Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Pesach - Celebrating Freedom - Freeing up the Celebration

The countdown has begun!  Passover is coming and there's so much to do to get ready - cleaning the house, planning the menu, cooking, figuring out the guest list, and oh, yeah, planning an awesome seder for this year.
Pesach is, by far, the most demanding holiday of my year, but somehow, it still tops my list as my favorite.  Depending on which research you trust it may also be the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday of the year.  When I asked some of my students what they liked best about this holiday, most of the answers revolved around family, food and fun (things like singing and finding the afikoman.)  These are the things that come up in my visceral memories from my childhood too, and probably a big part of what motivates me each year to spend the weeks leading up to the holiday in a frenzy of preparation recreating that experience for my kids and niece and nephew and all the cousins.

The Passover seder is a child-centered ritual, designed to elicit questions, providing openings  for parents to teach about what it means to be a free person and to be a Jew.  Pesach is the ultimate family holiday because it is centered around the interaction between generations, the active passing down of tradition.  But what do we pass down?

That's the other thing I love about this holiday.  It's a mitzvah - each of us is actually commanded - to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt.   At face value it's bizarre.  How can we see ourselves as if we left a place where we literally never were?  We have to find a way, metaphorically, to connect to this narrative, to find what we've been enslaved to, or how we've been limited in oppressive ways, and how we have undertaken the project of becoming more free.  Once we figure that out, that's what we can truly pass on in a meaningful way, along with the story of our ancestors in Egypt.  In a good year, I'll come through Pesach feeling more free personally, and like a more empowered role model for my kids.  Specifically, how do I do it?  Well, that's a long story. ...

Getting Ready 


Cleaning is my least favorite part of this holiday.  It overwhelms me every year.  In fact, it's what I'm not doing right now, so I won't spend much time on it here.  The traditional reason for cleaning before Pesach is to make sure no chametz, leaven, is hiding in the house.  It's a mitzvah to not even own chametz on Pesach.  There's a great opportunity here to get your house spotless top to bottom.  But if you can't manage spotless, take comfort in knowing that anything you miss that's so far gone a dog wouldn't eat it doesn't count.  Further details available from this fun and informative video:


There is a pretty wide variety of practice in American Jewish communities on how to keep kosher year-round and Pesach is no different.  But from the most strictly observant homes to the very secular, Jews tend to be more strict about bread on Passover than kashrut in general.   You'll even find homes where all year there is no restriction on any food for kashrut reasons, but on Passover the bread is put away and the family eats matzah.  To make sure no leavened food accidentally mixes in to the Pesach food, it's traditional to have a different set of dishes, pots and silverware for the holiday.  If you don't do this yet, it could seem overwhelming.  One way to experiment with it, or to ease into it is to combine using disposables for some things, kashering others (putting them through the ritual process of removing the chametz), and buying a few essentials.  Things made out of glass and metals that aren't in direct contact with fire are easiest to  kasher.  For more on how to kasher different things and prepare you kitchen see one of these sources: Rabbinical Assembly Pesach GuideOU Passover Guide.


Once the kitchen is prepared, there's cooking to do.  I struggle most years to balance the impulse to create a banquet fit to celebrate the luxury of freedom with the reality of how much time it takes to prepare and how much food people actually need to eat.  I'm lucky that so many of my guests are so helpful.  A lot of the time some are even more helpful than me.  (It's nice having a professional chef  in the family!)  I can't say that we actually keep ourselves from going overboard, but lately, we've been setting our intentions on simplifying.  Here's why.
A few years ago, it occurred to me that one of the reasons for eating matzah is that it is simple bread.  Everyone knows that matzah is flat because our ancestors didn't have time for it to rise in their hurry to leave Egypt.  But the flatness of the bread also represents simplicity and modesty.  Pesach is a time for letting out all the hot air that puffs us up like leavened bread and getting back to our basic modest selves.  It's a time to think about what we need to be truly free, not enslaved to the false gods of material things that make our lives comfortable.  It didn't make sense to me that Passover, when we're supposed to eat simple bread, would be a time to buy all sorts of highly processed foods with a special kosher for Passover label and ingredients that I wouldn't use the rest of the year.  I decided that for me, Passover could provide the inspiration to try to cook with simple fresh ingredients whenever possible and make delicious simple foods.
So with exceptions for a few indulgences, we cook our own food on Pesach.  Our side dishes are mostly vegetables roasted with olive oil and salt.  My favorite Passover dessert is chocolate-dipped fruit.  And the simpler we manage to get with the cooking, the closer I feel to fulfilling my ideal of the holiday.  This may not be the attitude for everyone, and if complex recipes are your thing or there are processed foods you can't live without, go ahead.  But if you're looking for a way to make your Seder less overwhelming and just as festive, look to the matzah, the bread of simplicity, and make a meal of delicious, simple foods.  

Things you'll need to / want to have

Now that I've just finished talking about simplifying, let's shift gears and talk about what you need.  For a seder, you'll need hagadot - books with the seder instructions and songs.  My favorite are these, but there are lots of options you can find at a Judaica shop or online.  It's nice to have one for each guest to follow along.  Matzah and wine or grape juice are a must.  You'll need at least three matzot for the ritual - which can go in a cool three-layered matzah cover (like this one) if you have one.  And everyone gets four cups of wine or grape juice.  At my seder we use a small wine glass.  We're mostly lightweights.  Anyone who wants more than a bit can refill theirs an extra time or two with dinner.
The seder plate has five or six places on it for special symbolic foods:

Salt Water  

Salt water represents the tears of our ancestors in Egypt.  There is a bowl of salt water on the seder plate.  At our seder, we also have an individual bowl of salt water for each person.  Other families have one bowl of salt water that they pass around when it's time to dip.


