Review: Haggadot (+ M’s love of them in general)

I was recently contacted about reviewing two new Haggadot, and I cannot express my excitement about this in words. Pesach has always been my favorite holiday, while the prep is intense, it only helps to build the excitement.  It totally reshapes an entire week every year around remembering a pinnacle moment in Jewish history. (Plus in a good year, we get five days of checking out from the world)

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to develop an amazing collection of Haggadot.  I grew up with the Maxwell House one, and while it is a classic, I knew there great commentaries I had yet to discover.  So every year, I try to get one new one.  We started our Sephardekenazi family collection with “The Sephardic Passover Haggadah” by Rabbi Marc Angel. Last year I bought myself the Haggadah which Elie Wiesel wrote the commentary for.  I also have “Go Forth and Learn” from Rabbi David Silber on my wish list. It probably would have been this years addition, had I not received these two amazing haggadot for review. While all of this is obviously not related to the review, I had to first share that I may be biased, because I love haggadot and the many interesting ways in which they can be done. I value unique commentaries which expand our understanding of the traditional text. I believe that we can all learn from each other, and that every haggadah gives us a chance to do just that.

The first Haggadah I received for review was “New American Haggadah,” translated by Nathan Englander, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and containing commentaries by a long list of contemporary Jewish authors. I was giddy when I took it out of the packaging.  It is a hardback book with a bold design that was visually stunning as I just flipped through the pages.

The translation was overwhelmingly traditional, but with some modernization and active language – which I really appreciated, as a traditional yet modern woman. The language is overwhelmingly powerful and absorbing.  From the moment I read “as our people’s ink-stained fingers turn its wine-stained pages” in the intro, I was hooked.

There is a timeline of Jewish history running across the top of the pages, which captures the long history of the retelling of these stories.  To complete this, there are artistic renderings of the Hebrew text in each section designed to be reminiscent of the typesetting of the era reflected in the timeline.

My favorite thing, is the structure of the commentary though.  Each commentary section is written by someone else, but they always follow the same format.  There are four sections: House of Study, Playground, Nation, and Library.  In each commentary, these four categories are utilized to structure the authors reaction to a particular piece of the haggadah.  They also re-orient the pages and you have to physically turn the book 90′ to read them.  While I like the ability to clearly see the commentary outside of the flow of the haggadah, my husband felt it was annoying to have to turn the book. I also was unable to identify which author wrote which commentary, which may be bothersome to others.


The second Haggadah is “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” which was recently published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I didn’t know much about what to expect from this one, but since I love Haggadot, I was excited to see something out of my normal zone.  From the beginning (lierally, the table of contents) it became apparent that would be just that.

This Haggadah begins with a checklist for preparation and explanations of the various things which go on the table, from wine glasses for each person, to matzah, to Miriam’s cup.  There is gender nuetral language, including discussing the four children instead of the four sons (which given the publisher is to be expected), I was pleased to see that it was done so that it doesn’t interupt the flow of the translations of the magid (story telling) which is so important to the sedar.

It also has interesting pieces of additional learning, “opportunities for discussion,” and songs in the margins and otherwise sprinkled throughout the hagaddah. As a very interactive person, this was really interesting to me.  There is even an appendix with more songs! This really makes it feel family friendly, and even just friendly to those who are looking for more interactive and less traditional sedar experience.

I really enjoyed both of these Haggadot and feel they add uniqueness to my collection.

Note: I received copies of both haggadot for free to review, however I did not receive any additional compensation. 


Talia wore a Tichel!

As I mentioned in a recent post about my Purim wig wearing experience, my good friend Talia got to be me for a day – headscarf and all. While I was wigging out (ha!) about the feeling of hair and interesting reactions, she too had an interesting reaction.

Here is just a brief excerpt:

I arrived at Mel’s house at 7:45 am. She was dressed as me and I was dressed as her. Her husband had a good chuckle at us and we went to work. We picked out jewelry and then got down to the good part. I had to pick out a scarf to wear and she had to get her brand new wig situated. Yes wig. My dear friend, who hasn’t had hair graze the back of her neck in more than two years, purchased a ‘lovely’ (read: cheap) red wig to mimic my hair. We dissolved in giggles and I helped her position it. Then it was my turn. We picked out a lovely plain brown scarf and then a fun, silky giraffe print scarf to top it off. She put it on my head and tied it for me…


I went from wacky single to mature married lady in one quick tie! It was a complete change for me… I felt different. Modest. Amazing. We drove to work and stopped at a fruit and veg mart to get some goodies for our co-workers. I felt funny… oddly conspicuous and inconspicuous at the same time. For a minute I wanted to shout… “THIS ISN’T ME! I’M NOT MARRIED YET!” but I also wanted to revel in the respect people paid me. More than anything… I started getting a crick in my neck! I felt like I had a work of art on my head and I couldn’t move.

