Random Thoughts

Hello everyone,

No brain power for a regular update, so here’s the bullet point, brain vomit version. Forgive me.

post by Jessica!

  • I’ve already had three meetings at work regarding Passover. I can’t decide if it’s a good or bad thing that it’s so late in the semester this year.
  • Although the economy is supposed to be improving, apparently the powers-that-be that control the purse strings here haven’t heard about it. The budget next year is hard to think about. In a way, it makes me glad to not be here next year. In another, I love my students too much to leave them in the lurch. We’re working on fixing things.
  • I hate when things are totally out of your control, and no matter how well you’re doing, it’s too tough.
  • I’m doing an ASB trip in about a month! We’re going to Miami!! I have an amazing group of twelve girls, and I think we’re going to have a blast. I hope to have time to write about it here.
  • On February 4, we had Interfaith Shabbat at our Hillel. It was one of the most amazing things ever. I wish I could bottle those moments and keep them in my office when I’m having a bad day.
  • I may or may not be covering my hair more regularly. It seems to be sticking, but I’m not sure about it. Not even sure totally what inspired it. I seem to be doing okay with it. I need to examine it more, but who the heck has time for that.
  • The professor whose office is next to mine put up a sign “11 weeks, 1 day till summer vacation.” At least I know someone is looking forward to it more than I am – I hadn’t started counting yet.
  • That’s not entirely true – I did know it was five weeks until spring break, and then another 6 weeks until the end of the semester….
  • One day, I want to get back into writing regularly. I just went through and read our Passover posts from last year and they were great to read.

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.

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!