Bitter herbs, maror in Hebrew, is usually horseradish in most families.  You can find it prepared in the refrigerated section.  The reddish-purple version that often goes with gefilte fish is mixed with beets.  Horseradish itself is white, and it starts to appear in the produce section of supermarkets in the few weeks before Passover.  You can chop it up in the food processor and mix with vinegar yourself to really taste the bitterness of the vegetable.  The top with greens growing out of it looks nice, or at least interesting, on the seder plate.


Charoset reminds us of the bricks and mortar that our ancestors used to build the Egyptian cities.  The classic Ashkenazi version has chopped apples and walnuts mixed with sweet wine.  Some people use cinnamon, honey, or raisins as well.  Looking for something different this year?  Why not try one of these charoset recipes from around the world?

Shank bone 

To remind us of the Passover sacrifice that was made at the time of the first Pesach and in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, we put a roast bone on the seder plate.  This could be an extra piece from whatever you've cooked for your meal, like a chicken neck.  Or your butcher might give you an extra piece of some sort of bone to use.


The last thing on many seder plates is a roasted egg.  It reminds us of the coming of spring, the cycles of life and also of the sacrifices that used to be made back in the time when Jews made sacrifices.  How do you roast an egg?  Take a hard boiled egg - this is important.  It must be hard boiled first.  Hold it in tongs over a gas burner until the shell starts to change color.  Turn it to roast on all sides.  It will probably crack in some places, which is fine as long as it doesn't explode entirely.


Some seder plates have a place for something called chazeret.  This is because it's not totally clear just what bitter herbs are.  Some people put a piece of romaine lettuce in this spot.  In fact, some people use romaine as their maror, which sounds much more pleasant than horseradish.  I'm not sure pleasant is what we're going for, but some say it's the thing to do.  

Extra things for the seder plate

When I was growing up, many families added a fourth matzah to their seder tables, for the sake of Soviet Jews who couldn't celebrate the holiday.  Over the years, different extra foods  have been migrating onto the seder plate and sometimes back off.  
In the seventies a tradition started to emerge to put an orange on the seder plate.  It's either a feminist symbol or a statement of GLBT solidarity, depending on which apocryphal story you choose to tell about it.  Here's a good explanation of the ritual, if you're interested.  
Last year, a new tradition was suggested to put a tomato on the seder plate in solidarity with the tomato harvesters in Florida who are subjected to slave-like labor conditions, and are working to improve their situation through advocacy and help from other concerned citizens.  
What do you care about?  Where do you see slavery, suffering and oppression in the world today? What could you put on the seder plate that would have your kids and your guests asking about it? Maybe you'll start the next extra seder plate item trend.

Elijah's (and Miriam's) Cup

These could be repurposed wine goblets if you don't have a dedicated Elijah's or Miriam's cup.  Elijah's cup is placed on the table, as an invitation to Elijah the prophet.  Elijah is expected to herald the beginning of better times, times when the world will finally be at peace, and justice will rule.  As we celebrate past redemption, Elijah's cup reminds us to look forward to more redemption for the world - more freedom, more justice.  Miriam's cup is a newer ritual.  It calls our attention to the feminine heroes of freedom and justice, and recalls Miriam's nurturing leadership in the story of our journey from Egypt through the desert to freedom.  Elijah's cup is filled with wine, and Miriam's cup is filled with water in honor of the well that followed her through the desert, providing the Israelites with fresh water.

Getting rid of the Chametz

It is a mitzvah not to own chametz on Passover.  Many foods can simply be put away, but anything made from one of the five grains that can become challah or matzah (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye), are traditionally purged from the house.  I know of  four ways of getting rid of your chametz.  On Pesach most things come in fours, so it's only fitting.  
By far the simplest is to eat it.  It takes a lot of dedication and creativity to eat all of the chametz in your house before Pesach.  We've been working on it for a few weeks and have a spreadsheet inventory of the freezers to consult along the way.  
What you can't eat, you could give away.  Before Passover is a nice time to go through your kitchen cabinets and find some things to give to a food pantry.  It feels good, as we celebrate our good fortune to be able to share some of it.  Each Passover our wonderful and generous cousins from New Jersey bring bagels for a pre-holiday breakfast treat.  Several years we've been left with too many bagels to eat before the deadline for getting rid of the chametz, which has led to a semi-frenzied bagel-fairy run to as many of the neighbors who aren't Jewish as it takes to give away the bagels.
Some things can't be consumed and wouldn't be practical to part with.  Rabbis came up with the idea of selling chametz so that grain-based alcohol, with significant value wouldn't have to be drunk quickly or offloaded at a loss.  Today people will "sell" any chametz that is left in the house, known or unknown to them.  You can usually set up the sale in advance through a synagogue or school.  
Finally, it is traditional to symbolically and literally destroy the last bits of chametz left in the household on the morning of the seder.  The night before Pesach, the house, already cleaned, is searched for chametz.  In some families an adult hides 10 pieces of chametz for the kids to find (often wrapped in aluminum foil to prevent actually spreading it around the house).  In others the kids hide it for the adults.  There is a formula to say when beginning and ending the search and all the crumbs are gathered up and saved for the next morning.  The next morning after everyone is done eating chametz, those crumbs, along with anything else that needs to be gotten rid of are ceremoniously taken outside and burned.  There is a declaration that after the burning of this chametz, any chametz that accidentally remains in our possession be considered like the dust of the earth.  In our house, we usually use some extra newspapers twigs, fallen tree branches and pinecones to make sure the chametz resembles the dust of the earth when we're done.  These days we burn our chametz in a disposable aluminum pan in the driveway, to be sure it won't start a real fire.  It is, of course, important to have a bucket of water ready before you begin and to supervise small children, who tend to find the burning of the chametz a fascinating and festive occasion!
You can find the blessings for searching for and burning the chametz at the beginning of most haggadot.  You can read more about it here.

