The following is an excerpt from my personal Haggadah, a story of my enslavement to a principle and my discovery of the freedom to speak my mind.
For many years, I stuck to my principle to keep politics separate from my rabbinate. Though trained to engage in political discourse in the public square, I avoided discussing politics from the bima and on my blog until about a year ago, when I attended an advocacy training session for clergy led by Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality. Along with Robbie Medwed of SOJOURN, Jeff helped me recover the desire to raise my voice in the political arena. In particular, I find it impossible to remain silent when religion is hijacked by politics, as it recently has been here in Georgia.
During the weeks leading up to the holiday of Passover, I’ve had numerous occasions to cry out in protest against the disingenuously named Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) making its way through the Georgia State Legislature. Because my religion espouses that we love our neighbors and protect the most vulnerable members of our society, I find the guise of “religious freedom” to discriminate against anyone deemed “other” really rankles. I sent emails to my state representatives urging them to reject the bill, shared updates on Facebook encouraging friends in Georgia to join me, and took every action suggested by Georgia Unites Against Discrimination to ensure that my religious views were heard. Then SB 129 was passed while the opposition stepped out to use the restroom.
Suddenly, I remembered why I don’t like politics. Intense feelings of despair threatened to overwhelm me. To paraphrase Kohelet, everything seemed futile. Then, from the brink of despair I was lifted up, encouraged to stand on the steps of Liberty Plaza with clergy members at a rally to oppose RFRA. When Rabbi Josh Heller commanded the podium and delivered a resounding cry of “not in my name, not in our name, not in God’s name,” my despair transformed into exhilaration.
In that moment, I understood that Rabbi Heller was reshaping the narrative of RFRA’s journey through the legislature. One week later, Rabbis Without Borders colleague Rabbi Michael Bernstein testified at the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing and inspired me to continue my political opposition to RFRA.
Another week later, watching the protests in Indiana and hearing that lawmakers in Georgia have postponed further hearings, I begin to hope. I find strength to speak at today’s Rally & March to the Capitol, to oppose RFRA and call for its defeat in these final days of the legislative session.
Friday evening, we’ll begin the maggid segment of the Passover Seder with verses from Deuteronomy describing how Laban sought to destroy our ancestors. The rabbis of the Mishnah suggested that we begin our narrative in despair and end with songs of praise to God, because they intuitively understood the transformative power of storytelling; the narrative structure is a scaffold that lifts us up. As I raise the second cup of wine and sing the words, “God brought us from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from mourning to holiday…therefore let us sing to God a new song” I will raise my voice in praise and thanksgiving. I will celebrate freedom from discrimination and the promise of redemption, here in my corner of the world.
Passover is definitely one of my favorite holidays. It’s generally observed at home – with friends and/or family. There are some delicious foods (macaroons, matzah ball soup!) and some less delicious foods (gefilte fish, horseradish!). It’s a holiday that asks us to be creative and to celebrate it in ways that are most meaningful to us.
Yesterday, I had lunch with some friends and their kindergartner and second grader. The kids had recently learned about the Passover story in school and were eager to tell it to me in great detail. They recounted a lot of the details of the story (Moses and his role, each of the ten plagues, Pharaoh’s role, etc.). But as I listened to them, I was reminded that so much of what kids are taught about Judaism actually needs to be retaught (or sometime untaught!) later. A child simply can’t learn and appreciate the complexity of Judaism.
That’s why when I teach or coordinate programs for children, my goal is not just that they learn some facts. My bigger goals are that they learn to think and question, to be analytical in their approach. And that they are intrigued enough by Judaism that they want to come back to it and learn more as adults.
As adults, we can more fully appreciate the nuances of our tradition. We can separate fact from fiction – and realize that the mythology of our past is important, but so is the historical unpacking of those legends.
This year, my colleague Robert Barr and I did just this as we created a three minute YouTube video for Passover – separating fact from fiction. We talk about how the Exodus didn’t really happen, how the Easter egg and Passover egg are similar, how Passover was originally a very different holiday, and more. Check it out here.
