Friday night saw me seated at a long table in the suburban South Jersey home of my friends Lisa and Gamell. A white table cloth covered the new dining room table that was being used for the first time for this auspicious holiday gathering. Family of origin and of choice gathered around and I felt honored to be on the guest list. Some of these folks, I have known for more than 20 years and some I just laid eyes and hugs on then. I glanced at the decorations and laughed at some of the items…toys, actually. I asked Gamliel what they were for and laughed when he said “Take a closer look, what are they?” A toy frog, a bottle of theatrical blood, a little person-figure cut out of bubble wrap among them. “Oh, the ten plagues!” The bubble wrap cleverly was representative of boils that were inflicted on the Egyptians for not heeding Moses’ plea to ‘let his people go.’ A joke about that is also what many Passover-observant Jews call out, since a weeklong diet of matzah can be, shall we say, a bit binding.
Fluent in Hebrew, Gamliel masterfully led the service that was attended by a multi-national, interfaith crowd. We took turns reading and singing in Hebrew and English, participating in this age old ritual of the retelling of the story of Exodus during which Jews fled the oppression of slavery to freedom. We spoke also about places in the world where people are enslaved to this day and where oppression is historically masked and/or re-written. We shared food ritually at first, blessing it at each turn with gratitude for being able to partake together. After the service part of dinner (seder translates in Hebrew to the word ‘order’ meaning that it is done in a particular linear structure), we were nourished by a gourmet feast that included salmon, roasted veggies, sweet potato kugel (boasting a bit here, since my self taught chef son Adam made that delight), matzah ball soup, a lasagna-like dish that was made with matzah instead of noodles, layered with eggplant, followed by fresh fruit, chocolate covered matzah and other assorted sweet treats.
At the end of the evening, I headed over to my friends Phil and Janet’s home to sleep since I had a meeting with a couple the next day whose wedding I will be officiating this summer. They live on the New Jersey side of the river, so it made sense to stay local rather than driving back to Pennsylvania. I was so glad to be greeted in the parking lot of their complex by Phil and their four legged ‘boyz’, Bananas and Dodger who were out for their pre-slumber potty break. Before they tucked me in for the night, we were talking about the seder from which they had just returned and then musing about a tv special they had watched this week that portrayed the ten plagues as natural occurrences, such as the blood in the water being red algae and the darkness as a sand storm that covered the view of the sun and the parting of the Red Sea being caused by wind that created a trench. When it all came down to it, apparently someone on the show asked who it was that created these phenomenon in the first place, so it wasn’t dissing the miraculous aspects of the events.
The next morning, before heading out in our various directions, we sat in Phil and Janet’s meditation room for a time of contemplation, spiritual reading and meditation. Phil called the dogs in to join us, since that is part of their daily practice too. Dodger trotted in and Bananas was a wee bit late in arriving, so I went out into the living room and scooped him up. Eclectic in their spiritual practice, Janet read from a volume by Mark Nepo called The Book of Awakening and the passage was about refraining from allowing others to be the arbiter of our worthiness…one of my self-imposed plagues, for sure. She then shared something from A Course in Miracles which was the catalyst for our meeting in the early 1980’s. Phil led us through a guided meditation in which we were standing in the center of a circle of loved ones from all times of our lives. Into the midst walked Jesus who emanated the energy of love and light and one by one, each person showed that face as well and became that Christ essence and then as we gazed into a mirror, saw that in ourselves. Powerful stuff. The room in which we sat was the size of a large walk in closet and is overflowing with books, plants, wind chimes, a stone filled water fountain, tapestries, paintings created by Janet, a few poems I wrote for them over the years, statues, drums, crystals and images of their spiritual teachers including Jesus and Yogananda. By the time I left the room, I was floating.
