Category Archives: Jewish People

Spicing Up Your Seder

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As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.

The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!

  1. Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder.  So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
  2. Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked?  The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
  3. Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah.  Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
  4. Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
  5. Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus.  Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
  6. Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
  7. Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy.  There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
  8. We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
  9. Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom.  This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
  10. Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
  11. Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
  12. Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
  13. Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction.  We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
  14. Miriam’s Cup:  Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
  15. Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.

Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!

Posted on March 22, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Hand me my tiara, please

As a rabbi and an activist, I often get called upon to speak at interfaith events of various sorts.  Over the years, I’ve been jealous of the fact that clergy from other faith groups are easily recognizable. tallit-e1319482273707

Run a list through your head: what does a priest or minister wear? A Buddhist monk? a nun? OK, then think rabbi. Often rabbis will wear a tallit. And that bugs me.

Initially, I just thought to myself, that it “looked funny.” But the more often I saw it, the more it bothered me. A tallit isn’t a rabbinic garment. It’s a Jewish garment. All Jewish adults should be wearing their tallit daily.

So, if we don’t wear a tallit, what should a rabbi wear to identify herself?  Perhaps the answer is that we ought not to be trying to single out the rabbis. Although the Jewish tradition views the rabbi (or at least the tzadik, which is, as well know, not necessarily the same thing) as a kli kodesh, a holy vessel, a rabbi  is not really supposed to be different from the rest of the Jewish population. She is someone who,  yes, models behavior for the community, but her primary role is to be deeply immersed in the laws and traditions of Judaism, and to teach them. Rabbis are just people who have learned the intricacies of Jewish law and practice and the attitude should be “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” But  she is not apart from the community – anyone can be that person, if they are willing to put in  the time and study, if they are willing to make their life a holy vessel.

At the same time, our tradition does recognize that the rabbi should be respected for the role they play. But it seems to me that perhaps the way to do it is not to repurpose a garment which during prayer serves the purpose of making the individuals wearing it almost anonymous – when one looks up after completing one’s prayer of Amidah and sees a sea of wool tallitot around one,  there is a certain sense of being a single part of a larger organism. And perhaps this should instead of serving as an opportunity to demonstrate our importance- look, I’m a leader! – maybe we should reconsider, and as clergy, instead of  pointing ourselves out, maybe we should take off the tallit, and when we represent the community to the world, be just another Jew, without a special costume, to represent that we could indeed be any Jew, that all of us should be working toward a more perfected world, and that anyone who wants to do so, can, just by stepping up.

And if that doesn’t work, well, when I proposed this on facebook, a friend told me he’d get me a mitre. But I have to say, I’d really prefer a tiara. Or maybe a cape.

Posted on January 30, 2013

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Taking The Plunge

It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.

The_Crossing_fo_The_Red_Sea

This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.

In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:

Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.

Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.

Israeli_legislative_election,_2013_ballots

We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process.  Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?

Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.

After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.

Posted on January 27, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Leave my bar mitzvah alone!

Last week I was following the dialogue and reflections of two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues on the topic of the ‘Christian bar mitzvah’. Jason Miller first shared the story of the episode of ‘The Sisterhood’, a reality show on TLC, that featured the decision of two Christian pastors to give their son a Christian bar mitzvah.  The father was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity prior to his marriage.  Rebecca Einstein Schorr subsequently wrote about her reactions to the segment and had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the couple on Huff Post Live.

Pastor Brian with his son, on TLC’s ‘The Sisterhood’

Last night, I had the opportunity to share part of the Huff Post Live interview with my 10th grade students in Chai School.  As students, aged 15-16, who had their own bar or bat mitzvah just two years ago, I was interested to hear their take on the debate.  They were not at all receptive to the idea of a Christian bar mitzvah.  They raised many of the same issues that my colleague, Rebecca, had raised during her interview.  In particular, they completely understood and supported the idea of creating a coming-of-age ceremony within the context of another religious tradition, and the thought that this might be inspired by Jewish practice.  But using the term, ‘bar mitzvah’ indicated to society a specific Jewish ceremony in a Jewish context, so they did not approve of using the same label.

My students were also comfortable with the idea that a father who was Jewish might wish to share his heritage with his son by educating and exposing him to that Jewish heritage and educating him in order to have a Jewish bar mitzvah.  They were less concerned and interested in some of the ‘who is a Jew’ debates that Jewish organizations and leaders sometimes engage in.  If someone wanted to claim their Jewish heritage, they were cool with that.  What they were not cool with was the co-opting of that heritage and blending it with a different religious belief system, namely Christianity.  They listened to the pastor’s explanation of how they understood Jewish heritage to be an integral part of their Christian identity and practice, but they did not agree with it.

My class included students who had one non-Jewish parent.  But when I investigated further, these students were happy to have participated in the family celebrations of that parent when Christian holidays came around, but they were very clear about their own religious identity and they appreciated that their parents had maintained a clarity and distinctiveness around their respective religious traditions – it seems that they appreciated the individual who followed the path of one faith tradition – they saw an integrity in that decision.