Learning about Passover and other aspects of Judaism as a child is not enough. If you attended Religious School as a kid and were turned off and don’t want to relive that experience, know that the experience you can have as an adult learner of Judaism is deeper and more profound. As adults, we can appreciate the creativity of the past while respecting our own ability to be creative, to think, and to reason.
Can the Jewish people find common ground? Is there enough that brings together all the varied different ways of being Jewish to find a shared destiny and shared future? Our differences these past few weeks have come in sharp high definition. The elections in Israel that secured Benjamin Netanyahu more time as Prime Minister. The speech by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress shortly before the elections in Israel. The heightened public disagreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu that continues to escalate. The recent J Street conference in Washington D.C. where the President of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, withdrew from attending because one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinians, Saeb Erakat, would be in attendance. These incidents and many more have brought the question of where is the Jewish common ground to the fore.
All of the recent controversy surrounding the relationship between American Jewry and Israel and the discord within the American Jewish community on Israel does not even begin to touch the longstanding divides along denominational and religious lines. Is there Jewish common ground between a convert to Reform Judaism and someone who identifies with a denomination bound by halakha, Jewish law? Is there Jewish common ground between a person who is Jewish through patrilineal descent and someone who is Jewish through matrilineal descent? Is there Jewish common ground between a person whose Jewish identify is defined by culture and one defined by religion?
I was part of a conversation a few months ago among a very diverse set of Jewish participants in which one person made the assumption that all the people present could at least resonate with the notion that the Land of Israel, if not the State of Israel, has played and continues to play a central role in Jewish thought, belief and communal identity. This assumption was also proven wrong as this too was not a value shared by all people in the conversation.
A month ago I offered the thesis that one can view the Jewish community through the lens of minimalists and maximalists. The minimalists are those who seek to construct a Jewish world around them that only looks like them and desire conformity as a central value. The maximalists want to foster a diverse Jewish community and want to cultivate a Jewish space where varied expressions and points of view are welcome. I made the point that minimalists and maximalists can be found in every Jewish movement and transcend denominations. There are Reconstructionist minimalists just as there are Orthodox maximalists.
Yet, the notion of the maximalist still rests on the idea that when one drills down to the core there is a Jewish common ground to be found. There are some shared principles, shared language and shared ideas that enable the creation of a place where all the difference can meet. The Midrash presented an early formation of this idea when it offered the idea that the Sea of Reeds was not split into a single path for all the Jews to march through but rather twelve separate paths, one for each tribe. Each tribe took their own path but they all arrived on the same dry land and there was one Jewish common ground.
What is our Jewish common ground today? Can we find values, ideas and language that we can use to construct a Jewish shared space? If not, what does that portend for the Jewish future?
I’d like to share with you all the holiday message I have written to the members of Or Shalom Synagogue, Vancouver BC, the holy community I will soon begin to serve as spiritual leader.
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Just prior to Pesach, it’s traditional to read a haftarah from the book of Malachi ending with this description of the coming of the Messiah: “The hearts of parents will turn toward their children, and the hearts of children towards their parents… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet to herald the coming of the Day of the Lord.” Malachi’s prophesy is that the era of peace for all peoples will be inaugurated by the resolution of the Generation Gap. Parents and children will turn their hearts toward one another in a shift that has cosmic ramifications.
At the very least, healing between generations denotes reconciliation of tradition with innovation, and of history with its relevance to the future. If we scratch the surface of what underlies empathy between parents and children we see respect for difference and the bridging of divergent perspectives. Closing this gap ripples toward the close of lots of other disjunctions, gentling our human connections and strengthening our sense of interconnection so that we might more easily see the divine flow between us all.
Soon we’ll sit around our tables turning toward one another as we re-tell our sacred story by way of questions and answers exchanged between the generations of our families and community. The mitzvah of the Seder is to teach and learn from all who are present at our tables, all the archetypes and all the paths of Torah we represent. We contribute our divergent perspectives so that we can collectively envision the biblical redemption as relevant to us, here and now.
Elijah’s entrance, at the Seder’s end, reminds us that our renewed identification with our mythic past is not enough. What we were given must inform what we, in turn, give. There is so much more that needs saving, and we, the redeemed, must become redeemers.
