Home Sweet Jewish Home

July 2, 2013
English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIX...

English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping a Jewish home is an important part of Jewish life.  Here are some reasons:

HOME RITUALS Many of Judaism’s key rituals take place in the home: Shabbat candle-lighting, Shabbat dinner, Passover seder, Chanukah candles.  Even one lifecycle event, the bris [ritual circumcision] is most often performed at home.

JEWISH IDENTITY Everywhere except in Israel, Judaism is a minority religion. Even in the United States, which has a number of large Jewish communities, we are only 2% of the population.  For Jews, home is the key place where Jewish identity is formed and nurtured, not only in children but in adults.

HOME MITZVOT – There are Jewish commandments that pertain specifically to the home.  We hang a mezuzah in the doorways of the home.  Cooking and meals have many different mitzvot [commandments] associated with them: blessings, dietary laws, even some rules for cooking. Those may occasionally be performed in a synagogue, but they most often are observed in the home. Even certain safety rules for the home are actually commandments from Torah.

MIKDASH ME’AT means “little sanctuary.” Ever since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D., our sages have regarded the home as a primary worship environment for Jews. Torah is a set of instructions for living our daily lives, and those lives take place at home, not at synagogue.

If a visitor came to your home, would he or she recognize that it is a Jewish home? What would be the tipoff?

How many different ways is your home identifiable as a Jewish home?


Hungry for Passover?

March 23, 2013
A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven.

A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

In a few days, we will read those words from the Haggadah.

 

Very soon, Jews all around the world will sit down to a seder meal, to listen to the story, to ask questions, to laugh, to share one another’s company, and to eat. Every family has its own favorite recipes: for my family, it is the brisket I slow-cook every year, 8 hours at least in a low, low oven, simmering with tomatoes and root vegetables until we all go crazy smelling it.

 

But there are other families, Jewish and not, where there will be no feast that first night of Passover, where the phrase “bread of poverty” is not simply a ritual observance. In 2011, over 50 million Americans lived in “food insecure households.” Stop and ponder: Fifty million Americans were unsure of their next meal last year. 

 

That means that if you live in the United States, somewhere within easy driving distance of your home, someone is going hungry.

 

I have learned, as a rabbi, as a person to whom people tell their secrets, that many of the hungry are not the stereotype in your mind. Some of them are your neighbors. Some of them do everything they can to keep their dignity, to not let on. But they line up for some free vegetables behind a church where they think no one will recognize them. They don’t tell their kids where the food came from.

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

How can we keep our words at the seder from being a cruel farce? In the long run, it will require political action, and we are yet to come to agreement about how to proceed about that as a nation. In the short run, there is much we can do, and it is easy to do. Find your local food bank (the link will lead you to an online tool). Send what you can afford. Food banks are organizations that do the buying and gathering of food for many local agencies, to make every dollar go the farthest. If you want your tzedakah dollar to go far, to be a “good investment,” give to your local food bank. It’s very easy to give: most food banks offer an online donation link.

 

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah, to give charity funds for the relief of suffering, before every holiday feast. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms, Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).  People in our neighborhoods suffer from food insecurity – they are not sure of their next meal. It is up to us to act. It is up to us to make sure that the words we read aloud from the Haggadah are true:

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat. 

 

 

 

 


How-To: Seder Plate Setup

March 19, 2013
Traditional arrangement of symbolic foods on a...

Traditional arrangement of symbolic foods on a Passover Seder Plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You are going to host a seder!  You’ve already read Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success.  Now you are getting ready to set the table, and realize you have to make a seder plate. Don’t panic! You can do this.

THE PLATE – The plate may be your great-grandmother’s silver seder-plate, or it can be a paper plate from the grocery store.  Truly.  If you have a large, pretty plate, great, and if you don’t, just use a plate or platter or something.  The point is to arrange some mysterious objects that will spur conversation and questions. If it’s pretty, good. If it is actually a bit weird, that’s not bad, either.

Things to go on the Plate:

Note: the things you put on the plate are to look at, and to provoke discussion. Those foods which you will eat, serve in regular serving bowls that can be handed around. The loaded seder plate will be a disaster waiting to happen if you try to pass it around.  Think of it as a centerpiece, or conversation piece.

