Mom. Mommy. Ima. Madre. Mother. No matter how many ways I say it, the concept still catches me by surprise sometimes. I am a mother now. Up until 7 months ago when someone would ask me a defining attribute of myself, I would have said I’m a Ladino singer. That’s what I do; that’s what I am.
Being a Ladino singer has always been more than an occupation for me—it’s the fabric of my identity. Its roots run deeply through me—it’s a responsibility I have to my Sephardic ancestors to keep their traditions and stories alive and to make sure they get passed on to future generations. And now I am responsible for a member of that future generation. I am a Ladino singer, and a mother.
As I look at my beautiful daughter now, I have been asking myself how I want to transmit my family tradition to her. What part of my Sephardic heritage do I want to pass down? Do I try to speak to her in Ladino, aware that she will have few people to speak it with as she grows older? Do I sing her Ladino songs each night so they get planted into her subconscious?
There is no doubt being a mother has already changed my performance repertoire. Although I pride myself on writing original music in Ladino, I have recently added a song into my sets that hails from the traditional canon. “Durme, Durme” is a song about how your heart actually aches when you watch over a loved one as (s)he sleep, because all you want now is to protect him/her from ever feeling sorrow.
Sleep, sleep beautiful one
Sleep without worry or sorrow.
Here is your slave whose only desire is
To watch over your sleep with the greatest of love
As time goes by my heart aches
With the love I have for you
Listen, listen my love
Listen to the song of my heartache.
“Durme, Durme” has quickly become one of my favorite, and defining, songs for me. Performing this beloved Sephardic song connects me firmly to my tradition, and now that I picture my baby girl as I sing it, also lets me think about my future. I want my daughter to sleep without worry or sorrow that she will feel disconnected to her past. I want her always to know the beauty of her heritage. And of course, I want her to know that I, her mother, will always be there for her with love and song.
It’s hard to kvetch about being a Japanese Jew when you’re being spoiled by ladles of chicken schmaltz spoon-fed to you by your father, while your mother asks if you would like some more teriyaki sauce on your beef yakitori.
And did I mention my parents arguing about whether both challah and rice should be served at every meal?
Let’s just say they both usually got their way, which was a good thing. What’s not to love about a dinner table with both borscht soup and miso soup, alongside beef brisket, sashimi and some latkes just for good measure?
While that may sound like an overly-exotic combination for some, the sharing of cultural recipes passed down from both cultural sides is what brought us closer together as a family.
As a kid, I assumed everyone had parents who debated whether lox or sautéed salmon was the healthier choice well before “Omega-3 Fatty acids” was ever a religion, while I enjoyed both macaroons and mochi balls for dessert.
And the generation of food-love didn’t end with my parents. My Jewish grandfather “Booby” made a hearty feast of sweet and sour cabbage stew. And my Japanese grandma “Hatsuyo” was known for her Sukiyaki, also known as “steamboat cooking,” made with beef, vegetables, soy sauce, sugar and sake.
Not so shabby.
You can bet my house was popular in my all-Jewish neighborhood. And I thought kids liked me for me. Who was I kidding? They just wanted to get closer to my mom’s home-cooking.
Word got around alright, and I couldn’t blame friends for wanting charoset and mandelbrodt served alongside chicken gyoza and udon noodles. And to make things brighter, my father was the resident stand-up comic with his borsht-belt humor and one-liners we awaited each night.
Dinnertime was “the time” we felt most connected; a moment when we could forget about the angst we often felt as a culturally blended family, in the days when interfaith families were far from being accepted.
Comedian Milton Berle once observed, “Any time a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.”
Uncle Milty, perhaps that once “seemed” to be the case, but today there are Jews who enjoy a much more diverse palette. For example, at a Japanese restaurant last week, there were more Jewish patrons who knew varieties of California rolls than I did.
Soy vey, this is a great thing.
Today, I am blessed with daughters of my own who I can lavish with tasty dishes that have been passed down from both sides of my food-obsessed family.
And yes, I will admit that I have officially become both my mother and my father, which used to be my greatest fear.
I recently guilted my older daughter when she wouldn’t eat my larger than usual matzah balls. Under my breath I muttered, “Is it too much to ask that you should want to eat your own mother’s food I spent all day cooking?”
