Posts Tagged ‘Jewish holidays’

So matzah matter with you?

March 27, 2013

Passover eve – can’t wait for matzah

Passover Day 1 – love that matzah

Passover Day 2 – like that matzah

Passover Day 3 – I am becoming a matzah

Passover Day 4 – do all the carpets in my house have dandruff?

Passover Day 5 – discover one thing worse than matzah, which is whole wheat matzah

Passover Day 6 – writing indie movie called Triscuit Dreams

Passover Day 7 – revelation while in hallucinogenic, yeast-deprived state that Pharoah actually invented matzah as ultimate revenge on the Israelites

Passover Day 8 – I think Passover is over in Israel already, can I have a turkey sandwich now?

Day after Passover – throw out multiple unopened boxes of matzah bought in bulk to save money

Week after Passover – mmm, you know what would taste good right now…

Family traditions, my traditions?

December 7, 2012

What happens to family traditions when your family goes away?

Well, “family goes away” might be stating things a bit too strongly. But this is our first winter with our daughter away in college, and holidays feel different when there is no child in the house.

Even if for the past couple of years that “child” was a big, independent, less-than-optimally-communicative teenager.

Take Chanukah, which arrives this weekend with its usual single-candle blaze of glory. Normally we would make a Big Deal of the first night of Chanukah — festive dinner with relatives or friends, lots of presents, latkes, chocolate gelt, dreidels. Most years we would end up making latkes on two or three different evenings for different configurations of friends and guests. And we always made sure to buy at least eight gifts, and we had big gift-opening hoopla every night.

This year? I do not want to cook a single latke. I will be completely fine if I don’t eat a single latke. Okay, I’ll eat some when we get together with our chavurah in late December, but other than that…. meh.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I don’t want to open gifts every night either. I’d like to open gifts on the last night, when Daughter will be home for her winter vacation. But other than that, I don’t really care.

What I do want is to light the candles and say the blessings. Just a nice straightforward little candle-lighting at dinnertime with Sam. (Followed by watching some Jon Stewart re-runs?)

In one sense, this is completely reasonable. Chanukah is a minor holiday in Jewish tradition, which mushroomed out of its historic proportions in the past 50 years as American Jews tried to come up with a counterbalance to the glitter of Christmas. Lighting candles with a minimum of fuss is probably closer to the traditional Chanukah than what we’ve been doing in our household for the past 18 years.

But there are other times when the issue is murkier. Take Shabbat. When Daughter was home, we lit candles and said blessings on most Friday nights where we were all home together. This fall, when Sam and I have been home on a Friday, it’s felt slightly weird lighting candles with just the two of us.

Part of me felt, “Why are we going through the motions? It’s just the two of us.”

Which raised the question… were we just lighting candles to educate our child? or were we doing it for us also?

That question is more nuanced for me than it might be for some people because I was not raised with much Judaism at all. My family had a Passover seder and lit a menorah, but we never celebrated Shabbat or belonged to a synagogue. So the Jewish traditions I carry out are ones that I’ve consciously chosen as an adult, rather than ones I inhaled with my childhood air.

But back to that Shabbat moment of to-light-or-not-to-light….

I lit.

I skipped the white table cloth. But I lit the candles, even without Daughter.

And there are really two reasons for that. One is that as adults, we need to take care of ourselves — regardless of whether we have kids around or not. I don’t want to be someone who lives on TV Dinners because there are no children to cook for. I don’t want to be that old lady who lets the house go uncleaned and unrepaired because she’s the only one living there. We need to nourish ourselves as well as our children.

Shabbat is a kind of nourishment, like a home-cooked meal, an occasional massage,  a bouquet of flowers from the farmer’s market. And that brings me to the second reason — I do want to keep Shabbat as a part of my life. I care about it and believe in it. So I lit.

But clearly that’s not true for every Jewish tradition. Some are falling by the wayside.

Building a Sukkah? We did it for about ten years when Daughter was little. Now? Forget it!

Latkes? Can live without the oil, the mess and the calories.

Shabbat? Big Passover Seder? Chanukah candle-lighting? Those are keepers.

