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A Passover Blessings Workshop

 

Before the shutdown of all life as we know, I ran another blessings writing workshop at my synagogue, and the rabbi asked me to focus on blessings for the Passover season this time. In the first blessings workshop, I had focused on the basic purpose of blessings, and the possibility that we can create our own blessings to fit our unique perspectives, or tweak existing blessings to adapt them to what we really feel, and what we aspire to. And the workshop went really well. At least, I enjoyed it.

Even though most Passover Seders will be tiny, or run on Zoom, this year, I hope some of these ideas will be helpful, for anyone, Jew or Non-Jew, who needs a little help finding blessings at this point in our lives.

The rabbi had mentioned the possibility of this second workshop while I was running the first one, so while everyone else was free-writing ideas for how to refer to their idea of God, and how to include the bad with the good to create a fuller picture of the blessings in their lives, I was trying to figure out what a Passover blessing might be.

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“We were wondering the same thing.”

Passover is a big holiday for Jews. It commemorates the central event that shaped us as a people, the Exodus from Egypt. The simple goal of the Passover Seder is to remind us that we were slaves once, and that we were freed from slavery (by God, if you believe in God), so, we should be grateful for what we have, and help others to freedom whenever we can. But most people only go to one Seder, instead of the two required of Jews who don’t live in Israel, and they go back to school or work for the rest of the week of Passover, so there’s really not much time to get these messages across and really absorb them. Add to that the fact that Passover, like American Thanksgiving, is a family holiday, where family members who agree on nothing choose to sit at the same table for hours at a time. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, but a tense one.

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“Do I look tense to you?”

I wanted to create an opportunity for people to plan their Passover season ahead of time, and shape it consciously to fit the lessons they would like to learn, and to teach, this year. There are, of course, all kinds of traditional blessings that already exist for Passover. The first one I wanted to work with is the blessing over the search for Chametz (unleavened bread). You say this after you’ve already cleaned the house from top to bottom, and changed the dishes and utensils, and thrown out, or sold, all of the Chametz left in your house. In elementary school they gave us kits for the special night-before-Passover-Chametz-searching-ritual; with a feather, a candle, and a wooden spoon. After all of the bread had been removed from the house, we had to turn off the lights and place a few saved-for-this-purpose crumbs on the floor to “find” and then burn, while saying the blessing. Our dog found this terrifying every year.

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“Nobody likes the dark. It’s not just me.”

I don’t do this ritual anymore, and I’m inconsistent about removing the Chametz from the apartment, or my diet, at all, for Passover week. But I still wanted something meaningful to come from this Chametz idea, so the first category was: Blessings over the search for Chametz, both literally and figuratively. Maybe, when I am vacuuming under the couch during the big house cleaning, or trying to crawl under the bed to see if my dogs have left a Chametz-laden treat hidden in the dark, I could say a blessing of gratitude for their ingenuity. Or when I find things I’ve lost I can say, I am grateful that among the Chametz I have been able to find lost treasures.

And, if I decided not to do the whole cleaning ritual, maybe instead I could focus on cleaning out my heart and mind, and I could say, Thank you for creating such a fascinating brain, with so many crevices and crawl spaces, so that I will always be surprised by something I find there.

We had a small group for the Passover blessings workshop, but everyone participated and had their own associations to the concept of Chametz and the need to clean something in their life. It was interesting to go back to teaching adults, after the chaos and immediacy of teaching children. The adults who showed up were excited and engaged and willing to share their thoughts, and I didn’t even have to bribe them with candy!

My next category of blessings was inspired by the idea that, just like the search-for-Chametz ritual, with feather, candle and wooden spoon, was made up by someone, our own families have come up with rituals over the years that are just as meaningful, to us. I was kind of hoping that the workshop participants would use this prompt to give me ideas for things to try this year, and someone mentioned that he planned to look through his old family photos, and bring them to the family Seder, so that past celebrations and lost loved ones could be present again, and introduced to the next generation. I thought that was a great idea to steal, because we still have a box filled with old photo albums from my grandmother, via my aunt’s basement, that need to be scanned into an archive before the last relatives who could identify those faces are gone.

My third category was Blessings over asking and hearing challenging questions, even if they are unanswerable. People usually resent unanswerable questions, or fail to ask them because they don’t want to bother anyone. But what if we could take a moment to bless those questions for their un-answerability, and for the challenge they pose to our equilibrium. Maybe we could even offer a blessing of forgiveness for not having all of the answers. This was, predictably, a rich vein for me, and I filled up a page with my messy handwriting. Thank you, God, for listening to my questions and requiring no answers; thank you God for this opportunity to face the unknowable without feeling hopeless.

