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.


I’m wearing a wig!

Yes, you read that right – Melissa, the woman who doesn’t wear wigs, is wearing a wig.

Luckily, its just for a Purim costume and I shall return to the world of scarves tomorrow, but for today I am be-wigged – and its weird! Aside from the obviously very different look, it feels weird physically, mentally, and spiritually.

@thdpr and @melschol - but who is who? (Post by Melissa)

The first question I’m sure you have is – what were you and what did the wig look like? Well, thats simple.  My dear friend Talia and I decided to be each other at work. We wanted to celebrate but also be work appropriate, and so a brilliant idea was born.  We wore outfits that were totally how the other dresses (and each other’s work name tags just to clarify), but the crux of it was clearly our “hair” – my be-scarfed head and her beautiful red hair are quite distinct. So today, I am wearing a wig. I’ll be back later to reflect on the experience!


Ok, it is now motzei Shabbat, and the wig has been packed away and I can take a moment to reflect on the experience.

Overwhelmingly, I just didn’t feel like myself.  Maybe it was that the color was so far from my own, but I think it was more that it just didn’t feel true to who I am and my ideals at this point in my life. Plus, I was super freaking hot! I honestly felt like I was over heating all day, and while it was unseasonably warm, it was still only  ~65′ – I can’t imagine having it on in 85′!

The biggest shock to me though was number of comments I got about how pretty/beautiful/etc I looked with a wig on and subsequently “why don’t you wear a wig.” While I so know that our society values hair as beautiful, it was still striking to see how much it really affects people’s views of each other.  That having on a (very cheap) wig made such an impact on my appearance that people felt compelled to comment as amazing to me. So, while my vain inner voice said “what, so I don’t look pretty normally?” my rational voice reaffirmed the sephardic reasoning for not wearing a wig, and my overall non-sheitel status. (Though ironically on Sunday I am attending a Sheitel Sale, though that is primarily to support the friend hosting it and to get a WiGrip which I have heard such amazing reviews of but would love to try on before committing to.)

At the end of the experience, I am honestly so glad to be back to my scarves and hats, though I do have an increased appreciation for women who wear sheitels daily and there is still the lingering inside me to own one for fancy events.  However, I am sure all I will have to do to sway myself back to reality now is to remember how hot I was and how uncomfortable I was with people telling me how good I looked. For my physical, mental, and spiritual well-being – I really need to stick to scarves.

Reflections on Tisha b’Av and the B’nai Anousim

This year, I was educated in advance of Tisha b’Av (the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, which fell yesterday), about a resolution passed last year by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).  The USCJ unanimously passed a resolution stating that the Conservative movement should educate about the B’nai Anousim and the Spanish Inquisiton during Tisha b’Av.  However, this has not yet become a wide-spread practice. As such, I am taking this space to share some links for your education on the matter.

Who are the B’nai Anousim?





What do the B’nai Anusim have to do with Tisha b’Av?




I think that at a time when we look at the historical destruction of the Jewish people, it is imperative to reflect upon the more recent historical destructions.  The fact that the expulsion from Spain occurred also on Tisha b’Av in 1492, only furthers the need for its inclusion in our commemorations.  We need to think about those who were forceably converted and fought to practice their Judaism in secret for hundreds of years.  These individuals did not allow their Judaism to be wiped out  by others, and that is a critical lesson to learn today.  Today their descendants are finding their way back to Judaism and need to be included in Jewish life the way that their ancestors were not.  Please take a moment to educate yourself, and the next time you meet a Jew with a Spanish last name take a moment to listen to their story – you never know what you may learn.

Reflections on a year of marriage

Ok, so I know this is belated from when I had promised it, but alas – here comes my reflections series.

Post by Melissa

I am still in denial of the fact that I have been married to my best friend for a year.  If  I have learned any one thing this year, it is to keep laughing.  We have a ton of fun and that is something which brings us through the hard times, and we will always have that to share.

Over the course of our first year of marriage, we have been through some very difficult experiences, as well as some truly wonderful ones.  We were lucky enough to be able to celebrate the marriages of some of our closest friends, welcome new babies into the world, and be honored guests at B’nai Mitzvah.  On the flip side we also have had to deal with death and divorce.  The cycle of life keeps on reeling, and even just a few weeks into our second year of marriage we’ve already attended a funeral and a Brit Milah.  Every time I get to share a special event in the life cycle with D, I smile internally.  Even for sad events, having him by my side makes it a better moment – and I hope that never goes away.

As mentioned, we have been able to celebrate the marriages of numerous friends throughout the year.  At every Shabbat Kallah (a gathering of women to celebrate the bride the day before her wedding, keeping her calm and surrounded by her friends and family) I was asked for my insights on having a happy marriage, and I had to think back to the best advice I was given.  A good friend of mine got married the week before I did, and her mother told her that a marriage is not about giving 50-50, or 60-40 – it is giving 100-100.  Each person must give 100% of themselves to their marriage in order to make it a truly happy union. Those words truly stuck with me.

To add my own insight would definitely be to keep playing and laughing.  D and I have a very playful relationship, as I have mentioned before.  I truly believe that being silly and playful is something which will always keep us young and help us through the difficult times in the years to come.  Though our playfulness can sometimes annoy one another, we know that at the end of the day, we are each bringing our 100% to the table and we may just need to step back for a moment and see what the other is going through. Some days need hugs, not pokes. Some weeks need serious discussions, not goofy banter. All of which is ok and keeping up with it keeps us happy in the big picture.

