Ten O’clock in the morning might be a little early for a Passover Seder, especially if one intends to drink all four glasses of wine. But this was a Seder with a cause, and for dozens of Capitol Hill staffers, anti-hunger activists and students, its seemed just right.
The Congressional Seder on March 18 was dedicated to fighting hunger and is one of 40 similar Childhood Nutrition Seders taking place across the country before and after Passover. Organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, their purpose is to mobilize both Jews and non-Jews to be anti-hunger advocates and to fight for reauthorization in Congress of the Child Nutrition Act before it expires.
It looked almost like a real Seder: Rabbi Steve Gutow, head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, read the Haggadah, which was written for the event, while sitting in front a traditional Seder plate. But nothing else was traditional. The Haggadah’s Four Questions were adapted to ask: “What does it mean to be hungry in America?” and “What will it take to end child hunger in America?” The Four Sons from the Haggadah were played by four students from the Tucson Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition, who spoke of their personal experiences as recipients of school food programs. And the Ten Plagues – they too got a new version to reflect 10 faces of hunger in America.
Three members of Congress stopped by for the early morning Seder, as did several administration staffers. The event ended with the signing of a petition calling on lawmakers to approve refunding for the child nutrition programs. The petition — no big surprise here — was printed on a matzo shaped poster.
Just because the CW network hit “Gossip Girl” took a two-week break at the beginning of the month, producers were not willing to pass over the opportunity to invite its gorgeous cast to partake in a scandal-ridden Seder. Even though Cyrus (Wallace Shawn) sported a “Schmutz Happens” apron, Elijah’s seat got taken over by dinner-crashers and everyone at the table complained about waiting too long to eat, this CW’s April 20 episode titled “Seder Anything” still wasn’t much different from any other night.
Why you ask?
Lead popular girl Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) came to the party only to procure legal advice from Cyrus for having accidentally gotten married in Spain the weekend prior. Said groom, Gabriel (Armie Hammer, the great-grandson of the Jewish oil tycoon Armand Hammer), showed up as well to reunite with his “bride.” Cyrus’s stepdaughter, Blair, however, ditched the festivities to gallivant with her prestigious boyfriend’s family in an attempt to help secure a spot on a museum board.
Perhaps to foreshadow more holy drama to come, the episode concluded with Blair apologizing to both Cyrus for obnoxiously rejecting his offer to get her into NYU and to boyfriend Nate for accepting a bribe from his grandfather in exchange for a job. “This is why we have Yom Kippur,” Cyrus explained.
The best line of the episode came from Cyrus’s non-Jewish wife: “I’ve never thrown a Seder before. I don’t even know how to say half the words in this book that’s named for Lieberman’s wife,” she says, referring to Senator Joseph Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah — confusing Hadassah with Haggadah.
Israel is back to the grindstone this week, with schools open again and many people returning to work after the Passover holidays. But there’s a silver lining — normal “leavened” food is on the shelves again after a week of only “kosher for Passover” products.
You see, Passover here takes its toll on the secular stomach and the religious stomach alike, as most shops and restaurants, even non-kosher ones, stop selling leavened food during the festival. So everyone is glad to see the back of those odd-tasting potato-flour cakes, the flour-free breakfast cereals and the special Passover pasta.
Well not quite everyone.
Picture this bizarre scene witnessed a few days ago in a Jerusalem supermarket. A man walks past the shelves of freshly baked, delicious-smelling regular cakes and breads, and makes a beeline for the leftover Passover cakes. He proceeds to pile his shopping cart with dozens of them.
It’s not a way of getting cheaper cakes that nobody else wants; they’re not even reduced yet. Rather, the shopper has a child with gluten intolerance.
For the gluten intolerant and their families, Passover is increasingly becoming the best time of the year for shopping.
As a result of the religious restrictions of Passover, there’s no wheat flour in products, except in matza and matza meal. Food manufacturers are moving away from using matza meal, which has a thoroughly indelicate taste, and towards other solutions that, so it happens, are great for those who are gluten intolerant. Using their research, they are producing an ever-expanding range of products, and coming up with things that taste increasingly “normal”.
Scenes like the man piling his cart with Passover cakes are, for this reason, becoming increasingly common. Leftovers of Passover cakes and pastas, once “dead stock” that shops had great difficulty getting rid of, now pose little worry to most shopkeepers.
