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What does the word “Passover” bring to mind? Of course, the holiday itself. But for me, it brings back so many wonderful memories.
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, in my house the holiday would start five to seven days in advance. It would begin with a Spring Cleaning like never witnessed before. Not just the kitchen, although that got the bulk of the cleanout. But the whole house was cleaned from floor to ceiling. There could not be any chametz left in the house.
And after the refrigerator was cleaned out completely, and the ovens were cleaned (by hand), the counters were cleaned off and all signs of the everyday year-round items were put away. We taped up the cabinets so no one would bring out the everyday dishes or pots and pans. When everything was ready in the kitchen, we would roll in two large cabinets from the storage room outside. In these cabinets were the dishes, glasses, silverware, pots and pans that would be used for Passover.
Then the fun began – cooking!
My mother and the rest of the family would get the kitchen ready, and then my grandparents and my great-grandmother would come over and we would prepare for Passover. We chopped pecans, cleaned and chopped liver, boiled the gefilte fish, chopped the charoset, and baked! We went through more eggs than our non-Jewish neighbors did at Easter.
Cooking for the seder always meant time spent together talking, laughing, learning, and loving. That’s what I remember most – loving the time we spent together. The week of Passover also meant time spent together for each meal. After all, there was no eating out for dinner. No take-out brought home. We ate three meals a day, for eight days, together at home.
Dad took lunch to the office, and the kids took lunch to school. But once we were in high school, we would come home for lunch every day. And I had lunch with the three generations that spent the day at my house.
I can still hear my grandparents bickering when grandpa tried to grab a fresh baked good out of the oven. I can still hear my great-grandmother fussing at me as I tried to taste the charoset (she thought it had too much wine—- as if there is such a thing!). I miss those days. I miss my grandparents and great-grandmother. It’s amazing how things that seem like such a chore to you, can be a bit less so with the help of three other generations. I was so lucky to share those holiday experiences with my extended family.
I hope that my children have memories that they look back on and think of fondly. So, I pose the question to you: Are you helping to build memories for your children? Will they be able to look back on the talk, laughter, learning, and loving time spent together over the holiday?
Wherever we’re celebrating this year – in Memphis, in Jackson, or wherever you may be – let’s all try to make sure the answer to those questions will be a resounding “yes.”
If your birthday falls on Passover, you’re in luck! In an attempt to expand their products and audiences, the iconic kosher food brand The Manischewitz Co. just released several, more modern flavors of macaroons — including birthday cake, red velvet, and mint chocolate chip.
The Instagram-friendly flavor is part of the company’s recent rebranding. After 131 years of serving kosher products, Manischewitz launched a totally revamped image just in time for Passover. Packaging redesigns, a new website, and products are all part of the kosher brand’s marketing campaign. But fear not, traditionalists: While they’ve got a new look, it’s still “the same old shtick.”
A post shared by Manischewitz (@manischewitzco) on Mar 27, 2019 at 8:13am PDT
“We are so excited to unveil our new brand image to our consumers,” Manischewitz President David Sugarman said in a statement. “Our new logo’s tagline, ‘Comfort Food for the Soul,’ represents our brand’s familiar place in the hearts and kitchens of the families that we serve.”
Not everyone is convinced the new branding works. Canned macaroons are perhaps the saddest kosher for Passover dessert available on the market, and for some, no amount of flavor tinkering and rebranding can make them palatable. “Haven’t our people suffered enough?” one Nosher reader asked.
A post shared by Manischewitz (@manischewitzco) on Apr 10, 2019 at 7:44am PDT
That being said, if macaroons aren’t your thing, there are some other new Passover products featured in the company’s rebrand. Smooth and creamy cashew, almond, and hazelnut butters just joined the Manischewitz collection of nut butters available this matzah season, and we can’t wait to try them (no offense, birthday cake macaroons).
Whether you love or hate Manischewitz, if you grew up in America you likely have some strong feelings about the symbolic, sweet wine. Many people have warm feelings towards it and even — gulp — enjoy the taste. Others turn their nose up at it. Regardless, it occupies an important role in the American Jewish culinary landscape and on the Passover table.
And it also can make for some super fun recipes. When Jewish life hands you Manischewitz, make some Jello shots. Or sangria.