This all ties into the almighty key word of any relationship: compromise.  Our regular readers know by now that this has been a big part of our Sephardekenazi life, and it only grows more prominent with every passing week.  While I have made many compromises this year, I know there are many more to come, and as long as we can talk through the options rationally and laugh about it later – I think we are prepared to handle come what may.

{For the record, while I typed this post, he washed the Shabbat lunch dishes and made me fresh popcorn. I have an awesome husband.}

Od y’shama…… Wait, its been a year?

Tomorrow is my first wedding anniversary, I know I am beyond blessed to be married to my best friend and to laugh every day.  I know this sounds cliche’, but I cannot believe that I have been married for a year already.  I still feel like I should be planning for my wedding or picking out something, but nope, its all done. I even have my photo album on my mantle and my ketubah hanging above it to prove it should I ever truly forget.  Not that I could, because the day I married D was hands down the best day of my life.  (Ask me again when I have children, I’m sure I may have to claim that I have multiple best days.)

Post by Melissa (Photo copyright RealPhotography.com)

Our wedding was a wonderful celebration of us and our love.*  In fact, yesterday we received a bracha (blessing) from our Rabbi during the Torah service, and as the congregation sang “siman tov, u’mazel tov” our Rabbi turned to D and said “That was a fun wedding, lets do it again!” – which was exactly what we wanted people to say about it. D and I have a very fun and playful relationship, our wedding was definitely a reflection of what our marriage would be – which I think is very important.  Even looking at photos, people who were not present are able to tell that everyone had a lot of fun and that it reflected our personalities.  We were blessed to be able to have that much fun while surrounded by our friends and family, also all having a fabulous time.

Our wedding was also the official start of our Sephardekanazi life together.  We had the Ashkenazi style Tisch, Bedeken, and Yichud.  However, the format of the Kidushin/Eruvin (ceremony) followed a Sephardic custom which D felt connected to, and our ketubah has the Spanish-Portugese text.  I had henna on my hands and feet, and D did not wear a kittle.  Neither of us fasted. As we each made compromises that day, so too have we made compromises throughout this year of wedded bliss.

As much as our wedding was a reflection of our lives, so too the first year of marriage has been a reflection of our life together, so I thought I would take a few weeks of posts to reflect on some of the big (and not so big) life changes which this blessing has bestowed upon me.  So far, I intend to write about my first year of marriage in general, hair covering, observing taharat hamishpaca (laws of family purity) and mikvah.  If there are any other topics which you think would be interesting to include, please feel free to share them with me, I’m always happy to write what you want to read!

*Since people always ask “What would you change if you could do it over?” here are my only two answers: to have been able to have my brother home from his deployment (which I had no say in) and to have had a dress which was shorter and fuller and had sleeves attached (I love the dress I wore, however I got very hot, tore my dress in many places, had a hard time dancing without hiking it up, and was fighting with my jacket).

I Love Water

post by Jessica

As mentioned a few weeks ago, we decided to take on mikvah as an observance.

I got a lot of nice feedback from that original post, and I am pleased to say that I enjoyed my first experience, and I wanted to take a moment to examine the experience as well.

First, I really enjoyed learning about mikvah. My teacher (incidentally, the same woman who taught the class on the Rabba controversy) was amazing. Not only was she totally understanding about where we were with our observance and why we wanted to start this now, but she helped us understand the variations in practice (especially important since we are Sephardic and the rules are slightly different).  She had a perspective that I really appreciated as well. This wasn’t about my being pure or impure or about sex or women being “bad.” Rather, it was about the ways in which Jewish people limit things that are good in moderation. For instance, eating is good and we encourage eating, but there are certain things we don’t eat and certain times we don’t eat as observant Jews. So too do we encourage people to have healthy sexual relationships, but in a certain context and at certain times. It was incredibly enlightening.

Despite all that, I still felt nervous as I began the unfamiliar procedure of counting days and all the things that go with mikvah observance. I worried if I was doing it correctly, and reviewed my notes several times to make sure. When I had determined when the fateful night would be, I placed my first call to the mikvah to make my appointment. The attendant who called me back was very nice (although, I admit it was awkward, since I was nervous) and we set up our time.

Our mikvah has the most amazing bathtub. There are not many apartments in the city that have bathtubs that you would want to spend any time in. So I spent a good forty five or fifty minutes enjoying the bathtub while slowly getting myself ready. It was powerful for me to spend that time in water, since I was that little kid who couldn’t get enough of the water. After hating the bathtub until I was about six months old, you could not drag me out of there or the swimming pool. So after just about drowning myself in the big tub, it was time for the mikvah.

I think the most difficult part for me was the fact that I couldn’t see anything with my glasses off. I think I underestimated how that would be, so it was tough. I like being able to see where I am, and especially when it’s important to have a good concept of where the sides of the mikvah are. I did not have a huge spiritual awakening, but it felt good and then it was time to get dressed. I had brought fresh clothes with me for going home, and I think the act of putting on new clothes made the spiritual difference manifest.

Bottom line: Good. Enjoyable. Something I look forward to continuing.

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.