Archive | March, 2013

Chag Sameach

26 Mar

Last night, I enjoyed my very first Seder with the Chagal family. They warmly invited myself and two classmates into their home and fed us until we wanted to burst! It was such a lovely, fun evening – I really enjoyed it. Big thank you to the Chagal family for including us and stopping to explain so many fine details as we went along. I’ll explain the evening from my point of view. Please excuse any mistakes or naivety.

Here is how the Passover table is set (click on the picture to make it bigger and easier to read):

Passover table

All the components of a proper setting.

We didn’t have everything shown in this photo (like the reclining pillow) but we had most.

So the seder is divided in 15 parts and you read the Haggadah as you go through the parts. Simply put, the Haggadah is the guide on how to celebrate Pesach. Some families follow it very strictly and other families are more relaxed. The family I joined were more relaxed as you will see. There is a Seder leader, which in our case was my friend’s father. Last night, we each took turns reading the various parts. The Chagal family had found Haggadah that were both in Hebrew/Aramaic and English so we were able to follow along with no problem. And each of us were able to take part in reading too. Here are the parts with a brief explanation:

1) Kaddesh (Sanctification): Everyone’s glass was filled with wine and the Kiddush is read before sitting down. This is the blessing of the wine. I was used to this part since the wine is always blessed before Shabbat dinner. I was surprised that I recognized this fact. Technically, very observant Jews would drink their whole first glass of wine and fill a second glass here. We choose to be more relaxed about that.

2) Urchatz (Handwashing): This is the ritual washing of the hands. My family did not do this part (shhh…don’t tell!).

3) Karpas (Vegetable): At this point, several dishes on the table are pointed out. There are two dishes that contain celery (any green vegetable can be used – cucumber, parsley, etc). Each person takes a piece of celery and dips it into salt water. A blessing is said for vegetables (FYI – there are many blessings before eating depending on what you are eating), then we eat the celery. The salt water is said to symbolize the tears of Jews trapped in enslavement in Egypt.

4) Yachatz (Breaking of the matzah): The Seder leader picks up a ritual plate with three symbolic matzahs (plural for matzo). He takes a piece from the middle of the plate and breaks it in half. He puts the smaller piece back on the plate and the larger piece becomes the afikoman. Traditionally, children try to “steal” the afikoman and then ransom it off at the end of dinner in exchange for presents or candy. Since our youngest family member was old enough to be in the middle of her military duty – we bent the rules a smidge for this part.

5) Maggid (Telling of the story of the Exodus): I really liked this part – especially after just watching the History Channel’s new miniseries The Bible the night before. At this point, the youngest person is supposed to ask a series of four questions basically centered around “Why is this night different than all other nights?” These questions are asked in a song that everyone sings (our first song of the night!). After telling the story, the upbeat song “Dayenu” is sung. It’s 15 verses long and relates all the gifts G-d has given the Jewish people and how each gift on their own “would have been enough for us.” This was my favorite song. At the end of the song, as each of the ten plagues that struck Eqypt are recited, we dip a finger in our wine and put a drop of it on our plate. Then the second glass of wine is finished and a third glass is poured.

6) Rachtzah (Handwashing): Another ceremonial washing of the hands – we skipped this part too.

7) Motzi (Blessing of the bread): The standard blessing of the bread is given. This is the same blessing given at Shabbat dinner.

8) Matzah (Blessing of the matzo): A second special blessing is given which retells of the commandment to eat matzah. A piece of matzo break is broken up by the seder leader and passed to everyone. Each person eats their matzo.

9) Maror (Bitter herbs): A blessing is given and everyone puts bitter herbs (horseradish) on their matzo and eats it to remember the harshness of slavery. The horseradish is sometimes mixed with beetroot – we had fresh, homemade horseradish that was really good and extra strong.

10) Koresh (The sandwich): Then a bit of horseradish is put on the matzo with a bit of charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine – tasty!) a second piece of matzo is put on top to make a “sandwich” and that is eaten as well. The charoset is to symbolize the mortar the Israelites used while slaves in Egypt.