Getting kids to prepare too

Speaking of the kids, they should be able to help with the preparations as well.  How can they help get ready?  Here are a few ideas:

Making decorations

Kids can make art to hang around the room.  If you have a group of kids, you could have them make a set of steps-of-the-seder pictures to hang around the room, that you can point to as you reach each step of the seder.  Or have them illustrate the ten plagues, or the four questions.  Kids can also make place cards to make it easier for guests to seat themselves and make each guest feel individually welcomed.

Setting / Decorating the Table

Kids can be a great help with getting the table ready.  Using the good china and don't want to have the kids drop it?  It can be fun to decorate the table with frogs and other plague-themed figures.  Kids can be enlisted to place these around the table.  They can have a checklist to make sure all the important items are out, which will help them remember what needs to be on the table too.  And they can gather and place pillows or cushions on each of the chairs so the guests can recline at the table.

Learning the 4 questions and other songs

Download the four questions and some other songs onto your kids' mp3 player (or an mp3 player you play for your kids) and have them prepare by learning the songs.  They'll feel good about knowing what to do and they can even help lead.  Need some songs to download?  You'll find plenty over here.

Cleaning their room / toys

What a great excuse to get the kids to clean up.  Why not use the simplifying momentum to get the kids to cull the toys they no longer play with and find a place for what they still love?


If you can spare the time and find the patience, cooking with kids can be really fun.  Remember that chocolate dipped fruit I was talking about before?  Totally fun kids activity!


I hear you scoffing - yes, even before you read this - at the idea of your kid napping.  My kids, with the exception of the baby, never nap - except on the days of the seder.  By the day of the seder we have a house full of kids and we set a nap time.  No noise, no playing, all the kids get a chance to nap.  You'd think it wouldn't work, but the promise of being able to stay up super-late for the fun stuff at the end of the seder is a powerful motivator.

Prepare your guests

Just as kids like to know what to expect, we all do, really.  Let your guests know what to expect from the seder, how you'd like them to dress, what if anything you're hoping they'll prepare.  We tell our guests to dress as they would to leave Egypt.  What I mean to do is to set the mood.  The message is, this evening will likely be a long journey, but it will be a fun and meaningful one.  You should dress somewhere on the spectrum between comfortable and festive.  It gives guests permission to dress however they feel most comfortable, and we have a wide range, from some who dress like they've always dressed for a seder, festive and somewhat formal, to others who wear traveling clothes, loose and soft materials.  We've even had guests show up in flip flops and bathing suits (it's hot and sandy in the desert), and in full hippie regalia (they're fighting for peace and freedom after all)!
We also ask our guests each year to bring something, either a small object or a story or an idea that will help us tell a more personal, contemporary story of leaving Mitzrayim - the Hebrew word for Egypt which means the narrow place - and becoming more free.  
If you're inviting guests who don't know the tunes you're going to sing, why not send them  the same mp3s you'll play for your kids?
Finally, let your guests know that the seder is a time for questions and discussion, so they should feel free to bring their questions and ideas, and even if no one has the answer, you'll have a good time and get something out of working it out together.

The Seder Itself - By the Numbers

The seder is made up of 15 steps.  It's all in the Hagaddah, but just reading through the haggadah, especially with a diverse group of guests, is a recipe for nudginess and questions about when we eat.  When you and your crew know what to expect, and how to tailor the seder to your needs, you can look forward to each step and really enjoy it.  Most of the steps are brief.  A few are long.  Step 11 is the meal, and the ones after that are pretty fun.

Step 1 - Kadesh

We start the seder, like most festive meals, with wine (or grape juice).  There is a holiday blessing for the wine, and shehecheyanu as on other holidays.  A unique song that you may find in your haggadah starts "Hineni Muchan Um'zuman", which means more or less, "I'm ready to bless and drink the first cup".   It gets the seder off to a fun start, and sets the mood and the expectation that we're going to take our time doing things tonight, so settle in.  You can find it among the tunes I linked to above.  And you can sing it again for each cup of wine
When we drink the wine, we recline a bit to the left, to show how free and comfortable we now feel.  Similarly, many people have the custom of not pouring their own wine, because we're so free.  Instead we do each other a favor and pour for each other.

Step 2 - Urchatz

The seder is, in many ways modeled on a Greek banquet, and since we're about to get to the crudite course, it's customary to wash the hands.  Ritual hand-washing is done by pouring water over each hand from a two-handled cup.  At the seder, often a bowl and washing cup are passed around so that everyone doesn't have to leave the table.  In some families, one or two people will walk around with the bowl and wash everyone's hands.  In other's it's passed around and everyone helps their neighbor wash.  My husband's family adopted a tradition, for a while, of setting everyone's place with two "moist towelettes" to make the whole process faster and less messy.

Step 3 - Karpas

Ask many Jews what karpas is, and they'll tell you it's parsley.  While parsley is traditional, karpas really means vegetables.  And based on the form of a Greek banquet, this is the salad course, where fresh vegetables are eaten with dip, to hold guests over through the discussion, until the main course is served.  We mention the connection between fresh vegetables and spring, and the salt water which reminds us of our ancestors' tears.  We make the blessing on eating vegetables and dip our parsley in salt water.  But too often we forget about actually using this opportunity to assuage the hunger of our gathered guests.  Karpas can be anything that grows from the ground.  In my family, we've turned Karpas into a real course.  There are all sorts of veggies, including little boiled potatoes, and we encourage everyone to take plenty and keep on snacking through the telling of the story.

