Preparing for Passover Blog

The "Preparing for Passover" Blog is written by participants in The Mothers Circle, a program of the Jewish Outreach Institute for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children.

Enjoying the Seder

Posted by Christine | April 2, 2010

“We are not remotely observant enough to justify to your teachers why we are so late this morning!” I yelled at my daughters this morning.

“What does that mean?” Eight-year-old Elizabeth sobbed.

“Just get in the car!”

Thus was our first morning celebrating Passover. On Monday night my husband astonished me. The girls and I arrived home at 6:30 pm after our usually hectic Monday of school followed by guitar and skating lessons. After considerable discussion and debate (read: arguing), we’d agreed that my husband would buy a roasted chicken for dinner that night and that I’d prepare a more formal meal for Seder on Tuesday.

Imagine my surprise when we came through the door to find our usually paper/toy/clothing/gardening tool/whatever-strewn dining table covered with a white table cloth, lit candles, and set with our finest china. As I stood there, my mouth gaping (like a gifilte fish?) my husband gave me a hug, “Happy Passover!”

Did I mention I was astonished? How about surprised? I simply couldn’t believe it.

We seated ourselves and my husband began “his” Seder. He poured the girls grape juice and us Manishevitz wine and gave a toast, “To a Happy 2010!”

“It’s not Rosh Hashanah.” I murmured.

“Don’t criticize.” I was reminded.

So I didn’t. My husband proceeded to ceremoniously open a box of matzoh and hid a piece wrapped in a napkin. He served kreplach in chicken broth followed by roasted chicken and peas. For dessert, he presented us with a (traditional, i.e., not kosher) chocolate cake, rainbow cookies, and chocolate covered macaroons.

Later, the girls searched for the afikomen and managed to find it before our dog. It was just like his mamma’s Seders.

We all had a nice dinner and a good time.

Right now, I can smell a lamb shoulder braising in the oven. I’ll prepare homemade matzo balls in a moment. Tonight, we’ll sit down to a similarly set table, but I’ll be making the food: Matzo ball soup, lamb shoulder (New York Times Passover Cookbook recipe), mashed potatoes, green beans, and a self-glazed Seder plate with charoset, etc.

We may not make it through a haggot tonight, but I’m confident we’ll get further than last night.

But we still won’t be sufficiently observant to be late for school tomorrow!

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A Seder on Any Night of Passover

Posted by Christine | March 24, 2010

I’ve been fretting about the first night of Passover and how I can pull off a Seder: (a) by myself; (b) when I won’t get home with the kids until at least 6:30 pm, and; (c) I need to get the kids in bed (lights off) by 8:00 pm.

I figured if I did a lot of preparation the day before, I could just heat things up when we got home Monday night and then just try to move along as briskly as possible. Presumably our daughters wouldn’t be the only kindergartner and 2nd grader who stayed up too late that night and showed up at school on Tuesday bleary-eyed. Nevertheless, this solution didn’t lend itself to the thoughtful approach to a Passover Seder to which I aspire.

This afternoon, I asked Ruth (who’s Jewish) whose schedule on Mondays is the same as mine, “What’re you doing about Passover?” Casually, she replied, “We’re just going to have a Second Night Seder.”

“Really?” I asked, thinking to myself, “You can do that?!”

Ruth explained that there was simply no way she could pull off anything Seder-like on Monday, so she was going to concentrate on doing a Seder on Tuesday. “It’s just as good, then!”

I’m still reeling at the concept. The fact that Ruth is what I think of as a “real Jew” (i.e., she’s a Jew by ancestry and active member of an established congregation) makes her plans all the more (ahem) kosher.

As much as it seems like cheating, it also seems just plain rational. What’s the point of doing something which stresses you (and, in turn your family) so much that nobody can appreciate anything? Why not just acknowledge Passover by reading a good Passover story and having a meal without bread (and point out why there’s no bread)? Then, the next day (or the next?) when you can do it without driving yourself and your family crazy, have the Seder then?

Hmm…I may have convinced myself. I wonder what my husband will say?

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Passover and Easter

Posted by Christine | March 23, 2010

Years ago, I somehow imagined that marrying a Jew would eliminate the perennial question which most (Christian) couples face, “whose parents will we visit for Easter/Christmas?”

I was wrong.

Despite my husband’s strong assertion, “We’re Jewish,” they also enjoy what has become the secularized American holidays Christmas and Easter. At Easter, my husband and his brother always dyed eggs had enjoyed an Easter egg hunt at their home.

While my mother is wholly secular, she was raised Catholic and loves adorning her home with spring-themed decorations. I saved all my hand-decorated sugar eggs and they’ve become the centerpiece for her dining table. My mother always hosted a large egg hunt for our neighborhood when I was a child and even did so for kids after my friends and I grew too old.