As the Baal Shem Tov taught, it is incumbent upon every Jew to prepare that particular aspect of the Tikkun Olam that is uniquely relevant to his or her soul. And as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, each of us embodies a fraction of God’s power and holds a particular treasure. It is only in collaboration that all the necessary soul tasks can be fulfilled, and that is why we simply must turn toward one another with open hearts. Together we can lift our world to its highest potential, raising the Messianic Era like a communal barn raising.
The Chernobler Rebbe said that what stands between us and a perfect world is the passion of our convictions. So when we open our doors for Elijah, let’s remember that this, as Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has taught, is a new era. Elijah comes to urge us to heal to a wholeness that supports our cooperation in building the world of our dreams. Elijah comes to urge us to reach across, join hands, and take redemptive action in our world.
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Here is a recording of Ha Lachma Anya, the Seder’s welcome to all who are hungry. My friend Rabbi Rachel Barenblat says: “All who are spiritually hungry…” This particular melody has been sung in my mother’s family for generations and comes from the Börneplatz Synagogue Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main.
audio credit: Hannah Dresner photo credit: Jay Shefsky
There are two funny images I like to circulate this time every year as we approach the Passover holiday. The first is a cartoon of a truck with large text on the side reading “Morty’s Passover Cleaning.” On the driver’s side door is the word “chametz” inside a circle with line struck through it. Underneath the large “Morty’s Passover Cleaning” text on the side of the truck it reads:
Orthodox $89.95, Conservative $49.95; Reform $19.95.
The second image is of a person’s office cubicle and it’s completely covered in aluminum foil. Even the desk chair, computer, keyboard and mouse are completely covered in aluminum foil. Most likely this photo was taken of the scene of an office prank, but I like to circulate this photo with the question, “Do we go overboard when it comes to Pesach cleaning?”
Let’s look at the first photo. Is there some truth to this? I always maintain there has to be some truth to a joke for it to be funny, so let’s say that on the whole, yes, Orthodox Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Conservative Jews and Conservative Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Reform Jews. Perhaps, this image strikes us as offensive, but we’ll unpack that in a moment.
I remember as a kid before we got granite counter tops watching my mother cover all the counter tops in tin foil and then redoing this process each morning of the holiday because some of the tin foil had ripped the night before causing little sections of the white Formica counter to be revealed. This was done despite the fact that our house was completely spotless after having been thoroughly cleaned for the holiday. The thinking was that the counter is of a porous material and would have retained some of the chametz from the year which would contaminate our Passover food.
Do we go overboard for Passover?
We all spend exorbitant amounts of money on this 8-day holiday (only 7 days in Israel) to get special food that has been labeled kosher for Passover. We take Spring cleaning to the next level and then up a few more levels to make sure there is no chametz in our homes. We stockpile enough Kosher for Passover food to feed an army as if we’re planning to never return to a grocery store ever again or that the supply of matzah may run out. Are our intentions misguided? Most rabbis encourage congregants to fully embrace the strictures of Passover, and I certainly want everyone to observe the holiday with fervor and joy, but I question what can only be characterized as the intense OCD-like tenacity with which we tackle the minutiae of Passover observance. After all, our ancestors in Europe weren’t buying kosher for Passover bottled water!
There are certainly some core laws of Passover that we’re all familiar with. These include avoiding the consumption or possession of chametz, eating matzah, drinking four cups of wine or grape juice at the Seder, and telling the story of the exodus while imagining that we, ourselves, had left Egyptian slavery on the journey toward freedom. The most important mitzvah or commandment of Passover, however, is one that we no longer follow. The Tradition commands us to eat the Passover sacrifice, known in Hebrew as the Korban Pesah.
We are instructed to eat this Pascal sacrifice or offering in a state of ritual purity and that’s what I think we should focus our attention on as we prepare for Passover. We should spend more time trying to achieve this state of ritual purity that our ancestors strived for when eating the Pascal sacrifice, and less time stressing out with the minutiae of chametz. I hear a lot of stories of people spending days cleaning under couches and in crevices on the kitchen floor. However, it’s important to remember that dirt is not chametz. If crumbs have been hiding in the cracks under your cabinets, that’s called garbage not food.