Step 4 - Yachatz

Here's the part your kids have been waiting for.  Yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzah, is there pretty much just to keep the kids engaged and give them something to look forward to at the end of the seder.  I usually make a big deal out of telling the kids to pay no attention to what I'm doing, and telling the adults how important it is that we be able to find the Afikoman, the piece of matzah we're putting away for dessert.  Then, I give the Afikoman to someone else to guard or hide, as they see fit.  I give it to someone else for two reasons.  One, I'm not super excited to have something else to keep track of.  I've got enough on my mind at the seder.  But also, it shifts some of the attention, and some of the responsibility to someone else, who now gets to play an important role in engaging the kids.  The seder should be a participatory experience for everyone.  This could be a good job for someone who might otherwise be quiet or shy, or for someone who will make your guests' children feel more comfortable getting into the action.

Step 5 - Magid

Magid is the core of the seder, the retelling of the story of leaving Egypt.  It starts with the four questions, and the text of the traditional Haggadah brings several ways of answering those questions.  The haggadah is teaching us an important lesson as parents/teachers.  The story can be told in lots of ways, and may need to be told in a few different ways for each of us and each of our children to really get it and internalize it, so that we all can see ourselves as having left Egypt.  That's why, more and more, in my family, we've been leaning towards leaving the traditional text and telling the story in other ways.  
We make sure to tell the actual Passover story in a way that the kids will understand it each year, with songs, and visual demonstrations.  Have you  seen the one where the water actually turns into blood?  Put a clear glass with a drop of red food coloring on a red plate or piece of red construction paper.  When you pour the water in, it will turn red as it fills the glass.  The old splitting of the sea trick goes like this: declare a bowl of water the red sea - insist that it was actually pretty scuzzy with all sorts of stuff floating on the top as you sprinkle the top with pepper- explain that the Israelites were afraid to go in, but one man, Nachshon, had to courage to step in - put a drop of dishwashing detergent on your finger and touch it to the surface of the water - watch the pepper scatter as you describe the sea splitting just as Nachshon stepped in.  
Year to year, the other ways we tell the story change.  Sometimes we'll send the kids out to prepare a play of the Passover story, and the adults will have a discussion of a contemporary issue related to freedom and justice.  Some years we play a big game of something like I'm leaving Egypt and I'm taking.  Sometimes, we've had everyone bring a new object for the seder plate, and we've talked about how each thing could help us feel more free, or more compassion for those who aren't yet so lucky.  
We always go back to the haggadah for highlights of the traditional text - things like the ten plagues, dayenu, and the three symbols of Passover that if you mention them, your seder counts as a real seder.  The three symbols are "Pesach" the paschal lamb, represented by the shank bone, that reminds us of the sacrifice, "Matzah" to remind us of the hurry with which our ancestors left Egypt, and "Maror", the bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery.
Magid is in many ways the most important part of the seder, and it's the place where it's easiest to lose people to the forces of hunger, boredom and disengagement.  Here's another trick I've started at my own seder to rein in this tendency.  It's no mistake that the seder was originally conceived as a banquet with reclining couches for all the participants.  It's hard to sit in a chair at a table and stay focused when it's past dinner time and maybe past bedtime too.  I dreamed for years about a seder on the floor - where everyone could lean back and really relax.  But it was too complicated and I always ended up imagining us buried in a pile of spilled food and covered in wine stains.  Then a few years ago I thought of having parts of the seder on the floor.  We start out at the table.  But when magid comes, we are liberated from the table.  I set up a section of floor with big cushions and beach chairs, and pull over the sofa for the older folks who actually need to sit up high.  We make a "kid-pit" in the middle out of more cushions, so the kids are contained, at the center of things, and have some room to move around and be comfortable.  Everyone seems to appreciate being more comfortable, and they're able to participate more.

Step 6 - Rachtzah

Now that we've told the story, we're almost ready to eat.  It's time to wash hands again.  The rule is, there's a hand washing blessing only when we're going to eat bread.  Matzah counts, so there's a blessing over rachtzah.  Otherwise it's a lot like urchatz.

Step 7 - Motzi

This one's short.  We say the blessing, just like over bread or challah on any other day.  But we don't eat the matzah until the next step because...

Step 8 - Matzah

There's another blessing just for eating Matzah.  Once we say that one we can actually eat it.

Step 9 - Maror

We're all pretty hungry by now, and lucky us, the next three steps all involve eating.  There's a blessing for eating maror, which we eat along with charoset.  This is the second dipping moment referred to by the four questions.

Step 10 - Korech

In this step, we eat a sandwich, often called a Hillel sandwich, made of matzah and maror.  The haggadah tells us that Rabbi Hillel originated this custom so that we would remember that at the time when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Passover sacrifice was eaten with matzah and maror.  These days we have no sacrifice, and Ashkenazi Jews have a tradition of not serving lamb at the seder in case it could be confused for a sacrifice.  Sacrifices can't be made without the temple.  So, we're left with the matzah and marror.  Each year, this step of the seder leads to a debate over whether the sandwich should or should not include charoset.  Of course, I know the right answer, but I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Step 11 - Shulchan Orech

Shulchan Orech is the table laid out with yummy food, or in other words, the meal.  It's traditional to start the meal with a hard boiled egg, a symbol of spring and new life, dipped in salt water - I assume because it tastes good with salt.  I grew up in a mixed family.  My father's side dips the egg in the salt water, taking bites out of the whole egg and dipping again until it's gone.  My mother's side chops the egg up, making a salty egg soup.  She reminds us each year that when she was a kid there was only one big bowl, with a few eggs in it, and they passed it around and everyone took a spoonful, which kind of makes sense given all the other things that were about to be served.  
I find it hard to resist making all the appetizers that I associate with Pesach: chopped liver, gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzah balls.  I'd really be just as happy with just those and a big bowl full of charoset, but every year we end up serving dinner anyway.  There are no hard and fast rules about the meal beyond excluding bread and other non-matzah-based grain products.  
The meal is time for more relaxed conversations, and for kids who have finished eating to search for, or steal or hide the afikoman.