Hunting for Easter eggs with my husband’s family always seems like something from an episode of Seinfeld—not that there’s anything wrong with that. I still wince when recalling one year when they had an Easter egg hunt in my mother-in-law’s front yard. By not being Orthodox (with many Hassidic), my husband’s family was in the distinct minority. Having an egg hunt in the midst of wig-wearing women with long skirts pushing carriages brimming with children made me tuck in my long, straight blonde hair and avert my blue eyes. If I had a chance, I’d have worn a sandwich board which read: “Don’t blame the shiksa!”

As our daughters have gotten a bit older and I’ve tried to take the reigns regarding how we’re rearing our kids as Jews, I’ve tried to let our kids celebrate Easter with my mother. To me, this seems a win-win. They get to celebrate Easter as a spring ritual: chocolate and cute baby animals! My husband isn’t too happy, but it has been working for the past few years. Ironically, my mother hosts an Easter egg hunt not only for my kids, but for those of my cousin who’s also raising two Jewish kids—go figure.

This year, however, we’re not going to make it up to my mother’s home for Easter. My mother won’t come to our home. Meanwhile, because of various folks’ schedules, we’ll have our Seder with my husband’s brother and his family several days into Passover. As such, I’m facing the proposition of attempting a first night Seder by myself.

Honestly, I just don’t want to do it. It just seems way too much work for way too little reward. Our synagogue is hosting a second night Seder and I was hoping that we could attend that. I’ve always wanted to attend a “real” Seder—one where somebody knows what we’re supposed to do when; where nobody says, “This is stupid” or otherwise makes snarky remarks. I’m eager to see what it would be like. My husband, however, is reluctant to spend $70 “and wait two hours before we can eat.”

I will attempt to stand firm: You can’t just say you want to have your daughters be Jewish. You need to do things to make it happen.

Or maybe we’ll just invite our Unitarian friends and hope they can help us pull off our own Seder.

Oy.

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Cleaning for Passover

Posted by Christine | March 22, 2010

Recently, I found myself reflecting on a Passover checklist. One glance had me simultaneously laughing and growing anxious. I laughed because the items reflected an approach to Passover and the Seder which is wholly absent in our home. Anxiety set in when I saw what we’re not doing and started second-guessing how we do things.

The whole cleaning and koshering (or is it kashering?) of the kitchen ritual is entirely alien to me. Years ago I received the wise advice that hiring somebody to clean your home for you is far less expensive and more effective than marital therapy. After 10 years of marriage, I have to agree with this statement. Every other week, a lovely woman, Zina, cleans our home. Actually, what really happens is that every other week I realize that Zina is going to come to our home and I frantically run around, cleaning in advance of Zina’s arrival (if she can’t find the floor, she can’t vacuum). A few years ago, Zina arrived one early spring morning and asked eagerly if I wanted a “Special clean.” I didn’t understand what she was offering and asked her to try and explain more fully.

“You Jewish clean?”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s your holiday coming! The Passover? You like the Jewish clean today?”

I was touched. Zina’s Russian Orthodox but understands that we’re Jewish (or at least that’s what we fill out on the forms). I knew that Zina also cleaned the home of our neighbors who’re more observant than we, so I asked what she did for their home.

“I used the Easy Off.”

“Oven cleaner?”

“Yes. I cleaned the oven with the Easy Off very good.”

Not that I’m one for “keeping up with the Jones”, but in this case, it sounded reasonable. So I agreed. “Yes. Please. That would be good.”

Zina seemed pleased that she could help me with The Jewish Cleaning. I was pleased that I could feel like I’d done some cleaning activity worthy of Passover preparation.

Thankfully, my mother in law set a very low bar against I may be compared. About a decade ago (before her decline), we’d have a Passover dinner at her home. My mother in law was a lovely woman and extremely capable in many ways. Housekeeping, however, was not her strong suit. I will always recall one year when our niece and nephew (ages 9 and 6, respectively) eagerly went on their search for the afikomen. A few minutes into the search we heard my niece shriek in terror and my nephew exclaim, “Eeew! Gross!” In their search, they’d looked under a side table in the living room and discovered a long-deceased mouse.

We presumed that my mother in law hadn’t yet gotten around to going around with the feather.

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Of Blessed Memory

Posted by Alicia Scotti | March 16, 2010

My sister died suddenly two weeks ago.

My friend who has always hosted the first night Seder told me that she would be in Florida for the first night this year with her parents.

Another friend said she would host one night, but that I would have to help her, as she has never hosted a Seder before. Yes, she’s Jewish.

I keep thinking of the trove of kind folk who always join us at both Seders. What will they do if I don’t host one night?

I don’t really want to be thinking about any of this. I want to be thinking of my sister. I want the ground under my feet to stop shaking a bit before I have to do anything. I need to help my niece plan the memorial service next week. In the meantime well start to clean out her apartment, console her spouse, bring him food and distraction.

