Why is this year different from all other years?

Post by Melissa

If I added a fifth question to the seder this year it would have been: Why is this year different from all other years?

The simple answer is of course – because we’re in Israel! But that is only the tip of the iceberg, it runs so much greater than that and I hope I can find the words to convey it.

(I apologize in advance, but I simply can’t translate all the Hebrew words in this post. I think those who don’t understand will likely be able to get the jist without it, and if you really get stuck, feel free to ask in the comments.)

The uniqueness of the year started before Pesach even started, actually. We got out of school a whole week before Pesach! Presumably it is so other girls in the midrasha could go home and help their families to clean, but for most of us over-seas girls it meant a week of vacation – basically spring break. I spent that week working a lot and taking some time to relax and see my husband, who also had the week off. We did run errands which we had been putting off until we had time and dealt with assorted apartment things, but we didn’t really clean our place until the last day and we were totally fine. One small benefit of living in a shoebox I suppose!

Also, having spent the past month leading up to Pesach learning about various laws and customs (including a fabulous mock seder) I was in the mindset already and excited for the chag  to start and the feel was in the air. Products in the grocery stores were abundantly heckshered for Pesach, though the kitniyot/non-kitniyot distinctions were not always so clear. Restaurants all over and shops in the shuk had up new teudot. No one could deny the impending holiday!

Then it was seder night! We were caught off guard with the davening  of Hallel out loud at aravit/maariv, but relished the unique opportunity before heading off to our hosts home. We were surprised to realize it was just his family, his in-laws from America, and two other Pardes students. Not only was it a small group, it was a very well educated group and we went through the entire hagaddah in Hebrew, reading not quickly but not slowly, moving right along, with a few questions and good discussions, and even checking in the Gemara for the language of one mishna which we weren’t sure was the original language. (A far cry from my childhood of reading the Maxwell House haggadah in English, with just my grandfather (z”l) and me reading the segments after dinner to ourselves.)

At the end of the seder we approached the famous line “l’shana haba b’Yerushalim” and rather than end there as is so often the case, we really put the emphasis on the last word: ha’bnuya. Remining ourselves that while we are in Jerusalem this year, we want to be in a “rebuilt” Jerusalem next year – one with the Beit HaMikdash standing and the return of the Korban Pesach. After that, we sang songs (again, all in Hebrew) and then we were introduced to a lovely family tradition which we are going to keep for ourselves – singing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. It was a truly special moment to stand together in an apartment in Jerusalem singing Hatikva and celebrating the freedom we have today.

The next key difference was something I never expected to write here. I ate kitniyot at home. (See this post for my past views on this topic.)  I still hold strong to my familial roots and minhagim, but somehow, this year in Israel I felt it was time to test the waters. I initially pondered eating kitniyot because I have basically become a vegetarian again, with the general goal of being MOoShY again (meat only on Shabbat and Yom Tov) and hummus has become a staple source of protein for me. I knew I wanted to be functional and not make myself sick as I have in years past, so I started there. But I as thought about it more, I decided that if I was going to do it, I would do the whole thing, then I would have an experience to base my future decision off of. To paraphrase a rabbi friend: before you decide not to do something, you should do it for a year  – so this was my year of kitniyot. And I’m surprised to share that it was oddly not as weird as I expected and it still felt 100% like Pesach. I actually joked around that I was going to write a children’s book entitled: How the Rice Cake Saved Passover.*  (Let’s be honest. It could still happen, so just remember you saw it here first!) I only ate matzah at the chag/Shabbat meals and otherwise ate a lot of rice/rice cakes and veggies with hummus and tahina. It was a lovely experience and I look forward to repeating (and refining) it next year.

We relished being able to be home and not having to worry about missing work or school, and the strains that has put on us in years past. We had nowhere to be, and nothing to do but enjoy Pesach. Unfortunately between D and I, one of us was sick all week so we did not get to enjoy the country in the way we hoped to, but instead just spent a lot of time relaxing together and thinking about the fun things we can do in the summer and next year.