Category four was the hardest one for me, and therefore essential to include: Blessings over accepting the things that are good enough for now. There is so much in life that is disappointing, and even more so on family holidays like Passover when we’re expected to feel joy and love and maybe we don’t, or, I don’t. But this is an opportunity to take a breath and say, I don’t yet have what I want, and it hurts, but maybe soon things will change, and until then I will be okay. This topic actually made me think about the little things that I wanted to celebrate, like a blessing over eating the first chocolate-covered jell rings of the season, and a blessing over choosing to pass by the cans of macaroons in the Passover section of the supermarket without buying any. I really hate those coconut macaroons. But these blessings also made me think that maybe I’m not the only one who feels imperfect and not quite there yet, so I wrote, Thank you for this opportunity to face our brokenness together.

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Then there was the big category of blessings to address, the center of the whole endeavor, Blessings over telling our own versions of the exodus story. The telling of the Exodus-from-Egypt story, especially as written in the Hagaddah, can feel rigid and calcified and hard to relate to. But the reality is that we all have Exodus stories, we’ve all felt oppressed in one way or another. This category of blessings could be a way to recognize that each of us has a story, or a thousand stories, that are as important as the Exodus from Egypt, and they don’t always have to be heroic, or even successful.

May we hear all versions of the story, Rashamon style, so that we can experience the escape to freedom from every perspective. Let us hear from Pharaoh, and the slaves, and the courtiers and magicians, from those who were left behind and those who aided in the escape, from those who were afraid and those who were determined despite their fear and everyone in between. Let us hear from the ones who stepped into the Sea of Reeds before the water parted, and those who stepped in after the miracle had already occurred.

My final category of blessings for the workshop was, Blessings over our successes from the past year, and our hopes for the future. Passover marks the original new year of the Jewish people, and conveniently arrives halfway between one Rosh Hashanah and the next Rosh Hashanah. So why not take this moment to assess our progress on our resolutions, and encourage more change for the future? We don’t always remember to acknowledge our successes. We’re used to marking lifecycle events, like marriages and childbirths and deaths, but not necessarily the courage it takes to look for a new job, or to change an unhealthy habit, or to go to the doctor when you really don’t want to.

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“No one wants to go to the doctor. Ever.”

I thought of this category, and put it last, because I really needed the encouragement to be proud of myself for all of my small steps, even when they don’t fit into the obvious categories that everyone knows how to celebrate. So, thank you, community, for allowing me to share my thoughts and teach some of the things I know, because the sharing of it makes me feel more fully myself; And, may we all have these big and small successes to celebrate, all through the year; and, Thank you to all of you for reading this blog post and allowing me to feel connected to so many different, and fascinating, and complex, human beings, and dogs.

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

The Exodus-from-Egypt Song

 

For the Women’s Passover Seder at my synagogue, for the second year in a row, the female rabbi asked congregants to share their own escape-to-freedom stories ahead of time, and have songwriters put those stories to music. I said no last year, because I was adamant that I didn’t want someone else telling my story. I had just published my novel and I wanted people to read it; and to read it in my voice. But this year, when the Rabbi asked me again, I said yes.

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“You did what?!”

I decided that, imperfect as the method might be, I needed to take the opportunity; my community needed to hear from me. And maybe, in the form of a song, in a room filled with friends and good food and music, my message could be heard, and received; and maybe someone in the audience of women would feel like they could come forward and tell their story as a result of hearing some version of mine.

My synagogue has not made much of the #MeToo movement. If anything, a lot of the older congregants have found it disturbing to have to look at Woody Allen, or any of the other famous cases of sexual assault, more closely. What they were really mad about was the way Al Franken was “forced” out of the senate, by “women with an agenda.” This wasn’t coming from the men in the congregation; it was the women who rejected #MeToo.

So I hoped a song could help make a difference. But I was still uneasy about having someone else interpret my story. The rabbi asked me to write up a short summary of my exodus story, so that the songwriter wouldn’t have to “read the whole book,” and I took the opportunity to not just write another summary of what happened to me, but to explore some of the metaphors I’d want to use if I were up to writing the song myself, and to reference some of the Jewish prayers that have resonance for me. I wanted to make the process easier for the songwriter, yes, but more than that I wanted to make sure that my voice, and not just my story, were heard.

