#BlogExodus: Join Us for Dinner

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Kol dichfin yeitei v’yechul.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat.” – The Haggadah

As Robert D. Putnam pointed out way back in 1995 in Bowling Alone, Americans have ceased to be joiners. We do things alone from home, or we do them with our friends. We don’t join clubs and we pride ourselves on being private, perhaps because there is indeed so little real privacy in our lives.

Passover is a curious holiday. In some ways, it is the most private of Jewish observances. We keep it primarily at home. Its central observance, the Passover seder, is a retelling of our foundation narrative, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Also, because the seder involves seating and food and other limited resources, even when it is a community event, it’s by invitation or reservation only.

And yet the Haggadah, the script for the Passover seder, pushes us towards a greater sense of community: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” At one point in the seder we open the front door “for Elijah,” an act that at some points in Jewish history has been literally dangerous, since there were roaming antisemites in the street looking for Jews. Even in our darkest hours, the Haggadah has pushed us to open doors, to invite strangers in, to expand our circle while at the same time maintaining the boundaries of identity.

And that, too, is true to the story. The Torah tells us in Exodus 12 that “v’gam erev rav alah itam” – “and also a mixed multitude went up with them” out of Egypt. Significantly, the text doesn’t specify who they were. They were the “all” who are welcome to come and eat, to share the danger and the promise of exodus, to taste the sweetness of charoset and the bitterness of the herbs.  Our horseradish will bring tears to their eyes just as it does to ours. And with any luck our tears will mingle, joined together so that next year, in Jerusalem, they will be our old friends.

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#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions. The topic for the 10th of Nisan is “Join.”

What’s on Your Seder Checklist?

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Getting ready to host your seder? I am, and I thought I’d share my checklist. If this is your first seder, I recommend reading 7 Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success. However many sedarim you’ve hosted, I still recommend a checklist!

This is my checklist. You’ll need to customize this one to make it suit your customs.

Guest List: This is the first thing to do. The guest list will determine a great deal about your seder. Are there children? What ages? Are there people for whom this is their first seder? Will there be non-Jews at the table? What do you know about the observance of Jews at the table? Any vegetarians? Vegans? Food allergies to consider?

Haggadah: Choose a haggadah [script for the seder] or make your own. Making your own is a great thing to do, but start well ahead – for more about that, David Arnow has a wonderful website with information. If you have a haggadah you use every year, have the person who will lead the seder look through it and plan ahead what they’ll read, what they’ll skip, what may be done by other means (invite some of the guests to put on a skit for the Maggid [story] section, for instance.)  Decide where you can shorten if there are fussy children or restless adults. Remember that this is supposed to be engaging, not a dry recitation or reading.

Also, in combination with the cook, discuss what if anything you will serve during the early part of the seder. Some people think that growling stomachs are part of the experience. Personally, I like to give my guests lots of greens to dip, and lots of dips, so that discussions won’t be cut off because we’re all starving.

Wine/Grape Juice: Remember, everyone drinks four cups of wine or grape juice during the seder! Count your guest list, look at your wine glasses, and use this formula:

[# of guests] X [volume you put in the wine glass] X 4 

Keep in mind, if you have guests driving home, that you may want to make the later glasses of wine smaller or lighter or substitute grape juice. I generally figure on having at least twice as much grape juice as wine available – yes, it’s fun getting tipsy but I want everyone driving home to be sober.

Water: Water isn’t just for Miriam’s Cup. If you don’t have water on the table, your guests may get thirsty and unhappy during the seder. People drinking four cups of wine need lots of water. Plan for water glasses and a water pitcher on the table.

Hardware: Seder plate? Elijah’s cup? Miriam’s cup? Plates or chargers for the pre-meal portion? Wine glasses? Plate for matzah? Cover for Afikomen? Cover for matzah plate? Sufficient dishes for the meal and dessert? Flatware? Napkins? Tablecloth? Serving dishes? Serving spoons?

Note about table linens: Be prepared to see your linens doused in red wine and grape juice, if that’s what you are drinking. If they are priceless heirlooms and don’t already have stains from previous Passovers, you can use white wine and grape juice. Personally, I tend to see faint wine stains on a Shabbat or seder tablecloth as a sign of a household where people take those holidays seriously, but that’s just me.

Menu: Everyone’s menu is different, but sometimes it can be quite rigid in families. If you have a blended family at the table, you may want to check in ahead of time to be sure that if half the people at the table need matzah ball soup for it to be a proper seder, that wish is at least considered. It’s not fun to spend the rest of the meal listening to grumbling. (Hint: if something is essential and you don’t want to or don’t know how to make it, ask those guests to be responsible for that part of the meal.)

Salt water: You’re going to need salt water for the ritual. Make it ahead, and serve it from something other than your regular water pitcher.

Matzah: You will need lots of matzah, preferably Kosher-for-Passover matzah that doesn’t have eggs or salt or other interesting ingredients. Read the box. “Gluten free matzah” is not technically suitable for a seder. If someone is avoiding gluten because their doctor has forbidden all gluten, of course they should not eat regular matzah. However, don’t just automatically buy gluten-free matzah for everyone; it doesn’t fulfill the mitzvah.

Charoset: Always make more charoset than you think you’ll need. Trust me, you will eat it up before the end of the week, or your guests can take some home.

Horseradish: Ditto. More than you think you will need. You don’t want to run out: there’s always someone who wants it on their Hillel sandwich and their brisket, too.

Seder Plate: Read How To: Seder Plate Setup for the checklist for the seder plate and its options.

Toys: If you have children at your seder table, consider decorating the table with things they can play with, or making things appear during the seder for them. P.S. – Adults like toys, too.

Carry Home Containers: I always have a supply of “disposable” containers ready (either repurposed jars from other foods, ziplock bags, or the commercial ones) so that I can send leftovers home with guests without worrying about whether my Tupperware will come home or not.

Sense of Humor: This is a Passover Seder, not a solemn high Mass. If something goes wrong, make light of it, make it work, and above all, make whoever spilled that glass of juice comfortable by telling them it’s no big deal. Bring your sense of humor and apply it liberally.

Ask the Rabbi: Hostess gifts at Passover?

Ask the RabbiA reader asks: What can I bring as a gift to a Passover seder?

First and foremost, unless you are certain of your hosts’ Passover practices, don’t bring any food that is loose or homemade. While there are basic rules for Passover that apply in most households, no two families are exactly the same. Food marked “Kosher for Passover” in an sealed, unopened package is probably all right but for myself, I tend to avoid all food gifts at this time of year unless I have special knowledge of tastes and Jewish observance in that home.

Some good non-food items to bring:

  1. An interesting Haggadah is a nice gift. Some have beautiful illustrations, some have texts or commentary by famous rabbis, and some are just unusual.
  2. Small housewares are welcome this time of year: dish clothes, napkins, placemats, salt-and-pepper shakers, etc. Many families pack away their “regular” wares in favor of “Passover” things and so something new is particularly welcome at this time.
  3. Flowers are always lovely.
  4. If there are children in the house, bringing a Passover book, puzzle or toy for children is a very nice thing to do.
  5. Books or games are a fine idea.

If nothing on this list appeals to you, perhaps it has given you other ideas. Readers, can you suggest gifts you have given at Passover time that have been particularly welcome?

Welcome to Nisan!

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A few blooms announce the arrival of spring.
It’s Nisan! It’s Spring!

This is a few hours early – Nisan doesn’t officially begin until sundown. But yes, Adar is almost gone and Nisan is upon us.

Nisan was counted as the first month of the year in the Biblical calendar, in which it is called “Aviv.” That is one reason that 1st Nisan is one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar.  Nisan is the Babylonian name for the month, which we brought back from Babylon when Cyrus the Great authorized the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and the Babylonian Exile ended. (Ezra 1:1-2)

Nisan has important holidays and observances:

  • 14 NisanFast of the Firstborn – falls on 12 Nisan when the 14th falls on Sabbath
  • 15-21 NisanPassover – also 22 Nisan in the Diaspora, except for Reform Jews.
  • 27 NisanYom HaShoah – falls on 26 Nisan or 28 Nisan when the 27th falls on Friday or Sunday respectively, interfering with Shabbat.

So now that it’s Nisan, time is very short to prepare for Passover! Some articles that may help:

Passover Preparation for Beginners (Good if you are feeling overwhelmed or confused)

Preparing for Passover: Six Ways to Prepare (Expands the possibilities a bit)

7  Facts about Passover (for very beginners)

Preparing for Exodus: Books  Books about Passover

Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success

Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

Seven Facts about Passover: for Beginners

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1. Passover is the most-observed Jewish holiday.

2. Passover falls in the springtime. It begins on the 15th of Nisan.

3. Passover lasts for seven days (in Israel) and eight days (in the Diaspora.) Most Reform Jews follow the Israeli practice.

4. Passover is primarily a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. It is layered on an agricultural holiday celebrating the arrival of spring and planting time.

5. Observant Jews remove all products containing wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye from their homes. They prepare for Passover with a vigorous spring cleaning.

6. The primary observance of Passover is the Passover Seder, a meal and learning experience through which the foundational story of the Jews is learned and relearned. The script for the seder is called the Haggadah.

7. During the week of Passover, Jews eat matzah instead of leavened bread. Passover matzah is specially baked unleavened bread. This has resulted in an entire cuisine of Passover cooking.

Purim, Pi, Patrick, Passover!

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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

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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.