Jewish · marriage · tradition


larryWhile many Jewish outlets and friends have been answering the central question of Passover, “Ma Nishtana…?” — “Why is this night different from all other nights?” within the sphere of the coronavirus (see: Zoom seders, or “Zeders”!), for me and my family of two, the answer is separate from today’s pulsing pandemic.

For several years now as a mostly-grown-up person on my own, I’ve honored the holiday by purchasing one token box of matzah that sits nearly full in my cupboard until the next year when I try to determine if there really is such a thing as stale matzah.  Sure, I’ll eat a piece or two with some tuna salad, maybe even soften some butter to slather it and eat with my morning eggs, but that’s really the extent.  I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to several seders (the traditional Passover meal) over my years as a wandering Jew — from a 4-hour long one with amusing, hard-of-hearing relatives one-upping each other vociferously and with Eastern European accents about the horrors plane travel to a child-friendly seder replete with plastic finger-puppets and frogs to throw at one another during the recitation of the plagues that befell the Egyptian people.  

But, for me, the days of a “family seder” are long-past since my parents parted in my late teens.  My mom has made her efforts of seating folks around a collapsible table in her Manhattan studio apartment and my dad had enjoyed his seders in the company of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s family, but these all took place 3,000 miles from their California-rooted daughter.

And so it was, with not a little trepidation, that I undertook the creation of a seder of my own this year.

Those familiar with the holiday know the layers of family tradition, family bloopers, and family reminiscences that weave throughout the making of this “dinner.”  You know the arguments and boasting about the best consistency for a matzah ball, about the trials and lamentations of roasting a brisket to moist tenderness, and you know the general air of activity and festivity that emanates from a home where seder is being prepared.

And while J, a goy, can’t tell me whether his family falls stalwartly in the dense or airy matzah ball camp, I can surely tell him that the right way is dense — and he cannot contradict me!

I wasn’t altogether sure what my observation of the holiday would be as I walked into the local kosher butcher last week, replete with face mask and latex gloves.  But, as I walked the teeny aisles trying to not freak out about others’ proximity, I picked up a few items and a few memories of seders gone by.  I picked up items that I put back, imagining that, no, I wouldn’t be attempting aforementioned matzah balls — too risky — and deciding I wouldn’t subject J or myself to some staples of my own childhood seders, like the ubiquitous chocolate-covered jelly rings or jelly-suspended gefilte fish.

That said, I did come out with some “gesture” Passover foods: matzah (egg, of course), chocolate-covered matzah (dark, of course), and coconut macaroons (no, not those French sandwich cookies!).

I set them on my mantle at home, took a stylized photo to send to family and friends, and captioned it my “nod to the holiday.”

But, as day turned to night and day again, I wondered if I myself could cook a holiday meal after all.  My chief hesitance was that the food wouldn’t turn out well, but with only J and me to choke down whatever #epicfail would result, why the hell not?

And so, I looked up recipes for Instant Pot brisket and Instant Pot chicken soup, and went Sunday morning back down to the butcher for a 3-pound kosher brisket(!) and a box of matzah meal.  I bought an honest-to-god horseradish root as stores were completely out of the prepared kind.  I googled “How to make your own prepared horseradish” and “How to make your own charoset” — and I did my best to find recipes that most closely resembled how my mom used to make them.

And finally, on Wednesday morning, the first day of my Spring Break from teaching and the day of the big night’s meal, I opened the Haggadah.  It’s one my mom mailed me a few years ago with cartoon illustrations and transliteration — plus it’s super short, which I knew would please the husband (and myself if I’m being honest!). 

I flipped to the back where it very nicely taught you “How to set a Seder table” and began to assemble the pieces I’d need for the seder plate, gathering the smallest bowls we own to set on the largest plate we own.

And I began to cook.

The seder itself was lovely, my husband and I taking turns reading from our one copy.  Him calling “A-mein!” whenever I poked or eyeballed him at the end of a prayer.  Us pretending to wash our hands in non-existent water (swish swish drip drip).  My hiding the afikomen from him but giving a too-obvious hint!  There were “oops”es like the omigod-too-salty horseradish, and when I forgot to leave the cup for Elijah at the start of the seder, like my dad did.  And telling J, also per my dad’s tradition, to retrieve the cup and drink it on the way back to the table, pretending innocently that Elijah the prophet really did come and drink it!

Over the meal, we shared answers to Passover-related questions: What habits, of mind or body, do I want to be free from?; What has changed since last year’s seder (Hint: We got married!); and Where do we still see a lack of freedom in the world and what efforts will we take to help rectify it?

As the candles died down and our can-I-say delicious meal digested in our bellies, I felt a pride of accomplishment that I hadn’t known before.  I was, for the first time, a real Jewish wife.  I was a balabusta.



adulthood · change · commitment · community · faith · family · growth · home · life · recovery · relationships · romance · spirituality · tradition

