SM’s Helpful, Non-Comprehensive Passover Primer

It is that time of year again, folks! By which I mean: Passover. Heretofore referred to by the Hebrew name of Pesach, because that’s how it is in my head. (Note: all of the following refers to Ashkenazic practices of Pesach. Sephardic practices are very different, but I am not familiar enough with them to write a compare/contrast piece.)

 

 

For those of you who don’t know, Pesach is, to borrow a friend’s favorite suffix, crazypants.

This friend also laments the fact that when you see Jewish characters in fiction, the only holiday they usually talk about is Hanukkah, as if that is the big poobah of the Jewish calendar. To that we say, HA. Hanukkah is one of the least important Jewish holidays from a religious standpoint, since it was instituted purely by the rabbis and not by the Torah itself, and also requires relatively little action, both during the holiday and in preparation for it. Basically, you gotta buy candles or oil and dust off your menorah (which you probably got for your bar or bat mitzvah, or else you can get a cheap one from the internet or your local bodega or whatever) and be home around sundown to light it. And if you get home later than sundown, okay, you light it then. Different customs may require that you don’t do anything more strenuous than reading a book for about 30 minutes after lighting the candles. Very intense.

Pesach…whooooo boy. Where do I even start.

Well, there’s the fact that if you live in America, the first two days and the last two days of Pesach’s eight days are, unlike any days of Hanukkah, capital-H Holiday days, which I’m using here to mean that they are basically two-day Sabbaths in the middle of the week. No electricity, no driving, no public transportation, no writing with pen/pencil and paper, no igniting fires (alas), no sewing, no talking on the phone, no texting, no internet. (Fun fact: Josh Malina, the actor, once tweeted, “Good Shabbos!” and when asked what that meant, he explained, “It’s Hebrew for ‘I don’t have access to google.’ ” High fives, Josh.)

Capital-H Holidays are different from the actual Sabbath in a couple of ways, the major one being that you are technically allowed to cook on Holidays for what is immediately needed. Although since you are still not allowed to ignite a fire, there are obviously limits on what kind of cooking you can do, and therefore most people who are planning to be at home and eating all their own food for Holiday meals have to do a metric boatload of cooking and baking beforehand. You do not want to know how many quiches and kugels and casseroles and lasagnas we (read: mostly my mom) have made in the past few weeks. And that’s not counting the desserts —brownies and blondies and cookies galore.

And THAT’S not counting the fact that Pesach has its own dietary requirements. As in, you’re not allowed to eat almost anything you normally eat. Or anything that was in close contact with anything you normally eat. The technical prohibition is against chametz, i.e. leavened food, but for practical purposes (since what is leavened food anyway) chametz includes everything EXCEPT water, raw fruits, vegetables, and items that have been officially certified on their packaging as Kosher for Passover, or kasher l’pesach.  You basically need to completely restock your fridge and pantry for this holiday and cook everything with flour substitutes such as matza meal and potato starch. Also, you have to boil, cover, or temporarily replace all your dishes, pots, pans, silverware, countertops, table tops, and anything else that may have been used for chametz. Plus you must clean every nook and cranny of your house to find any other possible chametz that might be there. Lurking. Waiting to pounce.

I like to think of it as the ultimate holiday for OCD, sanctioned and encouraged by Jewish law. On the eve of the Holiday, you even get to burn the chametz that you didn’t manage to get rid of. Partay!

 

 

Lots of people avoid all this by going away for Pesach. They go to visit family who have turned their houses upside down, thereby sparing themselves the necessity of doing it to their own homes. Or they go to a hotel, which is sparkling clean already and serves them their Kosher for Passover food.

My family has never gone away for Pesach. This is probably due to a) more family in one house for 8 days? No thank you, b) a family of nine in a hotel for 8 days? Pfft, ain’t nobody got money for dat, and, probably most importantly, c) my dad is the rabbi of a local congregation and the rabbi MUST be available on Pesach to answer questions regarding Jewish law on a holiday that is this completely neurotic and overwrought, and as I said before, for at least 4 of 8 days, phone calls and internet are not allowed, so he must be available for face-to-face consultation. Also to give sermons, which he is very good at since naturally he takes after me.

Additionally, the congregational rabbi must be around very close to the beginning of the holiday for another reason — he is the congregants’ representative to sell all the chametz that was not able to be cleaned/eaten/burned/flushed down the toilet/fed to pets/hidden in gifts given to “friends”/etc. This means that in the week or so leading up to Pesach (and, let’s be real, at midnight on the last possible day), people come to our house, meet with my dad, fill out a form delineating the value and location of said chametz, exchange an object of a certain minimum value (e.g. they hand a pen back and forth), and thus my father is authorized, as is traditional, to go to a gathering in Riverdale with the rest of the New York rabbis who hold all the forms from all their congregants and sell their chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of Pesach. (There are of course stricter opinions that say this is not allowed, but we will ignore those for the time being.)

I have to admit that I find the whole selling-chametz-to-a-non-Jew to be, well…kind of hilarious, to be honest. The basic way it’s done is that the non-Jew (who is a lovely Christian gentleman who used to live locally and now comes in every year specially for the sale, which is incredibly sweet in itself) pays about a penny or two upfront, with the agreement that he will pay the rest of the untold millions of dollars the day after Pesach, or the sale will be voided. And even though this is clearly a charade and everyone involved knows it, there are apparently six different ways that the rabbis ensure that the sale is solid and legally binding, even though it will be voided in a week. And when I was there with my dad one year, in the room with like 50 rabbis, the meeting kicked off with a check on the exact value of gold or silver or something on the stock market or whatever that morning, to make sure that the pennies being paid upfront are of enough value to bind the sale. The whole affair is compulsively neurotic in that adorably Jewish way.