KARPAS – Karpas is a green vegetable.  It is supposed to remind people of spring. Parsley is often used for karpas; get a big bundle of it, put some on the seder plate, and put some in water glasses (sort of as you would flowers) to pass out, because the group will need to “dip” the greens into salt water at one point in the seder. The water will keep the parsley crisp, and it will be drippy with the salt water, anyhow. For more about the symbolism of parsley, read this.

CHAROSET – (also pronounced ha-RO-set or cha-RO-sis).There are lots of good recipes for charoset. It’s nuts chopped with apples and sweet wine plus whatever you want. If you have guests who are allergic to nuts, have chopped apples with cinnamon. Put a spoonful on the seder plate.  Since it is there to remind us of the hard work of slavery, you can shape it into a little pyramid if you like. (If your charoset is too runny to do this, you are putting too much wine in it.) Again, put the charoset to serve in bowls, and make more than you think you will need, because some of your guests will want lots.

MAROR – Maror (mah-ROAR) is a bitter herb, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery and to fulfill the commandment to eat bitter herbs with the matzah.  Many Jews use horseradish for this. Put either a spoonful of ground horseradish on the plate, or a chunk of horseradish root. You will want to have another bowl of horseradish to hand around to actually eat from.

ZEROA – Zeroa is a roasted lamb shank bone.  You can get these from a kosher butcher (and often from other butchers) right before Passover.  Or you can save one from the last time you had lamb for dinner, clean it, and keep it in the freezer.  This is in memory of the Passover sacrifice, back when we had the Temple. It is only for show. Vegetarians may opt to replace the actual bone with a beet root.

EGG – Technically, this egg should be roasted. I have seen people do it by holding the egg, with tongs, in a gas flame until the egg turned odd colors (grey, brown streaks).  I have also heard of people boiling the egg with some onion skins to give it color.  Leave it in the shell.  This egg is not fit to eat, it is just for show. It reminds us of the hagigah sacrifice, and of springtime. Many families eat hard boiled eggs as part of the Passover meal.

HAZERET – This one is optional. Some families do it, some do not. It’s an additional bitter vegetable, usually romaine lettuce,  for the Hillel sandwich.  Families who do not put hazeret on the plate use the horseradish for the Hillel sandwich.

That is the traditional seder plate. (See photo at the top of this article.)

In modern times, there have been several additions, which you may or may not choose to have:

The (non-Kosher) Passover Seder Plate

An orange on the seder plate (Photo credit: akseabird)

ORANGE – Some people put an orange on the seder plate as a protest against sexism in Judaism. You may hear a poignant tale about the daughter of a famous rabbi, who was not allowed to say kaddish for her father. That story is not true.  For the true story, read this article.

BREAD – Some have suggested putting a piece of bread on the seder plate to protest discrimination against homosexuals. Bread is used precisely because it is forbidden by the laws of Passover, just as Leviticus is interpreted to forbid homosexuality. However, this may be extremely problematic to anyone who expects there to be no chametz in the house, much less in the centerpiece. It might be more effective instead to have a discussion about marriage diversity at the table.

TOMATO – Some put a tomato on their seder plate, in solidarity with agricultural workers in the U.S. who do not have to imagine what slavery is like.  This article from the Jewish Week says more about that practice, and lists other objects which some people put on the seder plate.

An editorial note:  If you consider putting one of these protest items on your seder plate, please also take some actual action on behalf of the people who suffer. Putting a tomato on the seder plate is nice, but it by itself does not do anything for farm workers. Send a little tzedakah (charitable gift) to an organization that works for freedom of those workers, or works to relieve their suffering.

The purpose of almost everything at the seder, but especially the seder plate itself, is to inspire questions and stimulate conversation. There are no “right” answers — perhaps in your discussion this year, you will think of a new way that one of these objects illuminates the story of the passage of a people from slavery to freedom.

I wish you a Pesach sameach – a happy Passover!


Where’s Your Seder?

March 16, 2013

Deutsch: Sedertisch. Festmahl zum jüdischen Pe...

