Tag: New Rituals

Why is there an Oyster on the Seder Plate?

The following Seder reading was adapted from the New York Times article by Paul Greenberg, An Oyster on the Seder Plate?

[Lest anyone think otherwise, we did NOT really put an oyster on our Seder plate.  However, based on the lesson it teaches, we might have.]


Download a printable version of this Haggadah insert.

Why is There an Oyster on our Seder Plate?

ALL: Tonight we might have put an oyster on our Seder plate.

Reader: While I didn’t particularly want to put something traif atop that most kosher of dishes, this Passover falls on the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. And since BP, the leaseholder of the failed well, seems intent with its new television ads on making us forget about the spill, I felt that something drastic was in order to help us remember. Combining the memorial powers of the Seder plate with the canary-in-the-coal- mine nature of the oyster seemed a good way to keep the disaster — and BP’s promises to clean up its mess — in mind.

Reader: In March, I spent a week in Louisiana’s bays and bayous. All over the region I encountered oyster dredges full of dead, empty shells and broken oystermen with equally empty pockets. Many of the oystermen I interviewed reported that 80 percent of their beds had been killed.

ALL: Ecologically speaking, this is huge: a single oyster can filter 40 gallons of water a day, and the millions of oysters in Louisiana’s waters are one of the things that make the gulf work as an ecosystem.

Reader: True, many oysters died not from the oil directly, but rather from the consequences of a desperate attempt to counter the spill’s effects. As oil rushed shoreward last spring, Louisiana’s coastal coordinator opened gates along the Mississippi River and released millions of gallons of freshwater, hoping the surge would push the oil away. It’s hard to say whether this worked; what it definitely did do was make some coastal waters too fresh for oysters to survive. Many beds were decimated. It will take years for them to recover.

Reader: Freshwater wasn’t the only thing dumped into gulf waters to mitigate the spill: more than 1.8 million gallons of Corexit, a chemical used to break up oil slicks, transformed the floating, possibly recoverable oil into an invisible angel of death that sank and claimed not just the first born but perhaps the first million born of many gulf creatures — a considerable blow to what is arguably America’s most important fish nursery.

ALL: Indeed, oysters are just the beginning.

Reader: The delayed effects of oil and Corexit will likely be seen for years. In 2012 the number of blue crabs — which many people associate with the Chesapeake Bay but in fact often come from the gulf — may significantly drop thanks to the spill. In 2013, the redfish that Paul Prudhomme famously blackened may not be there for fishermen and diners to enjoy. In 2017 we could see a considerable drop in the population of bluefin tuna, the missing adult fish having been killed as fragile larvae in 2010.

Reader: And even if by some miracle there is no significant decline in the gulf’s sea life, its harvest might still suffer from a sullied reputation. In a recent poll of 18 national restaurant chains released by Greater New Orleans Inc., an economic development organization, found that only 19 percent of those restaurants’ customers held a favorable view of gulf seafood in 2010, compared with 75 percent in 2004.

ALL: Oystermen weren’t the only ones affected by the spill, of course.

Reader: But while BP has compensated waiters and hairdressers for work lost during last summer’s ruined tourist season, most oystermen told me that aside from an emergency payment last fall, they have yet to see compensation that approaches the value of their lost oysters.

Reader: Fortunately for BP, it can take decades for the aftereffects of an event of this scale to appear. And it will be a long time before the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, put in place to determine BP’s true liability, will be made fully public with any sort of conclusion about the company’s liability.

Reader: Although we might have put an oyster on the Seder plate, we might also find a less controversial, less treif way to mark the disaster.

Reader: We might put a small dish of oil next to your glass of wine. After we’ve dipped our finger in our wine to count out the 10 plagues that brought down Egypt’s tyrannical pharaoh, we could dip our finger in the oil and dab out an 11th plague.

ALL: In so doing [we] remember that in A.D. 2010, the Jewish year 5770, humanity damaged a valuable, nourishing ecosystem to maintain the tyranny of oil. Until we throw off that tyranny, we will mark many more plagues in the years to come.

[Paul Greenberg is the author of “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.”]

Glee-ful Seder, Got a Bone to Pick with Passover, and Grandparents Recount Pesach Past: Kipnes/November Seder Ideas 2011

Each year, we try to come up with variations on the Seder’s rituals and themes so that our seder participants will experience anew and reflect more deeply on this year’s Seder.  This year’s Seder ideas include a reading on Glee characters as depictions of the Four Children, a new ritual for the Zeroah (shankbone) and presentations by grandparents and college students.  Make sure to peruse previous years’ seder ideas (including my favorite – Why is there a football and a corkscrew on the seder plate?).

