In This Jewish Life, I include brief overviews of our major holidays throughout the year as a way to introduce the heart of the book: real-life stories of men and women as they pass through these seasons. In 2018, Passover begins on the evening of Friday March 30 and I’m sharing the text of my Passover overview as a sample from my book. Here it is …
“Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.” M. Joseph, Judaism as Creed and Life
PESACH, PASSOVER, follows Purim by a month and a day and commemorates the liberation of the People of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Outside of the High Holidays, Passover is likely the most widely observed holiday of the Jewish calendar. Celebrated for eight days (seven in Israel and by Reform Jews), Passover begins with a ritual meal called a Seder, an hours-long celebration filled with food, discussion and singing that enables Jews to fulfill the commandment to retell the story of our going out from Egypt.
The most distinguishing feature of Passover is matzah, a flat cracker that substitutes for bread during the holiday. When the People of Israel fled Egypt, there was no time to allow their dough to rise. The flattened cakes they ate come down to us as matzah.
The laws of Passover dictate that prior to the beginning of the holiday, the home must be cleaned of all chametz, that is, any food that might have any leavening in it whatsoever. No bread, no noodles, no cereal or cookies. The night before the holiday begins, some families conduct a chametz search. By candlelight, children set out with a wooden spoon and feature to collect bits of chametz that their parents have set around the house for them to find. These last bits of chametz are set aside to be burned the following morning. Those who observe the law in the strictest sense will have in their homes only those foods that have been certified kosher for Passover.
On the Seder table are other foods symbolic of the Passover story—saltwater simulates the tears of the Hebrew slaves; horseradish represents the bitterness of their lives. An egg symbolizes the cycle of life; charoset, a savory mixture of wine, cinnamon, apples and walnuts, symbolizes the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. Four glasses of wine are drunk, at prescribed times during the meal.
To entertain children during the long meal, a tradition developed to hide a small piece of matzah called the afrikomen during the early part of the meal. Toward the close of the evening, all children present are invited to search for the afrikomen and then ransom it back to the head of the household.
The Passover story is told in a book called a Haggadah. Haggadot, plural, may be simple or ornately illustrated. They have long been an art form in and of themselves; there are hundreds of Haggadot to choose from.
When I first heard of the great cosmic calendrical concurrence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, I admit I didn’t give it much thought other than a cursory: Boy it’s coming early this year! I’ve been most focused on the fact that our daughter will be home soon. And not for some little drumstick of a four-day weekend, but for a gobbling-good span of six whole days and nights. It will indeed be good to have Emma with us to light our menorahs and have a small Hanukkah party with the few friends remaining in town for the holiday weekend.
I’ve never cared for the Chrismakkuh label. Hanukkah is not a “Jewish Christmas” despite the two holidays’ proximity on the calendar page each December. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christianity’s Savior. Chanukah commemorates an epic battle fought by Jews determined to preserve their religious heritage and way of life. Part of that religious heritage holds that the Messiah has not yet arrived. So the whole Chrismakkuh idea, although it sells a sleighful of merchandise, always reminded me of the one-hand-clapping koan. (Which has nothing to do with one-hand-clapping Kohens.)
But if there is to be a twinning of American and Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are a much better fit. Hanukkah is all about preserving religious freedom, one of our country’s founding principles. We Jews have much to be grateful for as American citizens. I recognize the good fortune of having been born at this time in history in this particular country. When we light our menorahs each year, it is a blessing that we can fulfill the mitzvah, the commandment, of placing them in the window in order to share the light of the holiday with all who pass by. Not all Jews in this 21st century are as fortunate.
Too, there is the thrill of experiencing a confluence of holidays that will not occur again for another 70,000+ years. That’s pretty spectacular. Just think, Thanksgivukkah might send the phrase “once in a blue moon” right to the linguistic dustbin. Imagine folks a few decades from now greeting one another after a long hiatus, “So good to see you, Caleb. It’s been like what? Since Thanksgivukkah since we’ve been together?”
The lilies were mere days from opening. Six stalks heavy with close to three dozen blossoms, each blossom swaddled within its own petals. In full bloom they would soon measure five to six inches in circumference, bright white petals outlined in deep pink. I went out to check on them yesterday and …
They were gone.
Every. Last. One. Vanished.
Each flower had been snipped off at the base of the bud. And to add to the mayhem, mystery: the severed blossoms were nowhere in sight. It was as if someone had come in the middle of the night, clipped them with a hedge trimmer and made off in the dark with my long-awaited botanical bounty.