What about you? Any changes in your family rituals or traditions if you’ve had children leave home? And what does that say about your values and priorities? 

A (gefilte) fishy holiday tradition

September 16, 2012

These days we associate it only with Passover Seders, but gefilte fish was a traditional Ashkenazi dish at other Jewish holidays too, including Rosh Hashanah. I’m reprinting a recent email from Miriam Harel, who like me grew up in the Hashomer Hatzair socialist-Zionist youth movement in New York. Unlike me, Miriam moved to Israel, where she lives on Kibbutz Haogen near Netanya, works as a therapist at  the Adler Institute in Herzliyah,  and has three grandchildren. She is author of a book on therapy with children.


By Miriam Harel

I have memories of carps swimming around in my grandmother’s bathtub in Brooklyn (I vowed never to take a bath in her house again) and the old grinding machine locked to the table with a vise and the long, long ritual of homemade gefilte fish with a carrot slice on the belly of every gefilte. Hours and hours of work cutting, grinding, rinsing, boiling, waiting till cooling, and all the rest.

What the fish symbolised I’ll never know, but I do remember “May you be the head of the fish and not the tail,” with visible fish heads eyeing us on the holiday table.

I would have imagined that this day of long arduous labor was some kind of religious ceremony, and gefilte was symbolic of the devotion of our grandmothers to the tradition of their own mothers and grandmothers to suffer through and then provide this to their eager families on holidays, each with the seasoning of his origins — the Polish more sweet gefilte, and the Hungarians more peppery like all else.

Never in my life did I attempt the feat of soaking, killing the carp with a blow to its innocent head, cutting, boning, grinding, boiling, cooling. I watched my grandmother Malka in amazement and awe but never would I attempt this. There was always someone selling it at some food market or some chaverat kibbutz who did this as a specialty… except for this year.

I went to all the possible places in this immediate area. The local supermarmarkets tried to talk me out of it: Oh, come on. You don’t still want THAT? Some salmon, maybe St. Denis? I was offered bottles of Manischevitz gefilte pickled in something sinister and God knows how long it has been on the shelf.

Gefilte fish jars in a Miami deli

I tried the Russian specialty stores who offered me caviar and herring, and the little shops who shrugged and referred me to some Yemenite woman who makes amazing Chreime harif harif [spicy Middle Eastern fish].

I started thinking of travelling to Bnei Brak [an ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb]. Seriously. Are you nuts? I thought to myself. The young people in the family don’t eat it. It looks weird to them, especially with that red stuff, and is a nondescript color and doesn’t look like schnitzel or anything nice.

The end of the gefilte era is like the end of a thousand-year-old fixed tradition that originated in Germany or France with the origin of Yiddish (gefilte means “filled” in Yiddish) — fish stuffed with all kind of fillings so that it would go a long way like other bread puddings of the poor in Europe.

I was about to give up when I came across the ready-food take-out store of Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon.

There was a whole counter full of packed plastic boxes with six pretty little gefiltes lying side by side in their own juice or yoich as they
say in Yiddish. I was so happy to see them again and respectful of Mishmar Hasharon for holding onto this tradition.

Probably no one under the age of fifty will touch them, but they will be there. As always. My comfort fish, resonating with images of Brooklyn and my grandmother.

Shana tova to all.


Note from Ilana: The era of gefilte fish may not be dead, just ready for reinvention. My husband Sam has adapted his family’s gefilte fish recipe to use fresh wild salmon, which our local fish store grinds for us. To complete the Bay Area foodie transformation, he serves it with a wasabi creme fraiche. The result is light pink fish balls with light green wasabi drizzled around it… even our friends who hate (jarred) gefilte fish love it. 

