Tag Archives: Passover

Pesach 2012: Feast of Freedom and Food for Thought

I last checked in after Purim as I began preparing for Pesach, or Passover. As soon as Purim ended, it seemed like the entire country transitioned at once to Pesach. Matzah and Kosher for Passover foods began appearing in stores, restaurants began cleaning, most of them closing the night before Pesach started to do an all-night switchover to K for P mode, posters began appearing advertising events and activities that were happening over Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days) Kashering stations were set up on the street (see below), and the weather became warm, breezy, and dry, a true sign that the rainy season of the winter had ended and that Pesach was on the way.


Huge vats of boiling water set up on the street to help people with kashering for Pesach.

We spent many hours discussing Pesach in various ways in my classes as well, which helped me immensely in mentally preparing for the holiday. In the States, I often feel like the holidays sneak up on me because I have so few external reminders. Here, the atmosphere of holiday prep is pervasive, constantly palpable. We studied the laws of preparing for Pesach in my Halacha class, we read the Mishnayot that outline the Seder in my Talmud class, and we studied the original Haggadah written by the American-born youth of Kibbutz Sasa in 1949 in my Hartman Seminar.


The week leading up to Pesach, Becky and I checked items off our list as we cleaned them: refrigerator, sink, counters, oven, stove, tables, floors, bathroom, and bedrooms, as well as kashering dishes, utensils, and appliances, and running to the shuk and supermarkets to pick up any food we needed. Thankfully, the teamwork made this part of the prep not at all stressful, and even fun. It helps that we put visitors to work as well.


Burning chametz (our final remaining leavened products) was a different story. It was quite a task. It looked so easy growing up when we had a few crumbs on a wooden spoon wrapped in paper towel and drenched with lighter fuel. This year, our chunks of challah (with the help of a little Scotch) just wouldn’t catch flame.

Our first, failed, but valiant attempt to burn our Chametz


Discouraged, we looked down below, and saw our neighbors with a large bonfire going, throwing bags upon bags of bread into the flames. We were inspired, and set off in search of better fire. And better fire we found.


Our second, more successful Chametz-burning.


After burning our chametz for real in an empty lot nearby, we stumbled upon the “official” chametz-burning dumpsters. I was impressed and excited by this public recognition of Pesach preparations, until I saw that people were throwing their plastic bags and containers in with the food. Then, I held my breath and backed away, determined to educate the residents of Jerusalem on safe disposal of plastic products.


The "official" chametz-burning dumpster. It says "biyur chametz" (burning chametz) on the side.


In the days leading up to Seder, I thought a lot about the burden of freedom. Different from the more apparent burdens of slavery which are born of a lack of choice and autonomy, the burdens of freedom are born out of having autonomy and control, and have much to do with shouldering responsibility for ourselves and those around us. This is a theme that has come up throughout the year as I and my peers have engaged with Israel, the decisions that its leaders have made over the years, and how the country relates to its various populations. With Israel’s independence came the burden of freedom and its many challenges. While at times I agree and at times I disagree with decisions made here, above all I sympathize with this burden.


In terms of my own Pesach preparations, the challenges of freedom came out in planning for the Seder (we only have one here!). This year, several friends and I got together to plan our own Seder, the kind of Seder that many of us have never had (and, many joked, we may never have again). As a group of rabbinical students, educators, and friends who are engaged deeply in Judaism, we figured it would be fun, meaningful, and inspiring to be able to learn from each other, and decided to divide up parts of the Seder, allowing everyone to sign up for what spoke to them. It became apparent, however, that some other forms of structure were necessary: how would we keep the Seder flowing? What kinds of time limits would we place on people to enable everyone to get some sleep? How could we keep things interesting, and make sure that we had a variety of teaching styles and media to reflect our own diversity of learning styles? How would we organize the food?