Who or what could have done this? It would have been one thing if the blossoms had been scattered four feet below on the ground around the base of the plants. The rabbits love to do that. It’s a special bunny game called Torture-the-Gardener. It goes like this: watch for the tulips to bloom that the Gardener planted last fall. Await her cries of delight and excitement as the tulip flowers are 17 hours from fully opening. Creep out in the light of a spring moon, nibble them off at the bases and leave the petals scattered like so much dead confetti for Gardener to find when she comes out the following morning. Enjoy watching her scream and steam. Cover Baby Bunny’s ears from the foul language.
I’ve quit skirmishing with the chipmunks of late. They’re impervious to the taste of Tabasco, use putrid egg potion as perfume, are dextrous enough to pilfer a single nut from my Hav-a-Heart traps. But they couldn’t have climbed the lilies’ sturdy stalks, could they? Bitten off the flowers one blossom at a time and carried them down into their little chippie tunnels? Had they invented specialized lily-ladders? Or had deer come for a midnight snack? I saw no tell-tale prints, nor droppings, but I have seen a few of these white-tailed destroyers every now and then in the neighborhood. As far as I know, I have no human enemies, no neighborhood gardeners who envy my echinacea. Irrelevant, who did the dastardly deed. I am nevertheless lily-less.
A few years ago, staring at those stems, shorn of all that potential and imminent beauty, I would have been truly livid. Today, I just shrug. It’s not worth the wrath. So the deer ate the lilies. Or the chipmunks managed to pilfer them in some way, lock, stock and stamen. Maybe it’s all the yoga. Or maybe thirty years of tilling these dear patches of earth, riding the peaks and valleys of growth and destruction has taught me non-attachment. Maybe this is what a Zen garden truly is — not one of tenderly raked gravel and exquisitely pruned shrubs. But a garden where destruction is met with equanimity and joy can still be savored in what was potential and imminent.
How is your garden growing? Share this column with your gardening buddies by clicking Facebook’s “f”. And if you have some tricks to keep the varmints at bay, do tell.
Here I am again at 4 AM. Awake. Sleepless. Torn between getting up and using this extra time in some productive way, and turning over and courting Morpheus. I read somewhere that waking up at 4 AM (as opposed to 2 AM or 5 AM) signifies deep sadness and mourning. Maybe I’m just mourning not being able to sleep till morning. Never read what 2 AM or 5 AM awakenings signify — indigestion and the need for a potty call, perhaps?
My yoga teachers say this is the perfect time to meditate, that the veil between the worlds is thinner on dawn’s cusp. Which worlds would that be: the world of the sleep-blessed and the sleep-hungry? I’ve never managed to access a world beyond the veil; as it is for most novices, meditation is a challenge. Sometimes I curl up against my husband, small comma nestling into larger one, and hope to end this sentence of sleeplessness. Other times, such as now, I abandon all hope of sleep and set to writing/thinking/considering….
Veils or no, there is indeed something magical about this time of night-into-day. The birds are awake and at it: baw-weep-weep-weep calls one; chi chi chi-chichitter calls another. The crows caw out their daily updates and the mourning doves trade plaints. Beyond my window, a robin is bouncing on the roof. Is she really cocking her head and peering back at me as I write and watch her? The trees begin to emerge in the growing light. What moments before was a block of black now begins to recede, revealing a silhouette of branches, leaves, limbs. Soon enough the silhouettes give way to a swath of variegated greens . The hydrangeas appear; I swoon over the magical blue of them. It has taken three summers to get the soil acidic enough to mimic a Cape Cod sky. Pale pinks sometime streak the clouds at dawn; but not today. After a second night of rain, the heavens above remain white, heavy, wet. It is bright enough now to see the leafless limbs of our last elm tree. One more mighty giant is going to fall. The garden will be transformed once again: shade loving plants will give way to sun worshippers. Just as I get it going, I’m going to have to retrench and get out the books again. What will I lose? What might I replace it with? Three decades of gardening under my belt, I know not to fight it. This is the way of nature.
It is now close to six. Another nuit blanche, as the French call them, is gone. Time, perhaps, for a ninety minute cat-nap, and then a peaceful still-early morning walk to yoga.
We saw quite a few of these amiable self-hugging trees as we hiked the trails in Sedona a few months back. The first words that sprang to mind when I saw this particular one was a public service bumper sticker from the 1970’s asking, “Have you hugged your kids today?” Sorry state of affairs that folks have to be reminded to hug their children.
The second phrase that came to mind was, “Have you hugged yourself, today?” How often do we stop and acknowledge our own goodness? To take a moment for a self-hug celebrating the completion of a difficult task? Might it help us along to remember to stop and embrace ourselves in the midst of a harried day? Be good to yourself, this juniper reminded me.Hold yourself close in support and celebration.
STEP INTO THESE SEDONA ARIZONA TRAILS WITH ME
Before I go further along these trails, let me invite you to step into these images with me. If you click on any of today’s photos, they get bigger. Click again and a couple of them will get much bigger. But, back to the trail ..
