White House Photo
What would you do if you’d have to choose between spending the second night of Passover with your family (and with your twins celebrating their birthday on that same day) and laboring in someone else’s kitchen for hours?
For acclaimed chef/beloved wife Vered Guttman, there wasn’t much of a dilemma. She gladly left me and the kids with a sink full of dishes from the previous night’s (first) Seder and went on to roll matzo balls for another family’s second Seder.
The fact that this Seder was hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama and that the kitchen was located in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, can perhaps make leaving your family behind a bit more understandable.
For the settlement movement, there is poignancy in the fact that the Hebron Jewish community has branched out into a previously Palestinian neighborhood just before Passover. It was Passover 1968 when settlers first got their foothold in Hebron, after renting out a hotel and refusing to leave.
For critics of the settlement movement, the echo of 1968 is also relevant. When the Israeli government decided yesterday that settlers could move into a building surrounded by Palestinians, it was a reminder of just how much Hebron settlers have increased their holdings over the years.
In ’68 they left the hotel in exchange for the promise of a settlement next to Hebron. Today, they have this adjacent settlement as well as four (or, as of yesterday, five) enclaves in Hebron itself.
The author and his grandfather / Courtesy of Hody Nemes
The Exodus happened 3,000 years ago. But today, in the year 5774, we are still supposed to see ourselves as if we had experienced slavery and left Egypt, according to the Haggadah.
For me, that’s always been a tall order.
In order to feel like a slave, I wanted to know the details of individual slave life. What emotions did a Hebrew slave feel as the taskmaster walked by, holding a whip? Did he love the land of Goshen, the only home he knew – or did he curse it? Did he sing songs as he worked? Was he too tired to dream of freedom? The book of Exodus is remarkably silent on these questions.
But sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather.
The big story in Israel is no normal decision to build a few extra settlement homes; it is a highly unusual development for the occupied West Bank.
According to an as-yet unconfirmed report, the state is setting the wheels in motion for an appropriation of nearly 250 acres of territory in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem.
Israeli settlement announcements in recent years have generally focused on building within the existing borders of settlements. In fact, one of the defenses of settlement announcements in government circles has been that building isn’t even settlement expansion, because it’s just a matter of increasing the housing density within settlements. The argument has often been that given the footprint of settlements isn’t growing, Palestinians should stop worrying about settlements.
However, if today’s report is correct, the government will actually be increasing the settlement footprint. An outpost which is currently illegal in state eyes will be legalized, in a sense creating a new settlement, and the rest of the land to be appropriated would be available for zoning for brand new settlements.
As well as the appropriation report, today has been party day in the Jewish community of Hebron, which received go-ahead from the Ministry of Defense to move in to a new enclave in the city.
In early 2007 some Jewish Hebron families lived in the four-storey building where the ceremony took place. However, after 18 months the Israeli government ordered them to leave. While they claimed that they were entitled to live there, because one of their supporters in America, Morris Abraham, purchased the property, the original Palestinian owners claimed the purchase was fabricated.
Last month, an Israeli court ruled that Abraham does own the building, and now the Ministry of Defense has said that the Jewish community can move back in.
If the peace process doesn’t get back on track, today may well be remembered as the day when Israel threw caution to the wind and backed settlements with a whole new gusto.
Photo credit: Getty Images
This week is prime time for Passover shopping and cleaning. But in Jerusalem, hundreds of people will be engaged in a very different type of preparation for the festival — witnessing the slaughter of a lamb, just like in the olden days.
The Seder has its origins in ancient times, when the Israelites slaughtered, roasted and ate lambs — Paschal lambs.
According to the Torah, the Children of Israel were commanded “in perpetuity” to sacrifice a young lamb or goat on the anniversary of the Exodus. But this sacrifice was to be conducted in the Temple, and was therefore suspended after the Temple’s destruction nearly two millennia ago. With some innovation from rabbis the Seder morphed in to the more domestic affair we know today.
Contemporary Seders, with their many commemorations of the sacrifice, such as the shank bone on the Seder plate, are largely a tribute to the offering. But some Israelis want to go a step further.
In a few hours, in a yeshiva in the neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, a religious non-profit will give a demonstration of the original Paschal service. Their slaughterer will kill a lamb as a choir sings of praise, and as a state veterinary inspector looks on. He will then sprinkle the blood as-per Biblical instruction. The lamb will be roasted and, as-per the Biblical procedure, everyone in attendance — men and women — will get a portion. The diners will include rabbis from a broad ideological spectrum within Orthodoxy.