The first night of Passover is March 25, 2013 – a week away! If you do not have a plan for what you are going to do about seder, now’s the time to figure it out.

For readers in the Bay Area of California, Dawn Kepler at Building Jewish Bridges has put together a very good directory to first and second night seders on her blog.

If you are not in that area, call a local synagogue or Jewish institution and ask them about community seders. Most of these will have a charge for attendance (after all, they have to pay for the food and often the venue) but financial assistance is often available. If you need it, ask for it. Call now, because later in the week the places at the table may be full.

If you will be a guest in someone’s home, here are Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Guest. If you are hosting your first seder, here are Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success. If you will be alone for Passover, here are some Tips for that.

However you “do” Passover, I wish you a joyful and hopeful passage from slavery to freedom.


Lechem Oni / Matzah

March 16, 2013

Matzah

 

Matzah is the paradox
at the heart of Passover.

At the center of our Passover feast,
this poor bread, lechem oni, scatters crumbs everywhere.

We place it among mounds of food:
poverty in the midst of plenty.
Now who among us has seen that?

Surely God called us out of Egypt
For something better.


Passover Vocabulary 102

March 11, 2013
Matzah Ball Soup

Matzah Ball Soup (Photo credit: mhaithaca)

After I posted Passover Vocabulary 101, my friend Ely Zimmerman offered some great suggestions, and I thought of more words and phrases a newcomer to Passover might want to know.  Here’s a new list (if you think of more, leave me a comment and I’ll add 103 to the blog!)

קנאַידעל – (NAY-dle) Knaidel  or kneydel is a matzah ball. That is, it’s a dumpling made of matzah meal and eggs, usually served in chicken broth. It’s also yummy. (Yiddish)

אפיקומן - (af-ee-KO-men) Afikomen is a piece of broken matzah, eaten at the end of the Passover meal. It is the last thing consumed. Often, if there are children present, the afikomen is hidden from them and a prize is given as “ransom” to the child who finds it. The seder cannot be finished until the afikomen is eaten.

מא נשתנה הלילה הזה – (Ma nish-ta-NAH ha-LYE-lah ha-ZEH) – Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh is the beginning of the part of the seder called “The Four Questions.” It means, “How is tonight different?” Many things in the seder are done in odd ways in order to get the participants to ask questions or to stimulate curiosity.

אליהו – (ee-LYE-jah or EH-li-AH-hu) Elijah is the name of a prophet during the reign of King Ahab of Israel. According to the Bible, he did not die but was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot. (2 Kings 2:9) Since Elijah’s mysterious disappearance, legends have circulated that he sometimes visits Jews, and that someday he will come to announce the arrival of a messiah.  Towards the end of the seder, we open a door just a bit, in case Elijah might visit our home.

חרוסת – (cha-RO-set or cha-RO-sis) Charoset is a mixture of chopped apples, chopped nuts, and a little wine (and sometimes other things, too) that we eat at Passover. It is a reminder of the mortar that the Hebrew used to make bricks. It is also a sweet taste to contrast with the bitter herbs.

געפילטע פיש – (geh-FILL-teh FISH) Gefilte Fish is traditional Passover and Shabbat food among Ashkenazi Jews. It’s usually served as balls of poached ground fish, and eaten with horseradish. (Yiddish)

מרור – (mah-ROAR) – Maror is a bitter herb, which we are commanded to eat at Passover. Often horseradish is served as maror; sometimes romaine lettuce or celery are used.


Seder Tips: Alone for Passover?

March 4, 2013
A Seder table setting

A Seder table setting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WordPress, the outfit that makes it possible for me to post this blog, also provides me with data about the Google searches that lead people here. Today one caught my eye and urges me to write: “how to have a seder alone.”

Jews generally celebrate everything in community. There are even some things we can’t do properly without a certain number of persons present:  say the Kaddish prayer, chant from the Torah, or get married, to name just a few. While there is no rule against reading through the Haggadah alone, “Seder” suggests a group of people around a table, telling the Exodus story together. It was designed by the ancient rabbis as an opportunity to learn and share with other Jews. Yet sometimes circumstances are such that it just isn’t possible to gather with friends for a seder. Here are some thoughts for dealing with Passover solo.