Lastly, of course, is the tradition that most people have heard of if they’ve heard anything about Pesach: the seder, or sedarim in plural, since in America, we have two of them, on the first two Holiday nights. You can probably Wikipedia it and get more information about the technicalities of seder procedure than I can possibly give you (four cups of wine, dipping of parsley into saltwater, recitation of the Haggadah, festive meal, singing of incredibly repetitive Hebrew and Aramaic songs, et al), but what it probably won’t tell you is that since a seder is a family or communal get-together, no two sedarim are alike, just like no two Thanksgiving dinners are alike, even though most of us Orthodox Jew types are reading the story of the Exodus from the same Haggadah.

A seder can be huge (we host our synagogue’s seder every year on the first night and this one had close to 50 people in attendance) or not terribly large (a friend of my was bemoaning the fact that his sedarim were going to have only his parents, brother, and grandmother, so he’d have to be very present and talkative and unable to slink off unnoticed). Our home seder often serves as a mini communal seder, topping out at 16 to 18 people, who can range from “fun guests you enjoy having” to “that guy with terrible hygiene who mutters incoherently to himself half the time and spends the rest interrupting people’s conversations to complain that his sister refuses to host him anymore and he can’t understand why.” Win some, lose some. In ancient times, it was typical to invite as many people as possible to your seder because the korban pesach, i.e. the Passover Sacrifice, i.e. an entire roast lamb, was required to be eaten before the dawn of the next morning; leftovers had to be burned. And while the base text that we read from the Haggadah is fairly standardized, people are free to, nay, encouraged to expound and elaborate and offer up additional thoughts, possible lessons learned, and questions about the story and the rituals of the seder. A common answer given for “Why do we do X Random Seder Ritual?” is “So that the children will ask.” It is a holiday of questions, although the answers may range from the satisfying to the creative to the ridiculous.

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Independently of one another, my 13-year-old little sister and my 21-year-old little brother have already said to me this holiday, “You know, I really don’t like Pesach,” as if this is a surprising revelation. It’s really not. I obviously find many aspects of it amusing, but I can’t necessarily claim to like it. I’m sure there are people in the universe who like stressful cooking and compulsive cleaning and having strangely unbalanced guests at their table and having to read huge chunks of Hebrew text before getting to the actual meal and having to eat obscene amounts of charred-cardboard-tasting matza and not being able to eat normal food and stammering through neverending songs in foreign languages, but I don’t think it’s all that scandalous or presumptuous to say that most of us, y’know, don’t.

This holiday is nuts. It’s over-the-top and designed to drive anyone bonkers.

It is also clearly designed, in the way that it has evolved over the centuries, to force members of families and communities to interact with each other, forging and reinforcing connections between them. The preparation for Pesach is a massive undertaking, and would not get done in my house if everyone didn’t pitch in, at least a little bit. We band together against our common enemy: Pesach. And even if you don’t have a huge family, turning everything over from chametz-tik to kosher for Pesach isn’t always something you can do alone; this year I was hired by a family friend to help her lug boxes down from her attic and restock the kitchen. It forces people to ask for help that they might not otherwise ask for, and for people to provide that help because we get it, we understand that we are all at the mercy of this nutty holiday and can’t in good conscience make it even harder for someone else.

And the evolution of the system of selling chametz, in addition to creating a situation where rabbis of various communities have a forum in which they are able to get together once a year (no other holiday has such a thing built into it), also forces people to have face-time with their community rabbi. Depending on your rabbi and your comfort level, this can be a fate worse than death or it can be kind of nice. The old joke is “What’s the difference between a rabbi and a therapist? Therapist costs money.” And many a chametz-selling meeting has taken a turn for the therapeutic, I can tell you that. I found out this year that you can sell your chametz online, and I can’t help feeling like that kind of misses the whole point.

Pesach is supposed to be a time where we celebrate our freedom, how we were Exodused from Egypt. But I see Pesach as having more in common with the slavery we were freed from than the freedom we’re supposedly celebrating. It’s kind of a holiday of endurance, not celebration. In essence, in its present incarnation, I see Pesach as a trial by fire that we have to go through every year with our families and our communities, and hopefully come out stronger on the other side, and THAT’S when the enjoyment of our freedom can kick in. We are reenacting the Exodus, people! Freedom awaits at the end; you just have to survive long enough!

Although, of course, there is also the fact that absolutely nothing in American law prohibits any of this crazypants holiday. We can be as weird and bizarre as we want and our government does not care one whit. That is freedom, folks. Freedom to be complete whackjobs and fruitcakes and never having to fear for one minute that anyone will stop you. Enjoy that. Savor it.

Chag Sameach, everyone.

 

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This post was originally published in slightly altered form as a Facebook Note on April 17, 2014. There were, sadly, no gifs in the original.

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Like this post? I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you (yes, you, you wonderful and very attractive reader) that my GoFundMe campaign is still open — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive. The proceeds no longer go toward automotive school tuition, because I have paid off my loan in full, but you can still commission me to write anything you want. Like, you can force me to watch ANYTHING and review it for you. Anything. Real-Housewives-of-Atlanta-kind-of-anything. Hit me with your best shot.

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#ThrowbackThursday — “Tish’a b’Av Thoughts 2013”

It comes around every year, so I’ll probably repost this every year.

Original post was a Facebook Note from July 16th, 2013.

 

Tish’a b’Av Thoughts 2013

Tish’a b’Av is not a day of action. There are no extensive Judaic rituals like a seder to conduct or a bundle of plants to wave around or a rickety booth to construct in your backyard.

It’s not a day of prayer, either. There are a few specific prayers, the kinot, that are particular to Tish’a b’Av, but there are nowhere near as many things to say as there are on Yom Kippur, and no one is expected to spend the entire day in the synagogue with a prayerbook.

It’s not a day of atonement. We’re not asking for forgiveness and absolution and a fresh start.

The only way I can think to sum up this day is that it’s a day of, “Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”*

It’s a day of wallowing. You’re ideally not supposed to do anything that will distract you from that, at least for the first half of the day. You’re not supposed to eat, you’re not supposed to watch TV, you’re not supposed to read, I’m not supposed to be writing this. You’re not even supposed to study Torah until after chatzot (midday).

It’s a day of mourning, and a day of regret, and a day of guilt. Very Jewish.

I have never been any good at feeling the things I am supposed to feel. I’m pretty good at doing the things I’m supposed to do, because I can usually come up with my own reasons to do them. But I’m bad at believing what I’m supposed to believe, and feeling what I’m supposed to feel.

Supposedly, God does not command your feelings. I remember in school when we got up to the “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God” verse in the shema, and the teacher raised the question, “How can God command anyone to love him?”

I don’t remember what answer she gave, which means that I must have found it completely unsatisfying, because I remember satisfying answers while unsatisfying ones evaporate from my memory, leaving the questions stronger than ever. (She probably said something like, “Doing all the commandments will lead to love of God, so it’s not a separate commandment, just a natural result” and no, that is not how it works.)

But the fact that this is a question means there’s the idea that God doesn’t command our feelings, only our actions.

But aside from what God technically commands, it’s undeniable that the Jewish calendar has demands on your feelings. Be happy on these days! Be sad on these days! Be introspective! Be celebratory! Be depressed! Be grateful! We have holidays for all of them, sometimes well spread out, sometimes smushed together like a bad mood swing.

Some people have the mental discipline to direct their thoughts and feelings toward all of these at the right times of year, and are able to take advantage of this varied spectrum of emotional experience. Me? Nope. I tend to get bitter and cynical when faced with “BE HAPPY NOW” and feel upbeat when everyone around me starts doing the sad thing.

I’m an emotional contrarian. I’m bad at feelings.

And I’m especially bad at guilt.

Because the fact is that I am a bad Jew, a Jew who doesn’t believe properly, who doesn’t care enough about Jewish things, doesn’t have enough tolerance for people who don’t think like me, and if there is a Messiah, I may very well be one of those people who is preventing him from coming, because I am just not good enough for that, and am bringing the rest of you down with me and my unworthiness. Because we Jews are all a team, and my failure somehow radiates out to impact all of us.

And I could feel guilty about that. I could let it own me, let it crush me, let it weigh on me every minute of every day.

It used to. It used to be this constant horrible presence in my life, berating me, hammering me, until I reached a point where I realized, “Yo, guilt! It’s either you, or me.” And I chose me, and over time, I uprooted and cast out every last shred of guilt I could find.

Guilt is not something I have been able to find a balance for. In order to function, I need it gone. Completely. I understand that guilt in moderation is a healthy thing, ensures that you’re not a sociopath, but I can’t handle it, so I’ve walled it out. I can recognize my mistakes, I can think to myself, “I shouldn’t have done that,” or, “That was wrong,” and I usually do my best to apologize and make it up to the person I’ve wronged, but I can’t feel bad about it anymore, not for more than a second or two, with very rare exceptions. I don’t have any real, sincere regrets. About anything.

I have tremendous respect for people who have a capacity for guilt. I respect people who can feel their mistakes, people who have deep regrets, and live with them every day without letting them take over. Guilt destroys me, and I am frankly too afraid to let any of it back in, because I know what it does to me.

So even on this day of guilt, for better or worse, I sit behind my walls and refuse to feel my wrongness.

 

 

*President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing

 

 

 

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Like this post? I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you, wonderful reader, that my GoFundMe campaign is still open — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive. The proceeds no longer go toward automotive school tuition, because I have paid off my loan in full, but you can still commission me to write anything you want. You can force me to watch ANYTHING and review it for you. Anything. Real-Housewives-of-Atlanta-kind-of-anything. Hit me with your best shot.

#ThrowbackTuesday — “Currently Not Listening (well, sort of)”

Because I missed yet another Throwback Thursday, here’s a [very] brief explanation of the current time of the Jewish calendar year and an equally brief rundown of some of the various customs observed at this time.

This post was originally published here on The Boylan Blog, in the weekly “Currently Listening” feature section, in April of 2013.

 

Currently Not Listening (well, sort of)

 

As you may or may not know, this is a time of year when many types of religious Jews do not listen to music.

The reasons for this are various and sundry, and nobody agrees on anything because this is Judaism and that’s just not how it works, but the most basic custom is that during Sefirat HaOmer (also known shorthand as “sefira”), which is the time between the second day of Passover and the next Jewish calendar holiday of Shavuot, or Pentacost, certain customs of mourning are observed to varying degrees. Or at least until the 33rd day of sefira, or Lag BaOmer, at which point most mourning customs end.