In restaurants too, as most diners are only too happy that the menu has reverted from the leaven-free one to the normal one, gluten intolerants look back on Passover with fondness. For them, it gave them a chance to enjoy simple pleasures the rest of us take for granted, such as going for pizza, which for Passover is made (to most diners’ dismay) on a potato base, and dining at pasta restaurants that switch to Pasover pasta or gnocchi for the holiday.
Happy New Year!
Yes, it’s a little-known fact that for one of the leading Modern Orthodox rabbis in these parts, the start of Passover is New Year.
Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a rosh yeshiva or academy head at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the West Bank — considered the Harvard of modern-Orthodox scholarship — follows an often-overlooked rabbinic text that recommends calculating the date from the Exodus, instead of the more commonly used supposed date of creation.
So while most of us are in 2009 and, when we use the Jewish calendar 5769, as of Seder Night Medan is in 3322 as Passover supposedly marks the 3322nd anniversary of the Exodus. He will use this date when he writes a letter now, or sends out a memo to staff and students.
Medan claims Biblical precedent as the Bible itself establishes the Exodus as the key event for dating.
The “first month” in biblical references does not apply to Tishri, the month of Rosh Hashanah, as we might expect. Instead, it is Nisan, the month of Pesach. According to Exodus, the second book of the Bible, just before God tells Moses and Aaron the plan to take the children of Israel out of Egypt, He states: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.”
Medan claims that his system is a way of religious Jews killing two birds with one stone — writing the date and fulfilling an obligation in Jewish law, namely commemorating the Exodus daily (which he says you do just by using it to date from). The only snag is that, as he discovered a couple of years ago when he sent out invitations to his son’s wedding on “29.12.3319” (the 29th day of Adar, the twelfth month, in the year 3319), nobody has a clue what date you are talking about.
Lots of cute Passover videos have been popping up the last couple of years. A reflection of the semi-new hipster Jewishness, I suppose. Search the topic on YouTube and an amazing 3,820 results pop up. Unfortunately, when I searched, the top link is to a video messianic Passover Seder. But look just a little further and you’ll find some good videos to watch as you take a break from making the charoset, and most of them are good fun to share with the kids in your life.
This one, from the Jewish outreach organization Aish HaTorah, has a nice message and clever graphics, though buried under a bit of psychobabble, which seems aimed to appeal to all those 20- and 30-something veterans of the therapist’s couch.
Some of them are schmaltzy enough to appeal more to bubbie than your teenager:
Passover Blues falls somewhere between the two, and is still worth a watch:
This one has nicely done graphics:
And this chuckle-worthy one has Family Guy-style animation:
But my all-time favorite, since I started noticing these videos a couple of years ago, is by William Levin and local folkie Michelle Citrin. It melds a little bit of offbeat cool with goofy fun. It may not be the newest, but the video that follows wins the award for best overall:
I’m just wondering now if some clever creative type is going to figure out how to boil the idea down to a Tweet.
In countries that were bombed during World War II, those who were alive at the time always saying how being in the bomb shelters brought people together and created a sense of community. Not everyone saw things this way when Israel’s bomb shelters opened during the recent Gaza offensive.
A man from Southern Israel was given a two-year prison sentence this week for robbing Beersheba shelters during the Gaza offensive. His defense lawyer, believe it or not, said — to his credit — that he didn’t break in but just took advantage of the fact they were open.
While shelters were unlocked to allow quick access, the convicted man stole a generator, a toolbox, a cart, a knife and a bicycle, the court heard.
On Tuesday, Israel’s Labor Party voted to join the next government. You have probably heard that the decision was bitterly controversial within the party. What you probably haven’t heard is that people who used to be on Israel’s most wanted list were rooting for Labor to make the decision it did because they feared a major change at the Defense Ministry, Ynet reports.
And as of this week people from all over the world can tour Israel without leaving home.
The Tourism Ministry has launched virtual online tours that allow you to “wander” around the county, learn about sites, listen to audio and view video. The site works in several languages.
Visitors to the site can create an itinerary according to their interests. Itineraries can have a focus in areas such as culture and history, nature, food and wine, family or archaeology. There are even special itineraries for cyber-pilgrims. Which begs the obvious question: Is Pope Benedict XVI coming in person this spring, or is he just making an online appearance?
So, how do you replace your carbohydrates during Passover — when bread, pasta and cookies are forbidden? Well, while the Jewish State may claim to have solved The Jewish Question it hasn’t come up with anything new on this, the real Jewish question. According to a survey just out from potato retailer, Israelis buy 16,000 tons of potatoes in the fortnight before Pesach, representing a 55% rise compared to a two-week period during the rest of the year.