Does your mind instantly form a heart, too?
I saw this tree on my only solo walk — a six-mile trek early on a cool morning. Instantly my brain closed the branches into the heart that everyone sees in this photograph. Probably something do with gestalt theory about our brains always seeking to close the circle, fix the “problem” or complete what’s been left incomplete. So with my gestalt brain extending the tree branches to complete the image of the heart, my emotional brain got to thinking about closed hearts and open hearts, about what it means to have a complete heart and if one is in possession of such a wonder, does it mean there is no room left for more goodness?
When my kids come to town I often say, “Ahh, my heart is complete” by which I mean “I need nothing else in this world; this moment is the apex of all apexes.” In yoga there are any number of asanas called “heart-openers,” postures designed to physically model the emotional compassion and openness to others that make for a kinder world. The phrase complete heart says one thing; the words closed heart means something altogether different. I think maybe the lesson this lovely tree imparts is this: only by keeping an open heart, can we experience, again and again, a complete heart.
No danse macabre, this. A danse l’arbre.
As in life so in death, I always think when I see these wind-swept trees. Although they are dead, dead, dead, they are gorgeous — branches reaching skyward in jubilation, trunks bent in suppleness; even their exposed roots seem to be tip-toeing off to some arboreal party deep in the forest. In death, it’s as if you can read the story of the tree’s entire life — drought and plenty, storms of destruction, a lopsidedness that belies being overshadowed by greater forces. I can’t help but ponder: what of us when we die? What will those we leave behind see in the forest of their memories of us? I hope-hope-hope to be recalled just like these trees: still dancing in the rain, still reaching upward in hope and determination, bent, yes, and gnarled, yet somehow deeply alive. Have you hugged yourself today?
Sedona’s Jim Thompson Trail is a worthy hike, even for beginners.
The Jim Thompson trail in Sedona, Arizona is a four-mile round trip hike offering up breathtaking views from vantage points of 4800 feet. Oak Creek’s first settler, Jim Thompson, built the road in order to bring produce from his Oak Creek farm to the residents of Sedona. Eventually he made a homestead in Sedona and used the road to connect his two properties. Now a great hike along a formation called Steamboat Rock, it weaves through juniper and other pines, deciduous trees, and plenty of agave, prickly pear and hedgehog cacti.
We took it on during the middle of our stay, once our hiking muscles had acquired a bit more oomph, and our lungs had adjusted to the altitude. About halfway through the walk we rounded a bend and came upon a huge swath of purple bearded irises blooming in a cleft of rock. Irises! Gorgeous and vibrant as if they were just waiting for Van Gogh to set up his easel and start smearing his palette with ropes of violet, cobalt, orange, goldenrod, and green.
Surprisingly there are irises all over town. Of course with water and a fairly hardy plant, you can grow most anything anywhere. We learned that the original pioneer women brought irises with them. What longing they must have felt as they set out, tucking a few precious corms of hope and memory as they began their westward trek.
But how did this particular stand of iris arrive, and manage to thrive, in this seemingly inhospitable site? It’s doubtful that a bird swallowed a random iris corm, passing out the remains in mid-air. Last time I checked, irises had roots but not feet so they couldn’t have arrived under their own power. Perhaps a century plus ago the rivulet of spring rains that sustain the irises today was a steadier flow of water. Maybe Mrs. Thompson dug them into the earth midway between Sedona and Oak Creek, marking the place for respite along the way.
Irises growing alongside an abandoned homestead, West Fork Trail, Oak Creek Canyon
Gardeners often bring along a favorite plant to a new locale, transplanting it along with one’s self. I have come to admire the hardy little cacti that grow in this most challenging terrain. Considering the effort of simply staying alive, their red and fuchsia blossoms, no bigger than a cotton ball, are all the more glorious. Returning home under mechanized horsepower, I’m as far from a farmwife as you can get. Instead of irises, I have planted a little dish garden of cacti (purchased locally, not poached!) To remind me. And to stoke the hope of returning one day.
The beginnings of a new cactus garden. Now must learn their names!
There is a duality to Passover that I never realized until this year. In the weeks leading up to this holiday celebrating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, we are clearing our cabinets, refrigerators and freezers of any form of bread, pasta, cereal as we make way for losher for Passover fare. There is the mad scouring of crumbs from fridge gaskets, drawer runners, room corners and coat pockets. For some it’s an all out assault worthy of Patton; for others the custom is distilled to neither, buying, cooking nor eating any kind of breadstuff or leavened food.