Step 12 - Tzafun

Tzafun means hidden, which is where the afikoman should be by this time.  The deal is, we need the afikoman to finish the seder.  It's the last thing we're supposed to eat.  The kids have to produce it so that we can finish up and go to sleep.  There are different ways of playing this out, all of which end up with the kids being rewarded.  
Version 1 - Someone is appointed to guard the afikoman.  The kids have to find an opportunity to steal the afikoman away.  When it comes time for tzafun, the adults are dismayed to find that the afikoman is missing and forced to offer a reward to the children who ransom it back.  In the old days, the kids might have bargained for something they really wanted, that they'd get after the holiday.  These days though, I think most families have something ready and waiting as a prize.  
Version 2 - One of the adults hides the afikoman and the kids have to find it.  Rules and parameters are set up as to how much of the house the children are allowed to ransack and eventually they ransom it back as above.  
Version 3 - The kids find the afikoman and hide it again, forcing the parents to then find it and give them presents for no apparent reason.  
We usually do version 1 one night and version 2 the other.  Version 3 doesn't make much sense to me, but I'm told some families think it's fun, so if it sounds like your thing, be my guest.  Personally, I'm too tired by that point to go looking for the afikoman myself.  It was bad enough the year my dad forgot where he put the chametz on the night before Pesach and we spent hours actually searching the house for lost chametz.

Step 13 - Barech

The blessing after the meal.  It's in the haggadah, pretty straight forward.  If you have guests who are good with Hebrew, there is another opportunity to involve someone, by asking them to lead birkat hamazon.  At my seder, we make our way back to the reclining area at this point and people start dropping off to sleep one by one.

Step 14 - Hallel

Hallel, songs of praise, taken from the book of Psalms, can be a lively and fun way to wind down the evening.  If you don't know tunes for all of Hallel, you can find most of it over here.

Step 15 - Nirtzah

The seder ends with a few more songs, including old favorites like Chad Gadya and Who Knows One.  At our seder, we end up singing I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, just because, and then, most often, keep singing songs the older generation remembers fondly from their youth when they marched for peace and freedom.  There are traditional songs for nirtzah, but it's also a great time to be silly and sing whatever your family can sing together.  

Well, there you have it.  We made it through - the preparation, the planning, the cooking, the burning, all fifteen steps of the seder, the questions, and the answers and all that food.  I must admit, I'm a little exhausted just having written about it.  It's hard to believe I still have to go do it now.  But I also can hardly wait.  I love this holiday.  Before you know it, it'll be time, and we're going to leave Egypt again, and maybe this time, we'll all be really free!

Chag Sameach, happy Passover from my family to yours!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Purim - Upside Down Identity

Purim has been - at different times in my life - my favorite and my least favorite Jewish holiday.  Maybe it ought to be.  After all, it is the upside-down holiday - the day when what we think we know is turned on its head.  It's a day when we trade in the identity we normally wear, and try on another one, with a free pass to turn around the next day and say, "just kidding".  At its best, Purim should give us, as adults, a chance to notice that our everyday identities are, on some level, masks, and our Purim costumes have something in them that is normally hidden from our true identity.  Our kids wouldn't articulate it that way, but putting on a Purim costume for them can do the same thing.  It lets them express a piece of themselves, a secret identity they're allowed to experiment with for a day.

Purim has been called "the Jewish Halloween," and there are plenty of parallels and comparisons to be made.  We dress up in costumes, give and receive extra treats, and confront that which scares us.  But there's more to this holiday than an exclusive extra Halloween.  Below I'll summarize the story, the customs, and some creative ways to get into it as a family - both at home and out on the town.

The Story

Many of our fun Purim traditions come right from the story.  The story is one of the latest in the Tanach, the Bible, and in some ways, it's pretty unique.  It's the only book of the Bible that doesn't mention God directly.  The rabbis teach that God is hidden in the Purim story, acting only through the human heroes.  It's a farcical story, with characters that are bigger than life, exaggerated personalities, and plot twists that turn expectations on their head (or necks).  I've heard the story adapted in many ways for kids, editing out the most disturbing elements and adjusting it to modern sensibilities.  In the original, it's pretty dark.

The story starts in the city of Shushan with silly, drunk King Achashverosh.  He's King over all of Persia, 127 states, a humongous kingdom.  He throws a party for all the ministers and princes in his land.  It lasts 180 days and is followed by a week-long party for members of the royal court.  It's an extravagant party with plenty of food and even more wine.  When the king is good and drunk, he calls Queen Vashti who is having her own party to appear before Achashverosh's guests wearing (only) her crown.  The queen refuses to display her beauty to the room full of drunken men, which enrages the king.  He asks his advisers what to do, and they tell him that the queen's actions affect not only the king, but the princes too and all men everywhere.  Soon all their wives will be disobeying them.  The only option is to banish the queen and replace her with someone better.  The king considers this a fabulous idea, banishes the queen, and sends a proclamation to all ends of his kingdom in every language that every man is the master in his own house.

In the second chapter, the party is over and the king remembers what happened with Vashti.  His advisors send messengers throughout the kingdom to gather up beautiful young women so that the king can choose his new queen.  Now we meet Mordechai, who lives in Shushan with his cousin Esther, whom he's raised since she was orphaned.  Mordechai sends Esther off with the king's officers to vie for the position of queen, instructing her not to say anything about being Jewish.  Like the other women, she's kept in the palace, guarded by the king's eunuch and given a year to soak in various oils and spices before she has her turn with the king.  After their turns, the women are transferred to another eunuch who takes care of the concubines until the king thinks of them and calls them back.  Esther makes an impression on King Achashverosh and he makes her queen.  Mordechai sits at the palace gate, keeping an eye out and an ear open to hear what's going on with Esther.  While he's there, he hears a couple of guards plotting to kill the king.  He tells Esther, who tells the king and the guards are hanged. 