Yes, yes, I shouldn’t worry. People can fend for themselves. We are not the only Seder in town. This is New York City, for goodness sake!

But its my children I mostly think about. What would be best for them?

My children have had too many significant losses in the past few years, and this one really shook their world abruptly. This was my sister, my generation. They rely on me for calmness. They rely on me to maintain a steady course. They rely on me to keep things as normal as possible.

That’s how my sister would want it too. She was such a happy, joyous woman. And she absolutely adored my children. She would want them to be having fun, celebrating our holidays as usual. I’m not sure I can do this.

I had made my list of people to invite already. It included my sister. I don’t want to make another list.

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An Entirely Different Dilemma

Posted by Elizabeth | March 12, 2010

All of us that are Non-Jewish Women Raising Jewish Children (Can we get a better acronym here? Anyone?) have in front of us the Christmas/Hanukah choices and compromises. For me, it has been easy to show my children that we celebrate only Hanukah in the home, but when we visit grandparents, aunts and uncles and other loved ones, we are free to enjoy their holiday as honored visitors, and that is how everyone makes us feel.

But the Spring holidays present another opportunity to try and merge our family’s Jewish observance with our extended families’ Christian holidays. In mid-February, without fail, my kids get lovely Valentine’s cards and a small treat from my mother and my sister and my brother’s children. They are grateful, and love the special extra attention through the mail. The bigger issue comes as we approach Easter.

I was raised in a traditional Catholic home. Lent and Easter were a special combination of reflection, sacrifice and joy. As a kid, the enhanced Lenten preparations, church observations, and changes to the calendar and ritual, were a source of irritation and interest. Easter Day itself was a combination of religious and secular celebration—much chocolate was eaten! (We just saw Fiddler on the Roof with Harvey Fierstein this weekend, so the words Tradition, TRADITION are on my mind as I write this—wrong tradition, but still!).

In our family, we celebrate Purim, the building up of the story to Passover, and Passover. We read, discuss, eat, party, and enjoy every bit of it. But something funny and unexpected keeps happening. We keep having Easter guests. It’s been three years now, from my family that lives 800 miles away. Our kids are off of school for Passover, which makes it a fun and appealing time for out-of-town family to visit. Every year as we are organizing our own participation in ours or another’s seder, we root around for schedules for the closest Catholic church’s Holy Week celebration and Easter to help our guests. Last year, my parents headed off to Holy Week services while we went to a seder. Every year, some kind person asks if our kids can receive an Easter basket (goodness, was it only last week that they were bringing home mishloat manoch?). Every year my kids are invited to and attend an Easter Mass with a beloved family member. Some years there have been Easter Egg hunts at the church after the services. They are thrilled, and come home to a nice brisket or smoked turkey (hey, this is Texas!) to celebrate. Our official policy is that we don’t do Easter, but we facilitate the celebration for those that are kind enough to come visit us on their vacation. The girls? They have a day where they live between both worlds, always grounded in ours.

This year, no Easter at our house. Gloria, my husband’s mother, is coming and will be with us the whole time. I am looking forward to her conversation, stories, advice and help as we cook and prepare for Passover, and just her generally fun and interesting outlook on life. It will be just what we wanted, and the girls are already wild to see their grandma. We have lots of fun stuff planned for her visit.

So we’re cool but it just seems a little strange after our interfaith work the past few years. I’ll get back to you on reports from the front from the kids’ eye view.

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Passover Questions

Posted by Paula | March 10, 2010

I’ve started preparing for Passover in the last week or so, and in keeping with my Passover resolution for this year, I’m trying to enjoy the process (and not focus too much on feeling overwhelmed by the preparations). I’m planning a seder with two other families, both of which happen to include Israelis. As my husband pointed out, at least now we’ll learn how to pronounce everything. I read the Jewish 101 Passover faq, which actually made the whole enterprise seem less complicated. I finished reading it and thought, well, surely we can get through that much, even with the nanosecond attention span of the younger members of our family. Another friend of mine shared her secret for getting through all of the preparations without losing her mind…she hires a cleaning service and buys the Passover dinner offered by one of our local grocery stores. Brilliant!

So, feeling better about my chances of avoiding a mommy meltdown this year, I was left to Google a few other Passover links. I thought I might get a jump on a question I know will be coming from my myth-obsessed older son…”did this really happen?” How do other families deal with this question? I know it’s part of a larger conversation–it seems to me that any religious tradition must always wrestle with the question of symbolic stories versus literal truth. Passover, however, seems to present a concise example for this conundrum. The archaeological and historical evidence that my (admittedly cursory) search turned up seemed spotty at best. There is a scroll that was found in the 19th century that seems to corroborate some of the story, and some sites listed evidence from various digs in Egypt. I suspect, however, that the physical evidence could be read to support more than one view of events, and the scroll sounded a bit suspect. I realize that to an adult the evidence (or lack thereof) may not be the point, but kids (at least mine) think more literally. Did it happen? Does it matter?

