Another story for the Haggadah: the year Zayde barely finished
By Toby Axelrod
BERLIN (JTA) — Zayde fell into a deep sleep at the seder table one Passover. We were too busy clearing dishes and gabbing to notice.
Suddenly came the shouts from the dining room: “Pa? Pa?”
I still feel the sudden cold, see everyone moving to the kitchen door.
Zayde was sitting at the head of the table in his chair with the wooden arms. His face was pale; his black kippah rested on wisps of white hair, his chin on his chest.
Zayde was our patriarch, a rabbi, a storyteller, a bridge to our lost family. Leading the seder was his job for life. Not only was the entire Haggadah chanted, family legends were repeated and old shtetl melodies were sung. We made “lightning rods” out of afikomen — scraps of matzah into which we bored holes for lightning to go through. Zayde would keep them until the following Passover.
He had left the Polish village of Luboml in 1925 and had come by ship to New York. Two years later, through an ad in a Yiddish paper, Zayde found his pulpit at Ahavas Shalom, a synagogue in a former bakery in Great Barrington, Mass. My bubbe and my father, then 4, crossed the ocean to join him. ##M:[more]##
Until 1984, Zayde led services, taught the bar mitzvah boys, performed chuppahs, gave advice. Zayde was also a kosher butcher, a gas station operator, a winemaker during Prohibition and an amazing teller of true stories.
But now he was silent.
Uncle Duddy shook him, exclaiming, “Get him up!” The table was shoved aside, splashing wine onto the white tablecloth and shaking the candlesticks. Zayde was carried into his room and placed on his bed with pillows under his feet.
We gathered at his door, just off the dining room. Zayde looked like a marble statue with a kippah. My cousins Benjy and Danny rubbed his feet. Slowly the color returned. He opened his eyes.
“What happened?” Zayde asked.
“You fell asleep,” he was told.
“That kind of a sleep I don’t like,” he said to laughter.
We dragged a wooden chair into his room and placed an old yahrzeit glass on it with just enough wine for him to dip his finger. From his bed, Zayde concluded the seder. Lightning did not strike — not for nearly two years.
In our family — in many families — leading the seder seems to be a job for life. First it was Zayde, then my dad. Now I am the one. Our family’s Haggadah grows another story longer.
Toby Axelrod is JTA’s Berlin correspondent.
Astronaut in space for Passover remembers a fallen Israeli hero
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (JTA) — As Jews around the world prepare for Passover, the festival of freedom, one adventurous soul is experiencing emancipation in a most literal fashion.
In his new abode aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman has slipped the bonds of gravity and won’t return to Earth’s shackles for approximately two months.
Reisman, 40, a mechanical engineer from Parsippany, N.J., is the first Jewish astronaut to live on the orbital outpost, a multinational complex that has been under construction for 10 years.
For this Passover, living in weightlessness will require adaptation on his part. For example, matzah is out — the crumbs would be uncontainable.
Shortly before Reisman launched aboard the shuttle Endeavour March 11 from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, he was asked about spending Passover in space.
“I haven’t really thought that much about that,” he said.
Reisman did spend time planning how to honor Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.
Following the tragedy, Reisman was given the choice of helping the investigation or providing emotional support to Ramon’s family. Reisman chose the latter.
“It was so incredibly tragic,” he told the Jerusalem Post during a visit to Israel. “Ilan had a great sense of humor and worked very hard to represent not only Israel but every Jew in the world.”
When he was tapped for a space mission of his own, Reisman asked Ramon’s widow, Rona, if there was anything she would like him to take into space.
“Ilan flew a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence,” Reisman told JTA in a preflight interview. “It was a scroll and he kind of played with it in orbit, and they have a video of that. She gave me another copy so I can kind of have the same experience with it up in orbit, and then I intend to return it to her when I get back.”
Reisman also is flying a cloth with the symbol of the state of Israel signed by President Shimon Peres, as well as a necklace blessed by a Buddhist priest and a set of rosary beads.
“I pretty much have all my major religions covered,” he joked.
Reisman’s Passover in space will be spent getting to know two new crewmates, Russians Sergey Volkov and Oleg Kononenko. The cosmonauts will replace space station commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko, who depart on April 19, the first night of Passover.
Fortunately for Reisman, his Russian is stronger than his Hebrew — he made it through cosmonaut training without a translator and took his exams in Russian as well.
But his Jewish heritage comes through, too. When one of his shuttle Endeavour colleagues asked about the camera view during a spacewalk last month, Reisman quipped, “The camera work is great. We’re going to have you shoot my cousin’s bar mitzvah.”