Secrets to Success: Most excitingly, our Seder made the jump from child-focused to adult-focused. Our secrets to success included:

  1. Providing enough dipping foods to keep us sated (and not starving) during the Haggadah reading
  2. Embracing a healthy flexibility ensuring that while we did ever ritual and blessing, we moved things around as the story and stomachs determined necessary
  3. Preparation that included giving more than half the participants responsibility for sharing their answers to a question.

Setting Expectations for Thoughtfulness: Now that we are all older (no kids to roll around on the floor), we have an opportunity to experience the Seder in a profoundly new way. We are called together once a year – only once – to really think about our mytho-historical past as part of a people who went from slavery to freedom, from oppression to pain, from hopelessness to hopefulness. We will consider where and for whom freedom still is but a dream. And we will consider how our Biblical memory goads us to be agents of change. So for one meal we will talk, think, listen, and argue,  and only then sit down for the meal.

Preparing Grandparent and College Student Presentations in Advance: We asked the grandparents each to be prepared to talk about one of these questions:

  • What were the Passover Seders like when they were children?
  • How did the messages of the seder influence their lives?
  • In what ways do they value the freedom we have in America?

Similarly, we told the college age participants to be prepared to speak about:

  • One place or situation in the world where freedom still does not exist. 

We lovingly told them that they will be singing for their supper so the meal would not be served until each of them spoke.

The results were fabulous. Grandparents reveled us with stories of their childhood sedarim; the college-age participants spoke about immigrants and the Dream act, anti-semitism around the world as seen through the eyes of college roommates, and marriage equality. A mixed race relative spoke about racism while growing up in the deep south while her child talked about anti-semitism experienced in his middle school.

Dayeinu: We explained that this song Dayeinu (“it would have been enough”) recounts the many blessings brought by God into the lives of our ancestors – the plagues, the exodus, the Torah at Mt. Sinai, manna in the wilderness, arriving in the promised Land – and that how any one blessing would have been enough.  So we invited each participant to recount one blessing – great thing that happened – in his/her life. After each person spoke, we said “dayeinu”.  Then, we sang Dayeinu.

Got a Bone to Pick with Passover: A New Ritual Reading for the Zeroah/Shankbone.  We explored the move from idol worship to monotheism and potentially back to idol worship.  What are the things we worship today?

Glee-ful Passover: On my wife’s suggestion, we adapted the article The Four ‘Sons’ as Characters from Glee into a Seder reading: Glee, the Passover Four Children and How We Connect to Judaism.  Then the leader asked people to respond by either answering the questions at the beginning of the reading, or just saying what it said to them. The discussion continued for a while as people spoke about their own connection to Judaism, how Jewish self-perception  changed when they went off to college or to Israel, and how Jewish connections were different in open and diverse areas like the Bay area but less so in small towns.

Or Ami in the News: Membership Shabbat

In a new Jewish ritual, recently affiliated members of Congregation Or Ami walk through a tunnel of tallits (prayer shawls) held by veteran congregants. After they transitioned from “newness” into being fully part of the synagogue family, Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Cantor Doug Cotler, amidst joy and tears, offered blessings of welcome. Synagogue president Susan Gould invited these newest members to participate in the community’s vast array of learning options and social action projects.

Personal, Haimische, Computerized

Bar Mitzvah for child #3 went computerized. Not the Torah or Siddur (prayerbook), but just about everything else.

  • We created an online invitation using a Create Your Own Website template (maybe sometime in the future we will post it here for all to see). We made an online donation to an Israeli Nature organization equal to what we had saved not printing invitation (and saving trees).
  • We uploaded addresses and sent an online invitation to everyone we wanted to invite (at our son’s request, we sent my son’s friends a one page flyer, instructing them to go online to view the invitation and to RSVP). Truth be told, we might have missed a few older relatives who do not have email or computers.
  • People RSVP’ed online (a feature of the website).
  • We tracked who was coming with a computer program – Microsoft’s Excel.
  • He drafted his d’var Torah (speech) on his computer and, using “track changes,” received edits and advice from his rabbi (my friend).
  • We kept a list of who gave which gifts on the same computer program.
  • We allowed our son to – radical – type up his thank you notes in the same computer on which he writes everything in his life – his school papers, his emails to friends – using Microsoft’s Word. I recall rewriting so many thank you notes as a young Bar Mitzvah because either:

My handwriting was unreadable
I forgot to address someone as “aunt” or “uncle”
I thanked someone for attending who did not attend

  • Typed thank you notes also afforded us the opportunity to edit the notes easily. Very little copying and pasting really (though he did use a template he wrote and supplemented or changed from there). It was natural for him, personal for most recipients, and painless for us parents who had to make it happen. Miss Manners might frown on the typing and printing, but this kid types and prints everything else, why should his Bar Mitzvah experience be anachronistic?
  • We printed the thank you notes out on Thank you cards. And he signed each one personally.
  • Soon, we will review digital pictures as we read email (electronic) notes from friends kvelling about the service and celebration as our extended family Facebook’s the experience for posterity.