In chapter three, Haman, the villain, gets promoted to the highest position in the land - besides king, of course.  He goes on a power trip and decrees that everyone must bow down to him.  When he notices that Mordechai isn't bowing down, he is enraged, and decides to get retribution by petitioning the king to have all the Jews in Persia killed.  He picks a date by drawing lots (called purim in Hebrew, hence the holiday's name), gets the king on board, and drafts a proclamation which is sent to every corner of the land in every language that on the 13th of Adar the Jews may be killed and their belongings pillaged.  

In chapter four, Mordechai hears the news, puts on sack cloth and ashes and goes through the town wailing.  He's not allowed into the palace court in such disarray and when Esther sends him a messenger to convince him to change his clothes, he tells her she must go to the king and beg him to reverse the proclamation.  Esther reminds  Mordechai that anyone who goes to the king without being called is to be killed unless the king extends his scepter, and she hasn't been called in over a month.  Mordechai tells her that the Jews will be saved somehow and if she doesn't help, she and her father's house will die.  Besides, this is probably why she became queen to begin with.  Finally Esther is convinced.  She asks Mordechai to have all the Jews fast for three days and then she'll go to the king.  

In chapter five, Esther gets dressed in her royal robes and goes to see the king, who is once again taken by her beauty and extends the scepter to her.  He follows by offering to grant her any request, up to half his kingdom.  She invites him to a banquet with Haman, to which he readily agrees.  At the banquet, the king again offers Esther up to half his kingdom, and she invites him to another banquet the next day, with Haman.  Haman leaves feeling pretty awesome, but he runs into Mordechai on the way home and is filled with rage.  He kvetches about it to his friends and his wife who recommend he build a tremendous gallows for Mordechai, so that he can hang him before the next banquet and have him off his mind.  

Chapter six brings a bout of insomnia for the king who has his servants read to him from the royal chronicles and is reminded of  the time Mordechai saved his life.  He discovers that nothing was done to thank Meordechai, and decides to ask whoever is awake at this hour for advice on honoring someone the king holds in high regard.   Just then Haman is on his way to ask the king about hanging Mordechai, and when he hears that the king wants to honor someone, Haman assumes the honoree must be himself.  He advises the king to dress the person in the king's robes and have the king's minister parade him through town on the king's horse.  Soon Haman is doing this for Mordechai.  He goes home to kvetch where they barely have time to tell him he's got no chance of winning against Mordechai the Jew before Haman is rushed off to the next banquet.

In chapter 7 the king and Haman dine with Esther again.  This time, when the king offers her anything she wants, she asks for her life and the lives of her people, because there is a plot against them.  The king, shocked, asks who would do such a thing, and when Esther points the finger at Haman, the king leaves in a rage.  When he returns he finds Haman in a compromising position begging Esther for forgiveness and is further enraged.  One of the servants points out the gallows Haman had built for Mordechai and the king orders Haman hanged on it.  

In chapters eight, nine, and ten, Mordechai and Esther ask the king to take back Haman's decree, which, it turns out, is impossible.  But he does let them send out another proclamation permitting the Jews to defend themselves and more letters are sent all over the kingdom.  The big day comes and the Jews fight back, and win.   They kill lots of enemies, and hang Haman's ten sons. Mordechai becomes a big shot and lots of people decide to become Jewish.  They celebrate and establish Purim as a holiday of feasting, joy, and sending treat to friends and gifts to the poor.

And that - more or less - is the whole megilah

Traditional Customs

In a lot of ways, Purim is different than most holidays.  There's a festive meal, but not the usual table ritual.  There are a lot more things "to do" than "not to do" on this holiday and most of it is focused on fun.    There are four official mitzvot of Purim and the trick for remembering them is that they all start with the Hebrew letter "mem".  There's Megilah - reading and hearing the Purim story, Mishloach Manot - sending treats to friends, Matanot L'evyonim - giving to the poor, and Mishteh - feasting.  Read on, and we'll discuss these four plus one more.  


The best-known Purim custom may be dressing up in costume.  As I already said it gives you a chance to try on a new identity, get out of your routine and into the spirit of topsy-turvy fun.  There are no hard and fast rules about what you can dress up as for Purim.  These days, you tend to see a lot of princesses and super-heroes among the kids.  It's traditional to dress as one of the characters from the Purim story, but really anything will do.  It can be fun to have a family theme.  Some years we've each dressed as different characters from the Purim story.  One year most of us were kangaroos.  Another year we did a curious George theme.  One of my most powerful childhood memories was seeing my Dad transformed each year into either a new variation on Queen Esther or a figure who was making headlines at the time.  Over the years, he was everyone from Yasser Arafat to Barbara Bush to Tonya Harding.  (That year I was Nancy Kerrigan and my brother played the boyfriend with the hammer.)  There's no better way to get your kids excited about the holiday fun than getting into it yourself.  This year, there's a good chance our family will be doing some clowning around.  But somewhere down the line, I'm sure I'll be dressing up as Queen Vashti to make sure the kids know she's a Purim hero too.  Why not take Purim as an opportunity to teach your kids, through your costume, who you think is a hero or a villain this year?