The outcry was immediate; Jewish consumers coast to coast mourned the absence of the beloved cracker. Stories ran not only in the Jewish media but The New York Times and New York Daily News, and on NPR. The blogosphere exploded with anger. A black market sprang up, with one Michigan rabbi offering three boxes of the previous year’s crackers on eBay; bidding started at $10.
Well American Jews need not fret about spending this year’s holiday without this savory treat. Manischewitz’s president, Bruce Bossidy, is promising that stores will be stocked with Tam Tams this year. Considering last year’s outcry, I certainly hope (for his sake) that old Mani comes through.
Passover begins at sundown on April 8.
Lisa Goldman, the writer of what may be Israel’s best irregularly updated English-language blog, has a new post up that shines some light on a little-known gustatory fact: Arabs love matzo!
She directs readers to a Ha’aretz article on this topic from last Passover:
A journalist associated with the Islamic Movement in Israel told Haaretz that he also bought Matza. “The kids can’t get enough of it,” he gleefully reported. “They eat it like crackers. But it also represents a sense of folklore for us. Maybe we like it more than Jews do because no one’s forcing us to eat nothing but Matza all day long,” he said in explanation.
But, she learned recently, this may be more than just an Israeli thing. A contact in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, recently sent her a photo of a tray engraved with Hebrew script for the word “matzo” that was for sale in a local store. The correspondent also informed her that local supermarkets sell kosher matzos, certified by a London rabbinic court.
Ha’aretz’s U.S. correspondent Shmuel Rosner uses Passover as an opportunity to explain the contentious intercommunal debate over intermarriage to readers of the online magazine Slate.
Rosner, the rare Israeli who is genuinely fascinated by American Jewish life (sort of a 21st-century Israeli de Tocqueville), seems to be more sympathetic to the beleaguered pessimists, discussing at length the views of researcher Steven Cohen, who has established himself as a leading voice of gloom when it comes to the Jewish identities of the intermarried.
Lurking behind the debate over intermarriage, of course, are different ways of understanding Jewish identity: Some see choice as central to Jewish identity. Just as one chooses a marriage partner, one chooses whether or not to identify with Judaism, whether one has two Jewish parents or one Jewish parent (or even no Jewish parent). Adherents to this strain of thought, unsurprisingly, tend to be more optimistic about the possibility of successfully engaging the intermarried. Simply make Judaism a welcoming and attractive choice, and people will opt to identify as Jews. Indeed, some argue that intermarriage, rather than being a problem, represents an opportunity to increase Jewish numbers.
For others, the Jews are primarily (though not exclusively) understood as a community of putative common descent. Jewish identity is the result of an inheritance passed down by our ancestors from time immemorial. In this understanding, a heritage that belonged to only half of one’s ancestors tends (as a general rule, though certainly not in every case) to exert less of a hold on one’s loyalties and imagination. A high rate of intermarriage, therefore, is cause for concern about Jewish continuity.
In America, with its smorgasbord of spiritual choices, and where Jews are often considered a religious group, akin to Methodists or Muslims, the former model looms large in our self-understanding. In Israel, where Jewishness is defined as an ethno-national identity — and the notion of common descent is the tie that binds (however tenuously) secular and religious alike — the latter model holds sway.
My sympathies tend more toward the second view. That’s why I think Rosner hits the nail on the head when he writes:
Passover, more than any other Jewish holy day, is the one in which Jews celebrate not their religion but this strange concept of becoming a people. This idea, of Jewish people-hood—the historic fact that Jews, for generations, didn’t see themselves as just sharing their faith, but also their national fate—will be the one most challenged by the influx of people from other religions into the Jewish community.
Easter may have come incredibly early this year, and Passover is still nearly four weeks away, but I can thank a clever Flickr user, operating under the moniker “stylecouncil1,” for reminding me of the traditional connection between these two springtime holidays.
A year ago, “stylecouncil1” posted a set of photos — which was only brought to my attention today — reenacting the 10 Plagues using the popular Easter-time marshmallow bunny treats known as “Peeps.” My personal favorite is the reenactment of the plague of frogs.
A week ago, Media Bistro’s TVNewser blog reported that the Clinton campaign may have objected to the possible scheduling of a debate on the first night of Passover (although the blog was tentative on this point, suggested other possible motives and issued an update that the holiday’s first night was only one of the nights under consideration).
Meanwhile, Barack Obama is casting his lot with Purim (which, as the JTA notes, is “a holiday that has rarely if ever been commemorated by any other candidate or Congress member.”)
Yesterday, Obama issued the following statement: