We Were Strangers, Once

We're all in this together, after all.
We’re all in this together, after all.

Passover preparation this year was interrupted by horrible news: on Sunday, April 13, three people were murdered just outside Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas. From the news reports, it seems likely that a notorious anti-Semite chose that day to terrorize Jews.  Children were terrified. Three innocent lives were taken.

Here in the United States, this event was big news and the response was exactly what we would hope for in such a situation. Law enforcement rushed to the scene, and determined that the murders were indeed a hate crime. The President, religious leaders, and civic leaders rushed to the microphones to denounce the evil acts. The news services interviewed speakers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and local synagogues. All the public voices agreed: the acts and attitude of the murderer stand completely outside the law and the public will.

We have reached a point in American history where it is assumed that violence against Jews and people who spend time with Jews is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, while we have made progress in this area, others still suffer under the assumptions that they are less than human, dangers to society, or are “asking for trouble” simply by being who they are. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than half of all victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes in 2012 were transgender women. Transgender women of color are especially at risk of violent attacks. For example, Islan Nettles, a young trans woman who had worked her way out of homelessness and was looking towards a bright future was beaten to death by thugs on the street.

I had dinner with a young trans activist last week, to find out how things were going at the nonprofit where he works. He told me that he is haunted by all the murders, that every week brings word of more violence against trangender people.

And then there is the violence that isn’t categorized officially as a hate crime, because it originates in the legal system itself. Last May, Monica Jones was arrested on the street in Phoenix, AZ, when police profiled her as a sex worker because she was a trans woman of color walking on a public street. She was given a choice of a Christian “prostitution diversion” program or to be tried on charges of prostitution. Never mind that she isn’t a prostitute. Never mind that she is a student in good standing at Arizona State. Never mind that if sentenced, she faces placement in a mens’ jail where she is almost certain to be the target of violence. An Arizona judge convicted Monica of “manifesting prostitution” which means she fit the profile: in her case, she was accosted by police for “looking like a prostitute” and then she asked them if they were police. That is her “crime.”

There was a time in America when ignorant people felt free to ask Jews about our anatomy (“Have horns? a tail?”) a time when Jews were assumed to be deceptive, a time when Jews had to fear violence on a daily basis. There are, sadly, people who still hold to anti-Semitic beliefs and who act on those beliefs. But when the chips are down, as they were in Kansas this past week, American Jews can depend on the system for justice.

Transgender people face intrusive questions about their anatomy anytime, anywhere: “What surgery have you had?”  “What do your genitals look like?” They are assumed to be deceptive: “He used to be a woman!” “She isn’t a real she!” They are acceptable targets for jokes, for violence, and for ridicule in too many venues. However, the sad fact is that trans folk cannot depend on the system for justice; sometimes our law enforcement and legal systems are the source of injustice.

We’ve been there. We know what it is like to be despised outsiders. This Passover, let’s mobilize our resources to fulfill the commandment:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 20:21.

We Jews are still targets of violence. We are still misunderstood and oppressed by the majority culture at times. We could take our anger and fear and turn inwards. But instead we have the choice to obey the commandment and turn outwards, to reach outwards, and take the hands of those who are still labeled as strangers in our society. We are commanded to challenge bigotry and ignorance. We are commanded to speak up for the stranger. Because we know what it’s like.

I wish all our readers a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover, an energizing festival, empowering us all to work for justice.

Image: By Koshy Koshy, Some rights reserved.

This post originally appeared on kol isha, the blog of the Rabbinic Women’s Network.

 

 

 

 

Ready for the Journey!

Brisket, Potatoes, Gravy
Brisket, Potatoes, Gravy

I’m ready! The brisket is cooked and carved, the potatoes and gravy are packaged, and as soon as I get cleaned up we’re on our way to the friends’ home where the seder will take place tonight. Just as our ancestors of old packed their baggage, only I have Ziplock and aluminum foil (and centuries of advice on how to make it all kosher for Passover.)

I wish us all a Pesach journey of adventure and merriment and serious reflection. I wish us matzah crumbs galore, and maror that brings tears to our eyes. I wish us stories and games and laughter and tears. Remember all who are not at our tables: those who are prevented from coming, those who are afraid to be seen, those who do not feel “good enough” to be there. Next year, let us all gather and let all who are hungry come to eat. Next year in Jerusalem.

What Makes Jewish Food Jewish?

 

Chess Pie
Chess Pie

“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014

Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food.

If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.

An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie.  Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.

Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother.  Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:

Passover Brisket

beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.

In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.

Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.

Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.

Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.

Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.

Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)

Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.

Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.

After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.

Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.

Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.

Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.

Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.

 

Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!

Image: Chess Pie, by Kristen Taylor. Some rights reserved.

What Question Will You Ask? #Blog Exodus

blogexodus

What question will you bring to your seder table?

Most people have heard of the Four Questions at the Passover seder, but those are intended only to “prime the pump.” The seder is designed to take us deep inside the experience of Exodus, and questions are one of the most potent ways for us to experience it personally.