This year was truly a special Pesach experience. Beyond what I’ve described, there was just something in the air which made it a really amazing moment. Perhaps after next Pesach, I will be able to describe it better but for now, we will resume our chametz eating and keep praying that l’shana haba b’Yerushalyim ha’bnuya.

*Copyright Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, April 2013.


Reflections on a year of marriage

Ok, so I know this is belated from when I had promised it, but alas – here comes my reflections series.

Post by Melissa

I am still in denial of the fact that I have been married to my best friend for a year.  If  I have learned any one thing this year, it is to keep laughing.  We have a ton of fun and that is something which brings us through the hard times, and we will always have that to share.

Over the course of our first year of marriage, we have been through some very difficult experiences, as well as some truly wonderful ones.  We were lucky enough to be able to celebrate the marriages of some of our closest friends, welcome new babies into the world, and be honored guests at B’nai Mitzvah.  On the flip side we also have had to deal with death and divorce.  The cycle of life keeps on reeling, and even just a few weeks into our second year of marriage we’ve already attended a funeral and a Brit Milah.  Every time I get to share a special event in the life cycle with D, I smile internally.  Even for sad events, having him by my side makes it a better moment – and I hope that never goes away.

As mentioned, we have been able to celebrate the marriages of numerous friends throughout the year.  At every Shabbat Kallah (a gathering of women to celebrate the bride the day before her wedding, keeping her calm and surrounded by her friends and family) I was asked for my insights on having a happy marriage, and I had to think back to the best advice I was given.  A good friend of mine got married the week before I did, and her mother told her that a marriage is not about giving 50-50, or 60-40 – it is giving 100-100.  Each person must give 100% of themselves to their marriage in order to make it a truly happy union. Those words truly stuck with me.

To add my own insight would definitely be to keep playing and laughing.  D and I have a very playful relationship, as I have mentioned before.  I truly believe that being silly and playful is something which will always keep us young and help us through the difficult times in the years to come.  Though our playfulness can sometimes annoy one another, we know that at the end of the day, we are each bringing our 100% to the table and we may just need to step back for a moment and see what the other is going through. Some days need hugs, not pokes. Some weeks need serious discussions, not goofy banter. All of which is ok and keeping up with it keeps us happy in the big picture.

This all ties into the almighty key word of any relationship: compromise.  Our regular readers know by now that this has been a big part of our Sephardekenazi life, and it only grows more prominent with every passing week.  While I have made many compromises this year, I know there are many more to come, and as long as we can talk through the options rationally and laugh about it later – I think we are prepared to handle come what may.

{For the record, while I typed this post, he washed the Shabbat lunch dishes and made me fresh popcorn. I have an awesome husband.}

Od y’shama…… Wait, its been a year?

Tomorrow is my first wedding anniversary, I know I am beyond blessed to be married to my best friend and to laugh every day.  I know this sounds cliche’, but I cannot believe that I have been married for a year already.  I still feel like I should be planning for my wedding or picking out something, but nope, its all done. I even have my photo album on my mantle and my ketubah hanging above it to prove it should I ever truly forget.  Not that I could, because the day I married D was hands down the best day of my life.  (Ask me again when I have children, I’m sure I may have to claim that I have multiple best days.)

Post by Melissa (Photo copyright RealPhotography.com)

Our wedding was a wonderful celebration of us and our love.*  In fact, yesterday we received a bracha (blessing) from our Rabbi during the Torah service, and as the congregation sang “siman tov, u’mazel tov” our Rabbi turned to D and said “That was a fun wedding, lets do it again!” – which was exactly what we wanted people to say about it. D and I have a very fun and playful relationship, our wedding was definitely a reflection of what our marriage would be – which I think is very important.  Even looking at photos, people who were not present are able to tell that everyone had a lot of fun and that it reflected our personalities.  We were blessed to be able to have that much fun while surrounded by our friends and family, also all having a fabulous time.

Our wedding was also the official start of our Sephardekanazi life together.  We had the Ashkenazi style Tisch, Bedeken, and Yichud.  However, the format of the Kidushin/Eruvin (ceremony) followed a Sephardic custom which D felt connected to, and our ketubah has the Spanish-Portugese text.  I had henna on my hands and feet, and D did not wear a kittle.  Neither of us fasted. As we each made compromises that day, so too have we made compromises throughout this year of wedded bliss.

