Tag Archives: Passover

In the Matter of Seders

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In the matter of Seders,
unfortunately, I get impatient.
As the story of the Israelites unfolds,
I keep looking at the sumptuous food
arranged across the table,
and wonder if I can exist
on a diet of matzoh for the week.
What a poor desert wanderer
I would have been, trudging,
searching the sand hills and oases
for the local 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts.
I am chided for suggesting
that certain prayers be skipped
to shorten the time before a full stomach.
The famous Four Questions are three too many
as I restlessly await the first course,
and the reading of the Ten Plagues reminds me,
what’s the weather report for tomorrow?
I am not proud of my lack of decorum,
and beg forgiveness from my ancestors,
who were much stronger than I,
waiting patiently until the Promised Land
of brisket, kugel, and matzoh ball soup.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Search for Chometz

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

He gave me a saucer containing eleven, neatly cut
pieces of bread:  each about a quarter-inch square.  I placed one
on the edge of the washing machine in the first floor
powder room, the kitchen counter, the dining room table,
the leather-topped lamp table in the living room,
and on the corner of each dresser in the upstairs bedrooms.

He waited downstairs.  When I came back to the kitchen,
he unwrapped a cloth covering a wooden spoon,
the white-feathered wing of a chicken, and a Shabbos candle.
The search for the chometz was about to begin.

I led the way to each piece of bread by candlelight, my hand
cupped in front of the flickering flame as we walked up
the darkened wooden stairway.  Melting wax dripped
onto my hand as I watched our shadows high on the wall.

Dad gently nudged each morsel of bread onto the spoon,
then brushed twice with short sweeping strokes
of a chicken wing.  He cradled the spoon on his forearm
as if it were a fragile doll and wrapped it within
the cloth before leaving each room.

Dad followed me down the stairs and back into the kitchen.
He whispered a prayer and blew long and slow
across the candle flame.

All things are done with prayer,  he said.  The candle tried
desperately to hold to its light. Like hoarded silver,
he wrapped the wooden spoon and bound it tightly with twine.

It is done.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall.

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To My Children Who Know Nothing About Passover

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

Your grandpa passed away some twenty years ago
and so have his Passover Seders.  Every year, he used
two chairs.  As I write this, I am there.  Time stops
like a turtle on its back, legs flaying wildly in the air.

The house is scrubbed, the windows cleaned.  Two sets
of pots and pans, dishes and dinnerware are retrieved
from boxes and paper bags stored in the cellar.
The dining room table is set, wine glasses filled red.
Your grandmother places the Seder Plate on the table
while Grandpa says a blessing and washes his hands
at the kitchen sink.  Grandpa holds the Seder Plate
for all to see and explains each item.

“…because we were slaves in Egypt…,” he would say.
He breaks the middle matzah in its covered plate, wraps
half in a napkin and places it under the tablecloth by his chair.
As we turn our attention to the Haggadah, he moves
the wrapped matzah under the pillow on his second chair.

At the table sits Grandpa’s sister, Aunt Rose, always first
to disapprove of something said or done but with a grand smile
and poised in exemplary posture. There’s cousin Lilly, gray haired,
too thin, always wary of an un-approving look from her pal, Aunt Rose.

There is usually a guest (a boarder or family friend), my brother,
home from the Navy;  my sister and her husband (a cross  between
Kojack and Yul Brynner) and their three pre-teen daughters. Sitting
closest to the kitchen is my mother, always with a pleasant smile.

Our dog watches from the edge of the kitchen as we begin
the Four Questions.  My sister recites in Yiddish, her daughters
recite in Hebrew.  I ask permission as an Ashkenaz and after
a nod I sing each question as smooth and faultless as I can.

We listen to the tale of the Four Sons (the wise, the wicked, the simple,
and the one who doesn’t know enough to ask).  I am satisfied in not
knowing which role I am cast.  The Haggadah reminds us Moses was given
up at the river’s edge to save his life and he came to live as a palace prince.

