrice Levy, with the Commentary of the Artist. This haggadah was originally produced as a private commission. Linda and I were given a copy as a wedding present, and it is one of our most treasured possessions.

The Szyk Haggadah, by Arthur Szyk. This haggadah was illustrated and published by a Polish artist during the rise of Hitler. It is one of the great treasures of the Jewish people.

Epstein, Mark, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination. This art book will give you a glimpse of four of the beautiful medieval haggadot, all produced between 1300 and 1340 in Europe. The art is accompanied by commentary by Mark Epstein, a historian who puts them all in context.

There are many other beautiful art haggadot. The way to see them is to find a bookstore with a seder display and usually the art haggadot are its stars.

For information about regular haggadot for use at the table, see Which Haggadah, Rabbi?

Passover Cookbooks!

Passover cooking is a miracle of its own. Imagine cooking completely without chametz: products of wheat, rye, oats, spelt or barley!  For Ashenazim (Jews of Eastern European traditions) add kitniyot (rice, legumes, corn, etc.) to that list. Perhaps because of the strictures, Pesadik (kosher for Passover) recipes have become an art form.

Nathan, Joan. Joan Nathan’s Holiday Cookbook. This is a cookbook with commentary. The recipes are great (and include more than Passover!) but there are also stories and information to help you enjoy the holidays. This book is a classic.

Amster, Linda, ed. The New York Times Passover Cookbook: More than 200 Holiday Recipes from Top Cooks and Writers. Another classic, now in a second edition.

 

Which Haggadah, Rabbi?

One of my students asked this evening about suggestions for Passover Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) and books about Passover. What a great idea!

Keep in mind that the Haggadah is merely a script for the evening. What you choose to do with it is up to you: do everything, do only some parts, add favorite bits from other haggadot, do parts of it as skits, interpretive dance, whatever. OK, I was mostly kidding about the interpretive dance. But if that idea excites you, please send video! My point is, it’s your seder, do it in a way that will be meaningful for you and the people at your table!

A complete set of haggadot can be a considerable investment, unless you inherit some or use the free ones that some grocery stores in big cities give away. The absolute best way to buy one is to go to a real bookstore and browse them: hold them in your hands, see how the pages turn, feel the weight, imagine them on your table. Look at the pictures or lack thereof, look at the text. If you must buy via the Internet, then buy one or two and try them out before you take the plunge.

The other possibility is that maybe you want to collect haggadot and mix and match the contents for your own seder. More about that in another post.

Haggadot (hah-gah-DOTE)

ChildrensHA Children’s Haggadah, Text by Rabbi Howard Bogot and Rabbi Robert Orkand, Illustrated and designed by Devis Grebu. I especially like this one when there are going to be children and/or folks who are new to the seder. It’s very well done but also quite simple.

goldbergPassover Haggadah, by Nathan Goldberg. A traditional haggadah text, with both English and Hebrew. Pages and lines are numbered which will help after two glasses of wine. (“Where are we now?”)

HaggadahCCARA Passover Haggadah,  Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, ed. Illustrated by Leonard Baskin. This classic has been around many seder tables for years.

 

diffnighthA Different Night, the Family Participation Haggadah, by David Dishon and Noam Zion. This book changed my whole approach to the seder. I used to feel bound by the seder and terribly anxious if we skipped anything. This book made me feel free to tailor the seder to the group at the table, and seders have been much better ever since. There is also a “compact edition” of this that you can buy to have at each place at the table (less expensive, and easier to handle.) The “leader’s edition” really qualifies not only as a Haggadah but also as a book about Passover.

santacruzhThe Santa Cruz Haggadah, by Karen G.R. Rockard. Affectionately known at my house as “that hippie haggadah,” this is another personal favorite. Besides the bizarro name (it was written in 1991 in Santa Cruz, CA – there are no “holy crosses” in it, I promise!) it has cartoony illustrations and lots of alternative readings about tikkun olam, our responsibility to heal the world. You’ll either love it or hate it. It, too, comes in a “leaders edition” and a “participant’s version.”

Beautiful Haggadot

Some haggadot are gorgeous art books and not really intended for the table. OR they are commentaries on the haggadah, intended more for the study table in the weeks leading up to the seder. Either way, they can be wonderful to own in addition to the regular haggadot you will stain with wine and brisket gravy. Trust me: you do not want to juggle an art book or a ten pound commentary at the seder table!

I have mentioned a few of my personal favorite haggadot. I’d like your help in expanding this list: what’s your favorite haggadah to actually use at the seder table? Please tell us about it in the comments with enough information for readers to find a copy!

Happy preparations, everyone!

 

Passover Preparation, for Beginners

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [Pirkei Avot 2:16]

It is tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers, and we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  To any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey! If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  What can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by the Pesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing)  is a product that is both made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) and has been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that has been wet at one time for more than 18 minutes.

Anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it on purpose or by accident is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot] because those things often behave like the forbidden grains.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of what I call “big chometz.”  Set aside all the chometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

Another possibility is to buy a package of paper plates. This is less wasteful if there is some way to compost them instead of putting them in the landfill after use. During Passover, I use more disposable products than at other times of the year, but I try to use them responsibly.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for  all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down.  Dust everywhere.  Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZ  Some thinkers have suggested that chometz can be spiritual rather than physical. If this idea intrigues you, here are some articles that explore it:
7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, the way we observe the mitzvah may shift.
Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.
_____
This is an update of a post from 2012.

