Friday, March 30, 2007

The Homerun Passover Question

In honor and loving memory of Phyllis Samuels and Mary Blumenthal

Last week I shared some tips on how to get other people to ask interesting questions at the Passover Seder.

This week, I’m going to share with you a question that you can ask that I guarantee no one else at your table will know the answer to.

(Of course there may be more than one right answer, but read on....)

Here’s the question:

As a rule, Passover begins on the 15th of the lunar month of Nissan. Why Nissan? (You can give them this as a warm-up; most people will say because it’s the springtime.) But the stumper is: Why the 15th?

An answer:

The 15th of the lunar month coincides, of course, with the full moon. We know that the Egyptians (like most ancient peoples) were big on astrology. We also know that they practiced all kinds of idolatry. In fact, one of the reasons that the lamb was chosen for the Passover sacrifice is because the sheep was their numero uno god. It was the most sacrosanct creature in their universe.

So when the Israelites tied up a sheep for five days in preparation of the sacrifice, that was a tremendous act of chutzpah – a direct challenge to their Egyptian neighbors’ entire culture.

Now, according to astrology, the month of Nissan corresponds to which sign of the Zodiac? You guessed it: the sheep (Aries). And astrologers believe that when it’s your month, the “strongest” time of that month for you is going to be the full moon of that month.

Therefore, the message of the 15th is: not only are we killing your god and leaving this joint in broad daylight, we are going to do all this on the precise moment when according to your philosophy you should be strongest.

Only when your oppressor’s greatest weapons are powerless against you, that’s freedom. As long as there is a threat, one cannot feel totally free.

+ + + +

Now, the Jewish People have been threatened with annihilation so many times that we’ve lost count. We have always been a tiny minority, but for some reason the world has always cared more about us than anyone else. But for some reason we have survived.

On that topic, here’s an amazing quote from Mark Twain about the Jews that you can download and share when people start yawning after that third cup of wine.

Click here for last week's Seder tips and story.

For a copy of my transliterated Art of Amazement Haggadah, send an email.

Shabbat Shalom and
An amazing Passover.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Once Upon a Time in Paris

Dedicated to Avshalom and Miriam and their wonderful children (see story below).

Paris in springtime.

It was an immigrant neighborhood, a potpourri of Vietnamese, Turks, North African Arabs and Jews. I was living alone, trying to write a book, and I realized that Passover was coming when the Jewish merchants put out their matza stocks.

I felt a pang of nostalgia, for although I was far from tradition, one side of Passover always lured me — the simple ritual of the family getting together to eat, tell stories, and conduct the difficult business of being patient with each other. Where I come from, there is something called a community Seder. I set out to find one.

Every Jewish shopkeeper I asked referred me to the next guy. Finally, at the last store on the block they told me to go around the corner to a travel agent. This particular agent was about to close shop (it was only a few hours before the start of the holiday, I soon discovered), for his steel shutters were already half-closed. I ducked inside to find a burly sixty-something man in a gray "old man" hat. He was speaking Arabic to another man, himself hatless but wearing a skullcap.

"Bonjour," I said. "They told me to ask here about a public Seder?"

The man in the hat looked at me coldly for a moment. No greeting, no welcome. He uttered gruffly: "Are you Jewish?"

I was a little taken back by the question. Maybe he was joking. I smiled. "Why would I be looking for a seder if I weren't Jewish?"

"Well, can you prove it?"

Now I was getting annoyed. What is this? "What do you mean?” I asked jokingly, “You want me to drop my pants?"

He didn't think that was very funny. "Do you speak Hebrew?" he asked.

The only phrase of Hebrew I could remember from my high school trip to Israel was "Ani lo rotseh zvuvim"--I don't want flies--and after my last joke I didn't think that would go over too well. So I said the only other Hebrew word I remembered: "Lo" (No).

"Well, can you read Hebrew?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer opened a prayer book and held it before me. Fortunately, I still knew the alphabet and stammered a few words.

Satisfied, but still gruff, he said, “You’ve fallen well... someone came in here twenty minutes ago looking for an extra person at his Seder.” Great!

"You come to the synagogue up the street tonight at seven and I'll introduce you to him." Oh, the synagogue. There's always a catch.