So, Torah read from ancient scrolls, while the celebration and party was organized digitally. Old and new, combined. It felt natural to him and his generation. Why not?

Don't Waste Time Making Resolutions, Instead Count Blessings

Many people will spend the next week writing down “New Years Resolutions,” declarations of what they plan to do, who they plan to be, in the coming year. Within weeks, diets will begin and new gym memberships purchased. Within less than two months, both and more will be abandoned. Our resolutions will again be thrown upon the pile of discarded and broken promises made in previous years. So caught up in the ritual of deciding what we could be doing, we fail to do it.

Why? As John Tierney writes Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow in the New York Times:

“People can become overly focused on an ideal,” Dr. Shu said. “Even if they know it’s unlikely, they get so focused on the perfect scenario that they block everything else. Or they anticipate that they’ll kick themselves later if they take second-best option and then see the best one is still available. But they don’t realize that regret can go the other way. They’ll end up with something worse and regret not taking the second-best one.”But even if you know about all this research, how can you apply these lessons? How can you avoid the temptation to postpone pleasure? … One immediate strategy, Dr. Shu said, is to cash in quickly any gift certificate you received this holiday season. “The biggest danger is that it will be forgotten and expire,” she said. “One of the best presents you can give back to the giver is to use it quickly and then tell them how much you enjoyed it. The regret from not using it will be bigger than the regret from using it on a nonperfect occasion, for you and especially for the person who gave it.”

Another tactic is to give yourself deadlines. Cash in the miles by summer, even if you can’t get a round-the-world trip out of them. Instead of waiting for a special occasion to indulge yourself, create one. Dr. Shu approvingly cites the pioneering therapeutic work of Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, who for the past decade used their Wall Street Journal column on wine to proclaim the last Saturday of February to be “Open That Bottle Night.”

Our rabbinic teachers of old offered a different tactic to living life. They invited us to count the blessings we have today and to enjoy the lives we are living. Recognizing that so often we pine after the future instead of finding joy in the present, they taught us to count 100 blessings a day.

  • Take a look at your family. What joys do they bring you? Count them up.
  • Give a smile to your husband/wife/partner/significant other. How, over the years, has s/he brought meaning to your existence?
  • Think about your job. In an economy in recession, how has it helped sustain you when others are struggling so?
  • Consider your friends. In what ways have they provided strength, love, caring, companionship or…?
  • What about community? How has your synagogue, club, or organization provided you with a sense of belonging and meaning?
  • What else?

Then take some time to tell them each why they are blessings for you. Don’t shortchange the moment. Be clear, be long-winded, be openly honest. (Nothing feels better than to hear how much we mean to someone.)

Then figure out how to live in the present, enjoying the moment, experiencing the holy (meaning: “specialness, uniqueness, worthiness”) in the midst of the mundane.

As Tierney suggests at the end of his article, regarding that special bottle of wine you are saving…

But you don’t even have to wait until Feb. 27. Remember the advice offered in the movie “Sideways” to Miles, who has been holding on to a ’61 Cheval Blanc so long that it is in danger of going bad. When Miles says he is waiting for a special occasion, his friend Maya puts matters in perspective:“The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.”

May New Year 2010 be filled with promise because we took enough time to count the blessings that we took with us from Present Year 2009!

Seder Redux: Deal or No Deal, Where’s Your Egypt? Game, What Doesn’t Belong on the Seder Table, Progressive Seder


We had a fantastic Seder this year. Engaging, inspiring, relevant.

After collecting all the resources, reviewing the Haggadah and planning the Seder activity/discussion inserts, I am always amazed at what actually does and doesn’t happen at the Seder. Since the Seder is an organic gathering – part keva/fixed traditional text; part kavannah/inspiration – the plans for the evening give way to inspired discussion, activities used while others are shelved, and more. Read on for this year’s favorites, including:

  1. Deal or No Deal: Passover Edition
  2. Where’s Your Egypt? Game
  3. What Doesn’t Belong on the Seder Table, and
  4. Progressive Seder: Moving Around during the Seder

Deal or No Deal: Passover Edition
My youngest son created a game, based on the successful TV show. In 18 numbered envelopes (briefcases) taped to a board, he placed post-it notes with dollar values. Each dollar amount was accompanied by a mathematical problem. The bolded number defined the actual number in play. So it might say “$4,000,000 – 4o x 100,000”. The seder participant who chose that briefcase (envelope) had to explain the connection of the bolded number to Passover. In this case, 40 might represent either the number of years wandering in the wilderness, the number of days Moses was up top Mt. Sinai, or one third of Moses’ lifetime (120/3). Some numbers were easier; some more difficult. Almost everyone at the seder got to pick a briefcase.