11) Shulchan Orech (Dinner): Now it’s time to eat dinner! We had an amazing salad filled with dried cranberries, pieces of grapefruit, chopped peppers, onions, mushrooms and lettuce. Appetizers included meatballs (made with matzo) and chicken livers. The next course was a large serving of matzo ball soup. The main course was pot roast and prime rib (that horseradish from earlier came in handy!), oven roasted cauliflower, carrots and sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. A sweet dish of wine soaked fruit was served last (but it’s not dessert time yet!).

12) Tzafan (Afikoman): At this point the afikoman is ransomed off by the children. It’s said this game of hiding the afikoman is done to keep children awake and interested during a very long night. It’s fun. Everyone gets a small piece of the matzo to be eaten as “dessert.” Except my family decides to do real dessert at the very end.

13) Barech (Blessing): A third glass of wine is poured for everyone. A blessing is given and the third glass is finished. A fourth glass is poured (or just a top off in most of our cases) and a glass is poured for the Prophet Elijah. A ceremonial cup has been present on the table since the beginning of dinner. The front door is open to allow Elijah into the home. Children are told that Elijah visits every house on this night (another trick to keep children awake!).

14) Hallel (Songs of Praise): The door is closed and everyone sings happy songs praising G-d before blessing and drinking the final glass of wine. Why the “-” in G-d’s name? Jews believe his name is sacred and should not be said or written.

15) Nirtzah (Conclusion): A statement is given that seder is officially completed. We sing a few more songs, including a fun one reminiscent of the 12 Days of Christmas – “Echad Mi Yodea” (Who Knows One?). It goes through each of the numbers one through 13 with a religious theme to each number – items include 5 books of Moses, 9 months of pregnancy. As each new verse is sung – all proceeding verses are sung in descending order. Lots of silly hand motions are involved too. Then the seder is finally closed when everyone says, “L’shanah haba’a bi Yerushalayim!” Which means, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Basically, that the Messiah will come in the next year and celebrations will be held in rebuilt Jerusalem.

After all this, we had dessert – flourless (of course!) chocolate cake. Everything we so delicious! I’m so happy for being able to take part in this evening. It was so interesting to learn the traditions and experience them as well. All told, it took us three hours to complete the ceremony. We sat and chatted a bit more afterwards so I never got home until nearly 12:30 a.m.

I can’t thank the Chagal family enough for taking us in. If you know any international students in your area, around the holidays (doesn’t matter what holiday – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July), I strongly encourage you to invite them into your home so they can experience them with a family. If you aren’t sure where to find international students – ask the international office of your local university. I know I made a resolution with myself this night to do this more often.


Passover, Pesach, Easter – What the what??

25 Mar

A typical seder setting

So many people have been asking me what the difference is between Passover, Pesach and Easter. I’m going to assume you know what Easter is all about so I’ll just tackle Passover and Pesach.

Passover, or Pesach as it is known in Hebrew, is probably the biggest and most celebrated of all Jewish holidays. It’s not quite on the same scale commercially as Christmas, but spiritually and religiously, it’s right in there.

Typically, Pesach kicks off with a big family meal on the first evening of the holiday, known as the seder. This meal launches the holiday and is usually attended by many family members – most of my friends are expecting 30+ relatives at their family dinner. One of my professors has 42 people coming to her house for dinner tonight!

I will be joining a friend’s family seder. These dinners take many hours as the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold using a special book called the Haggadah. As you listen, you drink and eat specific things at specific times in the story. Always present at these dinners is a seder plate. There is lots of singing, many of glasses of wine and audience participation. I will try to take pictures and tell you all about it.