I treasure my relationship with these two, since we are not ‘like family’, rather, we ARE family. Phil is my son’s ‘unofficial Big Brother’ since they adopted each other when Adam was 14 and he is his go-to guy for all the stuff that he just can’t talk to his well intentioned mom about. They are amazingly resilient people who have faced the darkness of suicidal thought and as a result, support others in courageously pulling the covers off the stigma of depression. Peer specialists, educators and organizers of Suicide Anonymous 12 step groups, they lead full rich lives and exemplify recovery; Janet also, justifiably proudly claiming more than 25 years of sobriety. Their relationship is a testament to the spiritual work they do each day, which includes spoken appreciation for the not-so-little-little things they do for each other. They truly model the idea of love in action. They teach professionals and the community in general in their work with Creative Communication Builders.
After my meeting with the wedding couple, who also embody that sense of devotion, which I witnessed as we planted the seeds for their ceremony, I made one last stop prior to going home; lunch with my chef in training niece Rachael who was home on Spring break from Johnson and Wales where she is in her third year. Her plan upon graduation is to open her own restaurant. I have watched her mature dramatically in the last year, stepping up as an adult to assist in the midst of some daunting challenges in her immediate family. My sister has come to count on her strength to bolster her. We Weinstein women learned from a master…my mother, about ways to do what needs to be done.
Each of these encounters with loved ones, shows me how abundant my life is, how I have the choice at every turn to step out of self imposed limitations to the true freedom to BE from moment to moment, the work of he(art) that I came here to embody.
http://youtu.be/ugzCSigEcCc Going To A Seder by The Shlomones
Growing up in a Jewish household, Easter was not a religious holiday, but rather, a cultural experience, since most of our neighbors were Christian. My parents welcomed opportunities for my sister Jan and me to immerse in the traditions of others so as to expand our horizons. At the time, I had no clue how the Easter Bunny knew to leave baskets for two little Jewish girls at the Kiernicki’s house next door. My parents were at a loss to explain it too; but there they were, rainbow colored wicker overflowing with lime green Easter grass, plastic eggs rattling with multi-hued jelly beans and the decadent deliciousity of chocolate covered coconut eggs with our names calligraphed on their surface. A few sunshine yellow Peeps were scattered about for good measure. I am getting a sugar high just remembering it.
When I was in college, my friend Albert and I visited his nieces Jamie and Jennifer, dressed in footie pajamas, long rabbit ears and cotton tails attached to our buns; delivering sweet treats. The two of them laughed with delight, believing, I would like to imagine, that their uncle and I really were related to the happy hare. I’m sure there is a picture somewhere.
These days; interfaith practitioner that I am, I celebrate both Passover and Easter; appreciating the theme of renewal and freedom, heralding new life. This weekend, I will be sharing the first night of Passover at the seder of a friend, as well as Sunday morning service at Circle of Miracles. I anticipate finding deep meaning in both rituals, as I recognize the connection between the holidays and honor One who came to this planet to be teacher and guide; ushering us into the Divine.
http://youtu.be/q1FUTpPRYAw Here Comes Peter Cottontail
The Jewish holiday of Passover begins at sundown this coming Friday April 6th and lasts until April 14th. During that period, families world wide will celebrate a time of freedom and renewal, of Spring cleaning both internally and externally. It commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt as they escaped slavery. Think of the Charleton Heston classic The Ten Commandments. In the home of my childhood, it meant taking the special dishes from the attic, packing up the every day dishes into the boxes from whence the first group came; it meant clearing the fridge and cabinets of any food that wasn’t marked “Kosher for Passover” and giving it to our Christian next door neighbors and then re-filling the empty spaces that had been swept clean of ‘chametz‘…anything leavened or otherwise not permitted on Passover.
It heralded a time of preparation of all manner of delicacies, such as my mom’s oh so awesome matzah ball soup (she and my Uncle Jim would playfully argue over whether the matzah balls should be light and fluffy…her preference or heavy and dense…his choice:) and my dad’s fried matzah for breakfast. It was the only time of year when we would use sugar cubes in tea…not sure why.