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Reaching Out of our Big Tent

Posted by Elizabeth | March 1, 2010

This week I attended Mosaic, our local Jewish Federation’s Women’s Division annual luncheon. I have been the past four years—while I am not a member of the sponsoring organizations (and shhh, don’t tell anyone—not Jewish). This year’s speaker was Iris Krasnow, a journalist and writer. All of you with mothers, spouses, and/or children should run out right now and get her books, and go see her speak if you can. But maybe that’s for another blog.

I invited one of my closest friends, who is an active Church of Christ member, to attend with me. It felt kind of funny for me, being the person who offers invitations to Jewish events. I knew she’d appreciate the guest speaker, and she did. What I hadn’t thought about for a while is how this immersion in Judaism has caught up with me, and how now after 10 years of thinking about what it meant to make a Jewish home, I don’t really notice these things anymore. But with my friend there, I was immediately conscious of every time someone said “As Jewish women…”, or “We know, being Jewish…”. I couldn’t help but think of how judgmental it feels to me every time some politician wants to establish their reputation for being a good person by prefacing everything with an “As a Christian, I…”. And heck, that’s how I was raised.

That got me thinking of last year’s Passover, held at a friends’ house. My parents live 800 miles away, and wanted to come spend Easter with the kids. We don’t celebrate it, but anytime they want to come and under whatever context, that’s fine. The problem—they were scheduled to arrive at four on the afternoon of the seder. While I would be making my four dishes for the dinner, getting dressed up and dressing the kids, stowing the spare chairs and tables in the car, getting our ritual objects out of the attic, rehearsing the four questions with my youngest. But really, it wasn’t the logistics that bothered me. It was whether to invite them. Invite them to an event that would be held half in Hebrew, three hours long, after two days of driving, with people they don’t know and rituals that they had their own Christian interpretations for? I didn’t really want to spend my seder being the explainer, holding everyone and everything together and feeling all of that stress myself. The host kindly told me that I should invite them and they would be welcome. My husband didn’t see what the problem was. My parents didn’t even register that it was Passover and that we would have plans, despite my having told them each year how much we participate in Passover.

Reaching out of a world that you are in only tenuously feels difficult. It’s awkward to sit at a “isn’t it great we are all Jewish women” luncheon with a Christian friend, and it’s awkward to envision three hours with your white bread parents and your matzoh friends. It’s feels sometimes like it’s not “mine” enough to turn around and give it to someone else, but isn’t that what all of us non-Jewish women are doing, raising Jewish kids and making a Jewish home? And honestly, have I ever lacked for a nice Jewish friend or acquaintance to invite me to some holiday, dinner, Mosaic, Mother’s Circle, or event at their congregation? Didn’t that take a bit of courage and willingness to take a chance on their part?

So, I sucked it up, decided I could handle this and invited them. But they didn’t come—it was Holy Week and they wouldn’t miss going to church that night. Duh. Another interfaith religious dilemma solved itself here in my little corner of the tent.

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A Calendar of Events

Posted by Paula | February 26, 2010

Lately I have been thinking about how my life has shifted to a different calendar than the one I knew as a child. I remember my mom’s calendar on the refrigerator, with scribbles of schedules every day of the week; the eagerly anticipated Advent calendar at Christmas; the seemingly endless supply of airplane-themed calendars that my dad, an aviation historian, delighted in bestowing on his less than thrilled offspring. If there were any Jewish holidays on our many calendars, they existed only in polite small type at the bottom of the squares. My family celebrated Christian holidays out of habit and an appetite for chocolate, rather than for religious reasons. The calendar revolved around the academic year and family vacations (Colorado!! in red ink); our various enthusiams and hobbies (Piano recital! Soccer practice! Air show!) and whatever time my mother could squeeze in for herself (Walk dog!). My mom habitually punctuated all activities with exclamation points, and I never understood why, until I became the keeper of our family calendar. It’s the equivalent of mental coffee–keep going!!!

But now I live on a different schedule, with holidays popping up unexpectedly and bumping into each other, piling up amongst the exclamation points on my calendar. I have a Jewish calendar, so that at least I know what year it is, and the typeface for each celebration is up high on the squares and in big letters (for once, Christianity gets relegated to the less valuable real estate in the lower corners). The calendar I have this year is my favorite so far. It has a cheat sheet on each page with a helpful illustration; crib notes for the terminally uninformed and disorganized. Passover has a charming scene of an extended family sitting down to a table groaning with food. This is what I’m supposed to be preparing for–a lovely week of family time. It takes up acres of white space across the bottom of March and into April, and this year will coincide with at least two other events (Lara is coming!! 42nd birthday!).