Again, reasons range from “a famous rabbi’s students were killed in a plague way back when” to “those students were actually fighting in a failed uprising known as the Bar Kochba Revolt” to “actually maybe it’s because lots of Jews were massacred by Christians throughout the ages at this time of year because of our wonderful reputation as Christ-killers” — pick whichever one you like, it doesn’t make much of a difference to the actual observance. Point is, we get emo for a bit.

This is expressed in various ways, most commonly by restrictions surrounding music. Some people just don’t go to live music events like concerts. Others don’t listen on their iPods. Others stop watching Glee (although most won’t admit they watched it in the first place).

In my circles, the most common custom is to avoid live music, and all recorded music that is not acapella. Jewish acapella music sales have always spiked at this time of year — many groups come out with acapella albums specifically at this time because they know that people will be dying for something to listen to. Of course, in the age of YouTube and iTunes, there is a wealth of acapella music available across all genres, and getting your music fix is easier than it’s ever been.

Because the quality of acapella music these days is so good, some people choose not to listen to it because it’s a conflict of spirit of the law vs. letter of the law…But that’s another argument for another time.

~Sarah Meira Rosenberg

Video Source: http://youtu.be/gEYKaXzCIio

 

 

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#ThrowbackThursday — “Thoughts on Passover, About Passover”

I’ve been neglecting these Throwback Thursday posts, because I’ve been super busy since returning from Israel — I’ve been babysitting a lot, raking in the cash; I took a trip last week to tag along at Harvard Law School with a friend, which served only to reaffirm my career choices because ick, law school; and of course, Passover is coming.

 

Here’s my handy guide to this insanity, originally posted as a facebook note last year, April 17th 2014. It features a super long intro which you can feel free to skip to get to the Passovery stuff.

 

 

Thoughts on Passover, About Passover

 
I haven’t written any notes recently, not since February, apparently. I could say I’ve been busy but that’s not really the reason. Reasons are:

1)  I’m up to the hundredth note, which, while it is a thoroughly arbitrary number, obviously carries this huge pressure to make it special, to write something brilliant and substantial to mark this momentous occasion. Which of course means that whatever I think of writing is going to fall into the (also thoroughly arbitrary) category of Not Good Enough.

2)  I’ve recently been through another breakup, and contrary to popular opinion, I am not an open book with my online presence, and I almost never post anything about my relationships without the consent of the fellow relationshipee. (Aside: it occurs to me in this moment that “former fellow relationshipee” sounds so much better than “ex.” Maybe I’ll call them FFRs from now on. Or not.) And perfectly understandably, he would prefer that I not blab my thoughts about us all over the interwebs. Which I of course respect, but so much of what my brain wants to write about loops back to the relationship and what I learned from it, ergo — writer’s block. Well, poster’s block. There’s plenty written, but it is not for public consumption.

3)  I’ve been trying to come up with a way to write about things about me that I haven’t written about before, things that somehow you don’t or can’t get a feel for from reading my notes. Who I really am in human form, not in text form. How I trip over my words sometimes when I talk, how my voice is deeper than what I consider feminine, how I pick at my scabs and chew my nails, how sometimes I have nothing to say and get away with just a knowing smile, how I can be a lot warmer and more approachable than it may seem from my notes but not always truly empathetic, how needy and fragile and frightened I can get, how detached and unemotional I can get, how sometimes I just chatter to fill the silence, how I forget how deeply anxious relationships make me until I’m in one again, how lazy and unproductive I can be. But I’m not talented enough to capture these imperfections in writing, because as soon as I put them into words, like I’ve done in the past with depression and with insecurity and with loneliness and with music being an emotional trigger, they sound…strong. They sound authoritative. They sound articulate and well-thought out. Which is precisely what they are not. And so I could agonize and try to figure out once and for all how to solve that paradox and do it right, but because I am lazy, that might mean no more notes for like 20 years. And we can’t have that.

So to get around all of these, and to get over that 100 Note hump instead of letting it loom larger and larger until it’s insurmountable, I’m going to write about something totally different: Passover. Heretofore referred to by the Hebrew name of Pesach, because that’s how it is in my head. (Note: all of the following refers to Ashkenazic practices of Pesach. Sephardic practices are very different, but I am not familiar enough with them to write a compare/contrast piece.)

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For those of you who don’t know, Pesach is, to borrow a friend’s favorite suffix, crazypants.

 

This friend also laments the fact that when you see Jewish characters in fiction, the only holiday they usually talk about is Hanukkah, as if that is the big poobah of the Jewish calendar. To that we say, HA. Hanukkah is one of the least important Jewish holidays from a religious standpoint, since it was instituted purely by the rabbis and not by the Torah itself, and also requires relatively little action, both during the holiday and in preparation for it. Basically, you gotta buy candles or oil and dust off your menorah (which you probably got for your bar or bat mitzvah, or else you can get a cheap one from the internet or your local bodega or whatever) and be home around sundown to light it. And if you get home later than sundown, okay, you light it then. Different customs may require that you don’t do anything more strenuous than reading a book for about 30 minutes after lighting the candles. Very intense.

Pesach…whooooo boy. Where do I even start.

Well, there’s the fact that if you live in America, the first two days and the last two days of Pesach’s eight days are, unlike any days of Hanukkah, capital-H Holiday days, which I’m using here to mean that they are basically two-day Sabbaths in the middle of the week. No electricity, no driving, no public transportation, no writing with pen/pencil and paper, no igniting fires (alas), no sewing, no talking on the phone, no texting, no internet. (Fun fact: Josh Malina, the actor, once tweeted, “Good Shabbos!” and when asked what that meant, he explained, “It’s Hebrew for ‘I don’t have access to google.’ ” High fives, Josh.)