Sea glass and Rosh Hashanah

September 10, 2012

I spent the weekend at our Stinson Beach house with Leslie Laurien, one of our co-owners, creating mosaics on two bare concrete steps. Leslie has been going to Stinson for more than a decade, collecting sea glass the entire time, and so had amassed a fabulous collection of smooth, rounded pieces in a variety of colors. There were various shades of clear glass, from milky white to slightly blue and even violet. There were beer-bottle-brown pieces, and green, a few tiny cobalt blue ones. In addition, Leslie had gathered broken tea cups, tiles, marbles and shards of mirrors. Before going any further, I need to say that she is an incredible artist (some of whose work you can view here) and I was more the — shall we say — sorcerer’s apprentice. :-)

Here is a picture of the project underway, and one of what we ended up with. It still needs to be grouted.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Even sitting in piles on the stoop, the sea glass pieces were beautiful. Washed and rubbed and ground by the waves for decades until smooth enough for a child to hold, they start out as trash but look like exotic gems by the time you find them on the beach. Some of my favorites are the ones that are barely larger than dots — tiny green or blue or cloudy pearls.

Then last night, I woke up in the dark thinking of those pearly glass dots in tandem with some comments that our rabbi has been posting on Facebook. It wasn’t any conscious connection; those two things just slid together in my sleepy mind.

As part of Elul, the month leading up to the high holy days, Rabbi Andrew Straus has been posting a short question or story each day, designed to spark reflection.

Just little questions, in the oh-so-flippant and distracting world of Facebook. I guess they are like bits of precious glass found on a beach. So I thought I’d reprint a few:

If I could live this past year over again: what would I do the same? What would I do differently?
For the things you would do the same – what lesson can you learn?
For the things you would do differently – is there a pattern? What can you learn from that?
What can you do at this point to change the things that you want to change?


The story is told of Jacob and Eliezer who were on a difficult journey together. They helped each other out of many tough situations. One day as they crossed a raging river Jacob nearly drowned. Eliezer saved his friend’s life. Once they were safely on the other side Jacob chiseled into a nearby rock, “In this place Eliezer risked his life to save the life of his friend  Jacob.”

Several days later Jacob and Eliezer got into a terrible fight regarding who would carry the food. Jacob took a stick and wrote in the dirt: “In this place Eliezer broke the heart of his friend Jacob during a trivial argument.” Eliezer watched and asked; “Why did my heroism get carved into stone, but the fact that I broke your heart only get scratched into the dirt?”

Jacob smiled and responded; “I will forever cherish how you saved my life, risking your own to do so, but as for the insults and hurtful words, these I hope will fade as quickly as the words I have scratched in the dirt.” With that, Jacob rose and wiped the inscription away with his foot.

How many of us are carrying minor hurts with us that can be wiped away? How many of us are holding on to words said in anger and forgetting the words said in love? How many of us are remembering the hurt and forgetting the mitzvot the good deeds done for us? What would it take to wipe the words away?

And another:

“It is a cornerstone for Judaism …, that however great a person’s transgressions may be, they fail to penetrate to the innermost core of one’s soul. Always and under all circumstances, there remains something pure, precious and sacred in a person’s soul.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik)

Who are you at your core? What is precious and sacred in your soul? What makes you, you?
How do you get in touch with your innermost core? What can you do to let your core shine brighter?

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Sunday. Shanah tovah! 

May your coming year be as sweet as apples and honey, and as shiny as sea glass pieces, smoothed and polished into gems from our unwanted, discarded trash.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Passover Seders, then and now

April 10, 2012

My friend Jamie Beckett posted a cool photo of a seder during World War I on her Facebook page. So that got me thinking… and doing a quick bit of Google image searching.

Happy Passover! Enjoy these photos and remember, as you gnaw on your 47th matzah of the week, that you are part of a long history. 

14th Century Seder, from the Sarajevo Haggadah (produced in Barcelona, around 1350)

Folk art of Ukrainian seder, 1800s

Popkin Family Seder in Duluth, Minn., 1910 / Photo from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest

Passover seder, U.S. servicemen, World War I / Courtesy of the National Archives

1925 Seder in Manila, Philippines / Courtesy of Center for Jewish History

Yemenite seder in Jerusalem, 1939 / Courtesy of Jerusalem Post

Seder at a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz in the 1950s / Courtesy of H.H. Yad Yaari Archives

White House Seder, 2009 / Photo by Pete Souza

Our seder table, 2012 / Photo by Ilana DeBare


Nitzavim and Yom Kippur

October 5, 2011

The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is a section from Leviticus that involves the details of ritual sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. But the 19th century pioneers of Reform Judaism felt this was irrelevant to modern life and humanistic religion, and substituted a different passage — Nitzavim, or Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.