The truth is, Passover drives me nuts. Every year, from November to February, I live in a maelstrom of birthdays and holidays. By March, I’m exhausted. I just want to putter in my garden and sit in the sun. Last year, I met my Mother’s Circle group at the local kosher grocery store, and listened to my Rebbetzin, Lori, enthusiastically explain how to kosher a house for Passover. She covers the counters with paper, tapes up the cupboards, and sets out everything she needs for the week on the counters ahead of time. Instead of buying the expensive “kosher for Passover” mayo, she buys a new, small container of the regular stuff–it’s already kosher, and perfectly fine since it’s unopened and has no chance of having been accidentally touched by chametz. Lori told stories about Passovers from her childhood, and grinned at all of us; clearly Passover is something she loves. To me, standing there in the kosher aisle, it just sounded like a mountain of work. I usually love Jewish holidays, but I have never developed an affection for this one. Even my husband likes Passover; it’s one of the two Jewish holidays he celebrated when I first met him. Apparently, I am the Passover equivalent of Scrooge.

So, this year, I’ve decided to admit the truth. Although this is not my favorite holiday, I will do my best not to dread Passover. I am not going to avoid the looming squares on my calendar. I will see it as a chance for renewal, for telling stories to my kids, and for finding a way to make unleavened birthday cake. I may even cover my kitchen counters. This year I will try to worry less about pulling off a seder, and more about just sitting at the table. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve the scene of family bliss in my calendar, but this year, I plan to be happy with whatever happens.

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Thinking About Food

Posted by Elizabeth | February 23, 2010

Food has been on my mind a lot recently. How to eat for good health, educate my kids about food, keep my weight at a healthy level, and most importantly, eat, eat, eat. I love to cook, and I love to eat! Our family shares this “live to eat” mentality, and cooking and family dinnertime is a don’t-miss event in our house.

So, frankly, it’s always been a big turnoff to me to think about giving up chametz, or leavened bread/food for Passover. That’s a lot of food, and a lot of thinking about substitutes. This year, however, I’m thinking about it, either for just myself, or for myself and nine year old if she chooses. I think it would require more than just my suggestion (or even good fodder for a blog) for my husband to do it, and I don’t believe that my six year old can really form the intent needed. Plus, we have a lot of leftover Girl Scout Cookies. So we can’t scour the pantry, but we could take a step toward it, and give up the chametz.

Why do it? I am not sure I have very spiritually formed reasons, but here they are. First, I am here on this journey to figure out my spirituality and guide my children through their journeys, and even though we are more immersed in a Jewish lifestyle than many “born Jewish” folks, we have never taken this step. It feels like we are doing the easy and fun stuff, and not the hard stuff that requires a little bit of sacrifice. Maybe it’s my old Catholic roots calling (wouldn’t that be ironic), but I have never felt comfortable with that idea. Second, while I love to eat, I like the idea of having eating be a more mindful act. I think committing to this path for nine days might be a good way to do that. And finally, I just want to take another step in this journey, however it goes.

Getting practical, after three years of Jewish preschool and four years of Jewish day school, I am pretty comfortable with all of the lunch substitutions to be made. And I’m pretty good with coming up with low-carb dinners for myself, since that helps me maintain a healthy weight. It’s the little stuff that gets me, though—the breakfasts, snacks, cookies, crackers, all the little leaven that fills out our plates. No breakfast cereal, breakfast tacos, or cinnamon toast? No pasta and crackers? Or worse yet, pale and tasteless imitations of the foods that I really like?

So, readers, if you are out there and have any suggestions for me, experiences to relate or any other feedback about giving up the chametz, I’d love to hear from you. And recipes, especially recipes!

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Planes, Trains and Afikomen

Posted by Christine | February 22, 2010

A bit more than a decade later, I’m still trying to figure out what we’re doing for Passover, with whom, and how we’re doing it. Trying to raise Jews (not having been raised one myself) I feel like the bar’s a lot higher for me. My husband and his family try to assure me otherwise. Nevertheless, I still feel like it falls primarily to me to instill in my daughters why we do what we do.

So what do we do? Well, we get together with my husband’s family and eat. Until a couple years ago, this included my mother in law, brother in law, sister in law, and niece and nephew. Most often, we’d get together in Baltimore where my mother in law and my husband and live. In 2006, my niece left for college. In 2008, my mother in law died. When my mother in law was living, my brother in law and his family would usually come down from their home in New York to Baltimore where we and my mother in law lived. Now, our educational, social, and work commitments make scheduling a family Seder the first challenge.