And I channeled my father today when I asked my younger shayna maidel to tell jokes for people at the market, bribing her with some tasty knishes..
“Oh, don’t be such a nudge,” she said to me as she gave me a quick hug and prepared to deliver a joke that could rival my father’s.
This is bashert, I thought. Each generation carrying on traditions that can only be described as poignant and even sweeter than my famous babkas.
Below you will find two favorite family recipes. May you serve and enjoy eating them with your family and friends.
And if you don’t, no worries. I’ll just sit here in my kimono in the dark, eating a knish or two.
3 chicken thighs, or more if you’re real hungry, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
3 packages of Udon noodles, preferable thawed
5 green onions, chopped fine on cut diagonally
2 Tbsp of soy sauce
1 teaspoon Table salt
4 cups Dashi, Japanese cooking stock
2 Tbsp Sake, if you’re on the wagon, you can omit!
A sprinkle or two of shichimi to taste, hot pepper condiment
2 Tbsp Mirin, a white rice wine
Fishcake, as many thin slices as your appetite suggests
Cooking preparations & instructions:
Lovingly gather a large pot, like you would for a hearty chicken noodle soup. Add Dashi to pot and bring to a hearty boil and add sake, salt, Mirin, soy sauce, and some words like “This is going to be the best Udon ever, because I made it.”
Bring to a simmer and slowly add chicken so as not to burn your hand, let simmer for 3 to four minutes.
Next, add all of the green onions for a zesty flavor, and the udon noodles as well.
For beauty and a delicious subtle flavor, add the pink and white fishcake to garnish each individual serving,
Now, happily call about four people in the house for a great dinner that will have them asking for more!
Grandfather Booby’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew
2 pounds beef brisket
2 onions, chopped fine
1-quart broth (beef)
2 cups tomatoes
1-cup tomato sauce
1½ – 2 pounds cabbage, shredded fine
1 teaspoon salt
1-teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
Extra ingredients such as potatoes, peas, and other vegetables can be added as well for variety.
Combine water, broth, and brisket in a large pot and bring to a boil, watching over carefully.
Simmer and add other ingredients, stir as needed and simmer with cover for two and a half to three hours until meat is tender and soft.
Happily sample the stew and add additional seasoning to taste. The stew is best when accompanied by bread, potatoes, rice, and sides of horseradish and salads.
Grandmother Hatsuyo’s Easy & Delicious Sukiyaki
1 cup water
2 pounds tender stew meat
1 teaspoon salt
¼-cup soy sauce
½-pound baby carrots
½-cup Japanese sake
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped
Extra ingredients such as peas, cabbage, and fish are delicious too!
Simply put all ingredients into crock-pot on high for 4-6 hours or on low for 10-12. Can also be cooked on low heat in a large pot or skillet on stove.
Great for freezing and reheating for all hungry family members and guests for both lunch and dinner.
I am remembering a Jewish Universal mother. This woman was small in stature yet grand in her effect. A mother of three boys, she was an extraordinarily beautiful, dark-skin Black Jewish woman who left the island of Jamaica in the late 1960s. She had only $5 in her pocket, but she was rich with perseverance. After spending some time with relatives, she found work and then secured a modest one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, where she managed to reunite with her boys, and over the years, in several other apartments and then a small two-bedroom townhouse, the only home she ever owned, took care of many relatives, friends, and their children.
Always facing the brutality from those who saw a young black woman as there for the taking, she fought hard to maintain her dignity and that of others. She became a union representative at her job; an organizer for the Democratic Party; a fighter for community resources here and there; and so much more for so many. She was so proud the day she became a U.S. citizen. She was well aware of the nation’s racial and class contradictions. But she saw the best of what the country promised as something worth fighting for. She was not only a mother of three boys and then eventually a boy and girl whom she adopted but also a community’s mother. As Sinead O’Connor would say: a universal mother.
So many people reached to her in times of need. Her closest friend, who I also consider to be a universal mother, twenty years ago faced every mother’s greatest fear: Her son on his deathbed. He held on because he wanted to see his mother’s best friend, whom he called his aunt, before he passed. It was in the midst of a snowstorm, and although his aunt was afraid of flying and most flights were grounded, she managed to secure a chartered flight that took her to him a thousand miles away. He died in her arms within an hour of her arrival.