1. IT’S OK TO ASK.  In Western culture, it is generally considered impolite to “invite myself over” to someone’s house, especially for a meal. Passover meals are one of the exceptions to this rule. If you are going to be in a city but don’t know any of the Jews there, call a local Jewish institution (synagogue, the Federation) and tell them that you are alone for Passover and need somewhere to go for seder. Often they can provide a lead to a household where they look forward to keeping the mitzvah of a new person at the table. It’s a mitzvah for them, and a community for you, and you’ll almost certainly make some Jewish friends.  Good all around!  It is also ok, if you are a single in a Jewish community, to let others know that you don’t have a seder invitation. If you are a guest at someone’s seder table, be sure to read Seven Ways to be a Great Seder Guest.

2. COMMUNITY SEDERS. Many Jewish communities offer a second night seder at synagogues or a hotel for which guests sign up and pay a fee. My own community, Temple Sinai of Oakland, is offering such a seder this year (if you are going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up via this link.) Again, call local Jewish institutions and ask! This can be a more comfortable option if you feel shy about going to a seder at someone’s home.

3. TECHNOLOGY. If there is a group in another place with whom you have had the seder in the past, but you’ve relocated, what about Skype? Talk to your friends about setting up a computer near the table, so you can schmooze with the Jews, too.  If Skype is too much tech for you, consider a phone connection via a speakerphone on the distant table. No, it is not traditional or even halakhic, but it will provide an important connection on the holiday. Last year a number of Jews, including rabbis, found ways to use technology to enhance the seder, according to this Wall Street Journal article.

4. INVITE NON-JEWISH FRIENDS. OK, so you are in the middle of nowhere, no Jews around, and Skyping with old friends is not an option. What about getting some matzah, getting out the Haggadah, and inviting some Gentile friends over to share the story of the Exodus?

5. SEDER SOLO. If none of the above will work for you, the real necessities for your seder are some matzah, some wine or grape juice, and a copy of the Haggadah. If you have no Haggadah, a Bible will do.  Read the story. Eat unleavened bread. And then begin to make plans for next year, either in Jerusalem, or with some friends.


Preparing for Passover: Six Ways to Prepare

February 26, 2013
housekeeping

(Photo credit: pucci.it)

Traditionally, Jews spend the month after Purim preparing for Passover. A lot of the holiday is in the preparation: the seder and the week that follows are the fruit of what we’ve put in the month before. I thought it might be helpful to look at the various ways we prepare for Passover.  If this is your first year observing Passover, don’t try to do everything at once. Choose one or two, and get all that you can out of them.

 

1. HOUSE CLEANING. Yes, literal house cleaning! For more on this, and a sane way to approach it in the spirit of learning something (as opposed to merely making yourself exhausted and crazy) here’s an article I wrote last year. One of the things about the physical cleaning is that you can pursue it while you think about some of the more brain-intensive possibilities below.

 

2. PONDERING A PERSONAL PASSOVER. Passover is the festival of telling the story about “deliverance from Egypt.” If you are truly to experience deliverance, it helps to notice from what you need deliverance. Spend some time, between now and Passover, thinking about your own personal Egypt(s). The name for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim,” which also means “a narrow place, a tight spot.” Questions to ask myself: Where in my life am I stuck? To what am I a slave? In what parts of my life am I Pharaoh? Do I depend on the slavery of others? What would freedom look like, in any of these cases? What would freedom cost? What is freedom worth?

 

3. PLANNING FOR SEDER.  Notice that I don’t say “planning A seder.” I covered that last year in the post, “Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success.”  The question is, what am I going to do about attending seder this year? Participation at seder is not optional: Jews are supposed to be at a seder the first night of Passover (in some understandings, the first two nights of Passover.) This does NOT mean that each of us have to host a seder, however. Now is the time to make seder plans, to touch base with the family with whom you always have seder (are we observing together this year?) or to make your own  list of guests, or to find out what’s available to you.  If you are reading this and thinking, “But I don’t know anyone!” then you need to get busy. Phone your synagogue and tell them that you need a seder invitation (yes, this is perfectly OK, if you belong to a synagogue.) OR phone almost any local Jewish organization and ask them to point you to a seder you can attend for a fee. If this makes you feel incredibly anxious, watch for upcoming posts on this blog about being a seder novice with “nowhere to go.” I’m going to write about it.