But when we finally approach the shore of the purpose of the entire holiday — the retelling of Exodus story — we are free to do so in any manner we wish. Some families dress up as they imagine our ancestors might have; some tent their dining rooms and gather in a circle on the floor for the retelling. New Haggadot (plural of Haggadah, the book read at the Passover Seder containing the story of the Exodus and the Passover Seder rituals), spring up each year like early crocus — colorful, unique, enchanting. There are innovative twists on the traditional foods — savory, sweet and everything in between. Matzah — the simplest of bread, made from nothing but flour and water — becomes a culinary Zelig, appearing on the Seder table and throughout the week of Passover as a stuffing, a casserole, a dessert, ersatz pizza and even trail mix. The strictures of cleaning behind us, we are liberated to fulfill the commandment to retell the story as if we ourselves were the slaves freed from Egyptian bondage, in any way we wish.
This year, away from home but in a red-earth terrain that feels closer to home than many, I came up with a close-to-literal twist on fulfilling the instruction to place ourselves in the sandals of those fleeing Egypt. There was a dry creek bed nearby, so why not walk through it, pretending we were the Israelites crossing over the yabasha, the dry bed, revealed by the splitting seas? I gave each family member a role to interpret: Moses, Aaron (Moses brother, the High Priest and Moses’ spokesperson to Pharaoh), Miriam (Moses’ older sister), a young girl who’s just learned she and her family are up and leaving behind all she’s ever known, an old woman who doubts her strength to make this journey, an orphaned Egyptian slave who wants to come along, and Nachshon ben Aminidav, who the midrash teaches caused the waters to part by stepping boldly into the raging sea.
I also printed up the lyrics to Debbie Friedman’s classic “Miriam’s Song” hoping that everyone, after walking through this metaphorical Sea of Reeds, would join me and sing this beautiful, and now classic song. I sent the lyrics to my daughter to print and she surprised us by creating seven different song sheets, one tailored for each of us. During the Seder, the middle of three reserved matzot (plural of matzoh) is broken. The larger half is hidden, later to be found by the children (of any age.) Following the lead of the rabbi I have studied with here, I drew a simple piece of matzah on card stock, cut it into pieces and invited each family member to write a time when they had helped to heal someone or mended a “broken” situation. My plan was to reassemble the pieces and at some point in the Seder, pass around this “matzoh of healing” for us all to read. I wasn’t sure how it all would go — river walk, role playing, sharing a time of healing. We were seven grown-ups after all. Would everyone step out of their comfort zones and get into the spirit?
Yes, yes and yes. On the walk toward the riverbed, we passed a corral where two horses were grazing. They cantered over to us and we spent a few minutes patting their noses, gazing into their huge brown eyes. In the Torah portion describing this Biblical crossing, the waters close over Pharaoh’s army and their horses, drowning every last one. This pair of horses made me think of all the innocents whom war overwhelms and destroys. As we walked slowly over the cobbled stones of the riverbed, evidence of the water’s power was everywhere: sizable tree limbs lay scattered nearby as we threaded our way through rocks that ran all the way from pebbles to boulders. Like the middle matzoh, what is hidden is actually revealed in its own absence. When we reached the other side, Emma distributed the beautiful song sheets she had made. As we sang, my sister-in-law got us all dancing and laughing, just as Miriam had led the women with her timbrel. The hour or so we took to cross the riverbed, mosey through the park and stroll beside the rushing water of Oak Creek were a perfect opportunity to release the day and gather our thoughts for the coming Seder.
Round and round the table we went, reading from the Haggadah, dipping twice, asking the Four Questions, drinking the four cups of wine, and of course eating, eating and eating. The role playing inspired some interesting insights. My daughter, in the role of the old woman, shared that initially she thought the woman would simply die early on. But then she reconsidered. She could just as well draw upon untapped inner strength, and the strength of those around her to make the journey. Laura, my sister-in-law’s partner, had drawn Moses and spoke about leadership and how often it is thrust upon us. “So often. we discover that when we step up, or into, a role we don’t feel we are ready for, everything we need to achieve the goal begins to appear,” she said. As fate would have it my son’s fiancee drew the card of the girl who would be leaving everything behind come morning. Elizabeth shared how it made her think of her own mother who, at eleven, was told that she and her mother were going on vacation from the Czech Republic. Only when they got to California did she learn the truth: America would be her new home. Everything had been left behind: clothes, friends, toys, language.
After the hidden matzoh had been found, we passed around the matzoh puzzle. The only instruction I gave was that we were each to read a moment of healing that was not our own. “I give confidence through tutoring,” read one. “I listen to people’s stories,” read another. It was quite moving to hear the many ways we seven have sought to heal and bring solace to others. This “matzoh of healing” is now in our Passover archive, dated and tucked into the folder with Emma’s beautiful song sheets to be used for another year. And so we entered this week of Passover far from home, yet sweetly closer one another and a few steps closer to our roots and foundational Story.