This is the passage that I’ll be chanting on Saturday morning. (Well, the first part of it — Deuteronomy 29:9 through 29:14.)

Moses would have given his farewell address near here - view of Dead Sea from Mt. Nebo (Jordan) / Photo by David Bjorgen

Nitzavim presents Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people, as he readies them to enter the promised land without him. He reminds everyone gathered before him that they have entered into a covenant with God. He recounts the “detestable things” and “fetishes” they left behind in Egypt, and predicts that some of them will succumb to the temptations of idolatry, thinking “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.” He warns them that they will be punished and exiled — but if they repent and return to following the mitzvot, God will welcome them back and return them to prosperity.

I suspect there’s some historical backstory here — that this section of the Torah was written at a time when the Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, and the author may have intended to explain the exile and exhort the people to better behavior. I haven’t done the research on this, so please jump in and correct or amplify if you know more.

But historical analysis aside, it’s a fitting portion for Yom Kippur in its focus on the dangers of sin and the rewards of teshuvah (which translates as turning, or repentance). And the image of  Moses speaking before the entire community of Israel — old and young, the portion tells us, men and women, officials and strangers, even the humble wood-hewers and water-drawers — is appropriate for the only day of the year when every single member of a Jewish congregation shows up for services.

There are two parts of the portion that I find particularly moving.

The first is a line that I’ll be chanting, where Moses tells the assembled multitude that the covenant is “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

It feels almost like science fiction, some wormhole or rip in time that allows Moses to speak simultaneously to all Jews through the centuries. The covenant includes those not present because they have died, and those not present because they are not yet born. It gives me a shivery transcendent feeling — I’m part of this stream that extends back to Abraham and forward as long as there is a Judaism.

My grandparents who have passed away are part of it. The great-great-great-grandparents whose names I don’t even know are part of it. My daughter’s unimaginable grandchildren are part of it.  For a moment we are all here together, standing near Mt. Nebo listening to Moses.

The other line I particularly like comes later in the portion, when Moses reassures the gathered populace that they can, in fact, fulfill their end of the covenant.

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

I find this a  comforting way to think about other challenges, not just the challenge of leading a moral and righteous life.

It’s so easy to paralyze ourselves by thinking, “That’s too much! I can never do that!” These days I’m having those kinds of despairing thoughts about the ten extra pounds I’ve put on: “How will I ever be able to lose that weight?” And those thoughts are a constant presence around my novel writing: “I’ll never be able to get that character right! I’ll never do decent dialogue! I’ll never be able to write like XXX or YYY!”

But in reality, a surprising number of the things that cause us despair are not beyond us. They are not in the heavens, they are not across the ocean. Sometimes we just need to calm ourselves down — take things step by step, piece by piece, or, in Anne Lamott’s phrase, bird by bird.

It is not too baffling for us, it is not beyond reach. The answers are close to us, in our mouths and hearts.

A Karaite seder

April 12, 2011

What comes to mind when you hear “Passover foods?”

If you’re like most American Jews, it’s matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and charoset made of apples, nuts and Manischewitz wine — basically, the European Ashkenazi tradition. Maybe if you’re a little adventurous, you’ll picture a Sephardic charoset based on dates and other dried fruits.

But here’s something completely different — a Karaite Passover menu.

No matzah balls. No charoset. No eggs, parsley, salt water, wine or even a seder plate.

Instead, a unique kind of unleavened bread with coriander, bitter lemon salad, barbecued meat on the bone, and juice made from fresh grapes and raisins.

Rollers that were used to knead matzah dough, outside the Karaite synagogue in Cairo, 1985 / Photo by Ira Nowinski, Stanford University Libraries

Karaism is a small but ancient stream within Judaism that was based primarily in Russia and Egypt. What distinguishes the Karaites from other wings of Judaism is that they don’t follow or acknowledge the Talmud, the rabbinic commentary on the Bible that mainstream Judaism sees as inspired by God. For Karaites, Jewish law ends after the Tanach.