Megilah - The Purim Story

OK, so you've got costumes, at least for the kids and maybe for you too.  Great!  Now to find someplace to wear them.  The prime place to go and thing to do on Purim is a megilah reading.  At a megillah reading, there may be a (pretty short) prayer service and the megilah is read in Hebrew, English, or some combination of the two.  When the name "Haman" is mentioned everyone drowns it out with noisemakers, called graggers or ra'ashanim.  As you can probably tell from the "summary" above and the phrase "the whole megilah", the megilah is long.   Many synagogues have shortened, partially translated family-friendly megilah readings that might go over better with the kids.  It's a good idea to know which variety of megilah reading you're going to before you walk in.  At a more traditional kind of reading you're likely to find that, though the mood is light and friendly, people keep relatively quiet except when Haman's name is mentioned.  If your kids will have a hard time keeping quiet you might do better with a family reading.  On the other hand, sensitive kids sometimes do better with a quieter reading if they'll be overwhelmed by the noise that can develop at a family reading.  

Either way, I discovered a few years into the parenting game that Purim, like a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, is an occasion to be prepared with child-sized earplugs.  The baby will get them before the first "Haman" is read, and the four and six-year-olds will have the option whenever they want.  Purim has gotten to be lots more fun, and we've heard a lot more of the megilah, since we started bringing earplugs.  

Mishloach Manot - Treats for friends

Another nice Purim tradition is giving mishloach manot to friends.  It's mentioned right in the megilah.  To do the mitzvah to the letter of the law, you need to give at least two things each to at least two friends.  Some people create elaborate baskets; others choose just a few treats.  I've seen mishloach manot with clever themes.  It can start to feel like a last hurrah of eating carbs and sweets before we start getting ready for Passover and getting all the extra leavened and processed grain products out of the house.  

Of course, the iconic mishloach manot treats are hamentashen or ozney haman in Hebrew.  Delicious three-cornered cookies filled with all sorts of yummy things may be what kids look forward to most on Purim.  I'll talk more about them later on in this post.  

One small note here on the comparison people sometimes make between Purim and Halloween.  There's a parallel to be drawn between trick-or-treating and mishloach manot.  Both result in eating lots of yummy junk food.  But the path to eating junk food is different.  Instead of knocking on doors asking for candy, mishloach manot starts with thinking about others - thinking about your friends and doing something nice for them.  

Matanot L'evyonim - gifts to poor people

Another tradition that starts with thinking of others is matanot l'evyonim, gifts to poor people.  The story of Purim, and the customs of Purim bring up themes of extravagance, plenty, and excess.  King Achashverosh loves big parties, lots of food and wine, and lots of women at his disposal.  Haman sees the Jews as a dispensable people.  Our celebrations, costumes, and gift-giving to friends can feel very rich and full.  But we're reminded to remember those in need.  
What a great opportunity to sit down with the kids and think of a charity to support, to teach them to share our joy and good fortune!

Mishteh - Feast

The final Purim tradition is mishteh, feasting.  Many families have a festive meal on Purim day, gathering with friends to celebrate.  After the meal can be a time for kids to enjoy their costumes and just play with friends.  Guests might share jokes or even put together a Purim spiel.  

It doesn't have to come up with small children, but Purim celebrations have traditionally involved drinking as a part of the holiday fun.  As kids get older and might learn about the tradition or become otherwise aware of alcohol, this can be an opportunity to teach them about your take on alcohol, when and how to drink responsibly.  

Creative Opportunities


You can definitely dress up for Purim without making it a big project.  Buying or borrowing a costume works great.  On the other hand, it can be lots of fun to make or gather and repurpose Purim costumes.  And creative costumes always stand out.  I'll admit I half dread hearing what the kids have in mind for costumes, but I always enjoy the process of pulling something together and seeing them transformed.  As they get older they're getting to be able to help with details and ideas of their own, too!  I'm not super crafty, but luckily, costumes only have to hold up to a few wearings and often can be held together with very minimal sewing or sometimes even Scotch tape and staples.   As a kid I remember wearing a lot of costumes made of cardboard boxes, sandwich-board style.  Just remember, if you go that route, to work in a way to sit down if necessary.  

Baking Hamentashen

Last week, a friend told me she had asked her mother how she had managed to bake so many hamentashen with her and her siblings when they were kids.  She was frustrated trying to get it done with just one.  Her mother confided that most of the baking was done after bedtime, leaving the kids with a fun low-pressure project, the feeling of accomplishment and a memory of a very patient, fun mom.  

Baking with kids can be super fun, but it takes way longer and requires a sort of zen attitude.  Think ahead about what the goal is, what the kids can help with, and when you'll call it quits.  This year, I made the dough in advance and let the kids help.  When I want to do something myself, I tell them, "this part's super hard.  I'll probably mess it up.  So I'm gonna do it so I don't get mad at you for doing it wrong."  Then they can laugh when I spill a little instead of me pulling my hair out when they pour out so much that we have to start over.  I'll probably make the filling one night while they're asleep - poppy seed is my favorite, but I'll make some fruit too.  Then they can help with putting them together until they get bored or we run out of time and I can finish up after bed.  

Here's a great shortcut I learned from my mom.   Frozen pie crust makes great hamentash dough.  Just let it defrost, roll out the edges a bit with a rolling pin, and you're ready to cut your circles.  My mom would make some of the filling when I was a kid, but for some of them, we used jelly right out of the jar.  And, voila! - Complicated baking project simplified down to fun kids' activity!  She probably still fixed them and finished them when I wasn't looking.

For a  little out of the ordinary fun check out these Rainbow Hamentashen.

And while you're baking, some people have a tradition of making different shaped challah for Purim.  Scroll down to see some examples of challah shaped like flowers.   Take a look at this recipe for Hamentashen Chalah.  And did you know there's a tradition to bake bread with hard boiled eggs representing Haman's eyes just so that you can take them out?  

Mishloach Manot

Kids can help with sorting goodies into bags or baskets, writing notes to friends to go along with the treats, drawing a picture to include, and even helping deliver them.  