The numbers included:

  • $10,000,000 = 1 x 10,000,000 = One God
  • $4,000,000 = 4 x 1,000,000 = 4 children, 4 cups of wine, 4 questions
  • $2,000,000 = 2 x 1,000,000 = 2 times we dip, 2 times we wash our hands
  • $603,550 = 603,550 x 1 = number of Israelite males of fighting age who left each, according to the census (which, if you include the same number of females plus children, elderly and the infirmed, yields 2 million people leaving Egypt)
  • $400,000 = 40 x 10,000 = 40 years Moses in Pharaoh’s court, years Moses in Wilderness, years wandering in Wilderness, days Moses on Mt. Sinai
  • $400,000 = 400,000 = 400,000 people murdered during the continuing Darfuran genocide
  • $120,000 = 120 x 1000 = 120 years that Moses lived. Extra points for the 3 period of 40 years (according to tradition, he spend 40 years in Pharaoh’s court, 40 years in the desert after killing the taskmaster before the Burning Bush, 40 years wandering after the Exodus before the Israelites entered the promised land)
  • $98,000 = 49 x 2,000 = 49 days of Counting the Omer, 49 days between leaving Egypt and receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai
  • $61,300 = 613 x 100 = 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah
  • $48,000 = 48 x 1000 = 48 or 1948, the year that Israel was reborn
  • $10,000 = 5 x 2,000 = 5 books of Torah
  • $72 = 36 x 2 = 36 Ladmed Vavnikim, 36 righteous people of each generation because of whose acts of justice and kindness the world continues to exist
  • $18 = 18 x 1 = 18 minutes the flour can be in contact with water when making matzah
  • $13 = 13 x 1 = 13 things that Who Knows? (also age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah)
  • $3 = 3 x 1 = 3 pieces of matzah in the matzah holder during the Seder
  • $2 = 2 = 2 zuzim used to buy a goat in Chad Gadya

Where’s Your Egypt? Game
To introduce guest to each other as a way to begin the seder, we played “Where’s Your Egypt. We told everyone that we are taught b’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’eelu hu yatzah mimitzrayim – that in each and every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt. Egypt or Mitzrayim is that narrow, darkened place, from where it is difficult to venture forth, where (initially) you see only pain, problem or hopelessness. Your Egypt could be something personal, something in the world, something in between.

Anyone could answer in any order, but we could not begin until everyone shared their Egypt. They should say their name and answer “Where’s Your Egypt?” Answers included:

  • The pressure of school
  • The economy, no jobs, people getting laid off
  • The genocide in Darfur
  • The anxiety of SAT’s and ACT’s
  • The earthquake that hit Italy
  • The threat from Iran
  • So much homework
  • The rockets that were being shot from Gaza into Israel
  • Friends struggling with cancer
  • The speed with which grandchildren were growing up

What Doesn’t Belong on the Seder Table?
This year, we placed a variety of unholy objects on our seder table: fancy sunglasses, a frisbee, a Guitar Hero guitar, pineapple, watermelon, funny winter hat, extension cord, and more. Before we sang Mah Nishtanah or The Four Questions. I taught that the number and types of questions asked in Mah Nishtanah actually changed over the course of history (the reclining question was added in the Talmud because the rabbis liked the number 4 but, since the destruction of the Temple, it no longer made sense to ask the Mishnah’s question about why we eat certain meats). I explained that the great scholar Maimonides would even remove a table from in front of the children so that they would recognize something unique and different. This would provide the entre into the Maggid, or telling the story.

So we divided everyone into teams (mixing people up with people they did not know). Each team received a piece of paper and pen. They had to find at least 6 things on the seder table that did not usually belong. They then needed to decide what this object taught about Passover or the lessons of Passover. After ten minutes of moving around (including the opportunity to eat some of the foods that we dip – veggies, fruits, artichoke dip, sweet dips, etc.), everyone shared something from their list as well as their explanation. If someone had a different interpretation of the object, we shared that as well.

Some of their explanations included:

  • fancy sunglasses: the sun was overpowering during slavery, the fanciness shows that overindulgence that threatens to overpower our focus on our basic needs
  • pineapple: though can cause pain from its outside but is sweet inside, it reminds us that even though we experience pain, we can move inward to find the sweetness to sustain ourselves
  • frisbee: we sailed out of Egypt once the exodus began
  • extension cord: Passover connects Jews around the world and throughout history, our central story of going from slavery to freedom empowers us to change the world

Progressive Seder: Moving Around During the Seder
We are taught that we recline (or lean left) during the seder because free people would recline on couches when they ate (think “Roman salon”). But even leaning left, a few hours around the Seder table (eating, reading, singing) can seem oppressive. Too uptight. Too formal. So we bring freedom and relaxation to our seder.