We could think of such mothers all across the globe who held together otherwise devastated communities. They embrace so many in arms that although comforting and empowering are also fragile and mortal. The woman to whom I dedicate this mother’s day died in an automobile accident en route to a birthday celebration for her eldest grandson. She received a funeral audience of nearly 2,000 people on short notice. Every one of them had a story of how she uniquely affected their life. Many called her their mother. Yet I knew this universal mother in a special way; I am one of the children from her womb.
There is no explanation for the loss of someone so spiritually powerful that we expected her to live forever. It shakes the soul to lose someone who seemed invulnerable. To my mother, Yvonne Patricia Solomon, I love you. I miss you. A thousand years with you would have still been too short. I thank G-d, in spite of my anger and sorrow at my family’s loss, for all you gave to so many in the little under 61 years you spent in this world.
A video circulating on the interwebs features Ms. Perry dressed up in a variety of intentionally ridiculous getups, from an aged Las Vegas showgirl to an animal farm operator, each character ranging from odd to creepy. This is fine for abstract characters, but her depiction of a Jewish Bar Mitzvah DJ willing to do anything for money among her cast of characters raises a host of questions, not just about the diva herself, but about prejudice and power in America today.
Katy is no Sacha. She displayed all of the base offensive aspects of risky humor without any of the brilliant subtext that can make racially, ethnically and religiously oriented humor funny and, at times, poignant. In fact, Perry’s Jewish stereotype was so devoid of any redeeming quality, it makes one question whether she even understands the difference between ridiculing a rodeo clown and a Jew. Maybe she doesn’t.
This is not Katy Perry’s first foray into racial politics. She was widely lambasted for a video that many argued used offensive stereotypes about Asians. One might have expected that the backlash would have made Katy and her handlers a tad more careful. The introduction of “Yosef Shulem,” (who doesn’t do funeral’s… but will for the right price) seems to indicate otherwise.
So what’s the deal? Is Katy Perry a bigot? Does she feel similarly free to caricature other races, ethnicities and religions? Or does she feel uniquely emboldened vis-à-vis Jews and Asians? The truth is that we don’t know for sure what Perry’s personal views are, there is something else going on here.
Jews and Asians share a precarious place in American society. They are the “model minorities,” still differentiated from general American society by their racial, ethnic and cultural attributes, but simultaneously regarded as having “made it.” The politics of prejudice in America are closely tied to perceptions of power and barriers against bigotry diminish for groups that are seen as privileged. In a sense, minority success brings with it a decreasing ability for the minority group in question to dictate what is or is not offensive.
No matter Perry’s true personal views of Jews or Asians, it is very unlikely that these two groups were selected by happenstance. Katy is cultivating, like her contemporaries, a risqué reputation. Instead of wagging her tongue and twerking like Miley Cyrus, she is playing with cultural taboos. Unfortunately for her, she does not have the cultural bandwidth to intelligently, and humorously, riff off of racial and ethnic stereotypes. We do not see her bravely representing anti-Black, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim or anti-LGBTQ characters for a reason. She can’t do it in a way that would not simply be offensive. Instead we see her picking the low hanging fruit, dabbling in anti-Semitism and Orientalism without much thought about what it means, either in the context of general society, or in her shows. But given her cultural influence, such disregard has broad implications. We have every right to expect better.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
For more perspectives, check out “Why Jews Should Care About The Donald Sterling Controversy” and “Sterling NBA Ban: So It’s Finished?” on Rabbis Without Borders.
Donald Sterling’s conversation with his former girlfriend is a veritable cornucopia of dysfunction. Bubbling to the top is the obvious racism, no doubt bolstered by a long history of discrimination in his real estate holdings. But intermixed with his bigotry, Sterling displays a host of other character flaws, from elitism to vanity to hypocrisy. It takes a special type of racist to tell his half-Latino half-black, less-than-half-his-age girlfriend not to be photographed with black men. But what many overlook is the near crippling fear that Sterling is operating under.