Making Graggers

There are many ways to make a gragger.  You can start with a paper plate, fold it in half and fill it with beans or buttons, then staple it shut.  Or cover a box of macaroni with paper.  Fill a bottle with beans, pebbles, etc, and cover the outside with tissue paper.  Kids can get creative and decorate the outside of any of these kinds of graggers with crayons, markers or paint.  And if you make it yourself, you can decide just how noisy you want it to be.  

Purim Music

There are lots of fun Purim songs out there.  You can hear some of them, sung by my lovely and talented husband, Cantor Ken Richmond, here.

How does your family celebrate Purim?  Have a great costume idea, a favorite hamentashen recipe or the perfect gragger?  Comment below!  
Happy Purim!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tu BiShvat - A Short and Sweet Post to Celebrate the New Year for Fruit Trees

Tu BiShvat is coming - the birthday of the trees.  Tu Bishvat is an easy one to miss.  It's a newer holiday than most.  It doesn't come with special prayers or days off school and work, and it only lasts one day.  And as some of my students pointed out, why do the trees have a birthday, anyway?  Were they all born on Tu BiShvat?
But even though its easy to overlook, Tu BiShvat can be a sweet (pun intended) holiday, if you take the time to notice it.  There's fruit and grape juice and a celebration of Israel that has more to do with appreciating the bounty of the land than commemorating a military victory or escape from danger.  There's a moment for appreciating the blessings of creation in the middle of winter when we might be naturally more inclined to hibernate and kvetch about the cold wet weather.  And there's a call to consider our role as human beings in the natural world.  So, here's the Tu BiShvat installment of Yom Tov @ Your House.  Leave a comment with any other great traditions you have or, if you try something new, to let me know how it goes.

What is Tu BiShvat?  And why do the trees need a birthday anyway?

Here's the quick version of the long history of Tu Bishvat:

  • First - The Torah includes various laws about how we should harvest trees and fruit in Israel.  Things like tithing for the poor and for the priestly class that has no land of their own.  Things like bringing a portion of your harvest to Jerusalem to thank God and celebrate with community.  And things like letting the land rest every seven years.  Since these laws operate on a yearly cycle, its important to determine when that cycle begins and ends.  It's like a fiscal year for farmers.
  • We don't know for sure how this worked in the biblical period, but eventually the rabbis came up with more laws to clarify the ones in the Torah, and Tu BiShvat was established as the new year for trees.  It seems like a weird time, in the middle of winter, but in Israel, it's the point when the majority of the rain for the winter has already fallen and the first trees (the almonds) are starting to flower.
  • These laws became mostly irrelevant for a long time while the Jews were in exile and didn't live in Israel.  
  • Tu BiShvat got a new life when a group of Kabbalists, mystical leaning rabbis, in Tzfat in the 16th century created a Tu BiShvat Seder.  They saw three different kinds of fruit as metaphors for worlds of closeness with God.  Over the course of the seder, they imagined a spiritual journey through these worlds, to the final world, a world so spiritual there was no need for actual physical fruit.  We use their seder as a model for Tu BiShvat celebrations today, but outside of their circle, at the time, it didn't really catch on as a part of mainstream Judaism
  • Skip ahead a few hundred years to the modern state of Israel, and here's where Tu BiShvat starts to really take off.  Jews developing the land of Israel had a real stake in growing trees, and fruit.  They were developing a new agricultural society in the old Jewish homeland, and Tu BiShvat really resonated.  It became a time to plant trees, and to celebrate the seven species mentioned in the Torah that grow so well in Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, as well as some others that have become popular, like the early flowering almond and bokser, carob which grows as a sort of edible pod on trees that grow well in Israel.  New Tu BiShvat seders celebrated the success of making the desert bloom
  • A few decades later, while many Jews were still celebrating Tu BiShvat as a modern Israeli agricultural holiday, the environmentalist movement emerged, bringing interest from a new group of jewish people, and adding yet another layer to this evolving holiday.  Tu Bishvat also became a Jewish earth day - a time to reflect on the wonder of God's created world and our responsibility to preserve it.  
  • Tu BiShvat celebrations today usually focus on one or both of the last two elemets, the state of Israel, and the environment.  

What can I do at home to celebrate with my family?

Have a Family Seder 

You can have a seder for your family.  It can be short and simple, like a special desert with a little food for thought.  All you'll need is some grape juice, both red and white, some fruit or nuts with inedible shells or peels, some with a single hard pit, and some that's good all the way through.  Here's one simple seder from the Grinspoon Foundation.  You can find a few different versions of environmental themed ones at the Canfei Nesharim website.  And this one from Hazon is very nice.

Talk with your kids about an environmental cause you care about

Use this holiday as a reminder to teach your kids about what you believe and what you care about.  Think of ways to start involving them in the causes you support.

Plant Something

It may be too cold to plant a tree here, but it's probably not too cold to start something growing inside.  I must admit, I don't have a great personal record on indoor gardening, but lots of people have better luck than I do.  Here's an article on how to grow parsley in your window.  If you start it now, it could just be ready to put on your seder plate for Passover.

Eat a Different Fruit

Maybe you don't feel like holding a whole seder with your family.  Even adding one fruit, something you wouldn't normally eat this time of year, can be a reminder of the holiday, and a jumping off point for a conversation about the environment, Israel or the changing seasons.  You could choose a fruit that grows in Israel and notice how different things grow there than here.  Or choose something that's out of season and figure out what it might have taken to get it from where it grew to your plate.

Do a Tu BiShvat Craft Project

There are so many great projects you could do wuith trees and flowers.  For a few great ideas check out Creative Jewish Mom.

Happy Tu BiShvat!

Tu BiShvat is this Wednesday night and Thursday.  How will you celebrate this year?