To eat of the Pascal sacrifice we have to be spiritually pure. Our souls have to be cleaned out. The idea is that we should transcend our everyday experience of life and place ourselves on a higher spiritual plane. You see, in Judaism we have an elaborate system of purity and impurity. Think of these as order and chaos. Our world is made up of order and chaos — both are essential. We must seek out order as a way to put limits on the chaos and make the world a better place for us and for our descendants.
Each year as we’re preparing for Passover, our Christian friends are preoccupied with Lent. This time of Lent is also a spiritual cleansing time when they give something up that they love. A good friend of mine gives up drinking alcohol during Lent each year. His wife gives up all sweets — no candy, no sugary soda, no sweet desserts. Some people give up using profanity, or smoking, or video games. Lent is a time for people to clean up their act so to speak. While I’m not proposing Jews begin observing Lent, I do think that the idea of this spiritual cleansing is in line with the notion of becoming purified in order to eat of the Pascal offering — and that is precisely the focus of Passover.
Maybe we use the Passover preparation time to consider what we need to do in order to improve our lives. Maybe we should spend more quality time with our spouse and children, dedicate more volunteer time to local nonprofit organizations, set aside more money for tzedakah each year. Passover occurs about 6 months after the High Holidays so it’s really an opportune time for us to do a spiritual checkup anyway. We can do a midway audit on our Jewish New Year’s resolutions.
Pesach has become a holiday of cleaning and scrubbing and dusting and vacuuming. And that’s all fine and good — who doesn’t appreciate some heavy Spring cleaning this time of year. But the real experience that God expects of us is for us to do some spiritual Spring cleaning. To rid ourselves of the negativity — the spiritual chametz — haughtiness, arrogance, the ego.
We should be striving for renewal in our hearts, and not simply in our homes or specifically in our kitchens.
As we shop, clean, pack, unpack, set the tables, and prepare the elaborate Seder meals over the next week, we should be mindful to place the emphasis of the holiday on the correct place. Chametz isn’t dirt or dust or garbage. It’s that which we must rid ourselves of in order to be of pure souls for this significant festival. We may no longer eat of the Pascal offering and we only discuss it at the Seder, but let us remember that our ancestors took this task very seriously. Give up something this year for the Jewish Lent. Rid yourself of that which you’re not proud of and would be better off without. Discard the metaphysical chametz while you’re getting rid of the literal chametz. Kedoshim Tihiyu — And then, we shall be holy and closer to our God.
This is the second year that my congregation, B’nai Shalom in Westborough MA, has produced a Passover Parody video – All About Those Plagues.
I’m delighted to share it, not only because it is a lot of fun and we’d like a lot of people to see it, but because there’s a great deal more that a project like this produces that is worth talking about on our Rabbis Without Borders blog.
We invited anyone who was interested and able to join us on filming day to be a part of the project. The result was 6 year olds through 90 year olds helping to make the video – members of the congregation who might not often get to meet worked together to come up with dance moves, creative and entertaining motions, and more. Some of our extremely talented congregants gave of their time and skill to do the time-intensive work of directing, video and editing (a special shout-out to Chuck Green on all three of these).
We are also blessed to have the talented Rachel Baril and Ashley Harmon, friends of the parody writer, Elyse Heise, make the project possible as our guest stars. Along with others from beyond the congregation’s membership who volunteered their time and talents to help make this possible, this is a great example of ‘congregation without borders’ where anyone can make a contribution and a connection (now to apply this to the rest of congregational life!)
There’s a great buzz in the congregation as we all enjoy it, enjoy seeing our friends in it, and participate in helping to spread it far and wide. It will also feature at many of our family Seders this year. Aside from just being pure fun, its a great way to engage kids and adult alike to then launch into the Maggid (the telling) part of the Seder, asking for them to help fill in the missing details of the story around the song.
We hope you enjoy it too. Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover!