We tip our wine glasses ten times as we recall each plague cast upon the land
and our escape through the Red Sea.  We eat scallions dipped in saltwater
(to remind us of spring and life’s sorrows); a hardboiled egg in saltwater
(I always plead more); home-made gefilte fish with horseradish, grated
the night before; matzah ball soup; brisket, crowned with onion
and an obedient audience of  browned potatoes; and four glasses
of  sweet, red wine, each with a blessing before and after the meal.

I open the front door to welcome Elijah. The red goblet at the center
of the table is filled just for him.  As I stand in the cold night air, I scan
the sky for a winged angel on horseback with a long black sword dripping
with blood and edged in flame.

Back inside we remind the young to barter with Grandpa for
the afikoman they stole.  (It  must be redeemed to complete
the meal.) We end a long evening with bellies too full and we
open our books to find Chad Gadya.

In these days, Grandpa is just a word and Passover is something
you may have once heard.  Both flow  warm in my blood
and give strength to bone.  If I were a sunflower, I’d bow
my head low.  For too soon, there will be no one left to remember.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall 

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Where I’ll Celebrate Passover Next Year

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

I resisted the idea of visiting Israel for most of my adult life. I was afraid I would feel nothing holy, nothing spiritual, nothing to connect me to the land of our forefathers. The Pesach cry “Next Year in Jerusalem!” never resonated with me. Why in Jerusalem? Why not in Berlin or Los Angeles, Moscow or Nairobi? How could spending Passover in Jerusalem make a difference in my life, enhance my Jewish identity, or connect me to world Jewry?

I spent my first Passover in Israel this year and returned with a twisted knot of emotions that will take some time to unravel. My greatest joy was in the daily gifts to my senses: the sweet smell of jasmine, the inviting warmth of the limestone architecture, the abundant sunshine, and the rich tastes of hummus and falafel. Each day the land and the people drew me in, but not without moments when my buttons were pushed and I drew back. I felt a bit like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, the gazelle-unicorn whose two heads try to go in opposite directions whenever it moves.

The greatest challenge was trying to make sense of the ultra-orthdox Jews whose demeanor and conduct sent a loud message that said “keep away — you are not one of us.” Driving through the Mea She’arim area and provoking the rage of its residents was probably a bad idea, but even worse was the feeling we had while walking around Jerusalem of being invisible in the eyes of those who are a part of our history but who reject us as Jews. Why wouldn’t they look at us? And why were they always in such a hurry, rushing along the streets in their big hats and black suits as if late for a pressing business appointment?

We did not travel with a group or attend any religious services so we had no interaction with more modern Jews. Stepping into one of Jerusalem’s major hotels to use the facilities, we saw huge signs for upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs. One elaborate display welcomed Gaby Schwartz and her bat mitzvah guests. I became obsessed with Gaby Schwartz and how she felt about having her bat mitzvah at a fancy hotel in Jerusalem. Did Gaby miss her friends who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem to celebrate with her? Why leave your local Jewish community for such an important rite of passage? What did it mean to Gaby’s parents to celebrate the twin occasions of Pesach and their daughter’s bat mitzvah in Jerusalem?

The cultural and earthly pleasures of Israel will pull me back one day, but I look forward to spending next Passover in Berlin. The phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” isn’t just about our physical presence on the land; it also reflects our aspirations for unity among the world’s Jews, for world peace and spiritual fulfillment. But are these the best words to end a seder for the many Jews like me who struggle to find their connection with Judaism and who tire of being associated with Israeli policies with which we disagree?

Building Jewish community in the place where I live, a place where Jewish life came close to extinction, has meaning for me. Berlin has a growing Jewish population, and although it is quite fragmented and rife with conflicts, it is also rich and vibrant, a reflection of our resilience. In Israel I was just a tourist, but in Berlin I am part of a Jewish community where my presence has significance for building a better future.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine, Tikkun Daily, Jewesses with Attitude, and AVIVA-Berlin.