Haroset is one of the most important food components of the Passover seder. Its intense sweetness symbolizes the optimism in contrast to the bitter maror and salty water, which remind us of our ancestors’ suffering. Every family has their own special haroset recipe, and each year my mother makes ours, which is passed down from my grandmother. Our family recipe includes dates, sweet Kiddush wine, and lots of cinnamon. It’s delicious and I always spend the majority of my seder making matzah and haroset sandwiches. Still, there is always a big tub leftover, and no one ever really thinks to use it up once the seders have passed.
This year, I’ll be using our leftover haroset to make this chicken recipe. The beauty of this dish is that it works no matter what type of haroset your family makes. The sweetness from the haroset creates an addictive caramelized effect on the chicken.
Jewish activists have an important part of countless activist movements– from the global LGBTQ rights movements and civil rights movements to union organizing and women’s liberation movements, and beyond. Some of these activists have gone relatively unknown, and for some others, their Jewish identity has not been widely discussed as a part of their story.
In order to remedy this, here are five Jewish activists to know (and learn more about)!
Martin Duberman was born in New York, NY on August 6, 1930. Duberman is known as one of the founders of gay and lesbian studies, and has been publishing works in the field for several decades.
Before coming out as gay, he was also involved in various political movements including resistance to the Vietnam War via refusal of tax payments and sit-in protests. In 1991, Duberman founded CLAGS, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, at the City University of New York (CUNY). CLAGS was the first university-based research center dedicated to the social, political, and cultural challenges that face LGBTQ individuals.
Duberman has been published several dozen times, including his books on the Haymarket Square Riots and on notable figures, including Howard Zinn and Paul Robeson. Among these other historical works, Duberman combined his expertise in gay and lesbian studies and history in multiple ways, most notably Stonewall (1994), “the definitive story of the LGBTQ rights uprising that changed America”.
Duberman is still vocal about his views on the gay rights movement and beyond. In 2018, Duberman was featured in an article in The New Yorker discussing where he felt the movement had strayed from its roots and how he thought that organizations like the Gay Liberation Front have failed while marriage came into center-stage.
Currently, Duberman is a professor at CUNY and publishing works frequently.
Ilana Kaufman was born on May 2, 1972 in San Francisco, CA. Kaufman has spent several decades doing educational work and, in 2012, joined the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. She has led countless trainings on addressing racism in the Jewish community.
Currently, Ilana is the director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, which seeks to expand the communal, professional, and other kinds of opportunities for Jews of color. She also works with the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council as their Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director.
If you want to find out more about Ilana, you can check out our 2017 interview with her on our blog.
Riki Wilchins was born on April 3, 1952. Much of her work is focused on the impact of gender norms and the gender binary.
In 1995, Wilchins founded GenderPAC, an organization dedicated to issues of gender rights. GenderPAC began with a focus on transgender rights issues but has since broadened its scope to other groups impacted by issues of gender rights, such as gender non-conforming individuals more broadly. In 2006, GenderPAC issued a report on gender and gender-expression related violence titled “50 under 30: Masculinity and the War on America’s Youth”.
Wilchins is the author of several works, including 5 books on gender issues: Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender (1997), GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary (2002), Queer Theory/Gender Theory: An Instant Primer (2004), TRANS/gressive: How Transgender Activists Took on Gay Rights, Feminism, the Media & Congress… and Won! (2017), and Burn the Binary! — Selected Writings on Living Trans, Genderqueer & Nonbinary (2017).
Since 2010, Wilchins has been the Executive Director of TrueChild, which seeks to “improve life outcomes for all youth by helping funders and nonprofits challenge rigid gender norms”. In 2020, her sixth book, Gender Transformative Practice: A Guide for Funders, Policymakers, & Practitioners is scheduled to be published.
Martha Shelley was born on December 27, 1943 in Brooklyn, NY. Shelley is a long-time lesbian activist, poet, and author.
In 1967, two years before Stonewall, Shelley began her involvement with the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis, where she started using the pseudonym “Martha Shelley”, which has since become her legal name. On the night of Stonewall, Shelley was showing two Boston women around New York City and talking to them about their desire to establish their own Daughters of Bilitis chapter. Soon after, she and others organized a demonstration for gay and lesbian rights. The organizing for this demonstration led to the establishment of the Gay Liberation Front, which, beyond their work on gay and lesbian rights, was also anti-racist, allied with The Black Panther Party, and anti-capitalist. The Gay Liberation Front also held popular weekly dances.