“Passover is not about matzo ball soup; it’s about the Passover offering,” Chaim Richman, International Director of the Temple Institute which is running the event, commented to Forward Thinking.
Referring to the reams of rabbinic texts written on the Paschal sacrifice he said that is important, educationally, to give a more vivid insight in to what it looked like. “The logistics is a Jewish art discussed and clarified throughout the generations,” he said.
He said that the slaughter is poignant, as lambs were considered sacred in the ancient world when the sacrifice was instituted. The ceremony is “literally to slaughter all of the idolatry in the entire world and stand up for what we believe in, namely one God,” said Richman.
While the Temple Institute has been known to stray from religious education to politics, in its quest to increase Jewish rights on Temple Mount, it didn’t attempt to hold this even on or near Temple Mount, where it may have increased Jewish-Arab tensions. However, as the Forward has reported,, in previous years right-wing activist has tried to organize a sacrifice there, but was stopped by Israeli authorities.
Jewish charity goes largely to Israel-related groups. Our readers think that’s a bad idea.
The results, embedded below, suggest that Forward respondents think that education-related Jewish charities should get the largest share of contributions, followed by health care and social service-related charities. Israel-related charities rank fourth.
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Close readers confused by the disparity between the “How They Spend It” figures reported below and the numbers reported in our story on this two weeks ago, take note: We excluded two categories from the poll for the sake of clarity, which resulted in tweaked figures.
Shopping at J&R Music World always felt weirdly haimish.
Despite the fact that the electronics retailer owned an entire (and very lucrative) block in Lower Manhattan, there was something endearingly shabby about the chainlet founded by Israeli immigrants Joe and Rachelle Friedman (J. and R., get it?) as a basement record store in 1971.
On Thursday, J&R’s brick-and-mortar operations ceased to exist. As the New York Daily News reported, the Friedmans issued a statement today to announce the closings.
“On April 10th, J&R will close its doors so that we can rebuild this location into what we hope will be an unprecedented retailing concept and social mecca,” the statement said. “A lot has changed in these 43 years, including not only the way we listen to music and the technology products we sell, but the way people shop and socialize.”
In recent years, the Friedmans had already started consolidating their retail business, compressing an unruly row of shops along Manhattan’s Park Row into a single – and sterile – vertical mall at the end of the block. The stores had been “struggling amid a difficult environment for consumer electronics retailers,” the Daily News wrote.
Anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali / Getty Images
To begin with, let’s clear up a few details of the flap over Brandeis University’s decision to revoke an invitation for Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree and address the graduating class: Hirsi Ali is emphatically not being “silenced,” as she and her defenders claim.
The university, in tandem with its notice to Hirsi Ali that her award was rescinded, invited her to campus to expound on her views in a forum that did not confer upon her any honor.
That latter invitation was the lynchpin in Brandeis’s strategy to correct its mistake — the initial offer of an honor — in the best way possible: by preserving the notion that universities should be bastions of free thought, even for deeply unpopular ideas.
And it is that invitation which renders moot Hirsi Ali’s complaint that “neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.” The issue with honoring Hirsi Ali was never what she may say — hence the standing invitation to speak — but rather what she has said.
Hirsi Ali’s record is plump with remarks that any tolerant, liberal institution should view with caution. Her personal narrative and work on women’s rights may tell a different, laudable story, but not one that outweighs the pattern of hostility toward a major world religion.
This hostility crosses boundaries beyond atheistic skepticism and into literal militant opposition to one faith in particular: Islam. Hirsi Ali claims her “critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work.”
A Passover Seder in prewar Europe.
Every other spring, the Zionist-Socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair takes its bogrim, the group of usually 16-year-old leaders from around the world, on a weeklong trip to Poland. When it was my turn in 2006, the dates fell on Passover.
The nine of us from Vienna boarded a night train to Warsaw on the second or third night of Passover. Working together with the youth group had turned us into a tight-knit friend group, and we were excited about the trip that would reunite us with peers from across the globe.
The fact that we’d be visiting the places where many of our ancestors had perished – the Warsaw ghetto, Majdanek, Auschwitz and Treblinka – didn’t dampen our mood. We had grown up with the stories of our grandparents, many of whom had barely escaped Europe before the Holocaust, or survived in concentration camps or hiding. But even more importantly, the movement stressed the role of those who had been resistance fighters. After all, Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, was a member of Hashomer Hatzair. We went to Poland first to celebrate our heroes; mourning our dead came second.
