In 1990, I worked with Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, then the site of the largest refugee population in the world. Specifically, I worked with a program that theoretically hoped to prepare Afghan women to work in “public administration,” perhaps in that longed-for time after they were able to return home. Our actual aims were more modest: we taught mostly “business” English and basic computer skills to women, who in their homeland might have been doctors or lawyers, so they could find receptionist-type jobs with the only workplaces that would take them, which is to say, other refugee-assistance agencies. It is a measure of their extremely limited opportunities and their love of learning that our students (it still hurts to call these grown women “students”) were thrilled to be there.
As was I, despite the difficulties of living in Peshawar, and of working with Afghan women, who were viewed by the more conservative elements of the refugee population as belonging at home. A housing program was destroyed because someone believed the widow “beneficiaries” of that program were being corrupted. The van that brought us to work was swept for explosives each day before we could enter our work compound; our program was shut down for a not-inconsiderable amount of time because of death threats; female Afghan staff were evacuated to Europe for that same reason. Expatriate aid workers did not receive such threats, to the best of my knowledge, but our movements were highly restricted: we could not go to many public places (the movies, for example) for fear of bombs; we had to be driven everywhere; there was no chance we might simply take a walk around the neighborhood. I dressed in modest shalwar kameez when at work or in the community. More subtly, I think we were always on edge, our behavior as largely unwelcome expatriates always scrutinized. The environment in Peshawar was considered so hostile that it was, if memory serves, one of only two locations in the world (the other being Sudan) where non-embassy staff could join the American Club, an embassy-run bar where we could drink, play darts, compare notes about jobs we’d held (well, which my colleagues had held) around the world, and relax.
Complicating this already challenging milieu was a steady tone of official anti-Semitism. I still have a clipping from the local English-language newspaper about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, presented as description of fact! There was anti-Christian sentiment as well (a favorite feature of that same English-language newspaper was stories about Christian Pakistanis who’d converted to Islam), but those stories were celebratory, not virulent, not (to me, anyway) frightening. And there was the ever-present sadness—the sadness of our Afghan colleagues, our Afghan students—as they mourned their lost homes. It seemed their exile would last forever.
It was in this charged environment that I experienced one of my first Passover seders. My family had never celebrated Pesach, not even in watered-down form. I had gone to a seder once in high school—this one in Peshawar could easily have been my second. I don’t remember where the matzoh came from, or even if we had any. All I remember was that the seder was led by an American man who was widely believed a spy (a not unreasonable conclusion in those days), and that there were many, many people there. And that I felt a sense of belonging, and relief, in their company—surpassing that which I had felt even in the privacy of our shared staff houses, or when we let our hair down at the American Club. We sang songs I didn’t recognize; I assume we tasted bitter herbs. Did we talk about freedom, and the return of the exiled? I like to think we did.
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Every Thanksgiving I think of the Thanksgiving scene in the 1990 film Avalon, one of Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical Baltimore films. Avalon tells a multi-generational tale of a Jewish family, ranging from the immigrant generation who arrived at the start of the twentieth century to the Americanized generation of mid-century.
At the large family Thanksgiving gathering a feud develops between the two brothers of the central, transitional generation because they start the meal before the arrival of the older brother. The family tries unsuccessfully to soothe him by explaining that they waited but couldn’t delay the meal any further because the young kids were getting hungry. The two brothers end up not speaking because the older brother remains so deeply offended that they carved the turkey without him.
As I watched the movie I realized that the scene makes no sense. In this Jewish immigrant family, how on earth did Thanksgiving, and the question of who carves the turkey, attain such monumental significance that it splits apart a family who have managed to stay together through so many difficulties? And why is the kids’ hunger such a problem? Thanksgiving dinner is usually earlier than standard dinner time, so why are they so hungry? And if they are hungry, just feed them. What’s the big problem?
Then it hit me. My family didn’t look like that at Thanksgiving. My family looked like that at Passover, right down to the kids table added at the foot of the long dinner table at which the adults sat.