Shelley has written works that have been published independently, in magazines such as Come Out! and Ms., and in a variety of anthologies including Nice Jewish Girls, The Women’s Seder Sourcebook: Rituals and Readings for Use at the Passover Seder, and Speaking For Ourselves: Short Stories by Jewish Lesbians. Some of her independent publications include Haggadah: A Celebration of Freedom (1997), The Throne in the Heart of the Sea (2011), and others.
Raffi Freedman-Gurspan was born on May 3, 1987 in Honduras and was adopted by a family in Brookline, Massachusetts. She was both the first openly transgender White House staffer and the first openly transgender staffer in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Freedman-Gurspan is a longtime transgender rights advocate, having worked with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and for Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts as his administration’s LGBT liaison. While working with these organizations, she played a key role in establishing transgender rights policies in Massachusetts. In 2016, while working with then-President Barack Obama, she was appointed as the White House’s first openly transgender LGBT liaison.
As of 2017, Freedman-Gurspan has joined the National Center for Transgender Equality again to work as their Director of External Relations.
At the time when the ancient Temple stood in Jerusalem, the 49-day period of the Omer was a time of offering a measure (Omer) of barley as a sacrifice. After the destruction of the Temple, with no place to bring offerings, the mitzvah to count the Omer transformed, like many other Temple-based commandments, into a prayer-based daily ritual. After we remember our Exodus from Egypt on Passover, we begin to count 49 days that move us towards Shavuot, when we commemorate receiving the Torah.
The biblical source of the commandment to count the Omer offers this practical instruction: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD.” Leviticus 23:15
The biblical commandment does not speak to any kind of spiritual or inner work. But for many Jews, the seven weeks of the Omer have also become a time for spiritual reflection and growth. How did we go from offering a measure of barley to offering a measure of ourselves to be transformed?
The Mishnah plants the seed for the idea that the 49 days of the Omer can be a time of tikkun (repair) for the harshness in the world or in our lives. Additionally, the Zohar, a core text of Jewish mysticism, teaches that when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they had sunk to the 49th level of impurity — only one level from the 50th and lowest level. The 49 days of the Omer, the Zohar teaches, can be a time of regaining our purity (or spiritual readiness) one step at a time. Through the counting of the 49 days of the Omer we work towards being spiritually prepared to receive the Torah on the 50th day.
The Omer is thus at once a time of both literal and metaphorical lifting and transformation. But before we can receive the Torah on Shavuot, we need to ask ourselves: What stands in the way?
I asked myself this question last year and was answered with something scary: shame. So I created a ritual based on the writings of the 18th-century Hasidic master Nachman of Breslov and the renowned social work researcher Brene Brown. Even across time and space, there were many common themes between the two. But perhaps the greatest was the idea that the way to transform shame is to speak it.
The ritual became a 49-day practice of hitbodedut. Hitbodedut comes from the Hebrew root meaning to seclude. In its reflexive form, it means to seclude oneself. The hitbodedut practice entails secluding oneself with God and sharing whatever is on the mind and heart.
As Rabbi Arthur Green wrote in “Tormented Master,” his biography of Nachman: “The most essential religious practice of Breslov, and that which Nachman constantly taught … was this act of hitbodedut, lone daily conversation with God.”
Hitbodedut, especially with the rigor and specific criteria that Rebbe Nachman recommended — alone, at night, and in nature — is not easy for the average modern Jew. Speaking to God as if we were talking to our best friend — unscripted, emotional, and spontaneous — can feel nearly impossible, or even childish. Many of us learn that to pray is to stay within the boundaries of the set liturgy, and perhaps within the boundaries of certain buildings as well. To practice hitbodedut is to go against much of how we have been trained to connect to the Divine.
The practice of hitbodedut, however, is not necessarily innovative. It’s the way our ancestors, like Abraham, communicated with the Divine: unscripted, open, and usually outdoors. The goal of hitbodedut is to bring God into every corner of our lives. In this way, we stop hiding from God and from ourselves and can live more authentically and fully.