Israel’s Naftali Bennett / Getty Images
On Wednesday, the multi-portfolioed Naftali Bennett – Israel’s Minister of the Economy, Minister of Religious Services, and Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs – sent a letter to his Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In that letter, according to Israeli Army Radio, Bennett called for a cabinet meeting “to begin the process of imposing Israeli sovereignty on the areas of [the West Bank] that are under Israeli control.” This he called “Plan B,” saying Plan B is necessary because negotiations with the Palestinians have failed – because “the Palestinians have broken new records of extortion and rejectionism.”
Now. It must be acknowledged that this is some phenomenally well-honed and impressively brazen Orwellian doublespeak. Truly.
Because imposing Israeli sovereignty on huge chunks of the West Bank has never been Bennett’s “Plan B.” Unlike Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (who – whatever else his faults – has publicly advocated a two-state solution since 1977), Bennett has never aspired to a two-state peace. Ever. Indeed, one might say that Bennett’s entire political career has been one of rejectionism and extortion. How do I come to this conclusion? By reading his words.
Chances are you are just a tiny breadcrumb trying to make a life in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
You never hurt a fly. You did all the right things. But you somehow failed: You found your way into the house of a nice Jewish family, you got a free ride for a couple of months but suddenly there’s bad news, really bad news.
It’s nearly Pesach and your Jewish host family has decided to get rid of all hametz.
But how does this sophisticated cleaning operation work? How much does it cost to outsource it to specialists?
And most importantly, what are the loopholes in Jewish law that allow you to keep all that forbidden-for-Passover stuff around for after the holiday?
Watch and learn — and spare a tear for the littlest victims of our most ancient tradition.
Photo by Martyna Starosta
Editor’s note: Whether it’s a silver kiddush cup, a siddur that survived the Holocaust, or a wedding ring — heirlooms tell the story of our families. Please share your Jewish heirloom stories with us below by April 25. Several submissions will be featured in the Forward in May.
In my family, we call our grandmother (at least) once a week. A reminder clinks around on my wrist almost every day.
When I was 12 years old, nearing my bat-mitzvah, my mom and grandmother sat me down and presented me with two gold bracelets — sturdy, but thin, carefully engraved with a vine-like pattern. “Don’t lose them,” they said. (Confession: I did, for about two years. Sorry, Mamie.)
My mother had gone through the same rite of passage, and my grandmother before her. The bracelets have been passed down from eldest girl, to eldest girl, brought to Montreal from Morocco, where my great-grandfather purchased them for my grandmother for her 7th birthday, in December 1944.
The gold engravers of Marrakesh were known for their craftsmanship, my grandmother recently told me.
Both my parents were born in Morocco, my father in Meknes, my mother in Marrakesh. In the early 1970s, when so-called “Arabization,” and nationalism forced many Jews to leave the country, my mother’s family followed.
The author with her parents a few weeks before the Passover Seder / Courtesy of Masha Leon
I don’t remember having a Pesach Seder as a child in pre-war Warsaw. There must have been matzo. But what I do recall is my parents’ presentation of the Exodus saga as an exemplar of liberation, of courage, of “Yiddish” ethos.
Not until we got to Vilnius (Vilno) in 1940 did I experience an authentic Seder at the home of a cousin. Fluent in Yiddish, I could not decipher the Hebrew Hagaddah text, but my Orthodox-raised parents — Zelda and Matvey Bernstein — blitzed through the Seder with lightning speed. The Lithuanians were in power. We felt safe. But in June came the Soviet occupation, my father’s arrest by the NKVD and his imprisonment in Lukishki Prison with fellow cellmate Menachem Begin. Then my mother and I got our life-saving Sugihara visas to Japan.
In Kobe, Japan, my mother and I celebrated a Seder of sorts with fellow boarders: Warsaw refugees Yosl Mlotek, Lonia Oler and her twin daughters Hannah and “Hinda.” I do not remember matzos — perhaps JewCom, the local Jewish community council, provided some. Our landlord was a former Russian general who believed that the Tsar was coming back. Since our Seder coincided with Easter, the general, in a be-medaled full regalia white uniform with saber at the side, asked us to toast the portrait of the Tsar that hung in the main room.