 

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Passover Reminiscence

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

We bought spring clothes for Passover and fall clothes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the high holidays.  The weather seemed always too cold for the new Passover clothes and too hot for the new fall clothes.  It took a long time and a lot of explanation for me to understand that the dates of the holidays didn’t change but the relationship between the Gregorian calendar and the Hebrew calendar did.

Holidays punctuated the sameness of days, the continuing emphasis on getting things done, going to school, shopping, playing; in general, our daily routine.  Preparation for the holiday of Passover was frenzied.

I don’t know how our grandmothers and mothers did it.   No dishwashers, no prepared foods, certainly no outside help – and yet, somehow it got done.  I hope it wasn’t the holiday that contributed to a shortened life span for that generation of women.   Yet, the expectation of repetition of the preparations, and the ceremony of the seder, were comforting in their continuity.  Before so many contemporary creative Haggadahs  with their inventive writings and improvisations were popular, we used the old Maxwell House Haggadah, a text familiar to me since early childhood.  Maybe the company’s distribution of these brand name Haggadahs was to give the subtle suggestion that Maxwell House coffee was kosher.  When my grandfather was alive, my parents, little brother and I went to their house on Wharton Street for the ritual meal.  I can still see my grandfather, imposing in a white kimono-like caftan, leaning on pillows as prescribed in the Haggadah, intoning the familiar story of the exodus.  My brother was too young to participate in the ceremony, but I, a Hebrew school student, asked the centuries- old Four Questions.

We learned to say them in Hebrew School in two languages, Hebrew and Yiddish, and I dutifully asked them in both languages, intoning the singsong liturgy learned in Hebrew School.  I remember being given sips of the sweet Passover wine, feeling indoctrinated in a world of grownups.  I also felt very important, with all attention focused on me; also, nervous, fearful I would make a mistake.  I didn’t realize that family indulgence was part of the game and all would smile gently if I slipped up.  Passover was  celebrated for its full eight days with ritual foods.  On the eighth day I was sent to the nearest bakery to buy the first bread.  My mother always grumbled that the bakery opened too soon which elicited a discussion of whether the holiday was over before lunch or before dinner, an argument still unresolved.  When we children came home for lunch in elementary school and junior high, Passover foods awaited us.

We all had two Seders on two successive nights and spent the next part of the holiday eating fried matzoh, gefilte fish and the special holiday dishes which, for some unexplained reason, certainly not sacred, we never prepared the rest of the year.  Nuts were a part of the Passover table, walnuts and almonds and particularly filberts.  These were the perfect shape for marbles, and we could be seen, in our new Passover clothes,  kneeling on the sidewalk using those  nuts for a game of marbles

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the authorFor more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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Writing Practice: Leaving Egypt Behind

Every year when we sit down to begin our Seder, I look around the table, amazed at the effort that it took for all of us–family and friends– to come together.

We have finished cleaning and shopping and cooking and preparing the Seder table. It’s time to open the Hagaddah and recite Kiddush over the First Cup, and then read the first words of the story: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.”

Each year I’m awed by the sound of these words, the first words of the Hagaddah, as they ring out across the ages. They are words that sing of our people’s endurance and faith, and they remind me as we wash our hands, lift our cups, break our matzah, dip our herbs, open the door for Elijah, and sing our favorite song about the little goat that we have been given a precious gift.

On Passover, we celebrate not only our gift of freedom but the gift of being Jews and sharing a memory of communal faith in whatever it is that supports us as we step into the unknown, one foot after the other, day after day, year after year, century after century.

Imagine what it must have felt like to leave Egypt. We abandoned everything we knew–the comfort of a regular routine, a place to cook, eat, share stories, make love, and sleep every night–all for an unknown future.

Freedom meant learning to live with not knowing where we’d settle the next night or the night after that, not knowing where we’d find food or ways to defend ourselves or a clear path into the wilderness.

For hundreds of years we lived as slaves. How could we have stepped away from all that we knew? How could we have gone from the heartache of slavery to full independence in one night? How could we have taken such a huge leap of faith from the known to the unknown–into the sea and beyond?

Every year, as we prepare for our Seder, it’s a struggle to leave behind whatever I’m doing, to pick up stakes and move on, so that I can focus on the holiday. And then for the week of the holiday it’s a struggle to forego hametz and eat matzah. But then I remember that we managed centuries ago to pack up our belongings and put one foot in front of the other and make our way into the unknown.

Egypt became a memory, a place to go back to one day, and our future became our destination, the place where we could find the freedom to become whoever we were meant to be.

What will you do with your freedom this year? How will you live your life as a Jew now that you are no longer a slave?

Will you celebrate the many possibilities waiting for you? Or will you mourn the past and all that you left behind?

Before taking another step, can you pause a moment and write about the challenges of stepping into the unknown?

How does freedom give you the opportunity to explore a new, different side of yourself?

What does it feel like to look at the world after leaving Egypt now that you’ve passed through the sea and reached dry land on the other side?

Can you hear the lamentations of those still unwilling to leave Egypt behind?

Or do you hear the joyous sound of Miriam and the women dancing with their timbrels and singing the Song of the Sea?

Bruce Black

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Memorable Seders

By Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

“Look at David,” Aunt Sophie exclaimed. “It happened again. Remember last year, when he fell asleep at the Seder table and his sweet curly brown hair dipped into the matzo ball soup?”

I remember my earliest Passover Seders. I was five or six, and we sat around a beautifully set table surrounded by many family members at my grandparents’ house. Most memorable was my red-bearded Opa in a flowing white caftan. Reclining on a grand wing chair with a propped up fluffy pillow, he looked like an elderly angel in the light of the silver candelabra, which gently glowed on everything.

Some of the foods on the Seder plate – parsley, horseradish, hard-boiled eggs, onions, and matzo – we children were not anxious to consume. What we hungered for was the golden chicken soup with floating matzo balls. However, we weren’t permitted to eat a morsel before the formal recitation of every word of the first half of the Haggadah was read. It took more than an hour.

Nothing changed except the location when, years later, the Seder was held at my parents’ home. Although older, I wiggled impatiently in my seat. The reading bored me. It was all in Hebrew. Only my father understood the words. But when the Four Questions were asked by the youngest male child, everyone perked up.

Four cups of wine were consumed at the Seder table. A special goblet of wine was filled to the brim and reserved for Elijah, the prophet. The night’s drama took place when a child was assigned the honor of opening the front door to let Elijah enter. It was always nighttime, and my heart raced as I imagined all sorts of frightening images on my way to the entrance. It seemed an eternity until I was permitted to close the door. Everyone looked at the wine. Had a sip been taken? We agreed that the silver goblet was only a bit depleted. The elders explained: “Children, Elijah visits so many homes; he only drinks a little at each house.”

For the past two decades, the Seders have been held at my house. Now that I’m the matriarch, I have radically changed the tradition. At our table we have relatives and guests of varying races and religious persuasions: Jews, Methodists, Catholics, atheists, and one Muslim. The Haggadah has been rewritten in English by my family. The revisions give women recognition, long overdue, for the years of hardships that they endured and for their years of leadership, too.

One year, my 82-year-old sister-in-law, read The Four Questions (instead of the youngest boy). Another time, my 10-year-old granddaughter was chosen to lead the Seder. My father never would have permitted it. We’ve come a long way.

At our Seder we eat gefilte fish and matzo ball soup before reading the Haggadah. The most relevant aspect of our Seder is the homogenous mix of people sitting happily at our table. reminding us that life is good.

Helga Harris was born in Berlin, Germany, and moved with her family to New York City in 1938.  Throughout her life Helga has painted and has had numerous art exhibits in New York, Miami and Sarasota. She is the author of  Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, a memoir, and has published several articles in The Sarasota Herald Tribune and The Tampa Tribune, as well as stories in several magazines and anthologies, including We Were There, published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum.

This story originally appeared in The Tampa Tribune and online at Tampa Bay Online. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

For more information about Helga, visit:

http://www.sptimes.com/2006/11/16/Floridian/Dear_friends.shtml

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2747937-dear-helga-dear-ruth

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