Because we live in California, we can take advantage of the beautiful weather to sit outdoors in nature (like the springtime represented by the Karpas). Because we are supposed to be free people, we shouldn’t have to sit in one place around a table for however long it takes to go through the haggadah and eat. So in our home, we felt free to enjoy a progressive seder:

Part One: Chairs in a large circle around two coffee tables. On the coffee tables were seder plates, things to dip and munch on, and other non-traditional items. We enjoyed the beginning of the seder through the Mah Nishtanah outside in nature. The only downside was that a bunch of knats plagued our seder, even dive-bombing our kiddush cups.

Part Two: We brought the food into the kitchen, grabbed our wine cups, and retired to the comfort of the living room. In the living room, chairs and couches surrounding a coffee table with a seder plate, we enjoyed the Magid (story), the symbols explanation (Pesah, Matzah, Maror), read the Jewish World Watch seder inserts, and made our Korech (Hillel Sandwiches).

Part Three: We sat around tables for the Shulchan Aruch, the meal.

Part Four: We returned to the Living Room for the last part of the seder. Relaxed on couches to sing about Elijah, to sing songs, and to enjoy the last two cups of wine.

Four Daughters Worth Mentioning at Pesach


Four daughters worth mentioning at Pesach

Professor Rachel Elior,who teaches Jewish philosophy and mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offers in Haaretz a new ritual for Passover: mentioning four daughters. Instead of the traditional – wise, rebellious, simple, and one who does not know how to ask – Professor Elior suggests we talk about four women who are: silenced, forgotten, ignored and excluded.

The Book of the Generations of Adam (Genesis 5) describes the world’s 10 male forebears, from Adam to Noah; but not one word is devoted to their mates, the world’s mothers. The Haggadah, too, speaks of four sons without mentioning the daughters. And these are not the only examples: Jewish memory usually focuses on the history of men, while female experience is doomed to oblivion.

She decides to

celebrate the memory of four 20th-century female authors, who undid the generations during which women were relegated to silence and obscurity and illuminated unknown corners of men and women’s physical and emotional lives…

Her four daughters:

First I might mention Dvora Baron (1887-1956), who wrote wonderful stories and was the first to show that a woman could write literature in Hebrew, although no woman before her had done so, from the end of the biblical period to the early 20th century. When she began to write, she shed light on previously unseen aspects of Jewish family life in the Russian townships and described moments of human torment and grace as they had never been described before.

The second is the mystically oriented poet Yocheved Bat-Miriam (1901-1980), whose enigmatic language captured both the visible and the hidden world and whose poems contained prayers about the eyes of the spirit opening in the depths of the material world. Bat-Miriam wrote the lines that inspired my study of mystical thought regarding the unity of opposites: “And greater than visible is the invisible, and more wonderful than ‘being’ is the secret of infinite nothingness on high, command me, Lord, and I will see / what lies beyond the border of the eye.” Her poetry fell silent after her son, Zuzik, died in the 1948 war, leaving her inconsolable.

The third is Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005), who sang wonderfully from a woman’s perspective of happiness in the depths of pain in the poem “Hemda,” which appeared in the 1959 collection “The Love of an Orange.” She dared to speak of the affront and pain felt by a girl, an outsider, who comes to live on a kibbutz, thereby shattering the idealized, unreal image of kibbutz childhood, in her 1976 book “Death in the Family.”

Ravikovitch wrote penetratingly of women’s unheard-of plight in her chilling poem “Hovering at a Low Altitude,” challenging society for remaining silent about the anguish of raped and murdered women. Her far-reaching, probing, critical gaze and the depth of her compassionate, iconoclastic humanity found expression in her poems about the pain of Arab mothers who lost their children in the first Lebanon war: “This is the history of the child / who was killed in his mother’s belly / in the month of January 1988 / for reasons of national security” (“A Mother is Walking,” from the translation by Rachel Tzvia Back, published in the collection “With an Iron Pen”). In her writing about the fate of war casualties and the victims of human society, she expressed human empathy beyond all accepted boundaries.

Fourth I will mention Amalia Kahana-Carmon, who brought forth a new voice and a unique viewpoint while at the same time creating an unprecedented language in her 1966 book “Under One Roof.” Thus, for example, in her story “Naima Sasson Writes Poems,” written from a double perspective, of a child and of a grown up, she created a new language and paved the way for gender-focused criticism long ahead of its time.

The “four sisters” I have commemorated here were artists who sought freedom and knowledge and refused to accept the place tradition accorded them. All four broke through male-decreed conceptions of knowledge, truth, equality and justice as these relate to women’s place in society, and they did so while making audible the silenced female voice that had been excluded from written memory.