Capital-H Holidays are different from the actual Sabbath in a couple of ways, the major one being that you are technically allowed to cook on Holidays for what is immediately needed. Although since you are still not allowed to ignite a fire, there are obviously limits on what kind of cooking you can do, and therefore most people who are planning to be at home and eating all their own food for Holiday meals have to do a metric boatload of cooking and baking beforehand. You do not want to know how many quiches and kugels and casseroles and lasagnas we (read: mostly my mom) have made in the past few weeks. And that’s not counting the desserts —brownies and blondies and cookies galore.

And THAT’S not counting the fact that Pesach has its own dietary requirements. As in, you’re not allowed to eat almost anything you normally eat. Or anything that was in close contact with anything you normally eat. The technical prohibition is against chametz, i.e. leavened food, but for practical purposes (since what is leavened food anyway) chametzincludes everything EXCEPT water, raw fruits, vegetables, and items that have been officially certified on their packaging as Kosher for Passover, or kasher l’pesach.  You basically need to completely restock your fridge and pantry for this holiday and cook everything with flour substitutes such as matza meal and potato starch. Also, you have to boil, cover, or temporarily replace all your dishes, pots, pans, silverware, countertops, table tops, and anything else that may have been used for chametz. Plus you must clean every nook and cranny of your house to find any other possible chametz that might be there. Lurking. Waiting to pounce.

I like to think of it as the ultimate holiday for OCD, sanctioned and encouraged by Jewish law. On the eve of the Holiday, you even get to burn the chametz that you didn’t manage to get rid of. Partay!

Lots of people avoid all this by going away for Pesach. They go to visit family who have turned their houses upside down, thereby sparing themselves the necessity of doing it to their own homes. Or they go to a hotel, which is sparkling clean already and serves them their Kosher for Passover food.

My family has never gone away for Pesach. This is probably due to a) more family in one house for 8 days? No thank you, b) a family of nine in a hotel for 8 days? Pfft, ain’t nobody got money for dat, and, probably most importantly, c) my dad is the rabbi of a local congregation and the rabbi MUST be available on Pesach to answer questions regarding Jewish law on a holiday that is this completely neurotic and overwrought, and as I said before, for at least 4 of 8 days, phone calls and internet are not allowed, so he must be available for face-to-face consultation. Also to give sermons, which he is very good at since naturally he takes after me.

Additionally, the congregational rabbi must be around very close to the beginning of the holiday for another reason — he is the congregants’ representative to sell all the chametzthat was not able to be cleaned/eaten/burned/flushed down the toilet/fed to pets/hidden in gifts given to “friends”/etc. This means that in the week or so leading up to Pesach (and, let’s be real, at midnight on the last possible day), people come to our house, meet with my dad, fill out a form delineating the value and location of said chametz, exchange an object of a certain minimum value (e.g. they hand a pen back and forth), and thus my father is authorized, as is traditional, to go to a gathering in Riverdale with the rest of the New York rabbis who hold all the forms from all their congregants and sell their chametzto a non-Jew for the duration of Pesach. (There are of course stricter opinions that say this is not allowed, but we will ignore those for the time being.)

I have to admit that I find the whole selling-chametz-to-a-non-Jew to be, well…kind of hilarious, to be honest. The basic way it’s done is that the non-Jew (who is a lovely Christian gentleman who used to live locally and now comes in every year specially for the sale, which is incredibly sweet in itself) pays about a penny or two upfront, with the agreement that he will pay the rest of the untold millions of dollars the day after Pesach, or the sale will be voided. And even though this is clearly a charade and everyone involved knows it, there are apparently six different ways that the rabbis ensure that the sale is solid and legally binding, even though it will be voided in a week. And when I was there with my dad one year, in the room with like 50 rabbis, the meeting kicked off with a check on the exact value of gold or silver or something on the stock market or whatever that morning, to make sure that the pennies being paid upfront are of enough value to bind the sale. The whole affair is compulsively neurotic in that adorably Jewish way.

Lastly, of course, is the tradition that most people have heard of if they’ve heard anything about Pesach: the seder, or sedarim in plural, since in America, we have two of them, on the first two Holiday nights. You can probably Wikipedia it and get more information about the technicalities of seder procedure than I can possibly give you (four cups of wine, dipping of parsley into saltwater, recitation of the Haggadah, festive meal, singing of incredibly repetitive Hebrew and Aramaic songs, et al), but what it probably won’t tell you is that since a seder is a family or communal get-together, no two sedarim are alike, just like no two Thanksgiving dinners are alike, even though most of us Orthodox Jew types are reading the story of the Exodus from the same Haggadah.

A seder can be huge (we host our synagogue’s seder every year on the first night and this one had close to 50 people in attendance) or not terribly large (a friend of my was bemoaning the fact that his sedarim were going to have only his parents, brother, and grandmother, so he’d have to be very present and talkative and unable to slink off unnoticed). Our home seder often serves as a mini communal seder, topping out at 16 to 18 people, who can range from “fun guests you enjoy having” to “that guy with terrible hygiene who mutters incoherently to himself half the time and spends the rest interrupting people’s conversations to complain that his sister refuses to host him anymore and he can’t understand why.” Win some, lose some. In ancient times, it was typical to invite as many people as possible to your seder because the korban pesach, i.e. the Passover Sacrifice, i.e. an entire roast lamb, was required to be eaten before the dawn of the next morning; leftovers had to be burned. And while the base text that we read from theHaggadah is fairly standardized, people are free to, nay, encouraged to expound and elaborate and offer up additional thoughts, possible lessons learned, and questions about the story and the rituals of the seder. A common answer given for “Why do we do X Random Seder Ritual?” is “So that the children will ask.” It is a holiday of questions, although the answers may range from the satisfying to the creative to the ridiculous.