Its funny how different reactions can be. For more of Talia’s – check out her full post on Talia, She Wrote.

International Women’s Day and Purim

I recently wrote a post for Jewesess with Attitude Blog at the Jewish Women’s Archive about International Women’s Day and Purim sharing a date on the Gregorian calendar this year and thought I would share it here as well, as it got some nice feedback.


International Women’s Day and Purim: Finding the connection (original post here)

International Women’s Day has been observed since the early 1900s. This year is only the fifth time the date has aligned with Purim and the fist since since the establishment of the Jewish Women’s Archive, so we obviously had to address the significance. (For those who are curious, the date aligned previously in 1917, 1936, 1955, and 1974)

International Women’s Day is self-described as a “global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.” Since its first official observance in 1911, it has been a worldwide observance of the struggles and accomplishments of the global women’s rights movement. (For a detailed history of IWD, check out this very comprehensive blog post from 2010.)

In the Purim story, we learn of two phenomenal women, who are definitely worth celebrating. Vashti, King Ahasuerus’ first wife, who refuses to strut her stuff (keeping it PG) during a party gets dethroned. She stood up for herself and refused to be treated just as a body on display, even though it was the end to her reign as Queen because King Ahasuerus and his advisers feared it would make women throughout Persia stand up to their husbands. Next comes up Queen Esther, who gets picked from a beauty pageant (again with the PG here) to be the next queen. She hides her Jewish identity because she knows it will help her in the long run, and reveals it only when she knows that Uncle Mordechi and the entire community are about to be killed. Both of these women could have taken the easy road, but they didn’t. They did what was right, even though it was not what was easy.

This is the very essence of what International Women’s Day is all about. Celebrating women who do what needs to be done, even when it isn’t easy. There have been, and will be, many times where we just have to say no, times when we have to cease immediate gratification for the big picture. We have to harness the lessons of the Purim heroines as we celebrate how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.

Purim is centrally celebrated by reading the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) which recounts the full story of Purim. It is important to note that in the Book of Esther, God’s name is not mentioned even once – we are to assume that God is the marionette pulling the strings and making everything line up from behind the scenes. This is another link to the celebration of International Women’s Day where we recognize not only the powerhouses on the front lines, but also all the women who have a hand in the background offering their support, encouragement, and wisdom to those who lead the battle every day.

It is so vital for us to recognize that without God lining up the events, Vasti and Esther’s heroism would not have mattered, nor would Esther and Vashti have been such great heroines without God’s support. So too, without the women behind the scenes, the bold work of the feminist leaders would be for naught and the vocal leadership needs the support of the rest of us. This year is a prime moment to recognize the importance of both sides of leadership, and to celebrate all women who are a part of the global efforts to impact change in economic, political, and social issues. We need each other in order to succeed, and if Esther could save the Jews, we can definitely keep improving the lives of women worldwide.

Be the light

Post by Melissa

One of the joys of working for a Jewish organization is having lunch and learns about the holidays.  We had one before Chanukah which reshaped my entire celebration.

The second verse of the Torah says, “And the land was desolate and void and darkness was on the face of the deep.”  The Mishnah tells us that these four descriptions reflect the four great exiles of the Jewish people.  Desolate and void refers to the Babylonian and Persian exiles which run together just as the Hebrew phrase “tohu v’vohu “ they parallel.  These exiles were brief but very physical. Their end is celebrated by Purim. Darkness refers to the Grecian exile, which was a spiritually dark time in our history. Its end is celebrated by Chanukah.  Deep refers to the Roman exile we remain in today. (IYH, there will be a new holiday to celebrate its end too!)

While Purim has many mitzvot associated with it: mischloach manot, reading megillat Esther, giving tzedekah and having festive meals – Chanukah has just one: lighting the Chanukiah.

We have just one thing to do for these eight days:  To bring light into the darkness.

The chanukiah allows us to let our Judaism shine for all to see.  To take a moment year after year to remind ourselves that Judaism is a unique and wonderful life path.  To reflect upon how that makes us different from the masses.  To stand up and embrace that, rather than to blend in. To stand up and not assimilate, just as our ancestors the Maccabees did. After all, “a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle,” but when a candle burns out, light is lost.

This is what the holiday is all about, lighting for the sake of the light.  To add a little glimmer of hope and light into the world.  This year, I took time to appreciate the light and the fact that it alone was the focus of the holiday.  One whole week with just one small task each night to really commemorate this important moment in history.  Shining our light into the darkness that surrounds us.