Why is There a Football and a Corkscrew on the Seder Table?

(Daily News, 4/3/07): The dinner table at Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ house was topped Monday night with more than the ceremonial food associated with commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. The arrangement of bitter herbs, parsley and matzo also included a football, history book and corkscrew. The purpose of Passover, which began at sundown Monday, is to remind Jews of their deliverance from Pharaoh and to educate Jewish children about the seminal story of their people. So Kipnes, leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, regularly uses props to spark discussion on Passover.

The football, his guests usually say, refers to the angel of the Lord passing over the Jewish homes and sparing their first-born sons. The history book often incites debate about whether the Exodus is the literal history of the Jewish people or a mythical story. And the corkscrew, well, some say it represents the work required to release the joy of life; others the treatment Pharaoh gave the Jews. “It’s the story of the Jews throughout history,” Kipnes said. “My kids are pretty comfortable and well off, and they need to learn from our history and our traditions that their responsibility is not to sit back and enjoy it but to bring others to the table, into freedom.”

[Hint: At various points throughout the seder, I invited different teams to share two of their most creative explanations. During the meal, I collected all the sheets, tallied the answers, and gave out additional prizes to… everyone. If you do not write on Passover, do this same activity verbally throughout the seder.]

Passover: Ancient Rituals, Contemporary Perspectives

Dressing in Drag, Getting Stoned, Pillow Talk, Feeling the Beat! Passover Like You’ve Never Considered Before!

Pesach, the story of our people’s ancient flight from slavery to freedom, reminds us that ours is the way of freedom. The Haggadah, more than a backward-looking book, calls upon each and every one of us, in each and every generation, lirot et atzmo k’eelu hu yatza meemitzrayim, to see him/herself as if he/she went out of Egypt.

Judaism compels us to translate into reality the sacred ideal of the humanity of each individual and the Divine spark within us. Judaism not only condemns all racial bigotry; it affirms the belief in the sanctity of humans created in the image of God. Judaism thus places a moral responsibility upon its adherents to affirm the equality of all human beings as children of the One Universal God.

The Jewish community has been the quintessential victim of religious persecution, and of all people, we understand the duress of persecution and will devote ourselves to any measures designed to lessen its impact. It is our duty and obligation to prevent any future persecution. The most repeated commandment in the Torah, appearing 36 times, is that we must not discriminate against the stranger in our midst, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Our evening around the table calls us to reenact on that very night – through symbolic foods, dramatic readings, and intense discussion – the quest for justice and freedom. Throughout history, Jews have creatively reengaged our traditional story, creating new rituals, to teach ever new messages.

Dressing in Drag 1: In 1853, Yisrael ben Yosef Benjamin described a ceremony in Asia before the recitation of the Haggadah in which a young person dressed up in kley golah (from Ezekiel 12:3 meaning “gear for exile”) and appeared before the participants with a walking staff in hand and a satchel over the shoulder. An adult asked, “From where do you come, O pilgrim?” “From the land of Egypt,” answered the lad. “Did you go out to freedom from the bondage of Egypt?” “Yes indeed,” replied the lad, “and now I am a free man.” “And where are you going?” “I am going to Jerusalem,” he responded. Then with great joy the participants begin to tell the story of the Exodus… When possible, invite new immigrants to your home so that they can tell their stories.

Civil War Bricks: During the American Civil War (1860-1865), a group of Jewish Union soldiers made a Seder for themselves in the wilderness of West Virginia. They had none of the ingredients for traditional haroset available, so they put a real brick in its place on the Seder plate! Families having remodeling work done on their houses might save a chunk of plaster or brick to place on the Seder table. What better way to highlight the difference between our freedom to choose to build and the oppression of living a life of forced labor.

Getting Stoned: Shemuel ben Hallal relates that his Moroccan uncle, who is a rabbi in Brooklyn, is accustomed to grating rocks into the haroset. Indeed, he adds so much rock that the haroset tastes terrible! While we do not suggest anyone adopt this custom, it is a creative attempt to illustrate the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt in a very “concrete” fashion!

Dressing in Drag 2: Back in the 1530’s, when participants opened the door for shefokh, (Elijah’s cup), someone in costume enters the room quickly, as if he is Elijah himself coming to announce the coming of the Messiah. R. Yosef Yuzpah Hahn (1570-1637) says “how good is the custom that they do something in memory of the Messiah.” How surprising that my family was not the first to think of this!

Communal Drinking: Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz (1760-1827) initiated a beautiful custom. Following Birkat Ha’Mazon (the blessing after the meal), each participant poured some wine from their kiddush cup into Elijah’s Cup. In this way, he taught that each person has the responsibility to create conditions in the world that would encourage the messiah to come and finish the perfecting of the world. As you pour wine from your cup into Elijah’s, share with those at your Seder what you have decided to do this year to grow closer to God and to bring more justice into the world.