I love the ocean. Whether surfing or just playing in the waves, as a native Californian, I feel at home when I am in the salty water of the Pacific. Mere moments after I jump in, I find tranquility, introspection, and rejuvenation. But I also am well aware of the danger the ocean poses. From sharks (yes, there was a Great White breeding ground near where I grew up) to stealth riptides to pounding surf, the ocean can be dangerous, even deadly. I vividly recall the terror I felt after wiping out while boogie-boarding many years ago: caught underneath a cavalcade of waves, I barely held my breath long enough to outlast the barreling set and resurface.
This sense of struggling to breathe is how I now feel about Israel.
On the one hand, I firmly believe that Israel faces threats to its security more substantial than any it has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Iran is the most obvious of these threats. Its nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat to Israel and risk plunging the entire volatile region into a nuclear arms race. It continues to sponsor terrorism in Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and remains the primary patron of Hezbollah. Even the purportedly “moderate” regime of Rouhani has refused to repudiate Iran’s unabashed desire to destroy Israel.
Israel also faces neighbors who themselves are fighting—officially or unofficially-with militant Jihadists. Whether it is terrorists in the Sinai confronting Egypt or the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria, Israel currently is situated in the least stable geo-political neighborhood on earth.
Even “responsible” international actors continue to put Israel in their cross-hairs. Just last week, the UN Commission on the Status of Women decided that there was only one country on earth that deserved condemnation for its treatment of women. Who was that country? Not Saudi Arabia. Not Sudan. Not Nigeria. Israel.
These threats are real, substantial, and cannot be rationalized or justified as a response to any policy of Israel. Period.
On the other hand, how can I continue to support the ongoing rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government? In the desperate throes of the final hours of the recent Israeli elections, when Bibi faced a real threat of losing his grip on power, he made two deplorable, shameful statements. First, in an expression of blatant racism, he urged Israelis via social media to vote because “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and thus threatening the country’s “rightwing government.” I am proud that the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I am a member, rightly condemned such hateful and xenophobic speech, saying, “This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
Second, either to curry favor with right-wing voters or in a display of his true colors (or both), Netanyahu eviscerated the prospect of a two-state solution by repudiating any support for a Palestinian state. He stated that no Palestinian state would be established for as long as he remained prime minister, calling such a move “simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.” Rejecting a two-state solution not only flies in the face of a bedrock principle of American-Israel policy but also leaves no viable solution to the increasingly untenable status quo in the West Bank.
Even before the election, Bibi’s ruling coalition has endorsed policies that fly in the face of Jewish values and human rights. Led by coalition member Jewish Home, the right-wing government has taken draconian positions against Africans seeking asylum in Israel, incarcerating individuals who have fled brutality and civil war in their African homelands. Through the Prawar Plan, it has pursued inhumane, shameful policies with respect to Israel’s indigenous Bedouin population. Bibi’s statements and positions in response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe–that European Jews should just come to Israel–have, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently put it, created an unnecessary and “anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.”
So I find myself stuck between support for an Israel that is under siege and condemnation for Israeli leadership that continues to push immoral and egregious policies. Instead of being able to embrace Israel as a home, as a place I love, I feel myself drowning in this cognitive dissonance. How can I stay silent when BDS, or Students for Justice in Palestine, perniciously spread half-truths that, in the echo chamber of liberal university politics, resonate with and influence college students? But how can I defend Israel with integrity when the normative way of doing so is to demand unflinching support of everything Israel’s government does (AIPAC’s position)? The moneyed Jewish establishment has created a McCarthy-like ethos where any critique of Israel (JStreet, Open Hillel, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc.) is viewed as treason. Yet some of these very same groups, while openly critical of Israel’s rights violations, do not seem as willing to address Israel’s real, existential threats. In this context, as a rabbi, how on earth am I supposed to teach young adults about Israel? As a community leader, how am I supposed to cultivate a consensus of ahavat Yisrael, love and support for Israel?
The truth is, I need Israel to be an or l’goyim, a light unto nations. It is not enough for me for Israel to be celebrated as a Start-Up Nation. Or the least egregious violator of human rights in the Middle East. Israel is my spiritual and moral home. As a result, I do hold it to a higher standard. I need it to represent the best of humanity, to apply the moral truths of our religion to contemporary reality. Am I expecting too much?