Once we manage to agree on a location (and sometimes even altering the date) then the menu planning begins. The challenge is that every year there’s agreement that folks want “something different”, yet also want the same thing. As an outsider (with an anthropological view), I’m particularly intrigued by the cultural aspects of “Jewish food”. This was highlighted for me when my mother in law and sister in law went on and on about how they were tired of eating the same old Passover meal and wanted to try something different. Each liked various ethnic foods and had no limit to their gastronomic curiosity. I showed them the New York Times Passover Cookbook and pointed out what I thought were some interesting recipes. They agreed that the recipes looked very good, but “We can’t have those.”

“Why not?” I was puzzled. Not only did they not keep kosher (they even had bread stuffing in Cornish game hens at the Sedar) nobody in the family had food allergies or other limitations. My mother and sister in law said–nearly simultaneously—“They’re Sephardic.”

Huh? Okay, I understood abstractly. My in laws are—like the majority of American Jews—Ashkenazic Jews. They’re from Eastern Europe (but never Poland!). Ashkenazic Jews’ Passover fare is more limited: no corn or rice or beans during Passover. Although I knew that my husbands’ family were Ashkanazic Jews, they’re about the most secular Jews I’ve known. Apparently, however, although religiously secular Jews, they were not gastronomically secular Jews.

Which brings me back to the point I make so often: Judaism isn’t (just) about religion. Judaism is about culture. Food is about culture.

Food is how I teach my children about being Jewish. I don’t know if I’ll ever, personally, “feel” Jewish. But I can make matzoh ball soup and think about how many other Jewish women (and men) have made matzoh ball soup. I can teach my kids to make hamentashen and explain how the shape is supposed to look like the “badie” Hammen’s hat. I can make potato latkes and explain about oil and Hanukah (and, by our extension, eat fried chicken, too!).

As such, cookbooks like Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America have more resonance for me than the Siddur (the Jewish prayer book). I don’t speak Hebrew, but I can make challah from scratch; I wasn’t raised Jewish, but my roast lamb has been praised even by my brother in law—who my mother in law told me wouldn’t eat her lamb!

Where are we celebrating Passover this year? I don’t know yet. What are we cooking this year? I don’t know yet. But it’ll be dinner and a show.

Of course, whether the show is based on the hagaddah (I still have to check on that!) or on some family squabble, I’ll have to wait and see.

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Discovering New Passover Traditions

Posted by Alicia Scotti | February 18, 2010

My son became a Bar Mitzvah this past year. Why is that of significance to Passover? He's usually the youngest. Hes been the youngest at both his Godmothers Seder table and ours for years now. Ever since he was able to ask the 4 Questions, he has been asking them beautifully, and thats been quite a while. Personally, I love hearing him, he has a beautiful voice.

Last year he begged me. Do I have to? I'm so tired of it! Of course, I told him, until you're 99 if you are the youngest! He snarled at me, and I laughed.

Yes, I know, this is really his way of saying he's tired of being the youngest. And its his way of saying Dayenu! He doesn't want to be labeled as the youngest. I suspect this year he will feel this even more so. And who can blame him? At the age of 13, having just become a Bar Mitzvah, he wants just that, to be recognized as an adult, not as the youngest.

I'm going to have to think about that one. If you have any suggestions, please chime in below!

This also gets me to thinking about our Afikohmen ritual. The children have always captured the Afikohmen, hidden it and held it for ransom. Books, music or a few crisp dollars has been the usual exchange in recent years. For the past several years the children have pretty much amounted to my son.

One year we celebrated Passover at my sister-in-laws house, her husband Danny is Sephardic. I did not know that there are different traditions amongst the different tribes. They live in North Carolina, so I made certain to pack several Afikohmen presents, not knowing exactly how many children would be at this Seder.

Turns out that I ended up saving them for another time!

Danny's tradition is one where the afikohmen is not swiped or hidden; but rather it is used as a symbol of the burden the Jews bore. So the Afikohmen is passed around the table. When you have it, you place it on your shoulder, and it remains there until you pass this burden to the next, and so it goes around the table all throughout the Seder until it is finally broken and shared amongst all.

I have to admit that I really didn't like this tradition at that time. Yes, of course, I favor presents! But perhaps now, as the children are not so much children anymore, perhaps now it is time to rethink this just as we rethink the asking of the 4 questions.

Let me know if you have any suggestions!

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Who is She and Why is She Here?

Posted by Christine | February 17, 2010

When my husband and I were engaged and I was interested in learning more about practicing Judaism, I attended a Seder workshop which was sponsored by a synagogue. The workshop was intended for folks who were leading a Seder for the first time or who wanted to “spice up” their usual Seder.

Before I showed up, I was pretty concerned that everybody there would immediately know I wasn’t “one of them” and wonder why I was there. I anticipated that if they knew that I was there because I was trying to redeem myself as a schiksa it’d only be worse. Despite my anxieties, I mustered up my courage and think I managed not to wince when I introduced myself as Christine (In my honest opinion , among the worst names for somebody marrying a Jew).

