Sunday, April 20, 2014

Yom Ha'Shoah and Our Collective Memory

It's a breathless pace, but there's a reasoned explanation behind this "madness." It's called collective memory.

We Jews are more than a proud people. We are one of the few ancient civilizations still around, which is a major miracle considering that hate seems to haunt Jewish history. Oddly enough, it has strengthened us as a people and helped shape our identity by never forgetting each and every hate-filled event.

In fact, we are the pros at seamlessly fusing history, memory and peoplehood. Let's go back to the two "P"s -- Purim and Passover. They're prime examples of this synthesis. Holding a Holocaust memorial day a week after Passover ends seems a natural progression in our march over time.

I'm wondering if your students know that we have one of the longest memories around?  The recent shooting in Kansas City is an unfortunate stop on the road, but it won't be forgotten. The same way members of our immediate and extended families brutally killed by the Nazis won't be erased from our minds. Help your students remember their relatives by encouraging them to submit names to Yad Va'Shem, to be read out loud at this year's ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance . Want a follow-up? Encourage them to write up the story behind the name and submit it to Yad Va'Shem's Pages of Testimony project.

May the memories of their relatives be an added blessing to our collective memory.

Photo credit

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Passover Custom That Was All Greek To Me Until....

I'm back in Israel after an eye-opening Jewish history visit in Greece.

Last week my blog dealt with the Jews of Thessaloniki and their Passover customs. This post will focus on the Romaniote Jews of Ioannina -- a city in north-western Greece.

No, I didn't travel to Ioannina. I found out about this dwindling Jewish community when I visited the Jewish Museum of Greece located in Athens. Since my focus here is on holiday customs, I won't go into the background of this unusual community, except to say that they are the original Greek Jews with a history dating back over 2,000 years. Their story is fascinating, so please click on the links above to read all about them.

Now, on the Romaniote Seder which isn't even called a Seder. Here's the interesting custom. For them, the Passover ceremony around the table is called Hova -- חובה -- which in Hebrew means obligation. The name Hova immediately gives seder/סדר -- order -- to the evening. It reminds us that we must fulfill the commandment to "tell your children" about the Exodus from Egypt. Consequently, as a reinforcement of this reminder, the Romaniote Hova begins by everyone placing their hands on the table while reciting the phrase  זה השולחן אשר לפני השם -- This is the table before God.

To be honest, I heard about the hand custom years ago, but it was all Greek to me since my Greek-Israeli friend shrugged it off as something Greek Jews do without providing a reason as to why. I have to hand it to the museum staff member who gave me the explanation, making sure I would include it in my blog. I even purchased a copy of the Romaniote Hagaddah.

So, let's get on with our Hova. Make your Seder enlightening and enjoyable. To remind you how to keep everyone involved -- children and adults alike -- have a look at one of my first posts and have a חג שמח!

Hands Photo Credit

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Passover Customs Direct from Thessaloniki

Greetings from Thessaloniki -- also known as Salonica, once home to one of the most thriving Jewish communities in the world.

It's wonderful being here in this historic city that many Jews called home for two thousand years. When did they exactly arrive? Good question. A Jewish presence in Greece is mentioned in the book of Isaiah (66:19). Some researchers claim that Jews lived in Thessaloniki when the city was first established in 315 BC. Others claim that Jews from Alexandria, Egypt settled in the city in 140 BC.  Regardless of the exact date, the most significant expansion of the community came during the Spanish Inquisition when 15-20,000 Jews called Sephardim were expelled in 1492 and found a safe haven in Thessaloniki. With 32 different synagogue communities, the Jews flourished and became an essential part of the city's economy, turning it into a first rate commercial center.

While the community's history is both fascinating and tragic, the holiday customs it developed are equally interesting and still practiced by the remaining 1,000 Jews. I visited the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki and met with its director, Erika Perahia Zemour. She told me about a few Passover customs that I want to share with you.
 Have a look at the Haggadah in these two pictures.
 Erika pointed out that it is written in 3 languages: Greek, Spanish Hebrew -- better known as Ladino -- and Hebrew. Family members take turns reading from the Haggadah and do so in the language they feel most comfortable in. So, the children read their portions in Greek. The grandparents feel much more comfortable with Ladino, and the parents will either read the Hebrew or Greek text.

Next, take a look at the pan behind the Haggadah. Don't mistake it for a Seder plate.  It's a special frying pan for making Passover style burmelos. If you've read my book Hannukah Around the World, then you're already familiar with this fried doughnut made by Turkish Jews and other Sephardim for Hanukkah. Clearly, this is a holiday favorite for the Jews of Thessaloniki who have decided to give it a Passover twist by using ground matzah instead of flour. Erika even gave me the recipe:
1 cup ground matzah (count how many pieces of matzah you use for a cup)
Add enough water to the ground matzah to make dough. Add one egg per slice of matzah that you've ground and mix into a smooth dough. Drop a spoonful of dough into hot oil and fry on both sides. Remove and pat dry.  Once the burmelos have cooled pour honey on top and serve.