To start, you can name what you’re feeling or thinking. It may be something as simple as “God [or substitute with whatever term you feel drawn to], I’m bored. I don’t know what to say to you. This feels stupid.” Keep talking until you hit on something that feels important to you. A person may choose to speak to God about any number of things: the injustice in the world and in our lives, anger, joy and gratitude, feeling stuck, or wanting clarity on a certain situation.
For the Omer, a daily, structured practice of hitbodedut can be incredibly transformative. So before embarking on the path of counting the days, ask yourself: What stands in my way? What stands between me and Torah, both literally and metaphorically?
The answer you receive may be surprising to you. In any case, turn it into prayer. Try speaking it and handing it over to God.
Hayley Goldstein is a student at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton, Massachusetts.
Dayenu: It would have been enough for us. As this classic Passover song echoes in our ears morning after the first seder, many Jews will make their way to a prayer service that includes Tefillat Tal, the Prayer for Dew. While the seder-favorite Dayenu looks back in gratitude for historical miracles, the prayer for dew looks forward. In asking for something as small and nearly invisible as dew, we declare: May this be enough for us.
Jewish liturgy slices the year into two seasons — summer, which is dry, and winter, which is wet. The poetry we recite when the seasons change indicates what is coming. On Sukkot, we pray for the coming rainy season. But on Passover, with the dry season beginning, we pray for the blessing of dew.
Praying for rain is more instinctual than praying for dew. Rain can be seen and quantified. Metaphorically, rain represents abundance and the flow of life. Who doesn’t want to pray for abundance, for sky blessings, for flow from the heavens?
But there’s something much more difficult about the prayer for dew. We are literally calling in something small, difficult to see, and often fleeting. Praying for the tiny droplets of morning dew invites us to hold on to the Dayenu outlook of enough-ness.
Praying for dew means asking for the capacity to honor this moment and not ask for anything else. What would it look like to stop pushing away the present moment, hoping the next will be more fulfilling? What would it look like to live with a mindset of sufficiency, to allow ourselves to do more with less?
So much of our society defines thriving as acquisition: more money, more possessions, more titles, more education. And yet, as we learn from palliative caregivers, those at the end of life most regret things like overworking or not expressing feelings of love and joy often enough. Dew reminds us that huge life achievements are not the best measurement of happiness.
Dew seems insignificant, but it’s actually able to sustain life itself. For centuries, desert dwellers have known that wool can absorb enough dew from the rocks to harvest for the day’s water. Farmers can divert dew collected in moss to water their crops. What other blessings are within our reach, yet unnoticeable?
As we transition the seasons, it’s an opportune moment to focus on honoring the shift from abundance to enough-ness. As we sit with the sensation of dew, consider what forms of sufficiency we can call into our lives. What do we tell ourselves is not enough that we can still say Dayenu for?
Try sitting comfortably with eyes open. Find some dew on grass or rocks, or if it’s not early morning or late at night, dip a hand or a few fingers in some water. Watch and feel the textures and sensation of the water. How long does it take for the water to evaporate or absorb into your skin? Notice how the textures and sensations change. Notice which thoughts and feelings arise. Notice if anything changes. Is the water enough? Do you want more? Less? Breathe through it all.
As your hand becomes dry, breathe out one more time. Dew is our teacher, reminding us about the sacredness of sufficiency. May our prayers for dew be an opportunity for expressing joy, even when it is fleeting. May the ephemeral dew of spring reinvigorate our capacity for small drops of loving-kindness, toward oneself or for another. As we turn our liturgy toward the season of dew prayers, may the faith of Dayenu resound in our hearts and in our lives.
Sarah Chandler is a Brooklyn-based Jewish educator, ritualist, artist, activist, and poet. Currently, she is the program director of the new Romemu Yeshiva, a garden educator with Grow Torah, and the director of curriculum design & cultivation with Fig Tree, a startup Hebrew School in Brooklyn. She teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to Jewish earth-based spiritual practice, farming, and mindfulness.
Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s as the product of a Sephardic-Ashkenazic “mixed” marriage, I knew that Passover preparation consisted of scrubbing the house from top to bottom, chopping mounds of haroset by hand, and my parents’ annual “discussion” (i.e. passionate argument) about which foods were permissible for Passover and which were not.