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“Woof!”

This is some of what I wrote:

I was sexually abused by my father when I was a child, and emotionally and psychologically abused by him throughout my childhood and adolescence. He relied on his considerable intelligence, and his midlife discovery of Orthodox Judaism, to protect himself from consequences, but he was still accused, multiple times, of inappropriate sexual contact with young girls. I was also sexually abused by my best friend’s older brother when I stayed over at her house. Incest families, I’ve discovered, are like alcoholic families: they tend to find each other.

            My mother and I were able to leave my father behind when I was twenty-three, after we’d both been in therapy long enough to feel ready to escape. The process of recovery, for both of us, has been long and difficult. We are each other’s support systems. I’m a writer, with three masters’ degrees, but I still struggle every day. My time line is very different from other people, with a lot of “normal” life events out of reach.

            My hope for this song is that it will focus on the liberation part of the story, and the work of recovery, because I think that’s the part most people don’t see or understand. They’re used to seeing the dramatic moments of the abuse itself, or the heroic escape. They’ve read Lolita, and gotten a distorted (and sexualized) view of abuse, or they’ve watched Oprah and believe that abuse victims can all pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and fast, if they just try hard enough. Neither version is the truth.

            I like the comparison to the Exodus from Egypt, because that story isn’t just about one person, it’s about needing a group to go with you on the journey; and it’s about the difficulties that come with liberation: the years of wandering, the struggle to survive, the overwhelming nature of freedom, etc. Liberation is painful and full of effort. The Exodus requires faith that God will part the Sea of Reeds to let you pass through, and that manna will fall from the sky when you are hungry, and that you will not have to walk through it all alone.

            It’s important to remember that leaving the place where the horrors happened doesn’t mean you leave the memories of the horror behind. You bring yourself with you when you leave.

            People have unreasonable expectations of the victims of abuse. They think that the victim must save herself in order to feel empowered, but that’s just not how it works. The victim needs to feel safe and loved and honored and supported and believed in order to begin to empower herself. Our idea of the hero as the lone wolf fighting the bad guys is unrealistic. The reality is that groups of people defeat monsters together. If you see only a lone hero then you are not looking closely enough; look for the friend, the parent, the teacher, the neighbor, the doctor, the therapist, the librarian who smiles at a little girl who has been taught to believe she is nothing.

            As a child I was always hiding: under the porch, curled like a snail in the wet dirt; in the closet, behind my big stuffed panda; under the bed, with the blanket hanging down; under the piano, where no one thought to look. I hid, and I ran, and I held my breath. That’s the part I can talk about. The rest is unspeakable. The smells. The slick on my skin. The weight on me. The suffocating smell of polyester as I tried to breathe through the blanket smothering my face, and counted and counted until it was over. And the words. So many awful words aimed at me like a pistol at my head. A real pistol, dull matte black that smelled of fireworks. My father liked to say that I was the cause of all evil; that all of the problems in our family, and in the world, were my fault in some way. I have never been able to completely let go of that belief.

            We are often mute about sexual abuse because the crime itself is unspeakable, not because it shouldn’t be spoken of. How do we talk about the unspeakable – or do we sing about it instead?

            There’s a song in Hebrew that has always troubled me: The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid. But I am afraid every day. I cross the narrow bridge every day and sometimes it feels so narrow that I can barely put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes I barely make it across. But, to me, the important thing isn’t to not be afraid, the important thing is to be afraid and to cross the bridge anyway, because if you don’t you’ll die.

            The danger of telling is that you won’t be believed. The danger of telling is that no one will care. The danger of telling is that even when they know, they won’t do anything to stop it. The danger of telling the secret is finding out that you are not the only one, that there are millions of you crossing that narrow bridge, each alone.

            This is not a song of forgiveness.

            Update: I received a draft of the lyrics from the songwriters and it looks good. They focused on that image of crossing the narrow bridge, and the need for support. Unfortunately, the Women’s Seder has been cancelled this year due to the Coronavirus. I hope that the song will survive the impact of the virus and make its way into the world at some point, because I really want to hear the song, and share it with my community, and see what happens.

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“We’ll see.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

 

 

 

Passover, or, Cricket is Happy and Free

 

George and Zoe went home on Tuesday, and they were thrilled to be back in their own apartment, with their Mommy. When Mom and I got back home, and Cricket realized that the other dogs were not with us (especially after the ceremonial refilling of her bowl with kibble), she did a happy dance around the apartment with her Platypus toy in her mouth. She pooped up a storm for the next two days, either because the return to her regular food made a really big difference, or because she was hoarding poop until her adversaries left, and she could finally relax.