The first workshop activity was to break into small groups and discuss our past Seders and what we did and didn’t like about them. Having *ahem* limited experience with Seders, I didn’t have much to say.  Nevertheless, in hearing others’ stories, I learned a lot. One thing which I remember being really surprised by was a couple folks stories by how when they were kids they remembered the adults getting drunk. Drunk Jews?! Wait a minute! That’s what Catholics do! (At least in my family!)  I heard stories of long evenings with kids at a separate table (like my family did occasionally on Thanksgiving). I think the main thing that I learned was that I wasn’t the only one in the room who wasn’t entirely clear on the meaning of Passover.

I left the workshop with some references for haggadot (haggadas?)--oh, gee…I need to look that up—and decided to host my own Seder with friends. My then fiancée agreed, but didn’t quite see the point. For him, Passover was an intimate family gathering where they’d have an elaborate meal and call it a night. I wanted to use the meal as a theatrical prop to tell a story, “It’ll be dinner and a show!” He humored me.

I invited several Jewish colleagues who were “orphaned” (their families were far away and they had no other plans for Passover) and focused on menu planning. I studied the New York Times Passover Cookbook. I made matzoh ball soup (with a recipe on the back of the meal box), gefilte fish (from a jar), roasted leg of lamb, asparagus, and sponge cake for dessert.

When my guests arrived, they all thanked me profusely for inviting them. In turn, each explained that they were looking forward to me teaching them how to “do” a Seder. Oh man!

“I invited you all because I was hoping that you’d teach me!”

I’m not sure that we learned a lot about how to “do” a Seder (but I did learn that seltzer really does make for lighter, fluffier matzoh balls). I think, however, that our earlier suspicions that there were a lot of ways to “Be Jewish” were very true.

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Passover: Chaos from Order

Posted by Elizabeth | February 12, 2010

Passover is a totally different holiday than anything I was used to celebrating growing up Catholic.  My first Passover five years ago was the start of making this our biggest Jewish tradition, and we really like it.  I think my favorite part about it is the fact that it is ordered chaos.  I have never been to anything like it!  Here’s what I mean.  The very word seder means order (right?  Hey, I’m still learning here!).  But the very order of evening’s events seems to give rise to a lot of freedom, mix in the kids, and it’s organized chaos.  But in a good way!  Here are some of the ordered chaos things I have noticed at seders I have attended or hosted. 

  • Everyone wants to seem to blend together the must have foods, favorite old seder plates, and new things their kids have made.  There is a spirit of keeping many things the same, and then changing up something every year. 
  • Everyone uses their best china and dresses the table up to the hilt, but no one minds if the kids get down every 10 minutes to go play, talk, and throw frogs.  Try that at Easter dinner!    
  • It has become our kids’ tradition to be in charge of making 10 bags with each of the plagues to throw at the numbering of the plagues.  No store bought finger puppets for my kids, they love decorating the cows with red spots, and gathering cotton balls for hail.  Their favorite may be decorating individual band-aids with gooey paint and glitter glue for boils.  The first year Sarah was old enough to talk about it I was really taken aback by how graphic the story was when I thought about it from her point of view, and I wondered how to explain human cruelty and divine punishment to her in a way that didn’t scar her.  But time has taught me that they really do benefit from getting to talk about and think about these things and role play in a fun way.  They still get the serious lessons, and get to have a little fun with a tyrant that didn’t get his way.  I look around at Halloween or Dia de los Muertos, and the need to triumph over scary things seems universal.  So good, bring on the bag of fake blood—we can take it. 
  • I love the way the haggadah is passed around the table for everyone to read from.  As my kids have gotten older, they have gotten really proud of being able to do certain parts themselves, reading passages, singing songs with their friends, and other things.  Since they attend day school, they learn Hebrew every day from Kindergarten on, so they are very familiar with things that my husband and I are not.  They love having things of this important day that they can do better than Mom and Dad!
  • I like the fact that Passover is not celebrated at a temple, but led by regular folks at home, around the dinner table.  I find something about that so appealing!  Maybe it’s just laziness—sitting, eating, drinking, having an intellectual discussion, and celebrating a religious holiday, all at once.  That’s a deal. 
  • The hosts of my first seder asked each family to prepare the answer to a question that was relevant to the holiday.  Being my first seder and all, I went into research mode, and over-studied for the test.  Some folks took it as general guidance, and others announced that they hadn’t figured it out, but we talked about the questions anyway.  No one laughed at my overly long answer (at least in front of me) and now I could tell you quite a bit about Shifra and Puah, should it ever come up again.  Next time—I am turning over research duties to my oldest!