My Poppi — whose parents came from the Ottoman Empire and ancestors from pre-Inquisition Spain — never understood the ban on rice and legumes, essential staples of the Sephardic diet and, in his opinion, banned based only on the whim of some long-dead rabbis. But my mother, while from a solidly Reform Jewish family, had a more traditional streak when it came to Passover foods. This meant that year after year, she won that discussion, and we all ate the Ashkenazic way, with just a few Sephardic dishes that complied with the Ashkenazi version of what was defined as “kosher for Passover.” In short, no rice for us growing up.
Before we go any further, I should probably define what I mean when I say Sephardic. In its original meaning, the word applies to Jews descended from ancestors expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. These days, however, Sephardic has come to mean almost anyone and anything that is not Ashkenazic or Eastern European. This means Maghrebi Jews from North Africa and Mizrahi Jews with roots in the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, and Yemen) and Central Asia all get lumped together under the Sephardi heading.
While I worry about the blurred lines between diverse Jews potentially losing pieces of Jewish culture and history, one big upside is that Sephardi food now encompasses many diverse delicious cuisines. At Passover, for example, there’s an endlessly fascinating variety of haroset that developed based on using ingredients that grew nearby like dates, figs, apricots, raisins, oranges, and nuts like pistachios, almonds, and hazelnuts. I’ve been making Moroccan haroset balls for over two decades now and wouldn’t dare host a seder without them because I couldn’t deal with the disgruntled guests. I now also make a Persian mixture with four kinds of nuts and several fruits; then, in the holiday spirit, I plate it in the shape of a pyramid.
Leeks, artichokes, fava beans, and celery root are all considered essential ingredients for Sephardic Passover meals. One of my favorite vegetable dishes is quajado (which can also be spelled cuajado or kuajado), a sort of Sephardic kugel that’s soft on the inside with a bit of crusty exterior. The word comes from asquajado, Spanish for “coagulated.” Think of it as a frittata with less egg and more veggies, the most popular being leeks, eggplant, zucchini, potato, and spinach. It’s often made with cheese, which I sometimes leave out when making it for seder as a side dish or vegetarian main dish. It’s also terrific for lunch or dinner, or even breakfast when you get tired of eating leftover haroset on matzah.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate celeriac or celery root, used widely in Sephardic dishes where it’s called apyo. This vegetable might look ugly on the outside, but the flesh is a sweeter, more tender version of celery. The root is native to the Mediterranean region and parts of Europe where many cuisines use it in soups, mashes, and raw salads. The traditional Turkish preparation oil-poaches the versatile vegetable with carrots, lemon, and dill. It’s most often served cold or at room temperature as a mezze appetizer before a main meal or as a side dish. (Recipe below.)
For an easy and full-of-flavor main meat dish, Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons and olives is a winning dinner that can be made ahead of time and set to reheat at a low temperature before serving. I made this chicken as guest chef for three Obama White House seders and, even more importantly, it’s the main dish my 22-year-old son requests for his seder each year.
Two of the Sephardic dishes that were always on my seder table were huevos haminados and sponge cake. There were never regular hard-boiled eggs, but always the huevos cooked all day so the whites turn a light tan and the yolks become creamy. And always, always there was sponge cake, my Poppi’s absolute favorite. I didn’t know until, as an adult, I began to research Sephardic foods, that sponge cake came from the Jews of Spain, in the form of a light and citrusy pareve dessert called pan de Espagne. My family made the Passover version all year round, even for my father’s birthday. He always savored it with a cup of strong coffee.
Sephardic Hard Cooked Eggs (Huevos Haminados)
Skins and peels from 3 or 4 onions
Pinch of salt
2-3 tsp whole peppercorns
Olive oil or other vegetable oil
Put onion skins and peels in the bottom of a heavy pot. Add the eggs, gently wedging them in tightly in one layer, two if the pot is deep enough. Add the salt and whole peppercorns. Cover with cold water all the way to the top of the pot. Add some olive oil or other vegetable oil to form at least a partial coating on the top that keeps the water from boiling out as quickly.
Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high, turn down to simmer, and let cook 6-8 hours uncovered. Add water if necessary so the eggs are always covered.
When done, take the pot from the heat, immediately pour out the hot water, and add lots of cold water. You can put some ice cubes in as well or just keep adding cold water until the eggs cool. This method ensures you can peel the eggs easily. Enjoy at the seder or anytime with a squeeze of lemon.