Buying Dessert: Others suggest that in ransoming or redeeming the afikoman, instead of just “paying off” the children, each participant at the Seder should also “purchase” his or her share to eat. Money seems inappropriate for such a purchase. So make a pledge of action, vowing to carry out ma’asim tovim (good deeds), as well as acts of tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hesed (lovingkindness). For example, one might pledge to bring food to a homeless shelter or begin to visit the sick at a local hospital. Or, one might begin our search for the Messiah by engaging in Jewish learning or participating in personal and communal prayer. Think of what you will offer for the afikoman this year as it is passed around the table.

Pillow Talk: Noam Zion of Israel teaches that the idea of reclining on Pesach presupposes a social world in which, as in the Greco-Roman nobility, meals were often taken while the guests reclined on their left arms on couches, leaving their right hand free to dip and taste. At each couch was a small table with individual portions, like today’s Seder plate. However, since the European Middle Ages, it is no longer the way of nobility to recline. In fact, eating while reclining on pillows is the way of the sick. Still, Rabbi Y. M. Epstein teaches that everyone should be provided with a pillow precisely because it is an outmoded and outlandish custom. For the point of the Seder is to introduce changes into the meal, so the children will be roused to ask “Why is this night different from all other nights?” By the same token it would be ideal for everyone to have his or her own Seder plate.

Lesbians at the Seder Table: In the early 1980’s, Jewish scholar Susannah Heschel (daughter of the famous Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King), was introduced to an early feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread on the Seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians (which was intended to convey the idea that there is as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate). Heschel felt that to put bread on the Seder plate would be to accept that Jewish lesbians and gay men violate Judaism like hametz [leavened food] violates Passover. So at her next Seder, she chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out – a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of many Jews. While lecturing, Heschel often mentioned her custom as one of many feminist rituals that have been developed in the last 20 years. She writes, “Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred. My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men was transformed. Now the story circulates that thirty years ago a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah [podium of a synagogue] as an orange on the Seder plate. A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?” Today, let us place an orange on the Seder plate to reaffirm the openness of our Jewish community to lesbians and gay men and to others who have been marginalized.

Vegetarians Feel the Beat: Ever since the Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Huna, stated that “beets and rice” may be used for the two cooked foods on the Seder plate (Pesachim 114b), many vegetarians have substituted a red beet for the shankbone. In fact, while some wonder if Pesach and vegetarianism are compatible (after all, what is a Seder without gefilte fish, chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken and other meats) there is a common misconception that halacha (Jewish law) mandates that Jews eat meat to rejoice on Pesach and other Jewish festivals. According to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple, Jews need not eat meat to celebrate festivals.

Surfing Seder: In the internet age, some families asked all the adults attending the Seder to search the web to bring with them one example of oppression, discrimination or social injustice in our world today. They also asked them to bring a few suggestions regarding how they can combat the problem they discussed. During the Seder, they intersperse presentations about modern day problems with the Haggadah’s story about the slavery of the Jews. Before the Seder ends, each person is asked to commit to some action to help alleviate one of these social problems.

Checking Out: Some families have a checkbook ready on the Seder table. Following the traditional recitation of the ten plagues, and a discussion of the modern plagues that are destroying our world, the children and adults choose one or two organizations which help alleviate these problems. They immediately write out a check before the urge to change the world diminishes. During the days that follow, they make plans to write letters to government officials to urge them to act to stop these injustices.

Dressing in Drag 3: The Jews of Morocco had the following custom: After reading the Haggadah, all of the adults put a stick with a bundle on their shoulders and they leave the house in haste, running and shouting: “In this way did our ancestors leave Egypt, with ‘their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders’” (Exodus 12:34).

May these ancient customs and contemporary perspectives entice you to dig deeply into the Passover story to reclaim its essential purpose: to goad us all into action to rid the world of prejudice, oppression, and injustice.

Yachatz: The Middle Matzah of Brokenness (a New Ritual)

Haggadah Insert for Use during this Financial Depression
By Rabbi Paul Kipnes,
Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
With help from Rabbinic Student Ilana Mills
Formatted copy here.

Pass out copies and read before other Yachatz readings. The leader takes out the middle Matzah, breaks it in two and holds up both pieces.

Reader 1: At every Passover seder, we break the middle matzah. In a few moments, we will put the larger piece aside for the Afikoman or dessert. Usually, we place the smaller piece back between the two whole Matzot, as we prepare to remember our ancestors’ lives as slaves in Egypt. Tonight, however, we delay the second part of the ritual so we can consider the brokenness in our world.