Speaking of recipes -- Erika also shared a recipe for a unique matzah egg drop soup. I'm going to save it for my next blog post.
Bye for now from Thessaloniki....or as they say in Greek: αντίο.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cochin Jews Put a Plague, or 10, on Pharaoh's House

Here's a DIY 10 Plagues seder project that you can adapt from a custom practiced by the Jews of Cochin, India.

In addition to placing Elijah's cup in the center of the Seder table, Cochin Jews place a Pharaoh's Cup filled with wine near the leader of the seder. Comes the section in the Hagaddah dealing with the Ten Plagues, this cup gets prime time exposure. As he calls out the name of every plague the seder leader dips his finger in Pharaoh's cup then drops the wine in a special plate. When he finishes saying all the plagues, he washes his hands.

Now for the DIY in this age of ready-made seder gimmicks.

Sketch a picture of Pharaoh. Older children can do it on their own. Younger children will have fun using the sketch as a coloring page.

That's right, add color. Ancient Egyptians liked color and makeup. Turn Pharaoh into a colorful character -- one that looks like this

Make sure the images can be taped to the front of a juice glass. Make as many as you like -- only one for the seder leader, or a Pharaoh cup for each participant and watch Pharaoh and his kingdom "drop out".

Pharaoh sketch credit
Colorful Pharaoh photo credit

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Tunisian Passover Custom Ties in with This Year's Oscars

Two hundred+ years a slave(s). That's how long it took the Children of Israel to be free of their bondage.

To remember this fact, Tunisian Jews refined the Moroccan custom of holding the Seder plate on top of each person's head. Instead, they touch the head of each person with the seder plate in order to remind him/her of the unimaginable oppression and hardship slavery entails.

How does this custom tie in with this year's Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave? During the American Civil War a song was composed in 1862 called "Oh! Let My People Go." Its purpose was to serve as the anthem for Contraband -- escaped slaves who joined the Union army. At the same time church and church services served as a center for hope and solace for the slaves, who often used Gospel songs as a means of expression. The Biblical story revolving around the enslavement of the Children of Israel, and their savior Moses helped provide a feeling of faith and trust in the future. As a result "Oh! Let My People Go" evolved into one of the most popular Spirituals sung by the slaves. It's name was changed to "Go Down Moses" and it is still widely sung today by Gospel choirs.

So here's an idea for reprocessing the Tunisian custom. As the leader of the Seder touches the head of each person with the Seder plate, how about everyone singing the first stanza of "Go Down Moses."

  1. When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
    Let My people go!
    Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
    Let My people go!
    • Refrain:
      Go down, Moses,
      Way down in Egypt’s land;
      Tell old Pharaoh
      To let My people go!

Photo Credit

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Hungarian Jews Hold a Purim Feast that Resembles the American Thanksgiving Meal

Remember the jokes we make at Thanksgiving about why we eat turkey? The typical answer is because we are giving thanks to god, which in Hebrew is 'הודו לה and the word הודו also means turkey.

It seems that for Purim, Hungarian Jews have the same sense of humor. At their Seudat Purim -- the Purim Feast -- they too serve turkey for the main course.  Why? Because Ahasuerus ruled from הודו עד כוש -- which means from India to Ethiopia.

You've got it.  The Hebrew word for India is הודו. And yes, American Indians play a major role in the Thanksgiving holiday but I'm not going there. This is a different India, part of a vast kingdom. Do you know that Ahasuerus ruled over 127 provinces?! Who was King Ahasuerus? The Talmud and the Biblical commentator Rashi have different takes on this question.

Here's another question for you to explore. Feasting plays a major role in the Book of Esther.  How many feasts were held and how long was each one?

Can you think of your own twist for a Purim feast custom? While pondering the answer to this question have a look at these Purim Feast menus.

חג שמח

Turkey image credit

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Bukharan Purim Custom for the Wintry Weather

Like you, I'm hoping that the extreme weather in the United States will make a turn around, but just in case you experience another snow storm, think about adopting this Bukharan Purim custom

Bukhara is the perfect combination of exotica and history. Located on the ancient Silk Road, this Central Asian city and surrounding region was once home to a vibrant Jewish community.

In fact, this is not the first time I've taken you to Bukhara. Last year I introduced you to the Bukharan Jewish custom of a Passover Seder overture. Sure enough, now I've discovered that this colorful community had a creative Purim twist as well.

There is always snow on the ground in Bukhara when Purim rolls around. While very few Jews remain in Bukhara and its surrounding areas, when this vibrant community was at its peak, they made the most of the snow by sculpting snowHamans like the one in this picture.

I know you're sick of the snow, but just in case you get another dumping, now you can creatively put it to use.  I've found 10 snow sculpting tips you might want to follow. If you want to go all the way, think about this: carve Haman's name into his torso, light a candle or two right next to him, watch him melt away and presto! You have a Purim variation of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Snow-Haman Photo Credit