The synagogue seemed pretty normal. The women, as I'd seen in other traditional shuls, got the luxury balcony seats. I looked around for the gray-hatted travel agent and it looked as though he had a lot of twin brothers. As usual, the service totally baffled me; I just stood when everyone else stood and sat when they sat.

When the service was over I asked someone in the lobby if he knew who was the travel agent who sets people up for Seders. He told me not to worry, that he'd be out, but, by the way, he was having a Seder with his invalid mother and would love an extra guest. His lonely look nearly moved me to join him but just then the travel agent came up and introduced me to a thin man of dark features, about my height, named Avshalom.

Avshalom is the Biblical name of King David's 3rd son who, coveting the throne, led a coup against his father which resulted in a massive battle and the rebel's untimely death. My host later explained to me that his mother, when searching for a Jewish name for her son, didn't read past the part that describes Avshalom as "tall and good looking."

"When I grew up and realized who Avshalom was, I thought about changing it, but my rabbi told me not to. He said that a lot of spiritual things happen when a name is given and you don't want to change it if you don't have to."

The Passover seder was something to write home about. First of all, Avshalom’s wife Miriam made her own matzas. WOW! Round and big as a pizza. Warm and delicious. They didn’t have much trouble persuading me to eat a whole one in four minutes. It seems that the traditional seder requires that each person eat a lot of matza at a time, in order to reach the threshold of what’s called “eating”. We also had to lean on our left elbows while eating it.

Now, Avshalom and Miriam weren’t themselves experts. They had recently began keeping kosher and going regularly to synagogue. It seems they were living off of their inspiration of a year spent in Israel. So it took our combined efforts to read and analyze the directions in their Passover Haggada. The eating rules applied to more than just the matza. We had to drink not just four little cups of wine, but four glasses full to the brim, and again leaning on our left elbow. We also ate plain romaine lettuce as the “bitter herb”--not just a taste but enough to taste really bitter! And Avshalom insisted on reading the entire service in Hebrew, even though none of us understood it.

Yes, I'd fallen well. An anthropologist’s dream! There was so much, culturally-speaking, going on in that dark apartment. Sweet children running around. Avshalom had a belt-buckle made out of a house key, so that he wouldn’t have to carry anything on Shabbat.

Well, at the end of that interesting experience, as I prepared to leave, Miriam said, “See you tomorrow?”

Tomorrow? What on earth was she talking about? Then it dawned on me: Second Seder. “Oh...” I said, trying to be tactful. “You mean Second Seder? Well, you know, where I come from, we don’t do Second Seder. But thank you very much!”

Avshalom looked surprised. “Oh, but we must have you! You came to the first Seder, got to come to the second!”

I thought for a moment and figured, I guess once in my life I can go to a second Seder. They were very nice, after all.

Well, the second time around, you’d expect something different, but it was identical to the first. The only difference was that by now we were experts and we breezed through the Haggadah, which gave us some time to talk. They told me about themselves, about their year in Israel, about Miriam’s conversion to Judaism. I told them about my search for Bohemia, my growing restlessness in Paris, and my plans to continue eastward, to India.

To be continued....

+ + + +

Now, I don’t recommend reading the Haggadah in Hebrew if you don’t understand Hebrew. Passover should be fun and meaningful. Here are some ideas on how to have a memorable Seder for everyone....

1. Plan ahead

At least a week before Passover, start thinking about how you want to do it so that everyone “gets into” the story. Having everyone participate is a really good idea that everyone does, but just taking turns reading from the Haggadah can be a little tedious.

Shop this coming week. There is already a mad rush in the supermarkets – think how bad it’s going to be next weekend. They might even run out of horseradish.

2. Questions, questions, questions

The main goal of the Seder is to get everyone into the story. “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” doesn’t really do it here. How do you get someone involved? Nothing works as well as a good question.

Idea 1:
There is a time-tested tradition to use rewards (nuts or sweets) to encourage everyone to ask questions. We give everyone a small dish and there is one or two large bowl of nuts on the table – every question gets a nut.

This year, however, I’m going to ask everyone who comes to our Seder (children and adults) to think of their questions a few days beforehand and promise that there will be a great reward for asking questions.

This website has 9 great ideas for making Seder fun and engaging for any age. I especially like #2, 5 and 6.