 

4. PLANNING FOR THE WEEK. When I was first learning about Passover, I got so excited about the cleaning and the meal, I forgot that Passover goes on for a whole week.  Plan what you will eat during that time: lots of matzah? Special recipes? Or use the time to “renew your diet” by moving away from processed foods and spending a week eating fresh fruits and vegetables? If you are going to buy special products for Passover, now is the time to buy them (and to find them in the store.)

 

5. PONDERING CHAMETZ. Another thing to think about, as Passover approaches, is chametz. It’s what we clean out of the house (see the link in #1 above.) Technically speaking, chametz is any product of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt) that may have gotten wet. (What? you say, I thought it had something to do with leaven? And the answer to that, is that in Bible times, leaven was all by sourdough method: if grain got wet, sometimes it got infected with yeast and swelled.) In pondering chametz, the questions are: what in my life is crummy? What has gotten swelled up, out of proportion? What is stale? And now that I’ve identified those things, what am I going to do about them?

 

6. TZEDAKAH. Tzedakah is the Jewish term for charitable giving, which we are commanded to do. At Passover, the story reminds me of slaves and refugees, both of which the present world has in miserable quantity. This is a great time to give tzedakah to relieve their suffering. This, too, takes planning!

 

So, enjoy your planning! Get all the “juice” out of this fruitful time of the Jewish year!

 


Preparing for Passover – Resources

February 15, 2013
Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I have noticed in the past few days that suddenly lots of people are looking to Google for help preparing for Passover. Traditionally, Passover prep begins at Purim, but in fact, many people start a bit earlier, because it can be a big job.

But… don’t forget to celebrate Purim!  More about that in the days to come.


Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

April 8, 2012
Omer table, depicting the number of days in th...

Omer table, depicting the number of days in the omer (top) and its equivalence in number of weeks (middle) and days (bottom)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why count the Omer?

In my effort to get myself to do it properly and on time, I have asked this question and looked for answers.  Here are some ideas about why we count the Omer.

(1).  GOD SAID TO:  “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In other words, God said to make sacrifices to mark these days.  We don’t have the Temple anymore, so instead we count after dinner each night.

(2) IT CONNECTS PASSOVER TO SHAVUOT:  Passover is a big holiday of celebration.  We celebrate freedom, which is mostly a happy thing (no more slavery, yay!) By preserving the count of the Omer, even without the Temple, the rabbis are reminding us that the Passover is not truly complete until we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot.  Freedom without responsibility is incomplete and unreal.  By counting, we remind ourselves that the process is not yet finished.

(3) SELF IMPROVEMENT:  In preparation to receive the Torah, we work to become better Jews.  The Kabbalists point out that the Omer is counted for seven weeks of seven days, and they match them with the seven sefirot through which God interacts with the world.  Each of the seven days within those weeks are matched with the sefirot, also, and those various permutations of Godliness provide an opportunity for study and self improvement.  Another tradition is to read and study Pirkei Avot [the first chapter of the Mishnah, which consists mostly of advice on proper behavior and attitude] during this season.

(4) AN EXPRESSION OF ANTICIPATION: When we are excited about something, we count the days to that event.  It is also true that when we behave a particular way, we cultivate the emotions and the thoughts that go with that behavior.  When we count the Omer, we cultivate excitement about Torah in our lives.

(5) MINDFULNESS:  This one is my own, as far as I know.  I know that the reason I never make it through the omer is that I get distracted.  It’s as if I have ADD of the soul.  49 days is a long time to do anything, especially something as small and easy to forget as an additional blessing after eating.  This year I want to improve my attention span for Torah.  I want to be mindful of Jewish time, and in the process, perhaps make better use of my time.

If you count the Omer, why do you do it?  Do you know any additional reasons for counting?


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