Here are some questions you might bring to your own seder table, but I hope you will think of some of your own, as well:

  • What plagues does the world face right now?
  • What are the family stories about Passover?
  • In which parts of our lives do we feel enslaved?
  • What is freedom? Freedom from, or freedom to?
  • What single thing could I do this year to become more free?
  • What single thing could I do this year to make someone else more free?
  • What could modern day leaders learn from Moses?
  • Where or what is “Egypt” today?
  • When in your life did you feel most free?
  • When in your life did you feel most enslaved?
  • What does it mean, to experience the Exodus as if you had really been there? Is that possible?
  • Are there parts of my life that are broken and hidden, like the Afikomen?
  • What would I like to be different about my life by next Passover?
  • What about my life do I want to keep the same through next Passover?

Can you think of other questions?  I invite you to share them in the comments!

Want to join in? We’re sharing #BlogExodus for the next 2 weeks. All you have to do is use the hashtag and there are suggested prompts on the graphic above (feel free to grab it). Maybe you just want to post on your Facebook or Twitter about these topics…or maybe you want to try #Exodusgram, posting photos related to these themes? I am late to the party but I’ll be posting my #blogExodus posts here from now till Passover. Many thanks to the clever rabbi who started this pre-Passover celebration of words and images, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On and Off the Bima.

 

Four Cups

446337280_f4d7ba7a6c_zRabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in these four cups [of wine or grape juice on the first night of Passover], for they, too, were included in that miracle. – Pesachim 108a-b

Today I had the privilege of study with Sara Wolkenfeld of Sefaria.org (if you aren’t familiar with Sefaria, check it out – AWESOME source for Jewish study!) as part of a group from the Women’s Rabbinic Network. This was one of the texts she shared with us, talking about “women’s inclusion in the miracle” in texts from the tradition.

The entire teaching was marvelous and too complex for a single blog post, but I thought I would share this fragment with you. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was a 3rd century rabbi, teaching at Lydda (roughly where Ben Gurion airport stands outside Tel Aviv today.)

Traditionally, women are not obligated to perform all mitzvot [commandments.] Rabbi Yehoshua is saying here that one mitzvah women must perform is that of drinking the four cups at the Passover seder. He takes it as a given that men have this obligation, since often when the Talmud talks about “everyone” it really means “all men.”

So perhaps one could rephrase this: “Everyone is obligated in the four cups – yes, really EVERYONE.”

So, in this modern day and age — what?

The point of the four cups is participation in the seder. Everyone is there to take part in the enjoyment of the holiday. Everyone is there to tell the story, to feel as if he or she were personally delivered from Egypt. But if some people (women or men!) are back in the kitchen all evening, getting the next thing ready, making everything “perfect,” how will they fulfill their obligation of the four cups? It isn’t enough to “knock ‘em back” as you dash from table to kitchen – no, everyone must participate!

This raises some questions about our seders. It is easy to think of the seder as a performance: a beautiful ceremony that includes a beautiful meal, especially since there will be relatives and guests at the table. It is tempting to show off complicated dishes. But if our focus is strictly on a “performance,” what about the participation? When will the cook feel free from Egypt?

Remember, the first Passover did not involve “good china.” We stood around the table, our bags at the ready, munching the matzah and getting ready to run. This Passover, let’s plan our seders so everyone is free to recline, to enjoy the cups, to tell the story, to sing the songs — and if that means a slightly simpler menu, and everyone (or more of us) pitching in to help, then that is what we should do!

Image: CC Dan Zelazo some rights reserved.

Your Seat is Waiting!

Your place is waiting at a seder table somewhere.
Your place is waiting at a seder table somewhere.

Do you have your seat yet at a Passover seder table yet? Well, why not?

Possible reasons, and my replies:

1. I don’t think I can do this by myself. You are absolutely right, you cannot do this by yourself! And if this is your first seder, you definitely do not want to be the host. However, did you know that it is a mitzvah to have guests at one’s Passover table? Therefore, by making yourself available as a guest, you are making it possible for someone to do a mitzvah. So get cracking and find yourself a seat! (See directions below.)

2. I am shy, and inviting myself to someone’s house or going to a community seder feels weird. Yes, it will feel weird. The holiday of Passover is designed to feel weird. Think of it this way: Shyness is your personal Egypt. Allow the routines and traditions of Passover to lead you out of shyness, at least a little way. Like the horseradish, sometimes it will taste uncomfortable. Like the charoset, it will also be sweet. And it may be as messy as matzah crumbs. But it will be OK.

3. I hate family dinners with my relatives. OK, you have two choices: You can see if this year, you can bring some new aspect of yourself to the table, or see some new aspect of the relatives, and have a new Passover this year. OR you can go to a different seder and have a different experience. Both choices offer pluses and minuses, and only you can tally those, but either way, you need to make your plans!