Soon the space station will have a more permanent mark of Jewish contributions to space exploration: Reisman’s replacement, Jewish astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, is bringing two mezuzot.
At an informal Italian seder, tradition amid the din
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
MORRUZZE, Italy (JTA) — I spend a good chunk of my time in an old stone farmhouse in central Italy’s Umbria region. It’s a beautiful part of the country, but a region where few Jews have lived since the Middle Ages.
Indeed, around here, the generic word for “person” is “cristiano,” Christian.
Many Americans and other foreigners have weekend or summer houses in the area, and while I don’t think I know any Italian Jew living within 40 miles of my house, quite a large percentage of my “foreigner” neighbors are Jewish, or at least have Jewish connections.
If I’m here at Passover, I make a seder. Passover ingredients can be hard to find — the nearest place to buy matzah is at least an hour’s drive away. But I love preparing the traditional dishes and going though the Haggadah with whomever I can round up to join me at the table.
This means roping in whichever of my Jewish, or Jewishly connected, foreign neighbors are in residence. Friends from Rome or Florence and visitors from abroad also sometimes swell the crowd.
Over the years my seder guests have numbered from three to nearly 20. (I’m not a stickler for ritual, and sometimes I shift the timing of the meal to an afternoon or even a weekend to enable as many as possible to attend.)
We can form a rather motley crew — Americans, English, Dutch, Italians, Poles … artists, journalists, diplomats, lawyers, teachers, a best-selling novelist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, a backpacking cousin touring the world before going off to teach English in China.
Inevitably, given the number of non-Jewish spouses and other friends who turn up, the Jews at the table often are outnumbered.
That’s just fine with me. At the seder we are enjoined to ask and to answer questions, to explain the Passover story in the simplest and most basic terms so that everyone — even those who don’t know what they should be asking — can understand.
I pass the Haggadahs around the table. They, too, are a motley collection: decades-old supermarket giveaways that speak to me of my childhood; an earnestly egalitarian feminist interpretation; an ArtScroll edition full of detailed explanation; a beautifully illustrated Italian version. Where some of them came from I don’t even know.
As in my childhood, we go around the table reading in turn, each guest taking a passage, then in unison we recite blessings or drip symbolic blood from our goblets. All the translations into English are different. Some guests read in Italian. Occasionally someone prefers to read in Hebrew.
It’s a cacophony, not a chorus. We laugh and talk — then we eat.
Throughout the meal, I keep at my side the most beautiful Haggadah of all — a facsimile edition of the Sarajevo Haggadah, the lavishly illustrated manuscript that was handwritten in Spain in the 14th century and brought by a circuitous route to Bosnia after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
The facsimile preserves the wine stains and children’s scrawls that mark the pages of the original, indelible testimony of long-gone seders who knows where, who knows when, who knows who.
I point them out to my guests. We, too, even in our own informal way, I tell them, are connected, asking and answering questions, carrying on a tradition that spans time, place, community and culture.
Abbreviated seder saves the day in Big Sky country
By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Like so many credit-card holders, I hoard points for the big, could-never-afford-this-otherwise events. At spring break in 2006, I had enough for a family outing to Montana and Wyoming, parts of the country we always wanted to see and ski.
The problem: Spring break coincided, as it often does, with Passover. So I made sure to pack the holiday necessities: the candles, the matzah and matzah cover, the grape juice.
But I forgot the Haggadahs.
I discovered this while unpacking just hours before the first seder, which is when we arrived at the Big Sky Montana ski resort. I grabbed the Yellow Pages and left a long, desperate message at the Reform shul in Bozeman, 30 miles away but well worth the drive to rescue the holiday.
Racking my brain, I thought surely a Haggadah must exist online. I hopped in the car and drove to the lodge, where I found the single computer attached to a printer. Googling every spelling permutation, amazingly all I found was a 30-minute seder for a fee.
I pulled out my credit card, paid the $15 and printed it four times. I drove back to our room just in time for the meal.
In the meantime, a member of the Bozeman synagogue had called to tell us, charmingly, that four Haggadahs were in a plastic bag hanging on the shul doorknob if I wanted to drive in, and we were more than welcome at the Passover day services. I left a message thanking her profusely and saying it was no longer necessary.
Whatever its drawbacks — among them little depth and the absence of the fun songs — the 30-minute seder worked wonders with the kids, then 5 and 7, who really enjoyed the story.
Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief.
Top 10 talking points of Pesach
By Rabbi Stewart Weiss
The most widely-published of all Jewish books is the Haggadah. Each year, numerous new editions are released, offering new and probing insights into this marvelous work. Most fascinating, I think, is the halachic requirement that — for at least one night in the year — parents and children MUST speak to each other! Sad as it may be, despite all the labor-saving devices which mankind has created, we seem to have less and less “quality time” to spend with those we love the most.
