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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.
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