4. I hate matzah, gefilte fish, and those Passover desserts. OK, here it is, right from the rabbi’s keyboard: you are required to eat a small piece of matzah and to drink the wine or grape juice. It is OK to pass on the gefilte fish and the desserts. Just be sure to compliment the cook on something at the meal, and offer to help clean up. Now stop kvetching and find yourself somewhere for seder!

5. Oy, oy, oy, those seders go on forever! Wow, another kvetcher! So this isn’t your first seder, and the ones you’ve been to were too long? Get some friends together and have your own seder! There are short Haggadahs* on the market. Or you can use a regular Haggadah and decide ahead of time what you are going to shorten. Or figure out what parts of the seder are really meaningful to the group of you, and do those. Then congratulate one another on having left the Egypt of seders that go on forever. No, I am not kidding.

6. Insert your excuse here. Is there some other reason you do not yet know what you are doing for a Passover seder? Leave me a note in the comments!

* A Haggadah is a script for the Passover seder. It is not carved in stone, and there are many different ones on the market. You can treat it like Shakespeare and read every word, or you can have an Improv Seder. Up to you.

HOW TO FIND A PASSOVER SEDER

1.  Jewish Family  If you have Jewish relatives nearby, then there’s your seat. If they aren’t “doing seder” this year, ask if anyone’s interested. There may be someone who knows how to do it that was just waiting for you to ask.

2.  Jewish Friends Jews are obligated to observe Passover at the seder. It is socially acceptable to tell your Jewish friends that you are looking for a spot at a seder table. It is not socially acceptable to be noticeably picky about it. If you will be a guest at someone’s seder table, read Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Seder Guest. 

3. Call the Synagogue Many synagogues organize a matchmaking thing before Passover, and will match people with families who are willing to host. This tends to work better if you are already known at that synagogue, but it’s worth a try even if you aren’t. If it’s a liberal synagogue (Reform, etc) they may have a Community Seder to which you can purchase a ticket. Do not show up at a Community Seder expecting to buy a ticket at the door: they usually sell out, and often there is no way to handle money at the door on a holiday. CALL AHEAD – in fact, call NOW.

4. Call the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Center Like the synagogue, they may have a matchmaking service OR a Community Seder. Again, for communal seders you usually are expected to buy a ticket. If you really can’t afford the price, ask about discounted tickets.

5. No Federation or JCC nearby? Look for any local Jewish institutions, call and ask them for help.

With all these possibilities, the earlier you start looking, the likelier you are to find a place at the table. A good seder is worth the trouble, and as I said, guests at the table are a Passover mitzvah. Good hunting! (And don’t delay, time’s a-wasting!)

 

Image: “Passover 2013″ by Ellen Davis -Attribution-ShareAlike License

Purim to Passover = Preparation

Passover will arrive when the moon is full again.
Passover will arrive when the moon is full again.

Purim is over! Put away the masks and take an aspirin if necessary: it’s time to prepare for Passover!

Passover in 2015 begins at sundown on Friday, April 3. That’s the “first night” or “first seder.”

Note: In this blog, I assume that my main audience are beginners: people who did not for whatever reason get a Jewish education as children and who are looking to engage with Jewish life as adults. If you are looking for directions for keeping a frum house for Pesach this blog is not for you. However, if you are not sure what “frum” and “Pesach” are, you are in the right place (and you can click the links to find out what those words mean.)

1. WHERE WILL YOU BE FOR SEDER? Traditionally, Jews attend at least one Passover seder every year during which we tell the story of the Exodus and make it fresh again. So, if you do not yet have plans for attending a seder, it’s time to seek one out. If this will be your first seder, do not try to host it. Check with your rabbi or synagogue office: who has a place at the table for you? If you have a mentor  or Jewish friends, you can ask them, too. There may be a communal seder you can join for a fee, but be aware: tickets sell out, so call early! If you will be a guest at the seder table, here is an article about that. If this is not your first Passover, and you are going to host your first seder, here is an article for you.

2. GET RID OF YOUR CHAMETZ! Cleaning for Passover is the main way we prepare for the holiday, and it is a part of the experience of the season. We have to get rid of all our chametz. Chametz is any product with wheat, oats, spelt, barley, or rye that might at some point have gotten wet and swelled. We deal with the “might have gotten wet” part by just getting rid of all products containing those five grains. For instructions on cleaning for Passover, read Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.

3. SHOP FOR MATZAH: One of the names for Passover is Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of Matzah. We eat matzah during Passover. If you don’t particularly like matzah, you can fulfill the obligation by eating it at the seder, but if you want to have some at home, it’s a good idea to grab a box before they sell out. You can learn more in this article: Passover Shopping Tips.

Some readers may be thinking, gee, party planning, housekeeping, and shopping: is this any way to prepare for a holy festival? Passover is the quintessential Jewish holiday, because the spiritual part is hidden within seemingly mundane tasks. Over the four weeks between now and Passover, I’m going to use this blog to uncover some of the spiritual growth possibilities hidden in those to-do lists.

In the meantime, trust the process! Prepare for Passover! And let’s see where we are when the moon is full again.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Klearchos Kapoutsis