So here I find myself, to borrow from Greek mythology, caught between the Scylla of defending Israel and the Charybdis of criticizing it. I hope, like Odysseus, that I can somehow navigate this howling sea without losing my sanity. I pray that I can find, or create, enough oxygen in the discourse about Israel in America that I can breathe. But it grows ever harder each day.
The day after the day after the Israeli elections the words of the quintessential Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai come to mind: “A man has no time in his life… to have a season for every purpose… A man needs to hate and love at the same moment, with the same eyes to cry and to laugh, with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, to make love in war and war in love.”
Amichai, who fought in every Israeli war, deeply understood how precious each moment was, especially when experienced against a backdrop of human fragility. He was aware how jagged were the edges of his country that had to fight for its original existence and constantly faced the threat of violence and despair. And he knew that the enormity of the work required to smooth those edges was belied by the short time given on earth to each person.
While a moment in history like an election makes us focus on the reality of the moment, whether with joy or with sorrow, I find a different perspective of time as I look on the Jewish calendar. This Shabbat we will greet the New Moon of Nissan, the spring month in which the holiday of Passover falls. This month is celebrated with the words from the Book of Exodus which inaugurate a new way to mark time for the Children of Israel : “This month is for you the first of months of the year” In other words, this month will be a signal to start again, begin anew. History may demand that we bear the weight of the past and face the facts of the present. However, the Jewish calendar is itself an invitation to look to the future and be liberated from all that would hold us back.
Each human being may have a short time and the demands placed upon each person may put the squeeze on whatever noble endeavors we might have put our sights on. However, celebrating the new month and the new spring with the promise and anticipation of breaking free from what enslaves us, we are reminded not only that we can find the time to do the work of repairing the world, but we must do so. Regardless of whatever limitations seem to be imposed by history or the challenges of the present moment.
I cannot remember the last time I switched on the news—be it on the television or the radio—or glanced at a newspaper headline without cringing and wanting to turn away. Without wanting to stop the world and all of its madness and bring about a cure for these seemingly endless ills.
The reports seem to physically rush at my ears and heart as I hold my aching head and wonder at the inhumanity of so much of humankind.
Clearly, many are suffering from this same fatigue. We need to be informed—but we may wonder… how much information is too much? Can we, as concerned creations, look away from our fellow suffering creatures? Are we exhibiting a lack of compassion when we enjoy the lives we are lent? Are we really able to do much of anything to help?
I recently reread Anne Frank’s diary, which speaks of the human struggle to remain reasonable and even good humored, and not lose faith in humanity, even while very well aware of the heart-wrenching fate of others. I am now reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin—another tale of the plague of the powerful over their hapless victims. These timeless stories speak volumes to us in the light our world’s countless present and historical travesties, all of which are committed by the strong over the vulnerable in the name of some terrible immoral ideology.
All who live and have lived in these circumstances have known full-force the reality that we, here, allow only to flutter around the edges of our anxious minds: that life is fragile and sacred, and that we are all vulnerable. That people can be capable of heroism or cruelty. And if we give in to our fears and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, the enemy is victorious not over just the body, but over hearts, minds and the spark that spurs us on to live and love.
And I sense that, as you are reading this, you are no more prepared to let the enemy win that I am, even as we face the harsh reality that the enemy is not just far away, but very near. It is fed by ignorance and cruelty and despotism in all of its forms – all around us.
So what are we to do? First, of course, we can redirect the energy of our frustrations and stand up for what is right and moral and loving. We can educate ourselves and others, and raise our voices about injustices. And yet… we may still feel as if we are small and unable to bring others out of the enslavement of brutality.
We recall a wise and powerful adage from our tradition: If you save one life it is as if you have saved the whole world. But which life? Where? When? And how?
It seems to me that the evils of the world are fostered where there is a lack of the one thing that makes us human and compassionate, civilized and humane: LOVE. It is the lack of love and kindness and the hope they engender that brings human beings to desperate measures and terrible acts that we cannot in any other way comprehend.
I do believe that love is the only force powerful enough to put an end to hatred and cruelty. And everywhere you look, people are desperate for love. Souls are waiting to be infused with hope. Ignorance is ripe to be overcome. So yes, we need to be vigilant and active about what is happening far away. But perhaps even more so, and every day, to be involved with what is happening here, in our own homes, neighborhoods and communities.