For the purposes of National Basketball Association, or most of American society for that matter, it is not particularly important why Sterling holds the views he does, only that he be reprimanded. In the Jewish community, however, it matters a great deal. You see Sterling is not simply expressing hatred toward black people. He is doing that, undoubtedly. But what seems to be motivating him is his fear of what association with black people could mean for his girlfriend and by extension, himself. He is operating according to a worldview in which racial or ethnic identity is the determinant factor in whether one succeeds or fails in life, and it seems very much as if he is afraid of being ousted as a fraud.
Why would a man who arguably faces no barriers to entry in all walks of life, with enough money to do as he wishes, be afraid of what others think of him? Enter the complex dynamics of a once pitiful and oppressed minority operating within the racial construct of the United States. Jews came to America for opportunity, as did many. Jews were not alone in seeking legitimacy in America, but perhaps differently than other peoples who were differentiated by the color of their skin, Jews were able to attain acceptance, in part, by passing as, and eventually, becoming white.
American Jews owe no apologies for embracing their dominant European identity. The security to choose how we want to live our lives regardless of the social realities around us is a newly found luxury. However, this does not absolve us of recognizing the ways in which the transition to “whiteness” in America has impacts our community. Part of becoming white in America has meant becoming embroiled in the racial politics, and while Jews have often been on the right side of the fight against racism, pretending that racism hasn’t crept in would be folly. Racism is not dead yet, neither in general American society, nor within the Jewish community.
It is dying, however—at least in its current incarnation. The changing demographics of the American population make it all but a foregone conclusion that the America that Donald Sterling lives in will end as a more multicultural America takes its place. As people of color become the majority of the country’s population over the next few decades, a transition that’s already happened among the nation’s youngest residents, it is important for the Jewish community to understand what this means for us.
The Jewish community, tragically, risks irrelevancy if it remains stuck in a past where whiteness is perceived as necessary for survival. Tragic, because whiteness, or any form of mono-culturalism is foreign to the long history of Jewish identity. The American future portends a dramatic reversal, where groups stuck in a racialized past, unable to embrace multiculturalism in America, and more importantly, within their own communities, become relics. The good news is that multiculturalism is natural to Judaism. Jews represent perhaps the most culturally, ethnically, and racially mixed people on the planet. It is this narrative of the Jewish people that the American Jewish community must embrace while sloughing off the fear-based perspective clung to by the Donald Sterlings of the world.
There’s not a “look” to Jewish, you just are. This is what I was raised to believe in the Jewish family that adopted me. So why is being Jewish equated with race, with a skin color and ethnicity? I am multiracial. While I’m still in the midst of DNA testing, so far I’ve learned I’m part Taiwanese, Greek, a possible thread from East Africa, and more. I check the “Other” box on forms.
When my parents took our family to temple every year for the High Holidays, all I wanted to do was crawl under the chair in the sanctuary and hide. When my brother had his bar mitzvah, I wanted to hide, too. When my mother sent me to Sunday school and Hebrew class while she volunteered, I wanted to hide. And throughout my early adulthood, I actually did hide that fact that I was raised in a Jewish home.
Why do people stare I wondered in temple? “You’re exotic,” my parents told me in their desire to help. It didn’t though. Nothing helped my non-Jewish features and caramel skin color look more Jewish.
But wait. What is that look? Is Muslim a color, or does Christianity have a skin color? Israelis have olive skin, and some even look like they could be from Latin America, or India. Some of my friends are atheist Jews, which is something I adore about the religion. One can be atheist and still considered Jewish. Judaism is as much a cultural practice as it is a religion, and culture is important in shaping identity.
When I entered motherhood and began to raise my daughters, I reconnected with Judaism. As with much else, “I take what I like, and leave the rest.” I sought out the meditations and music and beliefs of Judaism that I felt would support our family in a spiritual journey.
I knew the implication: she’d assumed I married into the faith, or I converted. In my case, it’s through adoption. And I identify as Jewish even though people don’t see it. We are a mixed Asian Jewish family, and the values of Judaism teach us to include everyone. “There is not one face of Judaism, but many,” one of my daughters once said when she was in grade school.