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“We’re free, Platypus. We’re free.”

George had become more and more aggressive each day he stayed with us, trying to steal treats from Cricket, searching under her couch, and growling at her when she sat on Grandma’s lap and dared to act like the dog of the house. Even Zoe was starting to bark, though generally not at Cricket, more at the humans who kept forcing her to stick to her diet.

 

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“This Grandma is mine.”

I had mixed feelings about bringing the dogs back to their own home, though, because I’d gotten attached, and because I worried that their Mom might not be up to taking care of them yet. But for Cricket’s sake, they needed to go home.

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George and Zoe doing the doggy Tango.

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George and Zoe in a quiet moment.

Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in all of my contradictory feelings; they seem to multiply over time, instead of streamlining the way I expect them to. For example, I have mixed feelings about Passover, and Jewish rituals in general. When I think of my Grandfather’s Seders, with the Maxwell House Hagaddah, and me, always the youngest, getting to sing the four questions, I feel like the holiday is warm and meaningful and full of light. But when I think of Passover at my own house growing up, I get tangled up in the family drama, and the weight of so many picayune rules.

The Seder is supposed to be about remembering the exodus from Egypt, and the struggle of going from slavery to freedom, and I think Cricket had her own Passover on Tuesday, when the other dogs left, and she’s still celebrating. But for myself, I think I’m still on the journey to freedom, still grieving Miss Butterfly, still working on graduate school, still not quite sure what the future will hold, or if I will be happy about it.

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My Butterfly

I’m not going to a Seder for Passover this year. I could have asked a family from my synagogue for an invitation, or looked for a big Seder at a Jewish Community Center or another synagogue, but I didn’t do that. It’s all of those mixed feelings making me unsure what I really want to do, and maybe I just wanted to pretend Passover wasn’t going to arrive at all this year.

I wish I could rely on rituals to help me pinpoint the stages of my life, and the next steps I need to take, but for some reason I’m not matching up with the signposts lately, and I feel a bit unmoored and unsecured.

But Cricket is feeling great, and that’s not a small thing.

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“Ah, sweet relief.”

Passover

 

I feel like I want to take a pass on Passover this year. I’ve done it before. I tried to do the whole thing last year – closing up cabinets and shopping for matzo meal and gefilte fish and kosher for Passover candy. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking up articles about kitniyot (some Jews say that beans and corn and rice are fine for Passover, others say no, based on which crops used to grow next to other crops way back when). It is, of course, a fascinating debate. I made a double recipe of Sephardi Charoset (dates and figs and chestnuts and wine and on and on) and resolved to think Passover thoughts for the whole week. But, I didn’t have a Seder to go to, and I hate (really, really hate) Matzo.

charoset on matzo

Sephardi Charoset on Matzo is much yummier than it looks (not my picture).

charoset balls

Here the Charoset is shaped into balls (not my picture). I’ve even seen these covered in chocolate. Seriously.

The problem is that Passover is a family holiday; it’s not a pray-in-synagogue holiday. Everyone comes back to the synagogue the next week with stories about their uncle Zephyr, who drank all of the wine before dinner, and second cousin Zoodle who has a matzo allergy but refuses to abstain and then spends the rest of the night complaining about his belly pains. It’s a badge of honor to come back with the most unbelievable family stories, and I had none.

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“I could eat some matzo!”

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“And chopped liver?”

I used to love Passover when I was little. I loved Grandpa standing at the head of the table, reading from the Maxwell House Haggadah. I loved falling asleep in the guest room, still wearing my dressy clothes. I loved chopped liver, and Brisket and Tzimmes, and super sweet gel candies pretending to be fruit slices.

maxwell-house-haggadah

There were things I loved about it after my grandfather died, too, just not as many, and not in the same whole sort of way. I loved learning the Yiddish versions of Hebrew songs from the Haggadah, and how the Yiddish words made me feel drunk and silly (in a good way). But I didn’t like when we had guests to our Seder who couldn’t read Hebrew, and my father still insisted on doing the whole thing in Hebrew, making them feel stupid. I hated fighting with my father, every year, because I didn’t want to drink four whole glasses of wine, and to end the argument he called me an apikores (an apostate, but in a bad way).  I remember having to carry all of the boxes of Passover dishes in from the shelves in the mudroom, because my father’s diabetic neuropathy had mostly crippled one of his arms, and I remember scrubbing out kitchen cabinets on my own, because my mother had to escape my father’s screaming abuse.