As much as our wedding was a reflection of our lives, so too the first year of marriage has been a reflection of our life together, so I thought I would take a few weeks of posts to reflect on some of the big (and not so big) life changes which this blessing has bestowed upon me.  So far, I intend to write about my first year of marriage in general, hair covering, observing taharat hamishpaca (laws of family purity) and mikvah.  If there are any other topics which you think would be interesting to include, please feel free to share them with me, I’m always happy to write what you want to read!

*Since people always ask “What would you change if you could do it over?” here are my only two answers: to have been able to have my brother home from his deployment (which I had no say in) and to have had a dress which was shorter and fuller and had sleeves attached (I love the dress I wore, however I got very hot, tore my dress in many places, had a hard time dancing without hiking it up, and was fighting with my jacket).

On All Other Nights

post by Jessica

When R and I knew we were going to be leading two seders last year, we decided to use it as an opportunity to create our own hagaddah (the book used to guide the seder). The hagaddah would probably win the award for the Jewish text most often adapted, re-adapted and adapted again. So why create another one? Seriously, we don’t have enough to do in our lives?

Multiple reasons. First, we had some unique needs. We loved the way R’s father led the seder, in that he brought a lot of sources to the seder, really enhancing the basic text. However, no one else had the texts in front of them, damaging the interactivity of the event and sometimes making the seder seem a little less coherent. We also wanted to incorporate a lot of Sephardi traditions, as well as some modern interpretations and readings. We were aiming to create something that addressed a lot of the “whys” of the seder, especially those in which the tradition came first and the explanations were derived afterward.

Our first step was to buy the Davka Writer Hagaddah. For those of you who don’t know, Davka Writer is the software that allowed typing in Hebrew before Word knew how to do it, and definitely still works better with Hebrew than Word does. In any case, we bought the text and immediately had to set about working on it. R wanted to include some more of the Sephardi Hebrew phrases, and many of the English translations were really awkward or weren’t as exactly accurate as we would have liked. Translation is interpretation, and having the translation to work with was definitely valuable. As we were working on the text, we were also working on getting our source materials together. We bought a few books, waded through lots of materials, and created lists of possible inclusions.

It was  a long process, made longer by our desire to do a different seder on each night of Passover. We edited and edited and made changes and edited. We got it printed at Kinkos the night before Passover, and it looked great. It also felt great to see all our hard work printed. We really engaged the text in a way that we hadn’t done before, and had to really think about the seder. And the response of those who came to the seders was also gratifying, to say the least. R’s family has a tradition of long seders, and so we really delved in-depth with the material.

This year, thankfully, the family is healthy, but we asked if we could lead the first seder when my in-laws host. We hoped to make haggadah version 2.0, since, as with any first version, both of last years versions had typos, things that fell flat and a few things that we didn’t get to include. This was our opportunity to do it again, make one definitive version (at least for now) and enjoy the fruits of our labors.

If you have a desire to work with text in this way, I say go for it! It was a lot of work, but it was worth it in the end, and I am glad we did it, both last year and this.

The First Annual Sephardekanazi Seder

Post by Melissa

As we have well established by now, my husband is Sephardi (Spanish-Portuguese to be exact, though he learns about a variety of Sephardic customs and adopts what he identifies with) and I am Asheknazi. We are both very tied to the customs and traditions of these  identifications, and when it comes to Pesach (Passover) this is only intensified.  We have found ways to combine our heritages before, but hosting a seder for the first time somehow was a much bigger ordeal.  In fact, it led to some very interesting conversations and a lot of compromise because neither of us was going to win on everything. I wanted to share some of the big things which we had to think about.