Another piece of my own identity gives me an insight into the acceptance of Jews of color. Before my adoption, I was in foster care, and before that, I was born in a prison. While I no longer hold any shame or stigma about my roots, there’s an unspoken aspect of secrecy I sense in the Jewish culture, a sense of a need for secrecy and shrouding of the wounds and pain of the past. I’ve seen it in the hesitancy of the offspring of Holocaust survivors to hide the deep pain of those inhumane atrocities. Yet, as the younger generation, we need to witness the pain and share it so that we can tell the stories and make sure we triumph over future anti-Semitism, racism, and other persecutions and cultural malfunctions and viciousness.
This topic of secrecy can hit a raw nerve in the Jewish community. It’s also reflected in other cultures that come out of persecution, to keep the in-talk “amongst ourselves.” Why is that? Is it out of a history of persecution, where safety is threatened if “outsiders” know “insider info?”
But I think raising our voices will strengthen us, not weaken us.
These days, when a (most likely) Eastern European Jew casts an inquisitive glance in my direction, I bear any off-putting look by keeping in mind the history: Jews were once slaves in Egypt and strangers in another land. You’d think the web of acceptance would cast wide for The Other.
The wave of Jews of color is flooding mainstream Judaism and I hope raising awareness in communities of all colors and religions, non-Jews and Jews alike.
I’m raising my children to include the stranger, to reach out to those who may feel the outsider. And we are not strangers, as the Torah makes clear —all are invited and obligated to be included.
These days when I encounter the comment, “But you don’t look Jewish” I use it as a teaching moment, to look that person in the eye and voice the truth: “But this is what a Jew looks like.”
Though the Ethiopian sun beat down on our necks as we layed mortar and brick for the school’s foundation in Gondar, Ethiopia, no suntan lotion could prevent the mark our ancient discovery would bring us as we made our way through buried past of our Jewish family, the Jews of Ethiopia…
Last winter I had the distinct pleasure of joining the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) cohort of twenty-five young professionals on a journey to Ethiopia. Charged with passion for social justice, and a commitment to peoples in need, each of us brought a unique perspective on Judaism, Ethiopians and the world of poverty. Each of us came with stories; each longed to heal the fractured world, but none shared the perspective of being an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student who is empowered by his dual heritage of both African and European descent; who proudly identifies as a Jew of Color. None, that is, except me.
I was captured in a state of knowing that a part of my family once originated just west of Ethiopia, I was entangled in a state of feeling that I was among the few who were lucky enough to explore the story of the African Jews of yesteryear, and I was saddened by the living conditions of the “Third World,” and wondered how it got this way.
After an entire day of supplying medication to dozens of shifts of schoolchildren who get repeatedly sick because of the disease infested water, our JDC cohort began a new and uncharted journey through the tall grass on the outskirts of the Gondar village. Soon we saw a large enclosed area in the middle of the field. We hopped in. Dan, a member of the JDC year-long fellowship was the first one in, I was the second. “I’m pretty sure this is the Jewish cemetery,” he murmured as we took our first steps. Dumbstruck, I stammered “wh-where?…” He turned around to look at me, and then at the ground, then back at me and said sharply “right. here.” I felt lost for a moment, and then notice a rectangular formation of rocks and realized we were walking over graves.
After coming to my senses, I called for the group to go around the enclosed field and meet us at the other side. Dan, myself, and the few others plowed through until we were at the peripheral area. As we reached the end of the field, there were four tombstones standing strong with Amharic chalked onto the stone. Maybe they were wealthy Jews? A rabbinic family? Recent deaths (within the last 200 years)? we had no idea. Like Jacob in the Torah (Genesis 28:17), we did not know the greatness of this place… it struck me.
Standing around these graves we looked to one another. I realized no matter how far the cultural and religious ties from the reality of most of our current communities, as a future rabbi, as the only clergy on the trip, I knew words must be shared, and the silence had to be broken.
“One of the most vicious ways to go to war against a people is through destroying their culture and way of life. Many cultures would bury total cities to erase their opponents from history, and yet, the very fact that there is knowledge that there is a Jewish cemetery shows the intense commitment of our ancestors before us. Despite religious practice, wealth or pressures from the outside world, these Jews in their hundreds, stuck together. Child after child, parent after parent joined in life and as we see, in death with their Jewish roots.