Now I understood the scene. It wasn’t about a turkey. The offending insult was that they had started the seder without waiting for the head of the family. And the seder ritual was why you had to start on time so the kids wouldn’t be too hungry. They’d have to sit there, bored and with food right in front of them, but not being allowed to eat until interminably long prayers were over. They’d be miserable, and if the kids are miserable, then so too are the adults taking care of them. So they had to start the seder on time.
By de-Jewifying the scene, transplanting it from Passover to Thanksgiving to make it more “universal,” they’d rendered the story incoherent. It annoys me no less now than it did then.
Soon after learning my late grandmother’s family lived in Nachlaot, I accepted an invitation for Shabbat dinner from sweet friends, Mottle and Batya Wolfe. Spending Shabbat in Nachlaot definitely felt like the most fitting way to honor my newly discovered roots. When I shared how much I wanted to spend more time where my grandmother grew up, the Wolfes seemed to read my mind and invited me to their seder. I was so touched by their invitation, but Passover was four months away. I was still touring for Cool Jew in what was fast becoming the Energizer Bunny of book tours. It just kept going and going… Could I really return so soon?
At my next stop, Limmud UK, the answer effortlessly appeared. Several participants suggested I present at Limmud Berlin and Limmud Amsterdam, both slated for May. I could fly early to Europe, add on a trip to Israel for Passover and return in time for both conferences. I would barely be home between now and then but I was used to that (!) and Passover in Nachlaot was clearly where I was meant to be… It just kept getting validated. Was it the luck of Cool Jew, my grandmother’s orchestrations on high or something else at work?
The time flew by. Finally, I landed at Mottle and Batya’s seder. They urged me to share my story again with their guests. I had long known my grandmother was born in Israel but I didn’t know she grew up in Nachlaot, near Ohel Moshe Street, where it meets Rehov Aryeh Levin, named for the great tzaddik of Jerusalem. The story kept growing… Continue reading
Moshe Kasher is a stand-up comedian and the author of Kasher In The Rye: The True Tale Of A White Boy From Oakland Who Became A Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient…And Then Turned Sixteen This is a story of a Passover miracle. Or something. Readers should be advised of strong language and total immaturity…although it’s got a pretty great ending.
It is said that whoever finds the afikomen on Passover is granted a wish that cannot be refused by the master of the house. That wish, no matter how extravagant or unusual, must be fulfilled and until the lucky discoverer is satisfied that his wish has been granted, the seder cannot continue. This is the story of the night that went quite wrong.
It was the first night of Pesach and Shmulie slumped down at the head of his Seder table with a great relieved sigh. The week was finally over. He’d been running around all week, shopping for matzah and matzah meal and matzah-based beverages and other assorted constipation aids. Shmulie was exhausted.
“Why are you sitting down!?!” Pessy yelled from the kitchen, “Get the door!”
How his wife even knew he had just sat down was beyond Shmulie’s grasp. Pessy had a kind of second sight that tuned right into Shmulie’s attempts at rest. Anytime he took a deep breath she would yell, “Don’t breathe!” He didn’t know how to comply.
Pessy was the boss, always had been. Mostly, Shmulie accepted it, as she seemed able to know all of the things that he didn’t quite know how to do. She was his queen and it didn’t matter to him if she only rarely treated him like a prince. For her, he would be a pauper — he would be a page.
“GET THE DOOR!!!” Pessy shrieked from the kitchen.
“Pessy, no one is at the door!” Shmulie tried to sound reasonable.
Just then the door bell rang. How had she known!?!
Shmulie ended his one-breath-long vacation and got himself up and sauntered into the hall to welcome the Pesach guests. One step at a time the plastic runner in the hall buckled beneath his big feet. He made his way to the door.
One by one the guests trickled in. Shmulie didn’t know any of them, but he greeted each of them with a big fake smile and a warm “Chag Sameach!”
He’d done this before. This was the seventh year in a row they’d hosted a seder for the neighborhood. A sea of strangers washed into their dining room and ate as much as they could then leaked out into the streets. Shmulie hated it. He hated strangers and it was odd to him that some of the people Pessy invited were non-Jews. Why would they be invited to Passover? Sure the Hagaddah says “Let all who are hungry , come and eat!” but they couldn’t have meant let all who are hungry, right? Hungry goys too?