Our festive seder table would be a gathering place for family and friends of various faiths and the Maxwell House Haggadahs would sit at each place setting. We would take turns reading portions from it as we would go around the table. My sister Jan and I would joke about it being “Speed Seder” since my father Moish would run through it quickly…as he did most things. A far cry from the more traditional version that can take hours to complete. In retrospect, I appreciate my father’s brevity. Laughter and lively conversation danced about the dining room table after the more formal part of the dinner was complete.
What I love most about Passover is the symbolic nature of the rituals. The seder plate is a canvas for the artistry of the holiday. It contains
Vegetable (Karpas) – This part of the seder plate dates back to a first and second century tradition in Jerusalem that involved beginning a formal meal by dipping vegetables in salt water before eating them. Hence, at the beginning of the seder a vegetable – usually lettuce, cucumber, radish or parsley – is dipped in salt water and eaten. It is sometimes said that the salt water represents the tears our ancestors shed during their years of enslavement.
Shank bone (Zeroa) / Roasted Beet – The roasted shank bone of a lamb reminds us of the tenth plague in Egypt, when all firstborn Egyptians were killed. The Israelites marked the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a lamb as a signal that death should pass over them, as it is written in Exodus 12:12: “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn – both men and animals – and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt… The blood will be a sign… on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” The shank bone is sometimes called the Paschal lamb, with “paschal” meaning “He [God] skipped over” the houses of Israel.
The shank bone also reminds us of the sacrificial lamb that was killed and eaten during the days when the Temple stood. In modern times, some Jews will use a poultry neck instead. Vegetarians will often replace the shank bone with a roasted beet, which has the color of blood and is shaped like a bone, but is not derived from an animal.
Hard Boiled Egg (Baytzah) – There are two interpretations of the symbolism of the hard boiled egg. One is that it is an ancient fertility symbol. The other is that it is a symbol of mourning for the loss of the two Temples, the first of which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Hard boiled eggs were traditionally the food of mourners and hence they were an appropriate symbol for the loss of these sacred sites.
Charoset – Haroset is a mixture that is often made of apples, nuts, wine and spices in the Ashkenazi tradition. It represents the mortar the Israelites were forced to use while they built structures for their Egyptian taskmasters.
Bitter Herbs (Maror) – Because the Israelites were slaves in Egypt we eat bitter herbs to remind us of the harshness of servitude. Horseradish – either the root or a prepared paste – is most often used. A small amount of maror is usually eaten with an equal portion of charoset. It can also be made into a “Hillel Sandwich,” where maror and charoset are sandwiched between two pieces of matzah.
Bitter Vegetable (Hazeret) – This piece of the seder plate also symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. Romaine lettuce is usually used, which doesn’t seem very bitter but the plant has bitter tasting roots. When hazeret is not represented on the seder plate some Jews will put a small bowl of salt water in its place.
Orange – Also optional. The orange is a recent addition to the seder plate and not one that is used in every Jewish home. It was introduced by Susannah Heschel, a Jewish feminist and scholar, as a symbol that represents including women and homosexuals in Jewish tradition – both groups that have often been marginalized. You can learn more about the development of this symbol in this article on the University of Pennsylvania’s website.
My favorite job in the meal preparation was the charoset, for which I would chop the apples and nuts and swirl in the sweet honey. As a budding feminist, I brought the orange concept to our seders and my parents welcomed the addition.
One of the concepts of the seder is acknowledging the Ten Plagues that were cast upon the Egytptians when Pharoah wouldn’t heed Moses’ proclamation “Let My People Go”. They include: blood, frogs, lice, boils, hail and darkness and the ultimate plague of the slaying of the first born of the Egyptian families. There are those who say that there are ‘natural occurences’ which coincide with each one.
These days I have been questioning the constraints that I have put on myself which I could easily think of as plagues. I willingly face them as I call them out (both verbally and in the dark alley where they have been lurking), so they can see the light of day and I can find my own freedom.