Everyone: Tonight, throughout our country and our world, and even perhaps around our Seder table, people are experiencing more brokenness than in recent memory. Younger and older; working, unemployed and retired; singles and couples, and families of all configurations – so many lives have been damaged by the economic depression and uncertainty about the future. Unlike the middle matzah broken on purpose, they find that a series of financial decisions – some made by them, some out of their control – have shattered their economic security.

Reader 2: Tonight, different than in previous years, we take this second piece of matzah and crumble it here (on a plate or on the tablecloth) to remind us of how amidst the current financial crisis, the world seems to be crumbling around so many people. Like the glass broken at a wedding which reminds us of the tireless work the couple must do to escape shattering their marriage, this crumbled matzah reminds us of all the work we must do to help others whose lives are shattering.

Everyone: As we stare at this crumbled middle matzah, let us pause to consider the pain of lives crumbling around us. So many feel so alone. So many experience despair. Like our Israelite ancestors felt before Moses and Miriam came to set them free, our people today despair over the difficulties in repairing the brokenness of their lives.

Reader 3: Our ancestors, slaves of Pharaoh, survived the oppression in Egypt. Helping each other, holding each other up, they walked through the Yam Suf (the Red Sea). With persistence and determination, they passed through those difficult times. And we all can too. If we help each other. If we remember to open our hearts, open our wallets, open our community. If we welcome in and support those in need, those who are no longer strangers to financial struggle. And so we say together:

Everyone:

Ha lach-ma an-ya di a-cha-lu a-va-ha-ta-na b’ar’a d’mitz-ra-yim. This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; Let all who are in need come share our Passover. This year here, next year in Israel. Today bound; tomorrow free.

Liven Up Your Seder 2009

Each year, I try to provide a series of new ideas to enhance the Seder experience. Here are some engaging options for 2009, with some old favorites at the end of the post.

The Middle Matzah of Brokenness: Haggadah Insert for During Economic Recession: Add this ritual before or in place of the Yachatz reading.

Jewish World Watch’s Matzah Set: My favorite! The 5-card set explores the symbolism of Matzah as it relates to issues of affliction, redemption and action. It serves as a resource for discussion at your Seder table and as an advocacy kit with current action items!

The Fifth Question: What Would You Ask? My Rabbinical friends offer one more question to ask at the seder, along with a short elaboration on why their question is timely and meaningful. Pick one or two to read at the seder and then invite participants to answer.

Top Ten 10 popular Passover Videos of years past: many animated, many musical, not all kid-appropriate. Plus two more, from Birthright and United Jewish Communities. Consider playing one or more during your seder to engage the YouTube generation. Since seder is supposed to be a multimedia experience (playing with food, telling stories, teaching each of the four types of children in ways he/she can hear), playing YouTube video is just the next appropriate addition!

Why is There a Football and a Corkscrew on our Seder Table? Add this new ritual to your seder, encouraging new ways to tell the story of the Exodus.

In Search of Freedom: A Passover Seder for Darfur: From American Jewish World Service. Integrate elements of this or make it your seder this year.

AIPAC’s Haggadah Supplement is designed to invite discussion around your seder table about the necessity for each of us to participate in the political process in order to make a difference for America and for Israel.

Contemplating Elijah: Read and consider at the appropriate Seder moment: Harvey Cox comments: “I have come to look forward to the opening of the door for an Elijah who is always a no-show, and I have come to believe that precisely by not appearing, that great prophet is showing us something we need to know. What does it mean that there is never anyone at the door? What if, for all practical purposes, no messiah can be counted on? Would that make any significant difference in the way we engage in the present human enterprise?” Through the poem Elijah’s Violin, poet David Lehman responds.

Contemplating Elijah 2: Poet Phil Schultz responds to: “The question is by not appearing at the door does Elijah deliver a greater gift of wisdom, or is the disappointment of his dependable absence a secret message only prophets can understand?” How do your seder participants respond?

Now, Some Old Favorites:

Can We Eat Beans, Rice, Corn and Peas on Passover?

Answers to the age-old question about eating kitniyot on Passover.

Passover: Ancient Rituals, New Perspectives
Spice up your Seder: Dressing in Drag, Getting Stoned, Pillow Talk, Feeling the Beat
Reflections from Sedona as We Prepare for Pesach OR Oy, Why Did We Have to Wander for Forty Years?
Rabbi Kipnes’ 8 Ways to Make Your Family Seder Engaging
Sing along with Cantor Doug Cotler’s Favorites
Almost everything you wanted to know about Passover: Preparing for Passover, Hunting for Hametz, How to make your Seder meaningful, How to capture the attention of the kids,The Story of Passover in 6 (short) Scenes, For the Adult Seder: Four Ideas from the Rabbi’s Tisch (table)

Creative Ideas for Your Passover Seder Table, 2004
Make your seder engaging and meaningful this year!