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Independently of one another, my 13-year-old little sister and my 21-year-old little brother have already said to me this holiday, “You know, I really don’t like Pesach,” as if this is a surprising revelation. It’s really not. I obviously find many aspects of it amusing, but I can’t necessarily claim to like it. I’m sure there are people in the universe who like stressful cooking and compulsive cleaning and having strangely unbalanced guests at their table and having to read huge chunks of Hebrew text before getting to the actual meal and having to eat obscene amounts of charred-cardboard-tasting matza and not being able to eat normal food and stammering through neverending songs in foreign languages, but I don’t think it’s all that scandalous or presumptuous to say that most of us, y’know, don’t.

This holiday is nuts. It’s over-the-top and designed to drive anyone bonkers.

It is also clearly designed, in the way that it has evolved over the centuries, to force members of families and communities to interact with each other, forging and reinforcing connections between them. The preparation for Pesach is a massive undertaking, and would not get done in my house if everyone didn’t pitch in, at least a little bit. We band together against our common enemy: Pesach. And even if you don’t have a huge family, turning everything over from chametz-tik to kosher for Pesach isn’t always something you can do alone; this year I was hired by a family friend to help her lug boxes down from her attic and restock the kitchen. It forces people to ask for help that they might not otherwise ask for, and for people to provide that help because we get it, because we are all at the mercy of this nutty holiday and can’t in good conscience make it even harder for someone else.

And the evolution of the system of selling chametz, in addition to creating a situation where rabbis of various communities have a forum in which they are able to get together once a year (no other holiday has such a thing built into it), also forces people to have face-time with their community rabbi. Depending on your rabbi and your comfort level, this can be a fate worse than death or it can be kind of nice. The old joke is “What’s the difference between a rabbi and a therapist? Therapist costs money.” And many achametz-selling meeting has taken a turn for the therapeutic, I can tell you that. I found out this year that you can sell your chametz online, and I can’t help feeling like that kind of misses the whole point.

Pesach is supposed to be a time where we celebrate our freedom, how we were Exodused from Egypt. But I see Pesach as having more in common with the slavery we were freed from than the freedom we’re supposedly celebrating. It’s kind of a holiday of endurance, not celebration. In essence, in its present incarnation, I see Pesach as a trial by fire that we have to go through every year with our families and our communities, and hopefully come out stronger on the other side, and THAT’S when the enjoyment of our freedom can kick in. We are reenacting the Exodus, people! Freedom awaits at the end; you just have to survive long enough!

Although of course, there is also the fact that absolutely nothing in American law prohibits any of this crazypants holiday. We can be as weird and bizarre as we want and our government does not care one whit. That is freedom, folks. Freedom to be complete whackjobs and fruitcakes and never having to fear for one minute that anyone will stop you. Enjoy that. Savor it.

Chag Sameach, everyone.

 

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MLK Day Rewind — “On Being an Observant Jew at a Non-Denominational LGBTQ Volunteer Event”

Last year on Martin Luther King Day, I helped out at this community service initiative, and posted this on Facebook several days later. It was a very special experience, very appropriate to Dr. King’s legacy, and definitely worth a re-post.

 

(image source: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4071/4545938765_fa3d8df5fa_o.jpg)

 

“Here’s what I tell people about the photo release,” said one of the volunteer coordinators of the Hetrick-Martin Institute to a few newcomers. “Imagine that this picture could get to literally anyone. Anyone. If there is anyone out there that you can think of who could get their hands on this picture and that would be unwanted, and that would make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, don’t sign the form.”

“But we’re just helping make supply bags for homeless kids,” said one of the volunteers, confused. “Why would that be a problem?”

I wanted to high-five that lady for her confusion. Because it shouldn’t be a problem. Helping people in need should never be a problem. Sure, in the internet age, some people are wary of putting any images of themselves online, but this wasn’t really about that; this was about the demographic we were helping, and how associating yourself with the LGBTQ community can still sometimes get you into varying degrees of trouble.

For instance, five years ago, I probably would not have been so unquestioningly willing to sign that release. I’d have been worried that the pictures might find their way to my Modern Orthodox Jewish parents or other very religious members of my Orthodox community, and I’d have been extremely uncomfortable at the thought of having to withstand their scrutiny or answer their questions. Now, after several years of being very clear about my allegiances to this cause, that’s no longer a concern. But I still don’t talk about it with certain people, because I know it makes them uncomfortable.

Which is a shame, because this event, and other work done by the Hetrick-Martin Institute in Manhattan, is really wonderful, and I don’t use that word lightly.

The event I attended was organized in honor of the Martin Luther King Day of Service, and it involved assembling bags of essential supplies for New York City’s homeless LGBTQ youth. A donation drive had been held previously, and the first thing we did was dump everything out of the donation boxes and sort them into other boxes and piles, which we then put into bags: soap, shampoo, socks, gloves, Chef Boyardee cups, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, disinfectants, condoms, and a miscellaneous box with items ranging from sunblock to earplugs to shoehorns. There were a few kosher snacks, but kosher food was clearly not a priority here. I chuckled to myself at the thought of what some people I know might say about the idea of handing out condoms to kids on the streets, but hey, it can be really important. (The most homophobic religious people I know would joke that “we should just let them all get AIDS and die out” but since that’s not remotely funny, I made triple-sure my bags had condoms in them.)