Of course, preparation is everything, and preparing for Pessach is intense. Jewish law prohibits the eating, owning or even presence of chametz (which is either a grain product that is already fermented, such as yeast breads, cake, and most alcoholic drinks, or a substance that can cause fermentation, such as yeast) in the house during the holiday, which means one heck of a spring clean to get rid of all those breadcrumbs. Sales of cleaning products naturally go through the roof around this time. Grocery stores even go so far as to cover prohibited items in the store during Pesach. I will try to get some pictures of this since nothing was covered yet last time I was in the store.

Also, there is a tradition that Jews can “sell” their chametz to a non-Jew. As the token non-Jew still on campus – I have “bought” about three different friends items. I paid 2 shekels to each person. At the end of Passover, they can “buy” their items back from me. When I threatened to charge a markup for one friend he laughingly responded, “You have lived in Israel too long.”

So, if there’s no chametz (no bread, no cakes, no pasta etc), what is there to eat? Well, apart from some yummy meat dishes, the staple food of the Pesach holiday is matzo bread (unleavened bread, which represents the Hebrews’ rapid exodus from Egypt and their lack of time to cook proper bread). This is a cracker-like bread, which is fondly described as tasting only marginally better than the box it comes in. I’ve lost track of how many Israelis have told me that the only way to eat matzo is the slather it in Nutella or the Israeli version –  HaShachar.  I think anything tastes better with Nutella! I will be trying to stick with the rules during this week but as a non-Jew I am technically excused from it.

The Pesach holiday lasts for a week. My campus is closed all this week, however, we don’t have classes again until April 7th.

Have any questions I didn’t answer? Ask below and I’ll try to answer them (or find someone who can!).

Back in the Saddle

7 Mar

Well, I’m back in Haifa and classes started yesterday. I had one day’s reprieve before our first day of class. Jet lag is still tripping me up – I had the head bob thing going on by our last class last night. Luckily, most of my international classmates were in the same boat. We were a grumpy, exhausted crowd yet happy to be in each others’ company again.

I have to admit – I struggled with rather I was ready to return to Israel. When I first got home – all I could do was think about how badly I wanted to go back. I missed it desperately. That’s about the same time that I realized how happy I was in Israel. As my time at home grew, and certain less than pleasant business was taken care of, I slowly relaxed into American life again. I spent lots of time with my friends and family…and ate all the food I missed. I realized how badly I had missed everyone at home. It was nice hearing English everywhere I went and being able to read everything around me. Though it still felt like sensory overload – right up until the end. The thought of how difficult I knew this semester was going to be, coupled with leaving friends and family behind again, made me sad. Every time I thought about leaving again my brain would blare “You’ll be gone for another six months. SIX MONTHS!” Suddenly, my time at home felt too short and I became grumpy about my return.

As I flew back to Israel, I tried to rationalize with myself. “Think of how happy you were here.” To which my brain would counter with, “Yes, but you are going to hate life once your thesis research starts for serious.” Then I’d start to panic about my work load. So I’d switch gears and think about seeing my friends….until I thought of less than endearing people I’d also have to see. Ugh. My brain was working hard to convince me to get off the plane in London and hide out for the next six months.

Once I landed in Israel and started making my way towards customs and the exit – suddenly things felt oddly…normal. The smells, the bustling people, the signs I can’t understand – it all felt welcoming. I filed my missing bag report (my bags decided to take a longer stop over in London) and walked straight to the train station without having to follow the signs. As I settled into my seat for my ride up to Haifa, a young Jewish guy sat next to me as he talked loudly into his cell phone. He stared at me as the train pulled away from the station and I automatically shot him my perfected (and soon to be trademarked) Israeli stare. Yep, I was definitely back and finding my groove quickly.

As I rode the bus from the Haifa Ha’Carmel train station up to campus, I started fielding excited texts from my roommates about my impending arrival. These messages were interspersed with messages from friends at home asking if I had arrived yet and telling me how much they missed me already. My grumpy mood was being lifted, the higher the bus climbed up Mount Carmel. As soon as the bus stopped at the dorm stop and I hopped off – I was suddenly excited. I had to keep myself from running gleefully down the stairs to my greet my roommates. I was finally happy to be in Israel, happy to be home.