The Kotzker Rebbi

According to legend, and history, Menachem Mendel
Morgenstern of Kotzk, Poland was an eccentric and influential rabbi, teaching
and forming one of the early branches of Hasidism, creating a more austere sect
of Judaism.
According to legend, and history, The Kotzker Rebbi, as he
was known, locked himself in his room for the last 20 years of his life. He
never left it. He received his food through a hole in the wall, and apparently
opened the door of his home once a year, revealing himself and his new
teachings/learnings to his disciples.
According to genetics, I am his great great great
granddaughter. His grandson is my grandfather’s father… I think. I have a family
tree at home somewhere. Either he’s my grandfather’s grandfather, or my grandfather’s
great grandfather. I haven’t done the math. 
Point being, and why it occurs to me today, I have no idea –
but the point being that I have some whacked out crazy, and powerful, Jews in
my lineage, living in my blood and DNA.
I’ve always found this fascinating. Firstly, it sort of
points to the understandability that mental illness runs in my family(!), and
secondly, it just sort of makes sense that Judaism continues to be this thread
in my life. I can’t sever it, ignore it, dismiss it – it is me.
When I began teaching at the Sunday School last year in
Berkeley, I said that I felt it was both my duty and my privilege to do so.
There is a line from some text that if any of us knows even one word of Hebrew he is
bound to teach it to someone else.
Again, I don’t really know why this occurs to me today. I
suppose as I begin to think about the direction my life is taking, or may take,
or I want it to take, I begin to think about this thread. Part of my
consideration in where I will move next, if I move, and eventually I
will (whenever “eventually” is), is if there are Jews there. For example, I’ve
been enamored of Asheville, North Carolina, ever since I heard of it through a
friend of mine who lives there. Young, hip, mountainous, liberal, artsy,
cultured … with one Jewish temple, of Conservative affiliation – aka, more
religious than I am, or want to be.
I don’t want to be more religious, I simply want to have
more connection to the community. More connection to those who share a history,
random Yiddish words, and a very eye-rolly understanding of the complexities of
a Jewish family.
So, Asheville may not be it. I have this crude crayon
drawing I made after a group meditation about 6 or more months ago. It’s a
couple, a man and a woman, holding hands, walking up a street to a
t-intersection. At the head of this intersection is a house – with a
wrap-around porch, huge trees, and a stream in the back, nested by a forest
behind it. To the right of this couple on the main street is a building with a
symbol for recovery on its façade. To the left of them, is a building with a
Jewish star above the door.
This is my vision. This, I believe, is how I become the
woman I want to be. Buoyed by my communities of faith, I’m able to stand in
partnership with another human being, and take part in what the world has to
I am grateful to have the quirky lineage that I have. It
makes sense to me, and makes me smile. (On my other side, my dad’s side, I’m
descended from Bohemians, literally.) Somehow I feel that I’m preparing to take
up a mantle that belongs to me, which includes all of these histories and as
well as all of the modern and current advantages I’ve inherited as a 20th
century woman with good health and education. And I’ll be curious when I find
that crayon drawing in 20 or 30 years to see how close I’ve come. 

family · gratitude · love · service · tradition

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program

(My thanks to my friend with amazon prime who ordered me a
new power adapter to be delivered overnight.)
That said, it was … ironic(?) that my computer went down on
Tuesday night, as I’d just been thinking about taking a quasi-Sabbath this
Saturday – to take it easy, maybe not be all electronically connected (do my
homework!) – but apparently the cosmos had a different time frame in mind for
my power-down day. It was nice, honestly, not even having the option of
trolling online, checking anything at all. I had internet at work on Wednesday,
and internet at The Dailey Method this morning. I’m not going all Luddite here,
but I did feel freer in my time when I didn’t feel like my few moments could be
packed with checking,looking,clicking.
I also questioned what my motives were in this whole
blog-a-day thing. This arbitrary rule and deadline that I’ve given myself when
I’m considering how I’m using and misusing my time. But, really, I do enjoy it
– I think about what I might write about (though it usually ends up WAY off
from where I intended), and I also really do know that it’s a good way to keep
any interested parties updated, and finally – I get to track my own progress.
Writing a few days in a row or in a week that I still have to contact that guy
actor friend, I get tired of writing that – it’s sort of like a daily tally
sheet, only public 😛
Tonight I ushered at the SF Opera. I’ve been doing it for
about two and a half years I think now, after my friend who is a ballet fanatic
told me that he ushered for the Ballet (they’re in the same building, the opera
and ballet). I’m a ballet fan – sure there are tons of unique modern dance, and
some modern ballet too, but give me some old time Balanchine and Tchaikovsky,
and I’m sold.
The ballet is expensive; ushering is free. 🙂 However, it
has become logistically much harder now that I’m in the East Bay, and it’s
really not quite worth it to travel via BART to and from, especially at night,
just for an opera. I had never seen opera before I began ushering, and I
resisted doing the opera shifts for a while, but finally I went. I went to three in succession
when I was still in the city, and I LOVED only one of the 3. The rest, meh. The
sets – incredible; the symphony – world class; the story and the acting (which
is now expected of the singers)? – meh. I’m really glad I saw the one I loved
first – Tosca.
I loved the costumes, the EPIC sets – all the SF sets are
epic – it’s radical. But, I’m not huge on opera which is good to know, i guess. In any case, I downgraded myself from regular House Usher
(I even had the little gold pin “Usher”) to a more irregular/by request usher
when I moved. But Nutcracker season is coming up.
The Nutcracker was surely where it all began for me – My mom and
dad used to have season tickets to the New York City Ballet, and my dad would
actually fall asleep during the performances, so I suppose my mom finally gave in and let me come
instead. It is pretty magical. The SF version is way different than the NYC,
but they both have merit. There’s nothing like watching that Christmas tree
rise out of the floor to become several stories high – it’s enchanting.
In any case, I chose to go tonight to usher cuz I sort of
miss it, and opera season is closing, and I thought I’d give it another shot. I
did leave tonight before it ended – opera is three hours – but I got what I came for: to help other people on their sometimes
one and only adventure to the opera, to listen to world class musicians and
vocalists, and to people watch.

Like most places, there are categories of folks – the regulars, the ‘i can find my seat on my own, thank you very much’, and my personal most favorite – the couples where the guy walks in with his super dressed-up girlfriend and has that wonderful “i’m so going to get laid tonight for doing this” grin. i love that one.  😉
(See, I had a whole blog about gratitude, humility, a
leather coat, and raccoons going in my head as I brushed my teeth that you may have liked it better than this – alas, till
tomorrow). Gnight.