Each bag was also given a pamphlet small enough to fit in the palm of your hand,with information about the Hetrick-Martin Institute. One of the other event coordinators, June*, explained that the bags are part of their outreach program. Homeless LGBTQ youth are understandably not the most trusting people, and HMI hopes that having something to give them, something that comes with no strings or expectations or pressure, will encourage these young people to investigate further and eventually take advantage of the other services offered by HMI. It’s been a successful strategy for them.

June took some of us volunteers on a tour of “the space” to see these other services.That’s what she called it, nothing clinical like a “facility” — just “the space.” HMI is located on the 3rd floor of 2 Astor Street, and during the day the space is shared with the Harvey Milk High School, a transfer high school for LGBTQ youth who earned at least 60 credits elsewhere but for whatever reasons could not complete their educations there. After the school day ends, HMI offers programming and services for anyone who walks through the door. This includes access to professional counselors like June, who showed us her small office, and “the pantry,” which is fully stocked with clothes, shoes, food, and other essentials like the ones we’d put in the bags.

June mentioned that they make an effort to stock “gender-affirmative” clothing, for young people who may not otherwise be able to access or wear clothing that affirms their gender identity or matches their preferred presentation. “Sometimes we’ll have a young person come in, pick out an outfit, and just wear it for a few hours,” she explained. “Because out there they may not feel comfortable presenting themselves that way, but here they feel safe.” I found that beautiful and gut-wrenching at the same time, since I do know plenty of people who’d be uncomfortable at the thought of what they would see as enabling “cross-dressing” (although that term implies a gender binary that is fairly antiquated at this point), and I know it’s a complex issue in Jewish law. But I just can’t bring myself to be at all religiously concerned in any way about something like gender-affirmative clothing, that causes no harm to anyone and helps with the comfort and psychological well-being of a person who needs it.

When asked what people could donate to the pantry, June suggested clothing, toiletries, and large women’s shoes, “but really anything. We get some wild donations — someone once donated a clown nose, and a young person saw it and was like, ‘that’s exactly what I need right now!’ ” (June always used the term “young person,” not “child” or “kid,” a word choice I support because referring to someone as a “child” immediately takes away some of their agency as well as the validity of their opinions and rights, which is the last thing these young people need.) I would add that they could probably use some kosher and halal food, because you never know who might walk through those doors and what that food option might mean to them.

As a community-entrenched observant Jew, I have a great appreciation for the concept of extended, non-blood family. HMI and the Harvey Milk High School share this idea. They offer a High School Equivalency (HSE) program (the apparently very new name for the GED), and, knowing that there is no official way of celebrating an HSE, they hold a proper graduation ceremony twice a year for those who earn one, to which all family and friends are invited. They also organize events like family retreats, and June explained that they operate with a flexible definition of family: “it can be chosen family, biological family, or friends,” because if that is what you have, that is your family, no question about it.

The décor for the space is striking — vibrant colors, murals of super heroes and super heroines, the HMHS of Harvey Milk High School painted in rainbows on the walls. June’s office has an enormous Hello Kitty poster tacked up. The place exudes warmth and safety.

It makes me so happy to know that such a place exists and that all this work is being done. That people care about this cause, that people are invested, and that they’re passionate and empathetic and creative in the ways they tackle the numerous issues. But it’s bittersweet, because you can’t help but remember that the all the warmth, compassion, and rainbows are needed to combat a much harsher reality that exists just beyond the edges of the safe space. And it can be upsetting to know that people who follow my religion’s doctrines are sometimes responsible for some of that harshness.

Attending this kind of event, clearly, has the potential to be uncomfortable. It involves working with people who have no familiarity with the complexities of my cultural and religious background, and of the prejudices I’ve seen in my community, which I may have absorbed and that I work continuously to overcome. It’s certainly not an event that caters to any religious affiliation, least of all mine.

Which begs the question that my mother always asks me: “There are Jewish organizations that do these types of things too; why don’t you volunteer with them?”

And the truth is, to me, it’s about the cause. This is a cause that transcends religion. It transcends race or culture or class or any other divisions we institute in other parts of our lives. There are LGBTQ youth in every community imaginable. I am aware that specific, nuanced needs will vary — the needs of Jewish LGBTQ youth will differ from the needs of Latino LGBTQ youth, just as both of those will differ from the needs of African American LGBTQ youth, and so on — but I personally can’t waste this opportunity to overcome differences and see shared cross-cultural humanity.

While I have the utmost respect for those who fight the Jewish LGBTQ rights fight with all the nuances therein, volunteering my own time is a more personal decision. Narrowing the lens of these issues to focus only on fellow Jews feels antithetical to why I’m drawn to this cause in the first place, which is why I donate my time to places that are non-denominational. But I hope people will continue to give their time and energy to Jewish and non-Jewish causes, because both can always use it.

(*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.)

 

 

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Happy Independence Week!

#WaybackWednesday – I repost this every year for Hanukkah. Chag Sameach, internet!