Idea 2:
Another way to engage a mind (especially in the video age) is through dramatic action. When we get to the part about the 10 plagues, I pull out of a bag a prop to illustrate each plague. Blood is done with red food coloring. I hold up a glass of red water and ask everyone to imagine that every drop of water in their faucets had turned to blood, how terrible that would be. For frogs, I pull out a handful of plastic frogs and throw them on the table: “Imagine frogs everywhere! In your house, in your bed, in your oven!” For lice, I throw salt and declare, “Imagine these tiny creepy crawlies everywhere, all over your body and your furniture...” And so on.

You can actually buy a ready-made “box of plagues” at some Jewish bookstores (or online). If you want to make your own, here are some suggestions:

Blood – food coloring in water
Frogs – handful of toy frogs
Lice – salt
Pestilence - toy domesticated animals that the kids help me stand up and then knock down.
Boils – slimy ears, nose and hands
Beasts – lion and tiger masks that a few people can put on and growl
Hail – ping-pong balls
Locusts – handful of toy grasshoppers
Darkness - sleeping masks for everyone
Firstborn – baby doll whose head can be removed (my wife objects to this one, but how is it worse than any of the other ones? The point is to get your audience to relive the shock and pain of sudden death in every Egyptian household.

• If you would like to hear my Passover talk from last week in California, let me know and I’ll send you the link to the mp3 audio.

• If you are interested in using my user-friendly Haggadah, let me know and I’ll send it to you in .doc format.

• If you find yourself away from home and are looking for a seder to join (or if you are hosting a Seder and would like a guest) write me and I’ll try to be the matchmaker – but fans of long, dry Seders need not apply!

Shabbat Shalom.

My upcoming speaking schedule:
April 20-21 – Shabbat in Los Angeles with Rebbetzin Jungreis
May 4-5 – Shabbat in San Francisco
May 6-7 – various San Francisco locations
May 14 – New York and New Jersey
July 3-10 (tentative) - Text and Context trip to Israel (featuring archaeology around Jerusalem)

(For details, send an email.)

Who will say Di Fir Kashes this year? (that’s Yiddish for the 4 Questions)

Yiddish review
anee — poor person
koptsen — panhandler
ballaboss — homeowner; layman
nu — various meanings (see archives)
mishpocha — family
mameh — mother
tateh — father
mazal – (MAH-z’l) luck or fortune, as in, “It was good mazal that....”
beshert – (b’shairt) - meant to be, as in “It was beshert that...”
mine eltern – my parents
mine lair-er – my teacher
hamantashen – Haman-pockets
zeigezunt – all the best (said upon parting)
kesher - connection
Ikh volt veln a kave, zayt azoy gut. - I'd like a coffee, please.
...kave mit shmant. – ...a coffee with cream.
...kave mit milkh. – ...a coffee with milk.
...kave mit tsuker. - ...a coffee with sugar.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Coffee Talk

Dedicated to the memory of Melvin Pims, a WW II veteran with a purple heart, who passed away February 16 at 85.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, please send an email.

Starbucks is going out of business.

Okay, maybe that’s a slight hyperbole. But what I saw in California this week made me wonder.

But before I tell you the coffee story, I will preface with someone I met in Berkeley who clarified something for me.

You see, the Talmud says that doctors have a particularly difficult time in the World of Truth when they come face-to-face with their karma. The universal human problem is the ego, and saving someone’s life can build your ego, especially if you’re good at it.

This always bothered me – why can’t someone be a doctor and remain humble?

A neurosurgeon I met in Berkeley cleared this up for me. “If I were operating on your brain,” he explained, “would you want me to be thinking, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I can do this’?”

I hear his point, but I’m reminded of Jewish woman who needed a very complicated operation. She told her family that she wanted them to hire the top surgeon in the field, which they did. Before the operation, she asked to speak privately with the doctor.

"Doctor," she said, "I hope that all will go well, but if by any chance it doesn't, please don't take it to heart or feel guilty. Everything is from God."

The doctor was very impressed by her faith and concern for his own feelings. He thanked her sincerely and started to walk away.

"Doctor," the woman called. "Could you come back for a minute, please? I want to tell you one more thing."

He returned to her side, and she said, "I just wanted to add that if the operation is a success and I recover, that, too, is from God."

+ + + +

Now the coffee story.

Even if you don’t keep kosher, try to imagine the world from the perspective of someone who does. Think about what it’s like to be constantly aware of what you’re eating and where it came from. Constantly checking labels. Every outing has to have a food plan.

