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.


Chag Sameach v’Kasher!

Just wanted to take a break from our cooking frenzies to wish you all a happy, healthy, and kosher Passover.

As you think about our ancestors leaving Mitrayim, and trying to identify that you too went out of Egypt, take a moment to think about difficult experiences in your own life which you have grown from in the past and where you have opportunity to free yourselves in your life now.

May this week be filled with growth as we truly embrace our freedoms.



Oh, and just in case you missed it, Passover Rhapsody – one of the best holiday viral videos ever.

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. 

The Absence of Low-Fat Cheese and Other Stories

post by Jessica

Being the daughter of a doctor and a psychologist, I was taught from an early age to be aware of what I put in my mouth. At a meal, eat your protein first, then the vegetables, then the starch. Two cookies at a time for a snack. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.

Still, there were some adjustments to be made when I started keeping kosher and that sometimes, Judaism’s culture of food is hard on our health.

I made adjustments for keeping kosher. Because a smaller portion of the food out there has a kosher label, it sometimes means choosing something different that I might have previously. My favorite example of this is low-fat cheese. While low-fat cheese exists in abundance in the non-kosher cheese world, around here, the only low-fat cheese you can find around here is of various soft, white kinds: cottage cheese, cream cheese, etc. Make it a lot harder to enjoy cheese responsibly – especially since dairy products are one of the few kinds of food that when fat is taken out, they tend to not put too much fake stuff back in.

Probably harder to deal with is Judaism’s constant focus on food. On Shabbat, you celebrate by eating – holidays have special foods and special meals too. The Passover seder, one of the most widely celebrated rituals in Judaism, centers on a meal. There’s also the pressure of going to others homes and inviting others to your homes. We have a culture where there is never too much food on the table, even if it is only just the six of us.

So how do we deal with it? Once we realized we needed to, we changed our eating during the week to something like the South Beach Diet model (my father’s recommended diet). There are special challenges to being on South Beach and being Jewishly observant. We eat challah & dessert on Shabbat, maybe a little more than we should, but less than we used to. We remember, especially when it’s just the two of us at a Shabbat meal that Shabbat comes every week, so maybe we don’t eat a huge meal every week. A celebratory meal, sure, but something lighter. We eat until we’re full, not until we’ve made a good show of it or we’ve stuff ourselves into a stupor. And we sleep just fine during our Shabbat naps anyway.

We’ve always been big on meal planning, mostly because we hate grocery shopping (seriously, we shop every two weeks), but we also find that we have a much better idea of what we’re putting into our bodies if we have it on paper. We even started this healthy kick right around Purim, which is a festival of low fiber carbs and giving and receiving seriously sweet foods. So, we took everything, laid it all out, took the stuff we really wanted and gave the rest away. It all has to be eaten by Passover anyway, so we rationed ourselves to one or two pieces a day, and then got rid of the rest.

Traditional Judaism tries to be about moderation (i.e. Enjoy eating, but not everything). So we try to work with that in mind.

Memorable, For Now

"Things NOT Appearing at Our Passover Seder" - post by Jessica

Passover preparations are now finished in our house. In a few hours, we’ll head to my in-laws for the seder and enjoy the two days of the holiday with them. It was a marathon sprint, but we’re almost there!

I have been thinking about writing this post since we started our series on Passover. I liked the topic of our favorite or most memorable seder so much, and then realized that I wasn’t sure what to write about! Maybe it’s because that seder experience is one I really enjoyed at the time, it’s not one that I really want to repeat. Funny how things go like that.

It was my senior year in college, and my roommate and I had foiled our kitchen in glory. It was impressive. Especially for two newbies at it, like ourselves. It wasn’t probably totally kosher, but it was the closest I had ever been. We’d stocked up on food, and I braved the seders.

Each night, I attended two seders. On the first evening, I led a seder at Hillel, along with the Hillel JLI rabbi (for whom, thinking back, it was probably a trying experience), and we were done relatively quickly. We used the standard Hillel text that I had helped put together, and added a few bits and pieces here and there, and the food was good. Afterwards, I went to R’s parents house. We were already dating at this point and I had been invited, like last year. Unlike the year previous, however, I was no longer a newcomer – I was more and more like family, even though we weren’t engaged yet. On the second night, I drove the hour home to my parents congregation (not yet having any compunction about driving on holidays) and enjoyed the seder with them. The small congregation had brought in a retired rabbi to lead the seder, and although he was a great scholar and an engaging leader, he made a number of gaffes to make the experience less enjoyable. Chief among them was the omission of the third cup of wine. I had suspected he had done the same thing the year before, and this year paid close attention in order to confirm it. Afterwards, driving back to school, I arrived at R’s parents house and just about the same point in the seder, since they had started a little later on the second night.

Perhaps I should think of the first time we were able to have seder as a family, three Passovers ago, or our seder in Jerusalem four Passovers ago as among my most memorable. I think, though, that this particular Passover captures a particular period in my life – when I was still technically single but in a serious relationship, still very much a student, still very much connected to everything that had gone before, and just venturing into what was still to come.

Wishing everyone a healthy and happy Passover to those who celebrate, a healthy and happy Easter to those who celebrate, and looking forward to continued writing.

14 years or 14 days

*My grandfather's seder plate - now mine* Post by Melissa

In every life, there are moments which will never be forgotten – for good or for bad, they shape the people we become and change the course of our personal histories.  One of those for me was Pesach in 1996.

From the time I was in preschool, I spent the days (or at least afternoons when Spring Break timing didn’t work out right) before seder with my grandparents helping to cook, clean, and get everything ready for the family to celebrate together. I learned how to cook and what being Jewish meant on these days.  The time I was able to spend learning about my family history is in and of itself a wonderful thing.  Beyond that, it made for a lifelong love of Pesach and the seders. So while the cleaning and cooking are always a daunting task, I always have fond memories of the days as a kid in my grandparents condo.

However, in 1996, my grandfather was in the hospital the day of preparation so it was just me and my grandma. His absence was definitely felt in their condo that day.  My uncle and I led seder without him for the first time in our family’s history.  We breezed through it, making sure to keep grandpa in our hearts, but without his physical presence it was hard to keep the focus on the haggadah as it should have been.  He was released the following morning and told he had about another six months to live.

We readied the house for seder as usual and enjoyed our time together.  Grandma and I cooked, and Grandpa teased me and helped me ready the seder plate.  His seder plate (pictured above) only had the words in Hebrew – no vowels or symbols even to help out – so every year, he and I would sit down and he would help me read the words and figure out which items went in each divot. Grandpa and I had a special bond and having the time together to prepare for seder was one of our special Grandfather-Granddaughter things.

Grandpa was back in his seat at the head of the table that night.  His first great-grandchild had been born just months before.  His wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandson were all there to celebrate his return home and his love of celebrating holidays as a family.  He was his jovial self, teasing and praying with the same fervor he always had.  Three days later, he had finished eating lunch and sat down in his chair.  Moments later he died.

I don’t think anyone in my family will ever forget that final seder we spent together. I know that while 14 years have passed, I remember it as though it has been a mere 14 days.  Every year at Pesach I remember the phenomenal man that he was, the living example of being a mensch, the man who inspired me to live a more passionate (and observant) Jewish life. Thank you Grandpa. I love you. Zichron Livracha, may your memory always be for a blessing.

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.