This freedom of choice became more stressful than any other part of Pesach planning. I was in awe of my parents, specifically my Eema, who prepare for and host both Seders every year- it’s a ton of work! Once Seder came around, though, and I saw how truly fun, meaningful, and inspiring it indeed was, I realized that the work that came out of the freedom of choice truly paid off. We really did need to work together to create structure but not constraint, suggestions but not limits, and of course, to make sure the delicious, vegetarian menu fit everyone’s dietary needs. I think we all felt truly free that night.


I won’t share all of the amazing, creative things that I learned at Seder- most of them are not mine to share- but below are two of the pieces of Seder that I prepared and had the honor of sharing with my peers:

The Four Children: This has long been a part of the Haggadah with which I connect, and I especially love different artistic renderings of these children in different Haggadot. I printed out many versions of these Four Children from over the centuries and cut them up so that I had a pile of different individuals. I spread them on the table and asked everyone to take a look and choose a combination of children (perhaps fewer or more than four) that spoke to them, thinking about the kinds of labels that we put on people, the kinds of questions we ourselves like to ask, how we ask them, and what kinds of learning styles speak to us. We then discussed our choices in pairs. I had a very meaningful conversation with my partner about the various qualities we need to be most open to learning, and how damaging it is at times to assign people to categories.
Elijah: While this piece isn’t directly part of the traditional Haggadah texts, most modern Haggadot include this tradition anyway, right after the request to God to pour out God’s wrath on the nations that seek to destroy us. We spoke about the challenges of both of these ideas, Elijah as a redeemer, and asking God to do the dirty work, as a way of removing our personal responsibility  for self-advocacy and for doing good in the world. I mentioned my discomfort with the idea of outsourcing our desires to something more powerful than ourselves, because I think it’s so easy to feel absolved of responsibility in fixing our problems (in addition to the fact that I have a hard time facing the idea of asking for bad things to happen to others). We played a game of Fortunately/Unfortunately, in which the group tells a story, each person beginning a line alternately with “Fortunately” or “Unfortunately” and examined our own roles in facilitating others’ successes. It’s so easy to say “unfortunately” instead of “fortunately,” and “but” instead of “and” or “yes,” therefore being an obstacle rather than a support to others in achieving their goals. Redemption can only come when we become agents of progress, of supporting each other in moving forward.

It was only officially Pesach for me when I had my first piece of Matzah Pizza!

After one day of Yom Tov, the country moved into Chol Hamoed, a time in which there remains a holiday atmosphere, but few of the religious restrictions that prevent mobility on other days. The week of Chol Hamoed was for me a celebration of springtime weather and the outdoors, and I was in good company. I spent the first two days in Tel Aviv at an Ultimate frisbee tournament. Technically the Israeli National Club Championships (though anyone can enter and there are no previous sectional or regional tournaments as there are in the states), I played with and against some of the most spirited, kind, fun, athletic people I have ever met. I joined up with the same team I had played with in December, the Basic Joy of Play, a team mostly of Americans and Israelis who are committed to good, clean, spirited, and above all, fun play. We ended up tying for third, and got to watch a talented team of kids from Raanana knock the dominant team in Israel out of the top spot for the first time. There were teams from all over the country: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Raanana, Sde Boker, Tamra, Haifa, and more. On the fields, I heard Hebrew, English, and Arabic. Games ended with high-fives, hugs, cheers for the opposing teams, and often fun camp-like games to pass the time. After each day of playing I had the chance to connect with friends who lived in the Tel Aviv area, so all in all, it was an incredible couple of days.
After a day off in which I pretty much sat in my apartment trying not to move, I took a bus up to Tiberias where I met a few friends who had arrived earlier in the day. Early the next morning we hopped on bikes to make the journey around the circumference of the Kinneret (though the ride was a bit longer, about 62km, because the roads often wove out from the shore). With stops along the way to snack, see some ancient churches and synagogues, and eat ice cream on the beach, we eventually made it back to Tiberias in about 10 hours.