Oh well, Pessy knew best. Shmulie repeated this to himself for the ten thousandth time and got to the business of beginning the seder. At the far end of the table was a Laotian family who clearly didn’t even know what they were doing there. Confused looks were exchanged when Shmulie dipped the parsley into the salt water and splashed the water on his face to show them that they were tears.
“Tears get it? Like boo hoo?”
“Why are they tears?” Bok, the youngest Laotian boy, asked.
“ Because we remember the tears our people shed in the desert , toiling for the Egyptians in the hot sun,” Shmulie recited, as if from a script.
“ In Laos, we cried too… do you want to know why?” Bok asked.
“Not really, no.” Shmulie just wanted to get through this meal.
“Shmulie! Don’t be rude.” Pessy turned to the seder guests. “Sorry about him, he’s been emotionally off lately. We think its gluten. Thank goodness for Passover, the original lo-carb diet!” She shrieked disgustingly and turned to Bok and said, “ We’d love to know why you cried.” Pessy’s face scrunched up in compassion in that singular way that only white women sympathizing with brown people can manage.
Bok spoke, “In Laos we cried because we didn’t have a floor. Our hut was lined with dirt…”
“Well that’s horrible, sorry about that Bok, back to Passover…” Shmulie couldn’t stand stuff like this.
“I’M NOT FINISHED! We ate worms and grubs. We had one well, but it was filthy and we had to drink it anyway. My father died of dysentery.”
“Is that everything?” Shmulie was losing his patience here. He hadn’t signed on for an address at the United Nations. He just wanted to eat that f–king afikomen and be done with this thing.
“No. It is not everything.” Bok then began a 45 minute speech about that hardships of life in Laos that was so painful to listen to that Shmulie imagined he now knew exactly how it felt to be a slave in Egypt, or in fact, a boy in Laos.
Eventually Pessy gave up on the ritual aspects of the meal altogether and just started serving the food in between Bok’s exaggerated sobs, never once betraying any annoyance or a lack of interest in hearing Bok’s tale of woe which was superseding what was supposed to have been the tale of the woe of the Jewish people. Goddamn it, this Laotian kid was stealing Passover with his sad little life. Shmulie had had about enough of this.
“Ok, that’s it. We are doing Afikomen now.” Shmulie’s voice was terse and annoyed.
“Shmulie! We have to finish hearing Bok’s story!” Pessy snapped back.
“I’m almost done.” Bok smiled.
“No! No, I’m putting my foot down. I’m sorry Bok, I am. Laos sounds sh-tty. I’m sorry your father is dead and I’m sorry you had dirt floors and I’m sorry there is a sauce in Laos made of cow shit. It really sounds bad but right now, it’s Passover. And it’s midnight and we are moving on to the afikomen and then I’m going to bed and then I am going to have sex with my wife!”
“No you aren’t,” Pessy sneered.
“Then I’ll have sex with myself!” Shmulie had never spoken to Pessy like this. It felt really, really good.
Bok frowned, sad. “Alright. I’m sorry. I apologize. I didn’t mean to ruin your holiday with my sad story. Lets move onto the Afi…what did you call it?”
“Komen. THE AFI-KOMEN. Let’s do.”
Shmulie cut the awkwardness in the air with an uninspired speech about the Afikomen and the rewards it wrought. Then he screamed “Go!” and began the hunt. Nobody moved.
Slowly, at the end of the table, Bok stood up and calmly walked directly over to the spot where Shmulie had hidden the Afikomen earlier, underneath a copy of Bob Marley’s album, “Exodus” which Shmulie had felt to be a great joke but , watching Bok flip it over and grab the Afikomen without emotion or recognition had taken all the joy out of it. Bok lifted the Afikomen up.
“Great Bok, you win. You got the Afikomen. What the hell do you want for it.”