1. The world’s oldest illuminated Haggadah
This 14th century Haggadah is the earliest known Ashkenazi attempt to artistically depict the story of Passover. It’s a pretty creative retelling of the story, mainly because the people depicted in the story have the heads of animals — hence the manuscript’s title, “The Bird’s Head Haggadah.” This is believed to have been an attempt to avoid displaying a “graven image” alongside a sacred text. It’s also the first text to include the baking of matzo in the Exodus story. The images are not extraordinary, but you can imagine that it was a pretty big deal at the time it was published.
2. The Haggadah that revolutionized the Haggadah
Seder books have evolved over the years in no small way. But if there’s one Haggadah that served as a prototype for books later to come, it was the the Gershon Cohen Haggadah, published in Prague in 1527. This book wasn’t the first illustrated Haggadah, nor was it the first one copied using the printing press. But it was the first, so far as we know, to prove that the contemporary printing method did not have to come at the expense of the evolved tradition of decorating the text. Gershom ben Shlomo Ha-Kohen’s beautifully decorated Haggadah used printing woodcuts and was the first printed Haggadah to include “Adir Hu.”
3. The world’s most beautiful Haggadah
The Szyk Haggadah is considered one of the most beautiful Seder books out there. Though published in the 20th century, the book, hand-lettered and hand-painted, harkens to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Drawn up amidst the rise of the Nazis, Arthur Szyk’s book draws a parallel between the Third Reich and the Ancient Egyptians. In an early sketch, Hitler’s mustache reportedly appeared on Pharaoh’s face. He had a hard time finding someone to publish the manuscript, even after fleeing to England. But after years of financial stress, his friends helped him sell 250 editions of the book for $500 each. Today, a deluxe edition costs nearly $9,000.
Tsuri (Heng) Shi, far left, with Michael Freund, right, and Kaifeng Jews. / Shavei Israel
A new Passover destination is being added to the maps this year. Those bored of celebrating the holiday in Florida or Israel can now head to Kaifeng, a city of four million in China’s central Honan province. For the first time in more than 150 years, the city’s small but ancient Jewish community will hold a communal Passover celebration.
Nearly a millennium old and thought to originate from Persia and India, the Jewish community of Kaifeng numbered up to 5,000 people at its heyday between the 14th and 17th century, but fell into decline during the 19th century due to intermarriage and assimilation. Over the past decade or so, with the help of the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization, members of the community have started rediscovering their roots through Shabbat gatherings and study sessions.
This process culminates in a Passover ceremony to be held on April 14, which will be led by Tzuri Shi, a 28-year-old member of the community who immigrated to Israel in October 2009, where he underwent conversion and studied at a yeshiva. According to a press release by Shavei Israel, Shi was sent back to his hometown together with Passover items, ranging from matzoh and haroset to Hebrew and Chinese Haggadahs and kosher-for-Passover cakes. Of the estimated 500–1,000 Jews in Kaifeng, 100 are expected to attend.
It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place. Every year as I ready for Passover, I unlock the nondescript cabinet tucked into a corner of my New York apartment, pull out the two shaky drawers, and am drawn in again by that smell.
The Sheffield silver that I inherited from my parents is my most precious heirloom. It is elegant and graceful, but not fancy, without much embellishment save for ivory handles on the knives. Far more likely to have been used by the servants in Downton Abbey than by the lords and ladies upstairs.
But it is a direct link to my English past. My mother’s family, which had lived in Yorkshire for generations, decided to leave after World War II, when the British economy was in shambles and latent anti-Semitism clouded their lives. Some went to Australia; most went to New York.
My grandfather was the last to leave, and by then, my mother had met my father here, got engaged, and was about to be married. Six weeks before the wedding, my grandfather landed in New York with the remainders of the family’s possessions and a full set of silver cutlery for my parents as a wedding gift.
Their names are inscribed on the outside of matching napkin holders. A few other small, personal momentos are scattered at the bottom of the drawers.
The “Ultimate Digital Haggadah” as viewed on an iPad.
On my shelf I must have a dozen Haggadahs, some annotated, others illustrated and one even illuminated. I have thick hardcover tomes and soft Maxwell House prints — each one serves a different purpose.
But the Haggadah that I use each year, the one that I treasure and would feel remiss celebrating Passover without, is a simple softcover Haggadah that I purchased perhaps a decade ago. True, my other Haggadahs may be nicer — they have deeper insights and better stories, cleaner typesetting and sharper text — but none of them are my Haggadah.
My Haggadah was purchased at a Judaica store in Montreal a few days before I led my first public Seder in Kaunus, Lithuania. I clutched it in my hands when speaking to 120 Lithuanian Jews in the city that once had 35,000 Jews, but today has less than 1000.