Turkish Celery Root and Carrots with Oil and Lemon (Apyo)
Note: When buying the celery root, it should be firm and have a gently sweet celery scent. Buy it with the stalks and leaves if you can as they are delicious to include in the dish.
2-3 lemons, to taste
2 large or 3 medium celeriac, celery root, or knobs
2-3 medium carrots
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 tsp ground black pepper or to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup water
Half a bunch of fresh dill, left whole
Chopped dill or parsley for garnish (optional)
Fill a large bowl with cool water and squeeze the juice of one lemon into it. If there are stalks and leaves on the root, cut them off, wash the fresh-looking ones, and add them to the bowl of lemon water. Wash the celery root well. Peel it using a sturdy paring knife until the outside is clean. Cut away any of the flesh with dark brown marbling as it will be stringy. Cut each peeled celeriac in half, top to bottom.
Lay the two large pieces flat sides down and slice about 1/4 inch thick. If the slices are large, cut in half again or in quarters, creating pie-shaped wedges. Put the cut pieces in the lemon water to keep them from turning dark before cooking.
Peel the carrots and cut in pieces about 1/2 inch thick and add to the lemon water. In a separate bowl, mix together juice from the second lemon, sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil, and water. Using your hands or a slotted spoon, lift the celery root and carrot pieces out of the lemon water, letting them drain for a moment before putting them in a medium saucepan. When all the pieces are in, lay the celeriac stalks with leaves in top and then the large pieces of dill over that. Pour the liquid mixture over the vegetables.
Turn the heat on medium-high just until the mixture boils, then turn the heat to medium-low, cover the pan, and let the vegetables simmer until all are tender, about 20 minutes. Uncover and let the vegetables cool down to room temperature in the pan.
Gently remove the stalks and dill and set aside, then take the celery root and carrots from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the liquid behind. Turn the heat on medium under the remaining liquid and let simmer until reduced and thickened, about 20 minutes. Arrange the vegetable pieces on a serving plate. Add the stalks decoratively as well as the dill if desired. Before serving, pour the reduced sauce over the plated vegetables.
Garnish with lemon slices and some freshly chopped dill or parsley. The cooked vegetables and reduced sauce can also be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days before plating and serving.
Most children look forward to the Passover seder. Families recount the thrilling story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, delicious food is plentiful, and a scavenger hunt eventually transpires for the hidden middle matzah, or afikomen. Yet, for many years in elementary school, I felt nervous as soon as my hagadah opened.
As the youngest of five siblings in my family, I was responsible for asking the Four Questions. These ritual questions address the distinctive elements of the seder, alongside the bitter herbs and comfy pillows. Although vital and purposeful parts of any seder, the Four Questions reflected a relatively stressful obligation as I nervously sang in front of friends and family.
Over time, I appreciated my special role. Not only did I feel more confident, but also posing the Four Questions became less performative and more a function of supporting the Jewish soul—especially as I learned this core truth from my tradition: Judaism thrives on questions.
The Talmud’s rabbinic debates, for example, ponder the meaning behind sacred law and honored lifestyles. Furthermore, the Jewish heritage constantly wrestles with arguments between adaptation and preserving custom. The Four Questions renew this tradition each spring. The youngest child’s central inquiry “how is this night different from all other nights?” spurs the annual retelling of the Passover story from Moses in the basket to the splitting of the Red Sea.
But it also reminds us to examine our evolving perceptions and conduct: “How am I different on this night?”
In that spirit, I want to highlight the four questions that I will ask during Pesach this year.
What Are You Doing for Others?
This line, historically spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957, reminds us of our place in the global village. Too often, superficial concerns and narcissistic attitudes obscure our attention to the community. This commonplace ignorance sidelines those that live with trauma or without access to productive change. If we face our complicit unawareness, however, we can begin a process of reaching out and taking action. The selfless intention to volunteer, educate, and support empowers relationships of value and embraces a greater equitable, just future. Particularly, on Pesach as we review the Exodus narrative, this question of social responsibility looms large.
What Opportunities Are We Missing?