Pesach provides a rare opportunity to review the Jewish experience with our entire family, and convey essential truths to our kids about who we are and what we are all about. Here are what I consider to be the “top 10 talking points of Pesach”:
1) Seder. This opening refrain is more than just a table of contents. It reminds us that there is an order not only to this evening’s ceremony, but to the world at large. While fate and fortune are a part of life, and though at times it may seem that the world is spinning out of control, we believe there is a guiding force in the universe, a master plan that has a beginning and an end. Ultimately, history will make sense — to those who know how to read it.
2) Ma nishtana? Not only is this night different from all others, but we, as a people, are different from any other people. Not just because we have survived the longest or suffered so much, but because we have a holy agenda and a purpose in this world. Not to dominate or rule the world, but to change it for the better. To study G-d’s ways so as to understand them, and then do our best to teach those values — ideally, by example — to humanity at large. That is precisely why we have survived — and suffered — through it all. At the end of each year, we ought to ask ourselves, “Ma nishtana?” — literally, “What has changed?” What have we done to effect positive growth in ourselves and others?
3) Chametz and matzah. Though these two foods appear diametrically opposed to one another, they actually contain the same exact ingredients — flour and water! Only one item makes them different: time. We sped out of Egypt, unwilling to wait even for the dough to rise. Time is invisible and intangible, yet it is one of the most valuable commodities known to man. We have a mandate to use our time wisely, to “watch” every second we are granted and do something important with it. Just as the Jewish calendar restarted at Nisan, we are given a new opportunity each day to sanctify time, not squander it.
4) We were slaves in Egypt. This answer to the Four Questions reminds us that of all virtues, humility may be the greatest. Though we have produced kings and prophets, we have humble beginnings. A matzah — unlike its haughty croissant counterpart — has a low profile that symbolizes humility. So, too, Moses was the greatest of our leaders — even speaking “face to face” with G-d — and yet he never fell victim to conceit or arrogance. Despite his pivotal role in the Exodus, his name is mentioned just once, in passing, in the Haggadah.
5) The four children. Everyone has a seat of their own at the seder table. Everyone is welcome and everyone is beloved by G-d, be he clever or clueless, disobedient or disconnected. Every child is different and unique, and each must be approached in his or her own way. We can start to reach our kids, suggests the Haggadah, by letting them ask us tough questions, and then responding honestly to each one.
6) Go out and learn. There is a big and beautiful planet out there. G-d created it because He loves us and because He wants us to enjoy it. Go out and see the world — scale the Alps, cruise the oceans, meet new people, expand your horizons. But — from everything, you must learn.
7) The 10 plagues. Why 10? Would not one, huge cosmic smack across Pharaoh’s face have been enough? But the total breakdown of Egyptian society — water turning to blood, crops and animals dying, insects and animals in rebellion, fire raining down, etc. — served to teach us that “normal” life is not a “given” and should never be taken for granted. Don’t turn to G-d only when things go wrong; seek Him out and thank Him when things go right, too.
8) Dayenu. Why is enough never enough? Why do we always worry about tomorrow when today is going along just fine? It’s good to prepare for the future, but it’s also good to appreciate the here-and-now. Accentuating the negative and finding the dark cloud behind every silver lining bespeaks a lack of faith and a denial of G-d’s goodness. Spend all day striving to be better, yes; but at the end of that day, be happy with what you have. Enjoy the family and home you’ve built, take a deep breath and say, “Dayenu!”
9) Maror. More than any other Jewish holiday, Pesach requires us to go back in time, to relive the experience of freedom and make it personal. But to appreciate liberation more fully, we must first feel the bitterness that accompanied our years in slavery; that is one role played by maror. The bitter herbs also serve to remind us that life — certainly Jewish life — is not always sweet and sublime. It has its moments of bitterness, frustration, disappointment and despair. We don’t sugar-coat Judaism; we swallow the maror — and then we move on.
10) One kid, one kid. This musical walk through Jewish history at the close of our seder depicts the great civilizations that have come and gone, the mighty empires that were once so full of sound and fury, but now signify nothing more than a memory. Through it all, the one little kid — the Jew — somehow survives. The seder ends on a decidedly confident and positive note: We may “butt heads” with powerful nations, but we don’t ever let them get our goat.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss is director of the Ohel Ari Jewish Outreach Center in Ra’anana (email@example.com). This article first appeared in the April 15 issue of the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with the author’s permission.