Shmulie knew. He got it then. Anger surged into him. This was a set up. A con to peel a couple grand from him. Somehow Bok knew all about the Afikomen and had set this up to ruin his Passover. All the joy he’d felt when he’d stood up to Pessy was now gone. He looked over at her, frowning, her glare accusing him – HIM! – of ruining the seder. At that moment, Shmulie knew one more thing- he hated his wife.
“What do you want? Let me guess a grand? Five thousand bucks? Just say it and let’s end this fucking night.”
All the guests got silent and shifted uncomfortably. Everyone wanted to leave.
Bok looked up, smiled and said quietly, “I want your life.”
Shmulie looked back, confused.
“And,” Bok continued, “I want you to have mine.”
And that was how Shmulie and Pessy Bornstein moved to Laos. Since then, Shmulie has made his living repairing old sneakers at the market in town and Pessy caught tarantulas in traps she made and set in the woods. She would sun-dry them and sprinkle garlic, soy and MSG on them and sell them on sticks to travelers.
Their home was small, and the floors were dirt and when the rains came, they hoped that the leaks wouldn’t make too much mud. They’d tried to have kids but something in the drinking water seemed to have turned Pessy’s womb. But mostly, they were happy. Pessy had softened. Shmulie had found his voice. When the afternoon suns came and the pale streams of light stole through the lattice of the hut they lived in and shone on her brow, she glowed, radiant, pure and perfect. And, one afternoon as that Laotian sun danced on her face, Shmulie looked over and realized that he loved his wife. He loved her very much. Crowned with a crown of pure sun, once again, she was his queen.
At that very moment of realization, the postman came, squeaking down the dirt road that led to their village on a bike so creaky and rusty – it defied the laws of logic to see it’s wheels turn. The postman, Chantos, handed Shmulie a letter. The letter , thick papered and tied down the middle with a single red ribbon, held in place with a red wax seal, sat , heavy in Shmulie’s hands. It seemed to vibrate there, singing with an invisible music. Shmulie realized his hand was trembling when he broke that seal and he called Pessy into the hut as he opened the letter. It read, in a simple script:
You can have your life back now.
Elijah The Prophet
By now, most people have heard of quinoa, the superfood. With plenty of fiber, protein and vitamins it sounds like a super idea. The problem arises when the time comes to actually prepare this somewhat unfamiliar item and poses a special problem during the upcoming holiday of Passover. Jewish people tend to favor foods from their particular part of the Diaspora during these eight days. And really, how many Jews are actually from Bolivia? But never fear, we Jews are a glorious melting pot! We may have been kicked out of many places but we wind up taking the menus with us.
I have recently traveled around the country to do cooking demonstrations in response to my new book, The No-Potato Passover, and I have found that people have a fear and mistrust of this simple Bolivian staple.
But what exactly is quinoa?
Is it a grain? A seed? A vegetable? Help!
Quinoa (pronounced “keen-whah”) is often mistaken for a grain, but it’s actually a seed — one that originated thousands of years ago in the Andes Mountains. Dubbed “the gold of the Incas,” it’s treasured because of it’s nutritive value. Quinoa actually has more protein than any other grain or seed and offers a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids our bodies can’t make on their own. It’s also a great source of calcium and is high in lysine, the B vitamins and iron. To top it off, the seed is easy to digest and gluten free! If you are counting carbs or just want to eat healthier quinoa is your new best friend.
Why has this tiny seed brought forth such huge confusion?
• 1 cup red quinoa
• 1 cup slivered almonds
• 1 cup white quinoa
• 5-6 medium mushrooms, chopped
• 1 cup golden raisins
• 1 Vidalia onion, diced
• 1 cup Craisins
• 2 tbsp. canola oil
• salt and pepper to taste
1. Cook quinoa according to package.
2. In a separate skillet, sauté onions in canola oil until golden brown.
3. Add chopped mushrooms and sauté for one minute.
4. Add raisins, craisins and almonds, and sauté for another minute.
5. When quinoa is ready, add to pan and mix with other ingredients.
6. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Recipe from The No Potato Passover (Brio Books; 2012 Hardcover $29.95)