So, now that I have reminded myself what I like about Passover, it’s time to start planning!  I am not hosting this year, but will be in charge of several dishes, and I think we will consider giving up bread for the first time.  Family meeting time, and I’ll keep you posted on how that turns out!  And, of course, time to start making the bags of blood. 

Two Months

Posted by Alicia Scotti | February 10, 2010

Two months.

On Friday I brought my daughter to the airport as she headed back to college, that’s when I realized that Passover is just about two months away.

Whew! I thought, I’m not really up to start thinking about another holiday quite yet. I feel like I just got through New Year’s, Christmas, Chanukah – and well, it was my son’s Bar Mitzvah, that’s really what I’m recovering from.

Then reality caught up with me. Two months is not that long.

“Don’t worry, dude,” my daughter said to her younger brother, “I’ll be back in a few weeks for Passover. You won’t even have time to miss me.”

She’s right; it really isn’t that far away.

After 22 years of marriage, I have learned that the moment it occurs to me that there’s a holiday approaching, I need to jump on it and start to get things ready! And Passover requires the greatest forethought.

Our Seders have evolved a great deal over the years. I now have my own plan of action for Passover.

I particularly like Passover, a celebration of freedom – what could be more important! It can be a time to really talk about life with your family and friends. It can be a time to share experiences and perspectives and gain greater awareness of all that is around us. It’s a topic that transcends religion.

This came to me one Passover when I was sitting with my friend Eva on one side who was speaking of her escape from behind the Iron Curtain and on the other side Ken was speaking of his family’s time spent in the Japanese interment camps in California during WWII. There were these two small conversations going on while my children were reading about the plagues. I wanted it all to come together – and more. Passover is all about freedom. As an intermarried couple, freedom empowers us. Freedom - is there anything we covet more?

Our family has always hosted the second night Seder. And I had gone through the motions enough, following the haggadah word by word, retelling the Exodus story time and again, and singing the favorite songs. I would make chicken matzo ball soup, buy Zabar’s best gefilte fish, make sponge cake and flourless brownies, the whole sha-bang, “as it was written.” We would conduct basically a “Conservative” Seder making sure that we did the entire Seder from start to finish and filled it with lots of songs. That’s what my husband thought he wanted, so that’s what I did.

It always felt like a chore to me. It was long and certainly did not impart any sense of freedom to me. If anything, I felt chained! I did not want to be cooking a big meal after having just had a big meal on the first night and retelling the same story. I thought it was just I. As our children started to grow up, I felt their lack of interest increasing. It was time for a change. And I knew I needed to get more involved.

My goal was to engage my children and to satisfy my husband.

The first year I imposed a change, I did it through my daughter. I asked her to select some music on her own that represented freedom to her. This was fun, we were definitely heading in the right direction, but it wasn’t enough.

I had been to a few Seders at my in-law’s home when they still lived in Lakewood, NJ. They were fun. They were very interesting. This is what my husband was always striving to emulate. As I thought more about this, it was because of the mix of people around the table and the discussions they had that made those Seders so great. And it was clearly led by his father who would add in extra stories or notations along the way.

My husband took the lead because as the non-Jew I didn’t have the familiarity or understanding, so I thought. But I understand the meaning of the holiday, I had been to enough Seders by now and I had done enough research, talked with enough people. I can do this, I told myself.

So much of Passover may seem already decided, there is a certain order to the holiday, a step-by-step guide starting with getting the chometz out of the home, what you can and can’t eat, the telling of the story, the washing of the hands, etc. Yes, there is a set “order”, but as we retell the Exodus story, we can to bring it to today, making it more relevant to our children and how they see their future, how they understand who and what is around them. By doing this, we not only bring the text alive, but we underscore the importance of Jewish tenets and values in our everyday lives.

I told my husband several years ago that I was going to lead the Seder. And I did. That was the start of our new tradition.

Our second night Seder still goes through the Conservative order and we still include many songs that remain dear to my husband. But now our conversation and discussions are more directed to today and what freedom means to us today, how it manifests in our lives and the world around us, and we include a couple of current songs. I added in Miriam’s cup, as well as an orange to signify the importance of diversity within our lives.

We select a theme each year or a question. We let our guests know about it well in advance and ask them to come prepared to share. Just something general that gives us a focal point from which to extract our ideas, our conversations. One year, I simply asked our guests to bring a tangible item that symbolized freedom to them and be prepared to share it and explain why.

Last year, we took our key from the election of Barack Obama, that one was pretty obvious. My father had always taught me that it was my duty as an American (he was Italian) to vote in every election, even if I just abstained. Why? Voting is the greatest example of a free society, he would tell me, and I should never ignore that. Freedom to vote, that was our general theme at our last seder. And the conversation around the Passover table was rich, lively and inspirational.

Now, my husband and I select the theme together. It’s become a very rewarding time for us as a couple. It allows us to talk and think together, argue and agree, and bring new light to our lives.