Can we make a difference? Of course we can. It is because we are vulnerable that we cannot give in to feelings of helplessness. As we read in Pirke Avot—we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to turn away. With every act of kindness offered generously and with full hearts—from working at the food pantry to mentoring a child, from offering rides to the infirm to visiting prisoners—we plant a seed of hope not only in the person we help—but also in our own hearts. In a hundred thousand small ways, we can shine light into dark the corners and help ensure that fear and desperation will find no firm foothold. At least not on our watch.
Over the generations women did not wait until the night of the Seder to show their commitment to upholding tradition. In the era before Manischewitz, the moment Purim celebrations ended, Passover preparations began. (Actually in some communities it was as early as Hanukkah but that is a whole other story) There was no Kosher for Passover aisle in the supermarket or on Amazon, so literally everything needed to be made from scratch. The directions to make items, like grimslechs (read on for more information) made only once a year might not be remembered and were better recalled when read off the written text of a cookbook.
What women shared with each other in cookbooks was much more than a simple how to, it was a commitment to reliving the memory of the Exodus as we have been instructed to do. Food is important to all Jewish holidays, even Yom Kippur revolves around food or the lack there of. But without dedicated culinary vigilance Passover would fall short of the demand to make ourselves feel like we ourselves are going out of Egypt. Each food, devoid of leavening, bitter, sweet and sticky, dry and crunchy is a culinary reenactment of the Exodus experience. Reminders in cookbooks, of how to prepare the Seder plate, or salt the salt water, etc. signaled fidelity on the part of women.
This is no surprise. The tradition teaches that it was on the merit of women that the people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt. There were the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, who helped save the Israelite babies after Pharaoh decreed the boys drowned. There was Miriam who watched over baby Moses in the reeds. There was Pharaoh’s daughter who knowing that baby Moses was Jewish saved him from the river. And there were the women of Israel who, when the men stayed away, brought them fortifying stew, seduced them and bore the next generation. The merit, and the moxie, of the women saved the day.
The ingenuity of Jewish women continued through the generations. No kosher for Passover vinegar? No problem. Make rosl. Place beets in an earthenware crock. Cover with water and seal. Bury in the ground for three to four weeks. The resulting rosl liquid will be sour and perfect for flavoring borscht and other dishes. Before you turn up your nose and run for the balsamic, keep in mind that many of the ancestors of American Jews (about 80%) came from European countries where Passover was more an end of winter rather than a spring holiday. With no Trader Joe’s in sight, they managed to create festive meals from the few root vegetables they had left in the larder, beets, potatoes, onions and carrots. Still skeptical about rosl? Keep in mind that it was so commonplace that until the 1950s, when rosl was commercially available, rosl was the first recipe in Passover sections of most American Jewish cookbooks.
And like the Haggadah, which has a form and a set order but also allows for creativity, Jewish cookbooks and the food preparation they outlined allowed for both order and flexibility. Some foods like matzo balls varied little from author to author, proving themselves a fixed staple. Other foods like grimsleches otherwise known as chrimsels or by a myriad of other similar sounding names, were a sweet dessert—sometimes filled, sometimes not, sometimes with ginger, sometimes not, often fried but sometimes baked. This was a dish that called out for interpretation, for putting one’s own customs and tastes into the mix.
So even as we prepare and cook for Passover, we can pay full attention to the meaning of the holiday and the complicated, messy and often overlooked history of Jewish women. As we search for the perfect matzo crunch, or brisket, don’t forget to consider the winding, often challenging path that led to the evolution of these dishes and of course the generations of Jewish women whose merit brought us to these days.
Grimslech (for Passover) — Chop up half a pound of stoned raisins and almonds, with half a dozen apples and half a pound of currants, half a pound of brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, half a pound of fat, the rind of a lemon, two soaked matzas or unleavened bread; mix all the ingredients together with four well beaten eggs; do not stiffen too much with the matzo meal; make into oval shapes; either fry in fat, or bake in an oven light brown. –From Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book, Philadelphia, 1871