The Quarter-life Crisis Chronicles of SM Rosenberg

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I realized recently that I don’t know what people know or don’t know about the story of Hanukkah. Not that I blame anybody for not knowing it. I almost feel like it would be illogical for me to expect people to know stuff about my holidays, when I don’t know anything about, say, Kwanzaa. Sure, you could say Hanukkah’s older and more mainstream than Kwanzaa, but there are plenty of Muslim holidays, or “Eids,” that I know nothing about which I’m sure have been around for centuries. So, without any uppity judgment about “How dare you not know the intricacies of my cultural heritage?!?!” I’d just like to take this opportunity to share some information that folks may or may not be familiar with regarding the holiday that we Jews are celebrating this week.

I think the most widespread factoid about the origin of Hanukkah is the “miracle of the…

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Girl in Automotive School: On Symbolism

 

The High Holidays of Judaism always arrive at around this time of year: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed quickly by the less High but still 8-day long Holiday of Sukkot (7 days if you live in Israel).

 

And I’ve noticed this year, maybe even more than any other year, just how much each of these is rife with symbolism. There are unusual fruits eaten with their own brief prayers relating their metaphoric significance or at least puns about them and how they relate to the blessings we hope to have this year. There is apple dipped in honey for a sweet new year. There is round challah bread to symbolize the circle of life. On Yom Kippur, it’s a common custom to wear white to signify a fresh start. And don’t even get me started on all the things a sukkah may or may not symbolize.

 

Sometimes a sukkah is just a sukkah? Nope, never.

 

I’m not going to deny that symbolism can have great power, that seeing a physical manifestation or reminder of an emotional truth can be very effective. However, I think it’s largely true that the symbols that have the most power to us are not the ones that are passed down to us (not to say that there’s anything wrong them), but rather, the ones that we create for ourselves.

 

I am no stranger to making my own symbols. I’ve been choosing certain actions based on their metaphorical resonances since long before Augustus Waters made it cool.

 

[Side note: I recall reading a review of The Fault in Our Stars movie and the reviewer scoffed at Augustus’s cigarette metaphor, saying that it barely worked in the book and certainly doesn’t work on screen, and to that I say, “BAH. There’s nothing to ‘work’ or ‘not work’ about it. Either you acknowledge that there are people who create symbols for themselves or you don’t. And if you don’t, well, you’re wrong.” We may be unbearably pretentious but that doesn’t mean we don’t exist!]

 

For instance, a while back I took to wearing a fake engagement ring, first as a social experiment and then, as explained here, as a symbol to myself of all the times I have felt most wanted, chosen, or loved, by classmates, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, family, etc.

 

Lately, I’ve taken to wearing another kind of ring for symbolic purposes.

 

There is symbolism in my choice of hand pose and background posters as well. I’m just so symbolic.

 

The ring is a clamp from the inner tie rod of a car that we worked on in class. (Tie rods are what connect the tires to the car’s rack-and-pinion, which is attached to the steering gear and moves to the right and to the left to steer the car. Not important! Well, no, very important, but not in regard to this post.) Point is, it’s a piece of a car and I turned it into a ring. I even coated the outside with clear nail polish so that it would be shiny.

 

The symbol has a couple of major layers, which I was very conscious of while choosing it:

 

  • It takes something stereotypically masculine (car part) and turns it into something stereotypically feminine (shiny ring). This is important to me because it helps me fight my internalized misogynistic thinking that anything feminine or girly or pretty is inherently inferior or weak or useless. These are constructs that are pushed onto us constantly and — while this may surprise you, given my affinities for bright clothes and makeup — I am still deprogramming myself from my aversion to anything girly.

 

  • I made a very conscious choice to wear it on my left ring finger, where it is customary to wear an engagement and/or wedding ring. I did this even though occasionally my fingers swell up a bit and it might make more sense for me to wear it on a pinky finger or even the ring finger of my right hand, which may be slightly narrower. But I didn’t want to, because I absolutely want that symbol of commitment for myself. That this is what I am dedicating my life to right now. That even when it’s overwhelming, or I’ve had a bad day full of sexism and frustration, or when it’s a long weekend and school feels far away and it may feel easier to slip backward into a more conventional career, this nail-polished piece of metal around my finger provides a physical, tangible reminder for why I won’t do that.

 

I lost it a couple weeks ago, and I felt naked without it; kept tightening my fingers or reaching my thumb over to my ring finger to feel the ring but it wasn’t there, and I felt unsettled and anxious, like I’d lost an anchor, like I was loosing my grip on my commitment. It’s irrational, but that’s how much power symbols can have. I totally understood why Augustus would risk his life to get another pack of cigarettes to replenish his anchoring metaphor and regain his equilibrium.

 

bonus John Green
excuse to post gif of Augustus Waters being adorable

 

What was worse than losing it, though, was the way I lost it: I took it off to wash my hands before eating bread, as per the Jewish custom, and I forgot it by the water fountain where I washed. This was because the water fountain is in a fairly small, semi-isolated nook of the school and I don’t like being in that nook for any longer than necessary, because I can’t help but be aware of the fact that out of anyplace in the school building, that is the easiest one in which to overpower a girl. It’s not like it’s ideal for that — if I screamed they’d totally hear me in the shop — but it’s definitely not the most comfortable place to linger. So I get jumpy when I’m there, and as a result, forgot to put my ring back on and by the next day, it had been cleared away.

 

And I hated the symbolic significance of how I’d lost it — letting sexism and fear push me around to the point where my behavior was affected and I lost something valuable to me — I hated that even more than I hated losing it, and so I desperately wanted to replace it, to erase that negative energy and make sure it never happened again. Luckily, I take home lots of spare odds and ends from shop, and I found another inner tie rod clamp in my small collection, and that’s the one I currently wear.

 

So the symbolism on this one is three-fold. Better not lose it.

 

 

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