Hagadot: We discussed making our own hagadot but decided against it after having heard what friends of ours went through in the process (Jessica will be writing about their experience with it on Thursday, actually).  So if we weren’t going to make our own, what would we use? I grew up with the Maxwell House hagadah, though a few years ago my family upgraded.  In college and grad school I used various Hillel compilations, and since moving have encountered a wide variety of hagadot. D has mainly been exposed to traditional Ashekenazi hagadot.  So while I was apathetic about what I had used before and comfortable with them for the sense of familiarity they provide alone – Dustin was eager to try something new.  We just received ten of Rabbi Marc Angel’s Sephardic hagadot in the mail.  Now we just need to familiarize ourselves with the differences.

Food: As mentioned last week, my husband eats kitniyot and I do not. Some of our guests will, and some will not. So how do we make a meal which everyone can enjoy, and feel their traditions are recognized? Serve a little bit of everything! To start the meal we will have eggs and gefilte fish, and hummus and turkish salad. As side dishes we will have roasted potatoes, and rice and lentils. Plus of course some meat and salad and matzah ball soup. Luckily, we have someone in our community who makes amazing flour-less chocolate torts for Pesach which we can serve for dessert.

Birkat Hamazon: So now that we know which hagadah we will use and what we will serve, how much do we want to push the comfort level of our guests? We can do the Sephardic birkat hamazon (grace after meals) which has some different wording and a totally different melody to accomodate as such. That is probably what makes the most sense since it will be in our Hagadah after all.  However, we have some guests who have less of an understanding of the nuances of birkat hamazon who may get lost with a new tune and words.  So we will likely use the birchonim (aka – benchers, the books which contain the various blessings around mealtimes) from our wedding – since they are userfriendly, complete with transliateration for those in need.

To round it all out, we will be using the tablecloth my grandmother embroidered for my future wedding present (before marriage was even really on my agenda) and the matzah cover and seder plate which were passed down to me from my grandparents, as the person most likely to annually host a seder and truly appreciate these items.  You can’t get much more Sephardekanazi than that!

But your husband is Sephardi!

Post by Melissa

Yes, but I am not.  There, I said it. I do not believe that because I married a Sephard (Spanish-Portugese), I lose my Ashkenz (Eastern European) roots.  I have adopted many things over the years, but some I do not want to give up.  I light candles like an Ashkenazi woman, and I celebrate Pesach like one.  I mentioned previously the importance of my grandfather’s influence in my life – and Pesach was the premier holiday of that.

I would go to my grandparents home in the morning before first sedar and spend the day cooking, cleaning, setting the table, and learning about the family and traditions.  The last time I spent with my grandfather was a Pesach meal.  My grandfather died on the 5th day of Pesach.  With this knowledge, is it surprising that I don’t want to let go?  Never the less, marriage is about starting a new family and making compromises in traditions, so we do.

Every day is an adventure in blending our traditions, and Pesach is no different.  While we’ve done it before, this is the first year doing it as husband and wife and the first year where we will be hosting our own sedar.  Both of these add unique layers of expectations and difficult conversations.  Neither of us can truly understand why the other cares so much about certain things, so we have to have some interesting moments of attempting to explain it.  The biggest topic is definitely Kitniyot* (I’m sure any regular readers are not shocked at this), and the second is Haggadot (but I’ll save that for an upcoming post).

My husband is a card carrying member of the Kitniyot Liberation Front, as am I.  However, I don’t eat it. It is not hametz and we will both tell you that until we are blue in the face (that is beyond the point of this post, and if you comment on it, I may delete it).  I chose to uphold my family’s minhag (custom) of not eating it, and D chooses to eat it.  We made an agreement that our future children will eat it, and at that time, I may reassess my choice to not. We serve kitniyot in our home and our community all knows it.  We have found those who will eat it and D has them over one afternoon for Cholent, and I go to my Rabbi’s house for Matzah Brie instead.  However, that does not stop the endless comments from D and others that since I married a Sephardi man, I can eat it without regard to minhag. Yes, but I don’t want to.

Marrying a Sephardi man did not undo a lifetime of Ashkenzai traditions. I can embrace what my husband does to honor his ancestry, without denying my strong roots in the process.  I don’t know what my grandfather would say about rice next to his sedar plate, but I hope I have many years of happiness before I will find out.

*For more information about Pesach and Kitniyot see the following articles at MyJewishLearning.com (Kitniyot and What to do with leaven)