1. Fear of emotional risks
2. Self limiting thoughts
3. Focus on ‘what if?’ and ‘if only?’
4. Judgement/harsh criticism of myself and others
6. Neglecting my health
7. Clutter in my environment and my head
8. Comparison of myself and my accomplishments with those of others
9. Co-dependent caregiving/savior behavior and enabling
10. Excessive activity/buzzy-busy-ness
Wishing you all freedom! Chag Sameach (Joyous Festival)
http://youtu.be/awl1KCo_oZ0 The Passover Symbols Song
Tonight, as the Yahrzeit candle flickers, honoring the 4th anniversary of the passing of my father Moish Weinstein, I have perused piles of pictures that represent several generations of my family. Parents, grandparents, my sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews all interwoven in each other’s lives. Some remain in body, some long since passed. Tears and smiles as I feel both fragile and strong, resilient and tumbling into renewed grief. A repository of memory, I’m the family matriarch of my immediate clan since my mother Selma died in 2010. At 53, I am grateful to have had my parents for as long as I did (84 and 86, respectively) since both of my grandfathers died before I was born and my parents became ‘adult orphans’ by the time they were in their mid-40’s.
I have written about my parents several times in the Bliss Blog since they have been such influences in my life that extends to every aspect. I was raised by people who lived their spiritual practice, not only by attending synagogue, but taking an active role there. My mother was in the Sisterhood and my father led the Tallis and T’fillin Club on Sunday mornings at our shul and was a man ahead of his time, since he welcomed girls (having two daughters that he raised as whole, well rounded individuals, not limited by our gender) to come to the breakfast of bagels, lox and cream cheese. He stood up to the sexist rabbi who when I came home from college for a Friday Night service, would not include women in the minyan…not that it changed the man’s mind, but I was grateful that my father was willing to tell him that his daughters should count. The guys I grew up with still remember that my dad taught them to box. He had been a Golden Gloves boxer in the navy and loved introducing kids to the pugilistic art. When my sister and I were young and would battle it out verbally, he would put gloves, head gear and mouth guards on us and tell us to go at it. We swatted at each other and I say that it is a good thing I am a pacifist, since I could have developed a mean right hook. When we would fall throughout our lives, whether it was from a bicycle, roller skates, a sled or from emotional heights, after making sure we were ok, he would encourage us to get right ‘back in the saddle’. He was a blend of tough cookie and marshmallow, growing up in South Philly (think the neighborhood where the character Rocky Balboa lived) and getting culture from marrying my mother who insisted this meat and potatoes kid eat vegetables as a condition of their marriage.
My father worked throughout his life as both a milkman and bus driver. My sister is a red head and the joke was that she was the milkman’s daughter; because, of course, she is. When he and my mother got engaged, he proposed to her by asking her to go the fridge and pour him a glass of milk. On top of the bottle was the engagement ring. I think he had run the idea past my grandmother to get her blessing. The interesting irony was that my grandfather had also been a milkman, but my father had never met him, since he died when my mom was 18.
When my parents were married 25 years, Jan and I threw them a surprise party (see picture above). I’m the one with the long hair on the left, next to my cousin Renee, her daughter Jennifer, my dad, my cousin Jody and my sister Jan. The day was filled with laughter and love, the ripples of which expand forward another few decades, washing ashore to this moment. Being with his daughters and nieces was among his favorite joys and he cherished his relationships with my cousins who dubbed him “Uncle Milky”. Even after he changed careers to become a SEPTA busdriver, the name stuck, since “Uncle Bussy” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
I was reminding Jody today that she and I had arrived in time to their South Florida home to be with him when he made his transition, holding his hand, reading to him from his favorite prayer book.
Trembling strength to sustain me, this tough South Philly street corner kid remains a fixture in my daily life, accompanying me in the car, singing along with his enthusiastic if not in tune voice. He is most especially present at the gym; his home away from home even nearly 20 years post official retirement as he worked and then worked out there even after the Parkinsons took over where he now cajoles me “Come on, doll baby, one more rep.” And so, borrowing his endurance, I oblige.
http://youtu.be/8A4W_iO2pB0 Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet by Ella Mae Morse