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.


The Unexpected Seder

The seder plate we received as a wedding present - post by Jessica

Since we started dating, R and I have spent at least part of every Passover seder together, generally at his parents house. However, in January of last year, my father in law (FIL) had successful shoulder surgery, a month after successful back surgery. After two successive surgeries like that, you can imagine that the recovery time was not short. As FIL explained the recovery process over dinner at the local kosher Israeli place after his first follow-up appointment for the shoulder, I realized that we were going to have a problem with Passover. Traditionally, FIL had done most of the preparation, and MIL didn’t have extra time to chip in, since she was still working at her very demanding full-time job.

So, if he couldn’t prepare and we don’t live close enough to do it for them, how were we going to have seder? The options looked uninviting, and most involved spending the holiday away from my husband’s parents. I started considering the viability of hosting the seder in our apartment. Given what I wrote on Thursday about our first Passover, you might be surprised that I even considered it. There were some things working in our favor, however. One of them was that my new job was a lot less stressful, and although it didn’t free up any time, it freed up A LOT of mental energy. The second was that we’d be able to get the seder catered through the Hillel that my husband works for. The cook was already making meals for several seders, and he said that if he was paid, he was willing to make another one for us.  There were other motivations – hosting a seder sounded like the good kind of challenge, and it would be a chance to make our dream of writing our own Hagaddah a reality. And we’d be able to use our seder plates – one we’d bought for ourselves and one given to us as a gift.

The Hagadda, in particular, meant it was a lot of work, but there were other issues we faced. One of the big downsides of having the seder at our place verses my in laws was that my parents were too far away to attend. We also had to work in our incredibly tiny kitchen, which meant borrowing a mini-fridge from Hillel just to have enough space to store all the seder food. On the day of the seder, we had my in-laws working (FIL was just out of his sling and doing great) and my friend E came over early to help out. There were eggs to boil, gefilte fish to put out, tables to assemble and set… Once we sat down to the seder, with the Haggadot we’d made ourselves, and had a really fantastic seder with a lot of people we really enjoyed having there – all the craziness was worth it!

On Thursday – I’ll tell you all about the Haggadah we wrote!

Kitniyot and Me

post by Jessica

My first memory of Passover happened at our synagogue in South Africa’s communal seder, when I decided I didn’t like the matzah ball soup.Unlike in the US, in South Africa, the soup was only brought out on Passover, maybe in deference to the tropical climate. In our first year in Canada, we visited my aunt in Florida for the seder, but after that year, we stayed and just did the seder with the three of us, and sometimes family friends. We even have a videotape of me at almost 8 years old, practicing reading the four questions and answering questions about them with my mom, who was at that point (and for much ofmy childhood) my Hebrew teacher. Once we moved to the US, we had a home seder for the first seder, and for the first time I could remember, we participated in a second seder, in the form of the annual community seder, one of the biggest events of the year in the congregation. It was a really enjoyable experience, and allowed us to participate in at least one seder, even during the years in high school when my mom was sick with chemo.

I loved all those seders, but that was often the extent of our food observance of Passover. I remember eating matzah sandwiches in high school, but with matzah hard to come by where we lived, sometimes we’d run out of matzah before the holiday was over, and we’d just go back to bread. My first year in college, I was surprised to see that the dorms had some Passover foods available all through the holiday.That minor experience combined with my growing understanding of kashrut meant that through my college years, I was working on my understanding of kashrut during Passover as well. By my senior year, my roommate and I were covering our counters with aluminum foil and buying as much kosher for Passover food as we could. I first found out about kitniyot when a friend asked if I had found anything in the convenience store by the dorm that didn’t have any corn syrup in it. I had no idea what she was talking about, and, once I found out, didn’t worry too much about it as I never really made a commitment to keep kosher for Passover, even as my roommate and I made an effort to make the apartment as kosher as possible for her sake.

It was during our year in Israel that really made me understand what it meant that R was teaching me about Sephardi kashrut, rather than Ashkenazi kashrut. I decided that year to see what the kitniyot thing was about. Israel was, of course, the perfect place to learn more about kitniyot – it was everywhere! Matzah, cheese and hummus sandwiches are amazing, kosher for Passover Doritos? Unbelievable! Back in America, without a strong family connection either way, I was more than happy to take on my husband’s kashrut practices in general, and kitniyot in particular. We make our own hummus with chickpeas, sort through the rice, and make sure we don’t serve kitniyot to anyone who doesn’t want it. Coming from a family with very little tradition for Passover, having fewer restrictions on foods for Passover has really been a blessing.

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)