“In a world of so much fragmentation, we must not mistake that brokenness will not find itself in the strongest of families. As we the Jewish people engage in the struggle unify our communities, let this experience remind us that if our ancestors died together, through all the troubles of exile, then we, the living, must live together despite all that challenges to do otherwise.”
We recited King David’s Pslams 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall lack nothing…” and we began our walk back to the center where our Jeeps and JDC personnel took us back to civilization. As the cohort was in the distance, I walked slowly and I took one last glance at the graves of my people, and said “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
So the sun may wane, and the mark may fade, but the blessing in the Amidah to “gather the exiles from the four corners of the earth,” will forever include not just those close to my community, but also our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, thousands of years old.
How much money is enough?
“$35,” he said from the front-row pews of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in suburban Minneapolis.
Although I had been encouraging call-and-response in my Dvar Torah in January, I didn’t quite understand what he meant (which I’ll get to it in a bit) and went on talking about the concept of Dayenu. The impetus was the Parshat Beshalach, which deals with the liberation from Egypt and the crossing into Sinai, though Dayenu isn’t in it.
“It’s a much later poem first appearing in the 9th century,” Rabbi David Steinberg of Temple Israel in Duluth told me.
However it got into the liturgy, would it really have been dayenu — good enough — to have been freed from slavery only to die in the desert?
It also conflicts with a passage that says the children of Israel celebrated their liberation with a song — Shirat HaYam — before kvetching to Moses about life in the desert. And a concept that seems almost sacrilegious to me are the verses stating it would have been good enough to have been fed on manna for 40 years and led to the Promised Land but not to have gotten the Torah.
What kind of religion is that — where you get tons of good stuff but don’t have any obligations in return? That’s even better than getting permission from a Bet Din to have a beer at Target Field on Pesach.
None of this is to say I don’t appreciate the fundamental value of liberation, which the late James Brown explained as cogently as the rabbis who stayed up all night:
“We’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees,” he sang in “Say it Loud!” (rhyming the line with “the birds and the bees.”)
That too was call and response, and a key word in both his song and Dayenu is “we” — a personalization of affliction, past and today.
So I get it, though to truly understand good enough, you also have to deconstruct “good” and “enough.” Was manna good? It’s described as being tasty, though interpretations suggest it could have been anything from mushrooms to bird droppings. Regardless, the passage says the people tired of it after a while. Maybe it was more than enough of a good thing.
As for “enough,” exactly how much is enough — especially when it comes to money?
Fortunately, Josh was paying attention, and gave the $35 answer to the $64,000 question. The amount, his grandmother explained afterward, was the remaining cash he needed to buy an iPod.
Good answer. And enough said.
Passover is a time for people to gather around tables, share stories, food, and rituals. It can be joyous and exciting. But like with any communal setting, it can also be complicated to navigate the different needs and agendas people bring to the table. Still, if we follow Jewish tradition, we will find Passover can be a model for how to create positive diverse communal connections. It’s rituals and structures teach us to talk across differences and celebrate commonalities.
Passover is about story telling. And good communication is based on the ability to tell our own stories. Before we gather to celebrate our common identity, we must each own our personal story. Judaism has an oral history, and we have survived by telling those stories and passing them down through the generations. Passover brings us together to celebrate a universal experience of slavery to freedom, a concept everyone can relate to in some way or another. This is the theme around which the story telling takes place on this particular evening. Having a common theme around which to tell stories, a theme with which people from different places or times can identify, is one of the ways in which people can connect across differences.
Passover encourages us to invite strangers into our home so that we remember that we too were once strangers in a strange land. We are supposed to open the door and include the stranger—the unfamiliar—into our familiar Passover ceremony. We can only build strong community when we view the prospect of engaging others as a positive opportunity. Recognize that perhaps some of the people at our table may feel like strangers or that people already sitting at your table may be a stranger to your personal Passover story. We welcome others into our experience and learn about ourselves when we share our stories and hear other people’s experiences and perspectives.