Miracle in the Making

How much is your life worth to you? Is it worth $54? What about the life of any of your closest friends or your family members?

$54 is the cost of getting one person entered into the National Bone Marrow Registry via Gift of Life.  $54 is the cost of getting one person’s cheek swab processed.  $54 to get listed as the potential life saver for another person.

While when one person reaches out directly to be swabbed, they cover the cost of their own test, when they do big drives, it is a different story financially.  This phenomenal organization is doing amazing work reaching out to get more people registered, but they simply can’t get them all processed and into the database where they can be matched up to patients in need.  (See the video below for more information.)

I wrote in-depth about why I love Gift of Life back in October of 2010 when Jay Feinberg was one of the nominees for JFNA’s Jewish Hero of the Year competition (BTW – He won). Go read that post and then come back to see why I’m bringing it up again now.

— I’m waiting.  — Back? — Good. — Let us continue.

I have since become friends with someone who was the recipient of an anonymous bone marrow donation.  While having met Jay and working with the recipients, its been a unique experience to really get to know someone who went through the process and is in the place of reflection upon it all.  Almost anytime I say “How are you today?” she says cheerfully “I’m just so great, I couldn’t imagine being any better” or some other variation with the same theme.  This woman knows that she has received the gift of life, and cherishes it.  She shared about the letter she just recently received from her donor, in which she could tell that this stranger knew they had given this same gift of life and their life had been just as profoundly impacted as hers was – albeit in a less physical way.  It is a real life example of why this really matters, and how much one swab and one small donation can miraculously impact another human’s life.

This year, Mayim Bialik, The Maccabeats, and Matisyahu have all joined me in championing for Gift of Life and are working to raise $80,000 this Chanukah.  For those of you who are not so quick with math, thats $10,000 per night of a holiday which is all about celebrating miracles.

Mayim Bialik gives her own explanation about why you should join the campaign…

Just in case you live on the moon, here is the Maccabeats video for this year and this campaign, covering Matisyahu’s Miracle

It’s rare that I do this, but I am asking each and every one of you to take a moment to join me, Mayim, The Maccabeats, and Matisyahu in supporting the Miracle Match, I know it is cliche, but seriously – every dollar counts and every dollar gives you the potential to be a part of a true miracle this Chanukah.

(And if helping save a life isn’t incentive enough for you this year, there are lots of cool gifts for various giving levels as well as some grand prizes.)

Thanks and Gratitude

According to the illustrious Miriam Webster, thanks and gratitude are very similar. However, I would have to disagree.

Post by Melissa

I feel that “thanks” is thrown about so casually and its so simple to say “thanks for your help/support/friendship/etc” – but how often do we truly express gratitude to those around us and to Hashem. To stop and really reflect on all the blessings in our life?

Personally, I don’t do it enough.  So while I can wax prophetic about all the reasons I dislike Thanksgiving, this one I can celebrate.

I can take a moment to express my gratitude to my beyond amazing friends and family, to having a fulfilling (even at its most stressful) job, for my (generally good) health, and for each and every one of you.  This blog started on such a whim (seriously, we should tell you all about how it really happened one day), and it has grown to be such an integral part of my life.

So this Thanksgiving, I hope we are all able to really look at the word, and seize the opportunities to give thanks – for all that we have.

Come on baby, bite my pitom….

Post by Melissa

On Erev Shemini Atzeret, I heard a drash that featured an odd custom.  The friend I was sitting with and I were both a bit baffled and discussed it while walking to dinner.  In the end, neither of us knew much about it but were fascinated by it, so I decided to blog a bit and see if anyone else had any great insights.

Apparently, there is a minhag (custom) that a woman will bite the pitom off her husband’s etrog as a segula (sign – for lack of better translation) for easy childbirth.

The story told had to do with resisting the temptation of the etrog until then, showing that the woman is now stronger than Chava/Eve and thus worthy of not having the curse of painful childbirth put upon her.

So dear friends and readers — who knows more about this? I’m intrigued…

Where does this come from? Is it widespread? Does it only work if you are pregnant, or can I start doing it now? 😉 (I’ll take all the segula’s I can get on that one!)


Also, I just need to note that I am not unoved by or ignoring the release of Gilad Shalit (as anyone who follows me personally or the blog on twitter has seen).  However, I am still not quite able to process my thoughts into a coherent post.  Once I do, b’li neder, there will be a post full of emotions and reflections.  For now, life goes on for us and, baruch hashem, for the entire Shalit family.