A Karaite web site puts it this way:

Karaite Judaism rejects later additions to the Tanach (Jewish Bible) such as the Rabbinic Oral Law and places the ultimate responsibility of interpreting the Bible on each individual. Karaism does not reject Biblical interpretation but rather holds every interpretation up to the same objective scrutiny regardless of its source.

At first glance, one might assume that Karaites are some kind of primitive fundamentalist sect running around Monty Python-style in Biblical tunics. Not so. David Darwish, who catered the luncheon after my Bat Mitzvah, comes from a Karaite family and is not only a cell phone-wielding citizen of the 21st century but a terrific chef who whips up a mean Caesar salad. His brother owns Mezze, a lovely pan-Mediterranean restaurant on Lakeshore Avenue.

I asked David what he ate for Passover growing up, and he referred me to the keepers of culinary tradition in his family — his cousin Nadia Hartmann and her mother Nelly Masliah.

Nadia and Nelly came to the U.S. from Egypt 46 years ago. They’re affiliated with Congregation B’nai Israel of Daly City — the only Karaite congregation in America with its own permanent building.

The Karaite community, Nadia told me, celebrates only one Seder on the first night of Passover. Like an Ashkenazi haggadah, a traditional Karaite haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt and lists the ten plagues. But the text is almost all verses from the Torah: There is no story of the Four Children, no Chad Gadya. All those readings were added after Biblical times.

Karaites don’t drink alcohol during Passover since their reading of the Torah defines hametz  as not just leavening but fermentation. Instead, they say a blessing over “wine” that is a freshly-made blend of grapes and raisins. They soak raisins in water overnight, then put them in a blender with red grapes and water.

“It’s thicker than grape juice but not as thick as a smoothie,” Nadia said.

Back in Egypt, many Karaite families made their own matzot. Today they buy them at the supermarket like everyone else. But they also make a unique kind of Karaite matza called “orsa” — thin, flat crackers made from flour, oil, water, salt and ground coriander. (Although the flour would make this off-limits for Ashkenazi Jews during Passover, the Karaite tradition allows it since there is no yeast.)  I’m including Nadia’s  recipe below.

“The coriander gives it its flavor,” Nadia said. “It’s square, easy to eat, and you can get addicted to it.”

Rather than a ritual shankbone on a seder plate, Karaite families serve a main course that involves meat on a bone — typically barbecued.  “We often have lamb chops or a lamb shank,” Nadia said.

For bitter herbs, they make a salad — bitter frisee lettuce, six other kinds of lettuce, an oil and lemon dressing, and little pieces of pickled lemon.

Other traditional parts of their Seder meal are rice dishes and grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice. (Like other Sephardic Jews, the Karaites don’t prohibit rice during Passover.) Traditional desserts are Pain d’Espagne, an angel-food-like cake with jam, or cookies with nuts — both made with flour but no leavening.

After speaking with Nadia, I decided to try baking my own orsa — before Passover, so my Ashkenazi self could eat them.

It was a strange experience following a recipe for a food I’d never tasted or even seen, kind of like a Martian following notes for some alien item called “hamburgers.” I couldn’t even find a photo of them on the Web. Here’s how they turned out:

Dough for orsa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Karaite matzot, or orsa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

They were crisp and a little crumbly like thin, savory graham crackers. Some ended up bitter because they were in the hotter part of my oven and got a little burnt.

My daughter suggested adding cheese. (Not part of the Karaite tradition!) My husband trotted into my study  later in the evening and said, “We don’t know why, because we don’t think they taste that good, but we’ve each eaten three or four of them.”

(What was it that Nadia had said about them being addictive?)

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of making that grape-and-raisin “wine.” There are always some folks at our seder who don’t drink alcohol; this could be a tasty and fun alternative to Welch’s.

Whether you celebrate Passover, Chag HaMatzot or Easter next week, happy holidays!


Nadia’s Orsa (Karaite matzah)


5 cups & 3 oz. regular flour
11 oz. oil
1 cup water
1-1/2 tblspn salt
2 tblspn ground coriander powder — preferable to grind your own from coriander seeds, leaving it a little flaky, since the pre-ground powder from the store has a tendency to burn
Preheat oven to 350.