Six Steps to Passover

todoPurim is over. It’s time to get ready for Passover! Here’s my to-do list:

1. Figure out where I’ll be for seder. – The Passover seder is an obligation. It’s also the primary Jewish learning experience in which we share a meal, a story, and insights on the story. I need to be at the table first night, and I want to be at the table second night, but I need to decide if I’m hosting a seder or if I will be a guest at someone else’s table or a community table. No matter which, I need to be proactive.

2. Get rid of my chametz! My mantra for chametz (food containing the 5 grains forbidden for Passover) is: Use it up, give it away, throw it out!  If you are new to Judaism, or new to keeping Passover, read my post, Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It will explain what chametz is and a gentle way to begin this observance. There is no need to make yourself or your family miserable, nor do you get “Jewish points” for doing so.

3. Clean my house.  The tradition says that I have to get rid of chametz, but if I do a good job of it, then I will clean my house in the process. Passover prep is my yearly reminder to get rid of the things I don’t need, to clean up old messes, and to get my house back in order.

4. Recycle my emergency supplies. I live in California on an earthquake fault, so I have a stash of food, flashlights, and batteries in various safe places around the house. This time of year, I get last year’s canned goods, etc and take them to the Food Bank. Then I go to a discount store and replace them. That way people in need get food and batteries before they go bad, and I renew my supplies. It isn’t part of the halakhah for Passover, but it’s a great time to do it (see #2 above.) This is part of my annual tzedakah budget.

5. Locate my Passover dishes and recipes. Not every Jew keeps double sets of everything. I have a couple of boxes of Passover-only things, and I supplant the rest with (compostable) paper plates and such. I learned the hard way one year not to leave this till the last moment, because maybe I remember exactly where it all is, and maybe I only imagine I know.

6. Buy Passover supplies. For some ritually observant Jews, this means a huge expensive trip to the kosher grocery. I don’t keep kosher, but I do keep Passover, and that means I’ll need matzo and other products that substitute for all the stuff I cleaned out. Don’t wait till the last moment to get your matzo! Some years it can be hard to find in the last week.

It’s a lot of work, especially on top of my regular work! Time to get cracking: the next time the moon is full, it will be Passover!

Weather and the Jewish Year

 

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.
A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

Queentimely wrote in response to a recent post:

I don’t know how many readers you have in the southern hemisphere, but it might interest those in the north to be reminded that it’s actually winter here — cold (in Melbourne terms), blowy and dark early.

Excellent point!

One of the quirks of living in California is that the climate and the seasons match that of Israel pretty closely. That’s very handy for us, because the Jewish calendar is rooted in the seasons of the Land of Israel. I am prone to forget that for most of the world, it isn’t so tidy.

For instance, Jews worldwide begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the close of Sukkot. In both Israel and California, that day falls at about the earliest date one might reasonably expect some rain. Therefore the weather is perfect for eating and sleeping in the sukkah: not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too wet. However, if one is celebrating in Minnesota or in Sweden, the sukkah is apt to be downright soggy and cold, because autumn had already arrived weeks before.

The same goes for Passover: it’s a spring holiday, hence the parsley and the egg on the seder plate. However, the 14th of Nisan may be a bit early for spring in some northern climes. In the southern hemisphere, Jews sit around the seder table in the fall.

So why not simply attune the holidays to the local climate? Long ago, when Jews were forced into Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, we decided to keep our calendars aligned with that of our homeland. So Jews in Spain, Jews in South America, Jews in Australia, and Jews in Finland keep the same calendar, no matter what the weather is doing in their local neighborhoods. Just as we face towards Jerusalem for prayer, we align the Jewish year with that of the Land of Israel, because it is, and always has been, home.

So, readers: if your climate or seasons are radically different from that of Israel, how does it affect your observance of the calendar? If you have celebrated the Jewish Year in the far North or south of the equator, I hope to hear from you.

Tired of Matzah?

Matzah, Matzah, Matzah!
Matzah, Matzah, Matzah!

And they journeyed from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came to the Wilderness of Zin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they departed from the land of Egypt. Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not.”  –Exodus 16: 1-4

Yes, I’m tired of matzah too on the 7th evening of Passover. We’ve been eating this stuff for a solid week.

As I said in an earlier post, the only matzah that’s required is at the seder. After that, it’s up to us how much to eat. But for most of us, completely eliminating bread-ish products is unthinkable, so we eat sandwiches made with matzah, pizza made with matzah, fried matzah, matzah puddings, and various things made with matzah meal.

At first it’s a novelty, and even a treat, and for some it remains a treat, but for others it gets pretty boring. And that, my friends, is the point. If you read the passage above from Exodus, you will see that our ancestors were still eating matzah after weeks and weeks. Then, when they finally complained about it, God immediately sent them manna, which was also repetitive but at least tasted good.

So our boredom with matzah is actually a continuation of that “just out of Egypt” experience. Until they got to the wilderness, God did most of the work of redemption for the Israelites, sending plagues, guiding them with the cloud and the pillar of fire, parting the Reed Sea. God told Moses what to do, and held up God’s end of the deal. But once out in the wilderness, it was time for the Israelites to begin to leave the mindset of slaves. They needed to learn to ask for what they needed, instead of passively waiting, like slaves.

So now it might be time to ask ourselves: is there some part of my life in which I am partially free, but I have yet to take the next step? Is there some part of my life in which I am just waiting for miracles? What options are open to me, to move myself towards freedom? What do I need to move forward?

May we all find our way towards freedom and dignity, and may we have the courage to take the steps to get there.

Image: by Ari Moore, some rights reserved.