I found myself playing devil’s advocate to better understand to what extent we were coming from a place of gut reaction or whether there was a consistent logic being applied to my students’ thinking.  This class will end the year with Confirmation.  I asked them if they knew the history of the Confirmation ceremony.  They understood that the Reform movement had borrowed the term from Christian communities.  The difference, they felt, was that the content of our ceremony was 100% Jewish – we had not borrowed the rituals or forms of the Christian ceremony.  And the word ‘Confirmation’ they recognized as an English term that is commonly used and was an appropriate term to describe the confirmation of one’s religious identity and practice.

So then I tried them on weddings.  What about weddings where one person is Jewish and one person is Christian and they want to blend rituals and practices from both traditions in their ceremony?  Isn’t the potential end-point of that a Christian bar mitzvah for their son down the line?  ’No’, my students told me.  If two people who identify with different religious systems want to get married, it is appropriate that they draw on the practices of their religion when they create their wedding ceremony.  Each of them is being authentically connected to their own heritage.  For my students, that was different to imposing a mix of two religious systems – systems that they did not see as being integrally compatible with each other – on a third individual  - a child.

Now, I have read plenty from people who consciously identify as ‘both’, or have decided to raise their children with two faith heritages.  I have heard them explain those choices in ways that have their own integrity to them.  So I am not seeking to dismiss that choice. There is also plenty of commentary out there on the increasing number of people in American society who reject any specific religious label, but who are mixing and blending from many places to construct their own, personal spirituality.  We see the beginnings of new seminaries and new communal gathering places that celebrate the ‘interfaith’ and the ability to draw from multiple traditions in the search for spiritual wisdom and practice.  So I recognize that there are many alternative ways that individuals are choosing to navigate the path that my students described, even while my own practice and understanding is most similar to my students.

I’m not surprised that some of these more contemporary trends were not voiced by my students.  The fact that they are in our Chai School program and preparing for Confirmation makes them more likely to strongly identify with the wisdom heritage that we have shared with them all of these years.  But the deeper insight that I gained from listening to them articulate their arguments was the value that they saw in traveling one’s spiritual path using just one vehicle for the journey.  While most progressive faith traditions do not make ‘truth’ claims that elevate them above other faith traditions, there is something to be gained from choosing just one path and diving deeply into its wisdom teachings and practices as one develops a personal faith and spirituality.  This was the approach that my students chose.  I think they are ready for their Confirmation.

Posted on January 23, 2013

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Is Freedom A Jewish Virtue?

Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_with_medallion_NYWTS

And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.

All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading

Posted on January 14, 2013

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If You Could Only Save One Person…

“Because I am a Jew,” one person said. I had asked the participants of a class to tell me why we should care about Israel. This response in many ways summarized the sentiments of the group, who were mostly middle-aged, and highly selective. After all, they showed up in synagogue to have this conversation.

I pointed out that this response reflects an assumed value of peoplehood – that we, the Jewish people, are a mutually bound family. As a family, our identities are rooted in shared history and lineage, and we feel responsible for each other. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, belongs to all of us. Right?all-in-family-hp

Well, maybe. It turns out that one’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual reaction to this question depends on how we each understand our identities. Are we part of the “family” known as the Jewish people? Does being a “member of the tribe” bind us to any certain responsibilities or obligations?

There is a good bit of hand wringing in the Jewish community about the eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood.  Do Jews feel responsible for each other? Do Jews continue to prioritize charitable giving to Jewish causes as we did a generation ago? Do Jews choose to affiliate with Jewish communities to be among “family,” as my parents did 50 years ago? The entire Jewish world is being rocked by shifting views of Jewish peoplehood.

For that reason, I was particularly interested to read a fascinating column in the NY Times this weekend, “The Myth of Universal Love“, but Stephen T. Asma. Asma argues for “favoritism,” and what he calls a “small circle care” and family preference. By rebuffing the social scientists whose universalist values have deeply influenced our culture, he demonstrates that commitment to our “small circle of favorites” is actually a crucial ingredient for human happiness. “Favoritists … are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.”

Wouldn’t we all want to be the beneficiaries of selfless generosity? Doesn’t it feel good to offer kindness to those who matter most to us?

Asma builds his case by punching holes in the theories of two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, who “think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.”  These universalist “utilitarian ethics” were developed by an early nineteenth century thinker, William Godwin. Check out this logic:

Godwin asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.

Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”

Singer extends this to the ultimate universal idea: that “we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness.”

I bristled with displeasure to imagine anyone choosing to leave their mother to die or harming their own family by prioritizing strangers over them in apportioning resources. My thinking is not just a reflection of my training in Jewish texts and ideas – it is simple logic.  We are most satisfied when we sustain mutual relationships with others. As Asma points out, studies show that “the most important element in a good life is close family and friendship ties – ties that bind.”

I didn’t need studies to tell me this. Being a part of the Jewish people has taught me well. And that is worth saving.

Posted on January 7, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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