When Starbucks first appeared on the national scene, kosher eaters rejoiced – a national chain of decent coffee started by a Jewish guy in Seattle where the coffee is kosher! Well, the unflavored coffee, that is. As long as it’s in a to-go cup. And don’t bother salivating over those black forest brownies or pecan pies, they’re not supervised.

To tell you the truth, ever since I started watching the carb intake, I didn’t mind at all that those desserts were verbotten to me. One less challenge.

Do you suppose that we kosher eaters long for a world where everything is permitted? Isn’t it an unbearable burden to be so selective in our eating?

Yes and no.

There is a part of me that is jealous of those who can eat anywhere, any time. Any restaurant. Any concession stand. Any gourmet cheese. Any bottle of wine.

There is another part of me that thinks that refinement is good for me, and limits on indulgence are helping me get there. The relative scarcity of kosher food makes it easier to nurture this side of me.

But this whole philosophy has changed due to my California trip week.

What I discovered in L.A. is that some audacious Jew decided that he could do what Starbucks does and make it both better and kosher. His chain is called The Coffee Bean . It feels somewhat like a Starbucks inside, although I noticed that the counter where you pick up your coffee is at a normal height so you don’t feel like you’re in a bank. And the coffee was quite good, better than I expected. And free wifi if you buy a drink. And every cake and cookie in the store is kosher.

All of a sudden, all that talk of refinement and indulgence seems passé. Pass the biscotti!

So, put yourself in my shoes: Should I hope or fear that The Coffee Bean go national?

And whom should I thank (or blame)?

Shabbat Shalom.

My upcoming speaking schedule:
April 15-16 - New York & New Jersey
April 20-21 – Shabbat in Los Angeles with Rebbetzin Jungreis
May 4-5 – Shabbat in San Francisco
(For details, send an email.)

How to order coffee in Yiddish:

I'd like a coffee, please. Ikh volt veln a kave, zayt azoy gut.
...a coffee with cream. ...kave mit shmant.
...a coffee with milk. ...kave mit milkh.
...a coffee with sugar. ...kave mit tsuker.

Yiddish review
anee — poor person
koptsen — panhandler
ballaboss — homeowner; layman
nu — various meanings (see archives)
mishpocha — family
mameh — mother
tateh — father
mazal – (MAH-z’l) luck or fortune, as in, “It was good mazal that....”
beshert – (b’shairt) - meant to be, as in “It was beshert that...”
mine eltern – my parents
mine lair-er – my teacher
hamantashen – Haman-pockets
zeigezunt – all the best (said upon parting)
kesher - connection

Friday, March 09, 2007

Ma O-ma

This Table Talk is dedicated to the memory of Yizka bas Eliezer.

I finally have a good story to tell you.

It begins in World War I. A Jewish soldier in the Kaiser's army named Steinberger is decorated as a war hero, which included time in a Soviet prisoner camp (where he lost an eye).

When he returns from the war to his home near the Black Forest, he is greeted by his seven-year-old daughter Irma. Irma finishes her adolescence in the harsh German economic depression that follows the war yet completes school and lands a good job to help support her family. She also marries Arthur Levi and they live in the only home in Alsfeld with a phone.

Kristallnacht - the Nazi pogrom of November 10, 1938 - Irma's nine-month-old baby Doris is acting fussy in her crib and cannot be consoled, so Irma for the first time takes her into bed with her. There is a crash, a rock has come through the window and landed where the baby's head had been.

That same night, the Gestapo abduct all the Jewish boys of Ansfeld. Irma works the family network for 52 hours and gets every boy released.

The next summer, Irma decides it's time to get out and attempts to leave Hamburg with Doris. Again, Irma's quick thinking, eloquence and family connections help her avoid being stripped searched and other degradations that all the other Jewish refugees suffer. Hers is the last or next-to-last boat before the infamous St. Louis that is not allowed to land at any port, including the USA and Canada, and proves to the Nazis that the world will indeed allow them to liquidate the Jews.

Irma and daughter make it to Baltimore, eventually followed by her husband and parents (who had to go via Russia and Japan). Her brother goes to South Africa and sister to Israel. After some ten years, her husband suffers a heart-attack and stroke, permanently incapacitated. Her only child Doris dies of cancer before reaching fifty.