In a big mixer like a Kitchen Aid, combine all the flour, spices, and a little of the oil and water. With the mixer going, add the rest of the oil and water gradually until it forms a ball. It should be soft enough to work. If it’s too soft, add more flour. Too hard, add water.

Work it on a table until it is very thin. (I used a rolling pin.) Then put a little bit at a time on an ungreased cookie sheet. Cut it in shapes. There should be enough dough for three, maybe four, cookie sheets.

Bake for about 25 minutes until very light brown. Be careful not to overcook.

A seder like you’ve never seen

April 6, 2011

We’re less than two weeks away from the first night of Passover, Monday April 18. This year the wandering and ever-confusing cycles of the Jewish and Christian calendars leave us with Passover coinciding with Easter.

Historically, many scholars believe the Last Supper was a Passover seder held by Jesus and his disciples. So, in honor of the overlap of the holidays this year, with a nod to the wonderful Christian readers of this blog, and with apologies to Mr. Da Vinci, here’s a picture of a seder like you’ve never seen:

I’d love to credit the Photoshop artist — but got this through an email with no credit given.


A couple of small unrelated notes, and then my next post will return to my usual longer-essay format:

Last month I was honored to be invited to write a guest post about my Bat Mitzvah for Mothering in the Middle, a blog about women who become mothers after 40. (I became a mom at 36, but who’s counting?) The post is called “At 53, I Am a Woman.” Some of it will sound familiar to Midlife Bat Mitzvah readers, but some is new. You can read that essay here.


And following up on our discussion about haggadot from a few weeks ago, here’s a link to a Kibbutz Artzi haggadah from 1964. Kibbutz Artzi was the most left-wing of the kibbutz federations in Israel, affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, the youth group I belonged to as a teen in New York.

I hadn’t seen this in years. Historically, it’s interesting to notice how it differs from the haggadah our family uses today.

They’re both modernized and supplemented, but the kibbutz one has a ton more references to nature and agriculture (back to the land and all that!), a more Zionist slant (“we have built a house on our own soil, a steadfast home, for the exiled of Israel”), and the Holocaust is much more of a constant presence. (Not surprising when you realize that 1964 was less than 20 years away from the concentration camps, as recent and immediate to people then as memories of Becca  in diapers are to me.)

While the kibbutz haggadah includes Hebrew poems by Bialik and Alterman, our haggadah includes African-American spirituals like Go Down Moses.

A Labor-Zionist seder versus a liberal-American seder! What’s lovely about personalized haggadot is how they tell a timeless story but also reflect the culture around us, the things on our minds at a certain moment in time.

A surprisingly serious Purim post

March 18, 2011

This weekend is Purim, the most light-hearted of Jewish holidays, when we are commanded to drink so much that we can’t tell Haman (villain) from Mordechai (hero). It’s also the most kid-friendly holiday, with costumes and carnivals galore.

My Jewish blogging buddy Linda K. Wertheimer has a lovely post that sums up why kids of all ages love Purim. And here’s an ancient  photo of my brother and sister in Purim costumes at our preschool, the 92nd Street Y in New York:

Purim, circa 1965 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But holiday fun aside, I ran across a serious Purim blog post this week that I liked enough to want to share below. It’s by Marc Rosenstein, an American-born rabbi who lives in the Galilee in Israel and writes a regular column for the Reform Judaism blog.

I like how Rosenstein presents two very different ways to interpret the Biblical command to destroy Amalek, and then shows the parallel to a similar choice within Islam.

(Quick background: Amalek and his tribe were enemies of Israel in the Bible. Haman, the bad guy of Purim, is considered a descendant of Amalek. Some hawkish Jewish commentators also refer to enemies of modern-day Israel as Amalek — which has horrific foreign policy implications.)