Consider an average day in the workplace or classroom: the individuals we engage in conversation, the conflicts we witness, and the time we spend engrossed in technology. Each reflects an occasion in the day when we can take more initiative. Moses encounters similar circumstances at the burning bush as God calls him to return to Egypt and face Pharaoh. By heeding this sign, Moses ultimately rises to the status of savior. While our own conditions may not appear as dire, we would do well to build passionate, forceful personalities. Exercising our voices and promoting partnerships amplify mundane environments to opportunities for progress.
How Do We Respond to Animosity and Hardship?
Retelling the Pesach story, annual Seders remember the bitterness of Israelite slavery, as well as the unprecedented suffering of Egyptian citizenry. But injustice and pain still remain contemporary realities. Violence, intolerance, and the consequences of natural disasters overwhelm the media on a desensitizing scale. Still, we cannot afford to stay numb. Our reactions to abuses of power and tragedies matter despite the insignificance we may feel. When we hold leaders accountable or advocate for victims, we acknowledge our vital role in promoting relief and healing. The mi shebeirach prayer calls upon our ancestors as examples of blessing and wellness in the world. May its message continue as encouragement for our efforts to repair and renew.
Are We Holding Fast to Our Dreams?
“L’shanah haba’ah biyerushalayim – next year in Jerusalem” is the phrase we utter as the Passover seder comes to a close. Soon after that, it’s time for some final munching of the afikomen and our fond goodbyes. But are we paying enough attention to the seder’s final instruction, and the dream it represents? As I see it, the line expresses a righteous aspiration to make peace as was once imagined in ancient Jerusalem. We regularly lose sight of Passover’s origins as a pilgrimage festival, a time to reaffirm Judaism’s communal spirit. In the year to come, we should aim to not only identify our goals but also strive to make good on promises and visions—to hold fast to our dreams.
As you indulge in matzah kugel and other delights this year, you too can make a list of your own. Remember, finding conclusive answers is not the objective. The process of questioning stands on its own, motivating our enduring curiosity and mobilizing a thirst to rebuild.
Since as a young child I was taught the “traditional” liturgy, I have strong motor memory regarding exactly how to bend at the knees and waist when reciting certain prayers in the synagogue. I also learned never to kneel in church, but my playbook didn’t include what to do in a mosque when the entire congregation prostrated. I know some of my Jewish friends join in the prostration and recite their own personal prayers, while others remain standing and recite the Amidah. Based on my own sense of propriety, I choose instead to recite psalms silently while maintaining a respectful posture of prayer.
Before my first time attending prayers at RCM, I consulted my friends about what to do so that I wouldn’t distract fellow worshippers. “Stand next to the wall by the bookcase,” one recommended. “Sit in the very back and remain seated,” said another. I’ve tried both approaches and, by arriving early to get a seat near the side or back wall, successfully negotiated the moment when everyone lines up and readies for the prostration.
Except for this time, when I visited RCM shortly after the terrorist attack at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.
I arrived nearly an hour early for Jumuah (Friday afternoon communal prayers). I wanted to visit briefly with the Imam and other friends before the service, because I know I’ll be rushing home after the prayers to finish preparing for Shabbat. I sit toward the back of the women’s section, close to the southern wall. Just as the Imam begins his remarks, a woman rushes in and sits beside me; she greets me with a whispered Asalamaleikum and a smile.
We rise for communal prayer, and I take a step backward toward the corner where I’ll stand to recite Psalm 23 in memory of the victims of the attack. But the woman to my right gently touches my arm and says, “Come closer, sister,” and I find myself being drawn into the middle of the row, standing shoulder to shoulder between two women I’ve never met, unable to avoid dropping to my knees beside them when they kneel.
As they press their foreheads to the floor, I hold my shoulders straight and take a cleansing breath. Then I begin Psalm 23, keeping my body still and allowing only my lips to move. Each time we rise and then kneel again, I interrupt my recitation to breathe and feel the sensation in my knees, calves, and toes. I’m surprised to notice I am crying, not because I feel bereft for the grieving families of the victims of terror. I’m touched by the gesture of inclusion from a total stranger and deeply moved to be in the midst of the community as we pray.
I finish the psalm just as the women around me complete their last prostration.
I’m still not sure whether to bow when I pray in a mosque nor can I predict what will happen the next time I’m at RCM for Jumuah. All I know is, in the words of the psalmist, “surely goodness and kindness will follow me,” and “I am not afraid, because You are with me.”