Passover is all about asking questions; so is bridging differences. Ask questions of the people whom share you share your table. Diversity is not about trying to understand somebody else’s experience as your own or listening politely while they speak. It is about engaging and learning so that you both might learn from your curiosity about their life. Sometimes it is difficult to ask questions about that which makes us different. Asking questions in a well structured and thought out way can help us navigate what can feel like difficult and unfamiliar territory.
There are many ways to ask questions. Like the four children, we can be intentional about how we engage with one another, and need to recognize and celebrate that we all have different levels of skill and capacity when it comes to asking. Some of us are wise, some wicked, some ignorant, and some don’t even know how to ask. Regardless of how we may ask or be asked, it is our engagement with one another that will ensure we continue to grow as individuals and as a people.
The traditional Seder is supposed to be a raucous affair, with food, song, ritual and debate. This historic framework provides a wonderful space for all of us to engage across differences.
Passover is a time for storytelling. One of the main purposes of the holiday is to allow one generation to tell the next generation the story of how we came out of Egypt and journeyed from slavery to freedom. There are many children’s books that engage young minds by going beyond the telling found in the traditional Passover haggadah. In choosing among the possible additions the Seder, we have focused on books that celebrate the diversity of Jewish families and those that introduce the themes of Passover in new or particularly engaging ways:
A relatively newcomer to the Passover scene is the colorfully appealing Afikomen Mambo, by Joe Black and illustrated by Linda Prater. Sold together with the book is a CD with performance by Black, who is well known for his music. Geared to the 3–7 set, this playful combination of illustration and song, do exactly what the Afikomen is meant to do — pique the interest and engagement of the younger set so they stay awake until the end of the Seder. Somewhat puzzling is the plethora of children and the paucity of adults seated around the table. From the looks of it, one set of parents has invited a whole brood of young ones to join in the Passover fun. But at least everyone looks happy doing the Afiokmen Mambo.
The theme of grandparents passing on traditions to grandchildren is a familiar part of Passover; less familiar is the twist it takes in Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrated by Diana Bryer. Jacob loves to prepare for Easter with his grandmother, but one day she tells him a secret. Like many others whose Jewish ancestors who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, this family of anusim continued to practice Judaism their Judaism in secret. For the 4–8 set, this is a wonderful introduction to an element of Jewish history that still plays out today. We love that this story brings attention to the stories of individuals who are now, after hundreds of years, finding their way back to their Jewish heritage.
Mindy Avra Portnoy’s A Tale of Two Seders, also offers a different take on the classic family themes of the holiday. The story follows a little girl who after her parents divorce spends one Seder at her mother’s and one at her fathers. Over the years the Seders vary and as Valeria Cis’s illustrations highlight how the people attending the two Seders are themselves varied. Adding to our sense of possibilities are the four recipes for charoset that are included. This book acknowledges the difficulties that the young protagonist faces, without presenting her situation as a tragedy.
The diversity of Passover observances around the world take center stage in two different celebrations of global Jewish life. From the National Geographic Holidays Around the World series comes Celebrate Passover and from Tami Lehman-Wilzig, Passover Around the World. As one expects from National Geographic, there are bold, beautiful photos depicting Jews from Africa to China, from Budapest to Ohio. Lehman-Wilzig’s book moves from place to place as it goes through the Seder, beginning in America and ending in Morroco; the journey is depicted in softly colored illustrations by Elizabeth Wolf.
Elements of the Exodus story can be frightening for children ages 4–8, but in this telling of a traditional tale, facing fears pays off. Nachson, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story, by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Jago, is a retelling of the rabbinic story of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who had to wade into the Red Sea until the water was up to his neck, in order to make the waters part and let the Israelites to escape the Egyptians on dry land. In the gentle illustrations, the characters’ features and skin tones blend and shift with the background, giving the book warmth and no clear racial focus.
Children ages 9–12 who are reading on their own may enjoy Private Joel and the Swell Mountain Seder, by Bryna J. Fireside and illustrated by Shawn Costello. Set in the Civil War, it tells the story of how Union soldiers improvise to make their Seder happen, even in the midst of a war. While not raising the possibility that there are Jews with dark skin and of African decent, the story does highlight the parallels between the African American experience of slavery and the ancient Israelite experience. The book shines a light on the possibility of sharing stories and traditions.