But Irma and Doris (and we) are fortunate that Doris had three children before she died. Three girls who live in California but maintained a kesher (connection) with their grandmother they called "Omah".

I switched to the past tense because Irma indeed passed away last week. She left no surviving children or siblings but her loyal grand-daughters came to bury her on Tuesday and gave me the honor of officiating.

One of the distinct memories they will always have of her, they told me, is the stacks of envelopes. It seems that Irma had a policy of never saying No to any charity. She gave small amounts for that reason, so that she could always give. And she did this until shortly before her death.

Tzeddka is a tremendous mitzvah that cannot be overstated. Not only does Judaism say that a person should give ten percent of their net income; to illustrate the greatness of tzedaka, whenever the Talmud mentions "the mitzvah" without specifying which one, it refers to tzedaka.

In other words, tzedaka is the quintessence of a mitzvah. It is the mitzvah, the most basic action that one can do to open a transcendental connection. No wonder the Talmud states that "tzedaka saves from death" - for it is the quintessential spiritual (ie eternal) action.

Irma left no one to say Kaddish for her, but you and I can honor her memory by giving tzedaka and having her in mind. If her life has even slightly inspired us to give, then you and I have become part of her legacy and we will together uplift her soul to where it needs to go.

Zeigezunt, Irma.

Shabbat Shalom.

PS - last week after I wrote about the etymology of hamantaschen, Natasha Shabat pointed out that the name is a pun, because "man-taschen" means "poppy-pockets" in Yiddish. A perfect pun to please your pals at a Purim party. Natasha, by the way, has an amazing Hebrew-for-adults program in the Boston area.

My upcoming speaking schedule:
March 13 – San Francisco/Mill Valley
March 14 – Los Angeles

(For details, send an email.)

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Tasty

Dedicated to all the Jedi knights out there fighting evil and doing good.

I’ve got some good news, some more good news, some bad news, and some tasty news.

The first good news is that those kids who were in a terrible accident 18 weeks ago are all now back at home. The little boy still has a way to go, as his brain has to relearn a lot of its connections, but every day is better.

The other good news is that more people than ever before are doing Purim this year. Why is that good news? Because one of the main ways to celebrate Purim is to give generously to the poor and gifts of food to friends. Ergo, more people celebrating = more giving.

The bad news is that the world still has plenty of Haman-wanna-bes. The best known is Mr. A-Haman-nijadad, who hails from almost the exact place as the original Haman (Persia/Iran). Still building the bomb, still wants to kill the Jews.

Or how about this report in today’s news:

Hundreds of Hamas members are being smuggled across the Rafah border terminal to Egypt to attend advanced terror training camps in Syria and Iran, senior defense officials told Ynet.


The tasty news is about that favorite Purim cookie, the hamantaschen.

Did you ever eat a hamantashen?

To remind you, here’s a mouthwatering photo:

Why are they shaped like that, and what does hamantashen mean, anyhow?

When I was a kid, we used to call them “Haman’s hat”. But that’s because we didn’t spreken Yiddish. Then I went to Israel where they call them “Oznay Haman” - Haman’s ears. So I thought – erroneously – that tashen meant ears.

In fact, if you look in your Yiddish dictionary or talk to your Bubbe, you will learn that a tasch is a purse or bag.

There you have it. Hamantashen = Haman-bags.

Maybe they’re called “bags” because they are folded over with fruit inside, and “Haman” because they do look like Haman’s hat. Or maybe he had triangular ears.

At this stage of my investigation I stumbled upon hard evidence that the ear theory is correct:

So what are supposed to do – defeat our enemies by mocking them? Sounds like a Monty Python line:

“We spit on you, you silly Persian. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries. Now go away or we will taunt you a second time!” (say with French accent)

As usual, here is a YouTube clip that says it best:

Like I said, more people are doing Purim this year. Here are the stats from Israel alone:

+ Twenty-three million hamantaschen are being baked commercially.
+ About 7 million will be stuffed with chocolate.
+ This year Israelis will be able to buy coffee-hamantaschen. I don’t know if that means Turkish or espresso or what.
+ The most popular flavors are poppyseed, date, walnut and chocolate.

The time to eat them is Sunday afternoon, remembering that every Haman has his hour, and his downfall.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim

Upcoming speaking schedule:
March 13 – Mill Valley (near San Francisco)
March 14 – Los Angeles

(For details, send an email.)