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.


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.

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!

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!

An Unforgettable Sedar (for all the wrong reasons)

Post by Melissa

When I was in graduate school, I was very involved with GAP (the graduate student and young professionals affiliate of Hillel) and as such, was asked to lead the first ever GAP Sedar at Hillel.  This seemed like a good idea as I was involved and could get people to attend our second night sedar at Hillel by leading.  That is, until the only date available for a major ankle surgery was the day before Pesach began.

Having spent time and energy recruiting people to attend, it was important that I still uphold my end of the agreement and lead the sedar.  I was convinced that being graduate students we’d have some other people who could help guide it along if I faltered.  I did not expect that most of the people who could do so would be attending the traditional sedar in the basement.  Even when I realized this, I assumed that with my fairly high pain tolerance and aversion to taking pain medications, I’d be able to hold my own enough.

I thought wrong. Very wrong.  I had to take medications, elevate my foot with ice on it, and try to project my drowsy voice to a group of nearly 30 graduate students who were mostly there to see their friends and have a Pesach meal.  Few people were able to help with leading the sedar and the logistics of the numerous sedars occurring simultaneously made for quite an interesting balancing act.  I recall that at some point I turned to my mother, who had come in to help me out with balancing school and recovery (and living in a second story walk up apartment while I was not allowed to bear any weight for a month), and said “I give up.” She gave me a slight smile of understanding and that was pretty much the end of my night.

My mom stepped up to help where she could and I wrangled in a Hillel staff member to provide some back up support, but any semblance of focus or order was long lost by that point.  Though, there was a rally towards the end of the night as the search for the afikomen began and ended with a very triumphant find – the redeeming moment for many guests. (I think they would have related to this post from MyJewishLearning, actually.) We decided to recline in our chairs, enjoy the food and company, and have an unforgettable Sedar experience – that we hope never to repeat again.

Lesson learned: Do not lead a Sedar for a group of graduate students less than 48 hours after surgery. 🙂