Since then my Haggadah has traveled the world with me — across Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Where I go for Passover, it goes with me.
Young Jews discuss Israel at a ‘Resetting the Table’ event in Brooklyn. / Ezra Weinberg
This past Sunday, in the high-beamed, chilly Brooklyn Lyceum, a group of 20- and 30-somethings tried to talk about Israel — no small feat.
The program, called “Resetting the Table,” was designed to allow young people to get together and go really deep, really fast. Guided through the rough waters of this conversation by Eyal Rabinovitch and a team of Facilitation Fellows trained by him and Daniel Silberbusch, the 50 or so young people who showed up were held to communication guidelines that asked, among other things, that they honor confidentiality, listen with resilience, speak with respect and avoid generalizations. Essentially, it asked them to be civil.
And it’s no wonder: this iteration of “Resetting the Table” was funded by the UJA Federation of New York, and is generally part of a broader initiative at the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA)’s “Civility Initiative.” The model includes two organizing cadres: a group of “Facilitation Fellows” and a group of “conveners.” The Facilitation Fellows, who facilitated Sunday’s conversations, are trained over a period of months to hold these kinds of sessions. The “conveners” are the organizers on the ground, and, coached over many months, are meant to gather their associates at various institutions (from Yeshiva University to Hazon) with the goal of holding facilitated conversation on Israel internally.
The event unfolded unhurriedly: folks trickled in, picked at the marvelous display food from Brooklyn’s new kosher eatery Mason & Mug, heard an introduction from Rabinovitch, participated in an icebreaker, and only then chose their discussion topics, which ranged from “What is the responsibility of American Jews towards Israel?” to “Should there be red lines around who speaks in Hillel, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions?” Then they sat down in sectioned-off corners of the room for facilitated conversation that would last an hour and a half.
Jewish women at the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue in India / Getty Images
“What are you doing?” I asked my grandmother.
Sitting across the table from her at last year’s family Passover Seder, I had been watching with rapt attention as she peeled an egg — a commonly featured food on the Seder plate. She was handling it with a degree of carefulness that bordered on the neurotic, making sure to capture every tiny bit of shell in a napkin she held open in her other hand. She refused to even answer my question until after she had hurried from the dining room to the bathroom to flush the napkin down the toilet.
When she sat down again, she wasn’t sure how to answer me. “I don’t know why I’m so careful,” she said. “It’s something my mother used to do, and I learned to handle food from her, so I do it too.”
My grandmother’s mother, a Bombay-born Jew, lived most of her life in India and raised her family in that country’s then-flourishing Jewish community. That’s why my family still cooks and eats Indian cuisine. It’s why our main course that night was not brisket but imtabaq, a layered mixture of tomatoes, potatoes and beef. And why, instead of the apple-based haroset, we had haleq, the sweet syrup made from dates and walnuts that I spend all year craving.
Then my father piped up, saying, “It’s Kabbalistic.”
An alternative Seder plate holds a coconut, representing closeted LGBTQ youth. / JQ International
At the time, it didn’t occur to me to be offended or concerned that I was being circled by the cheerleaders and other popular girls who held hands, bowed their heads and prayed for my soul. They were part of “Christian Life” at my high school in Olympia, Washington. I recall several instances when they earnestly attempted to save me from eternal damnation. I didn’t refuse their efforts or consider the implications of their actions. I just wanted to fit in.
I grew up Jewish in the Pacific Northwest. But not in a religiously observant family, or a proud intellectual family, or a family of labor organizers who taught me early and often never to cross a picket line. My family was on the fast track to assimilation, and by high school, being Jewish was simply a reminder that I was an outsider.
By the time I was in my late twenties, I was reeling from a spiritual crisis. A decade of organizing and social change work had left me feeling hopeless and burned out.
Randomly, I was invited to a Passover Seder hosted by an older lesbian couple that I recognized from our local gay bar. I hesitated — not because they were practically strangers, but because I could already feel the potential embarrassment of not remembering the holiday rituals correctly, not being able to read Hebrew, not feeling “Jewish enough.”
Wavering about the decision until the very last moment, I arrived at Devon and Pauline’s home. I approached the door and saw their beautiful mezuzah, alongside the rainbow flags and pink triangle sticker. I walked in the door and was greeted by a number of dogs (naturally), and then found myself sitting alongside several butch-femme couples and a few gay men.