Taking a break at Kibbutz Ginosar. Smile, Jimmy, you're in this pic too!

It seemed like the entire country was out, hiking, biking, swimming, enjoying the beaches, and just enjoying the Pesach vacation, and I loved being a part of it. It was an incredible, exhausting day, filled with gorgeous mountain views, challenging hills, bright flowers, and an excitingly high water level. We felt truly accomplished after that ride, but even more so that night after fending off dozens of Israelis trying to catch the last buses back to Jerusalem to secure some seats.

The high water level due to all of the winter rain as seen from Kibbutz Ginosar. The entire beach is pretty much covered!

The view of the hills and farmland from the road. It was so hard to stop myself from taking a break every other minute to take pictures!

I closed out Pesach with a couple of wonderful, relaxing days with friends, both visiting and residing here, and reluctantly returned to school, but not to total normalcy. We are currently in a time of year that is saturated with special days; some are celebratory, others somber and filled with mourning. Just as for previous holidays, there is a definite tone in the air that acknowledges that we are in a special time. I’ll check in next time with a report on some of these days.

A City (Momentarily) Transformed

A snapshot of an early Friday morning: A scantily clad police officer came towards me up the stairs, while a woman with bright purple hair and a matching shirt zoomed by on her bike. A man in a pirate hat passed me walking his dog, while an elderly gent dressed like robin hood told me that the sheriff look suited me. I returned the compliment.

No, this was not a bizarre dream that I had last night, but rather a snapshot of Purim in Jerusalem. It was incredible to see the city transformed for what amounted to over a week of celebrations (despite Purim itself only being observed for one day). Many people, myself included, took advantage of both regular Purim and Shushan Purim (which happens a day later in walled or formerly walled cities), traveling to Tel Aviv for one day and returning to Jerusalem for the other. In trying to describe the scene to a friend, I suggested that the feeling in the air was akin to the good cheer, friendliness, and generosity of the December holiday season in the US, combined with a less dark version of the Halloween goofiness and energy that is pervasive on the streets of NYC every year.

I spent much of Purim alternating between taking in the scene and enjoying the time with friends.Wednesday night (Purim for almost everyone outside of Jerusalem) I went to Tel Aviv to help out a friend; he was involved in a small Masorti community that was looking for people to come in and read the megillah. I went with a few friends and we had a great time- it felt like a true Israeli Purim experience. Many of the attendees would self-identify as secular or something close to it, but it seems like everyone dresses up and celebrates this holiday in full force.

The best Mishloach Manot ever from my family!

The next evening, I went to hear the megillah at a large synagogue with attendees of all ages and an impressive array of costumes, followed by a party hosted by friends who live at the corner of Esther HaMalka and Mordechai HaYehudi streets. (How can someone who lives at the intersection of the streets named after the two heroes of the Purim story not have a party??) Later that night, I took in the scene at Machaneh Yehuda shuk, which was transformed into a giant dance party, looking very different from the market where I had bought groceries earlier that day. The next day, after a fun, more intimate megillah reading with a community I frequent for Shabbat services, and a festive brunch with classmate and friend Mia, I ventured towards the neighborhood of Nachlaot for a seudah (festive meal) hosted by another friend. I was greeted by a a wave of color, music, and celebration. The “hippy” Jews of Jerusalem had taken to the streets, squeezing every last ounce of celebration out of the final few hours of the holiday. It was truly an incredible scene. Needless to say, the Shabbat that began that night was probably the quietest that Jerusalem has ever seen as everyone tried to recover.

Celebrating in Nachlaot on Shushan Purim day

Most of the costumes that I saw over Purim were simply fun and silly, but others certainly reflected current events and phenomena in the country. I saw a young woman dressed up as Purim story character Queen Vashti, and on her cape were bumper stickers that I’ve seen around protesting the silencing of women’s voices that is happening due to the influence of some sectors of the Haredi community. Another man was dressed up as “Tag Mechir” (Price tag), having spray painted himself with these words, reflecting the series of recent acts of vandalism by Jewish extremists in mosques, a monastery, a bilingual school, and other places representing different religious practices and experiences.

I for my part, was fresh out of ideas, but at the last minute found a cheap sheriff hat for sale in the shuk, and figured I could put together a western-themed costume. The result wasn’t half bad!

A pirate, a sheriff, and a genie walk into a Purim party... (with Mia and Sarit, special thanks to Sarit for the photo!)

Listen here, y'all, we roommates gotta stick together! (Thanks to Becky for the photo)

Unfortunately, when Purim ended, it was back to reality for me. I just started a new semester of school a few weeks ago, and am still settling into my classes. This semester’s lineup is shaping up to be about as good as last semester’s, perhaps even better. I am sticking with the same Talmud teacher, this time with harder material, though I’m learning Halacha (a strange assortment of the laws of Passover, Kashrut, and mourning) with a new teacher. I’m still taking Hebrew, and am finding it to be a great place to take linguistic risks without fear of making a mistake. I enjoyed my Midrash teacher so much that I’m learning with her again, this time in a course on how the rabbis engaged with dreams and dream interpretation in text. I’m taking a course on the development of faith and religion (from Israelite culture to Judaism) in the Bible, and a class on the history of Zionism and the State of Israel. My current schedule leaves me with many gaps during the day and nearly all of Tuesday free to get out and enjoy the beautiful Israeli springtime.

On the side, I’m still taking the Rabbinical Students Seminar through the Hartman Institute. Another, wonderful, extracurricular this semester is an Israeli literature class that I’m taking with the owner of cafe/bookstore Tmol Shilshom, a gathering place for many of the great minds of Israeli literature to sit, write, and share their work. It’s been pretty amazing to sit around tables in coffee shops discussing their short stories, memoirs, and poetry, especially with someone who himself is an insider in that world.

I have much more to report on, but perhaps I’ll save that for the next post. Next time, I’ll share what I’ve been doing with my no-class Tuesdays (affectionately known as “Tiyul [trip] Tuesdays”), what Passover preparation looks like, and anything else exciting that comes up.

Spring is here! Taken on a path I frequent in Emek HaMatsleva (The Valley of the Cross) near my apartment.

It’s a strange time of year for me right now. Purim to me always seems like that turning point in the year after which everything starts to fly by. It’s so easy to mark time: Passover is a month after Purim (I am already deeply entrenched in preparations), followed by seven weeks of counting the Omer to the holiday of Shavuot, and I’m leaving Israel a week later. It’s hard to feel like I just started my semester, yet to start preparing to go home as well. Throw in increasingly beautiful weather, and a carpe diem attitude, and I should have a very interesting/intense/eventful/exciting couple of months.

We’re Halfway There

It’s been a while since I’ve written, and a lot has happened. This post will be a quick play-by-play of the last several weeks, which will hopefully get me on track to discuss in greater depth the many exciting moments coming up over the next few months.

Here’s the rundown (I’ll go into more detail on some of these below):

I survived finals. I even did pretty well.

My friend Chris (a good friend from CPE last summer, and also a close friend of Becky’s- she was the source of our roommate shidduch) came to visit.

My Eema came to visit.

I went to Dublin.

I went to Hebron.

I went to Bethlehem twice- once with Chris and Becky and a couple of other friends for fun, and once with Encounter- this time as a facilitator.

I traveled around the Jerusalem area, taking my visitors to various holy and other notable sites.

I went up North (to Zichron Yaakov, Tzfat, and the Kinneret).

At the end of all of this, I started a new semester of school, and began to reconnect with the world that I’ve ignored for the past month.

Tired yet?

Many of these travel experiences happened when Chris came to visit. She arrived the day before I finished my finals so I scrambled to finish my papers (can’t say it was pretty, but as Becky told me, “done is better than good”) in order to join in the fun. We had a couple of days to explore Tel Aviv and Jerusalem before heading into a very relaxing, rewarding, and ridiculously fun Shabbat.

Saturday night the two of us left for Dublin. I had a real vacation! Chris had studied abroad in Ireland and has a lot of connections there so she had various friends who fed us, gave us a place to sleep, and provided excellent entertainment. We explored downtown Dublin, toured the Guinness Brewery, shopped til we dropped, went out on the town, drove into the country (between driving on the left and the standard car, there was no way I was driving in Ireland- Chris did a rockstar job), saw Newgrange (a 5000 year-old megalithic tomb), hung out in the town of Drogheda, and stopped by an Irish Dance competition where Chris’ mom happened to be.  I came back to Israel refreshed, relaxed, and motivated to keep on having fun.

From the rooftop bar of the Guinness Brewery

Newgrange from a distance

It was hard to not to notice that Chris and I were each hosting the other in our own religious/national/spiritual homelands. Not only did each of us get to see a new place, but we got to experience for ourselves why it was special to the other. This elevated the trip to a whole new level for me, and I was deeply grateful for the opportunity.

Chris and Me looking out on the Irish countryside from Newgrange

The tail-end of Chris’ visit involved a day in Hebron (important and intense, and not in the fun category), another great Shabbat, a touristy day in Bethlehem, and some more time exploring the beautiful and holy places in Jerusalem. The day she left was when Eema (my mother) came. We had an incredible visit, spending time in Tel Aviv, going up north for a few days, and just relaxing in my apartment. More importantly, I REALLY needed a dose of home and I got it. I made sure to get plenty of hugs, and I’m just now finishing up all of the Trader Joe’s chocolate she brought.

Formerly bustling marketplace in Hebron

With Eema at the beach in Tel Aviv!

Sadly, also over this break, my cousin Marty passed away. Known to the wider community as Rabbi Martin Menachem Gordon, Marty was an important fixture of the time I have spent in Jerusalem. I first spent time with him here over my free weekend on my 8th grade class trip to Israel in 2000, and have seen him on almost every trip since them. When I spent the year at Hebrew University, he (and his wife Bilha) lived less than a ten-minute walk from my dorm, so I visited them frequently. Unfortunately, Marty’s health over the last few months made visits challenging this year, and I wasn’t able to spend the time I would have like with him. He was a true champion of modern Jewish living (he was able to see his last book published in January on this subject), and deeply valued the challenge and intellectual effort required to adapt Judaism to contemporary times. I’ve deeply admired his hashkafa (way of viewing the world), and am dedicating the rest of my learning this year to honoring his memory. Eema and I were able to visit Marty’s family (our extended network of cousins here in Israel) during shiva, and I am grateful to have had that time.

The amazing, green, north. I guess all the rain was worth it.

At the end of my first week of school, I went on Encounter for the second time, this time from the perspective of a facilitator. It was incredibly powerful to experience something that is now familiar through an entirely different lens. I had heard some of the speakers before, yet somehow heard completely new things from them this time. The new speakers were, depending on who they were, moving, challenging, and provocative. The weather prevented us from doing much touring (it snowed in Jerusalem and Bethlehem!), but enabled us to spend  more time sitting and processing through our experiences. Through enabling intense conversation and facilitating processing in my small group, I ended up coming away from the trip with a deeper personal experience than I could have even hoped to expect. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this again in my time here, but I’ll be thinking about this trip for a long time.

So this is it, I’m officially well into the second half of the year. No more “I just got here” excuses. Time to take the rest of the year by the horns and leave nothing on the field. Okay, enough with the motivational cliches- I just really want to make the most of my remaining time here. Stay tuned for a report on Purim (starting Wednesday night for the world, and Thursday night for Jerusalem), and the transition into Passover. Time to stop writing now because I need to go figure out a Purim costume. Don’t worry, I’ll share photos.