I remember the last Passover at my parents’ house, just before the divorce, when my father calmly told me that he felt better when he knew my mother was in pain. And I just stood there, frozen, with no more arguments or suggestions or strategies to make him into a real Dad.

Passover is the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery into freedom, because we need celebrations to remind us that we really did escape, and the past is over, even though, sometimes, it just doesn’t feel that way.

This year, I’m going to celebrate the exodus by trying to help people at my internship, and studying for my future, in the hopes that that’s what will make the past seem more like the past for me. I’m pretty sure that Cricket and Butterfly are willing to help me with that project, though they were really looking forward to the Brisket.

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“No Brisket? Is she kidding?”

Passover for Dogs

 

I think the role of dogs in Passover has been woefully neglected. Cricket and Butterfly are my family, and they deserve a prominent role in such an important holiday, but I’m not sure what that role should be.

Butterfly and Cricket are ready for anything!

Butterfly and Cricket are ready for anything!

Leading up to Passover, there is an official search for leavened bread, or chametz, throughout the house, because you’re not supposed to eat, or even own, leavened bread for the weeklong holiday. When I was a kid, our dogs were very helpful with searching for old crackers under my brother’s bed, or half eaten candy bars in my book bag, or left over dog food in the corners of the kitchen. And then they would help with the ritual cleaning, done by candle light, where we would dump a handful of bread crumbs on the pristine floor and say a blessing as we swept it up, and the dog would lick the floor clean.

Dina, surveying the kitchen floor.

Dina, surveying the kitchen floor.

Samson, chewing on something more tasty

Samson, chewing on something more tasty, my brother

Delilah, intimidating the bread out of the house.

Delilah, intimidating the bread out of the house.

I may have to reinstitute this ritual, if only to clean up the kibble trail Butterfly has left throughout the apartment.

My favorite part of Passover is the Seder itself. All of the stories and songs make me feel like I’m living inside of a story book and travelling back in time. But the Seder is, first and foremost, all about the food.

When you think about it, the Seder is organized as a series of small plates. First you eat a piece of matzo, then a nibble of raw horse radish. Then you make a sandwich out of matzo and horseradish and sweet apple and nut charoset. It’s a tasting menu that gradually builds. And all the way through there’s the wine. This would be Cricket’s idea of a good time. She’s always been a fan of small plates, and wine.

Just a little sip.

Just a little sip

and a taste.

and a taste.

Generally the next course at our house was a hard boiled egg, to represent life, with some salt water to represent the tears that are inevitable in life. Then gefilte fish, for sweetness, with some horseradish on top, to toughen you back up. Then matzoh ball soup with chicken and carrots and onions, just because. And then the rest of the meal came at once, with brisket or chicken or steak, a vegetable or two, some sweet potato tzimmes. And then for desert, a nondairy flourless chocolate cake, Ring Jells, and macaroons.

Every dog we ever had made it a habit to stretch out under the table during the meal, to catch anything that dropped.

We brought Cricket with us to my brother’s Passover Seder one year, before Butterfly arrived on the scene. Cricket was actually a good distraction for the kids, since we didn’t eat dinner until 10:30 at night. The kids were antsy and grumpy with the lateness of the hour, and it was a relief for them to sit under the table with Cricket, and murmur to her, and feel like she could understand them.

I think Cricket would have been very helpful with the search for the Afikomen, if she’d been invited to participate. There’s a custom to break the middle piece of matzoh and hide half of it somewhere in the house. The children search for it like a treasure hunt and get a reward if they find it. At my brother’s house it was an every-man-for-himself blood sport, but I would have loved if Cricket could have participated as part of a team, with some chopped liver smeared across the matzoh, so she could really use her skills to help her human cousins. She would have been especially happy to share in the reward, which, for her, would have been the chopped liver.

I’d really like for Butterfly to experience a Seder. It’s not that I believe she would understand the words, but the story is all about the escape from slavery to freedom: this year we are slaves in Egypt, but next year we will be free in Jerusalem. And Butterfly knows that story. She lived in a puppy mill for eight years, and now she is home, where she belongs. There should be songs for her to sing, to express the pain of her journey, and the happiness of the now. I’d like to sing those songs with her and celebrate that miracle. And maybe find some kosher for Passover chicken treats for her to eat between songs.

Butterfly has a lot to sing about!

Butterfly has a lot to say!