Remember Amalek

by Marc Rosenstein

Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
        -Deuteronomy 25:19

Last Sunday, as often happens, Iman, the young Muslim English teacher who was answering questions from a Jewish teen group, was asked about terror and Jihad.  She explained that as she understands the term “Jihad,” which means “struggle,” it refers in the Koran to historical conflicts between Muhammed’s followers and other tribes; but in current usage, it refers to the religious struggle of every individual Muslim to purify his/her faith and live a life of righteousness.  She rejects the interpretations of those who try to apply the historical text to current political realities, as if the battles in the Koran were still being waged.  Iman is not a scholar of Islam; her knowledge comes from her teachers, the media, and the imam of her local mosque.  We know that there are Muslims in the world who would not accept her interpretation.  It is simply the one she and her community live by. 

The next day, in Jerusalem, I attended the evening bet midrash offered to rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College, taught by Rabbi Shlomo Fox. As it was during the weeks before Purim, we studied texts relating to the Book of Esther and the meaning of the holiday. And we read several interpretations of the above passage from Deuteronomy which is read on the Shabbat before Purim:

Where is Amalek? The answer I once heard from my father is: every nation that seeks to destroy the People Israel turns, according to the halachah, into Amalek… And hence we are commanded to fight against any nation that schemes to destroy us, and it is a “war of mitzvah” [of complete destruction].

-Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “My Beloved Knocks,” 1956 (major American Orthodox scholar and leader)

“Do not forget” this [obligation to wipe out Amalek] – in case there comes a time when you will want to be like Amalek, and like him to deny your [moral] obligation and not to know God, but will only seek opportunities…to exploit your power to harm others.

–Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, late 19th century (founder of “modern Orthodoxy” in Germany)

So, is our struggle against Amalek the eternal war of annihilation between Israel and its physical enemies — is every enemy an heir of Amalek whom we are commanded utterly to destroy — or is our struggle against the Amalek within, against the tendency to forget our own moral scruples when we attain power?

The similarity between the Sunday and Monday conversations was really striking. Both religions have parallel opposing traditions of interpretation: Do we take the historical event as an archetype that keeps on recurring, a drama in which we are destined to play out the same roles over and over – or is the historical experience merely an experience, from which we are supposed to learn a moral lesson that can enable us to repair the world. And are the two approaches in conflict, or can they coexist?

And why does this matter? Because our future here depends on the answer.

Do-it-yourself haggadot for the digital age

March 14, 2011

In my 20s and early 30s, I loved compiling my own personal Passover haggadah. I’d browse the massive selection of haggadot at the late, lamented Cody’s Books, buy a half dozen inexpensive paperback ones, and set to work.

Snip, snip, glue, photocopy… I’d start with a traditional version, add the Frogs song from a kids’ haggadah or “Man Come Into Egypt” by Peter Paul & Mary, throw in some feminist commentary or an environmental take on the Ten Plagues and… voila! our haggadah for the year.

Then we became parents. And it felt like an achievement simply to get matzah ball soup and homemade gefilte fish on the table. Farewell to the days of rewriting the haggadah every year.

Now there’s a new, possibly easier way to compile personalized haggadot — via (of course) the Web. offers an online library of Passover-related writing and images that you can copy, arrange and edit, scrapbook-style. Then you churn out as many copies as you want, free of charge, on your printer. You can also submit your own words or pictures to become “clips” for other people to use.

Image for cover of a haggadah, from

I did a quick scan of the site today and found clips that included:

Pretty cool!

The site, of course, isn’t perfect. Although you can search for clips by keyword, there doesn’t seem to be a way to search specifically for images — if, for instance, you were seeking that perfect drawing of a pyramid. Although you can focus your search on specific categories of Judaism — Orthodox, Reform, etc. — the site’s category of “secular/humanist” had no clips in it.

And a search for the keywords “Palestinians” and “Middle East” brought up no results, a shortcoming for folks who would like to incorporate readings about Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But the site is young, founded in 2007 by a graphic design student at California Institute of the Arts. It recently received a grant from the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund. I’m guessing that with time, will grow — both in sophistication and in scope, as more and more people upload their own quirky, creative, personal takes on Passover.

Me? I’m not up for re-writing our haggadah this year, especially since Sam and Becca will be off visiting colleges for much of Passover week. But visiting colleges means getting close to attending college… which means getting close to the empty nest phase of life… which means I may have the time and impetus to get back into the haggadah creation biz again.

And when I do… I don’t think I’ll need that glue stick any more.