Feb 3 2020

60+

I recently attended the birthday party of a friend who had just turned 60.  After I got the Save-the-Date, I told my friend that I probably wouldn’t be going. Not because I didn’t want to celebrate his birthday but because the party location was a bit out of my comfort zone – after all it was beyond the borders of the Stockholm subway map and everyone knows that I hate traveling. But in leu of my presence I decided to send him the Just Hilarie blog piece which I wrote nine years ago when I turned 60.

He wrote back to tell me that he read my piece but what he really wanted to know was if I had any advice for him about what to expect or consider in the next decade now that he was also turning 60. And then he made me feel guilty for not wanting to come to his party. Guilt I understand. Afterall, I am Jewish. So I told him I would be there. And…that I would give some thought to his question and try to find something pithy and enlightening to say at his party.

First I thought I could just cobble something together from some of the other pieces I had written about aging (you can find them under Aging in the word cloud to the right) but after doing some copy/pasting I felt nothing was working. Instead, I decided to start at the beginning and make a list of what had happened to me in the 9 years since my big 6 0. I figured if I made a list of the life changing, influential events that took place since that summer day nine years ago at our country house, I would be able to come up with some ideas for him.

Here was my list of events, not in order of importance but just as they happened in the timeline:

  • Mom spends a slow month dying as I sit by her bed and watch.
  • Lawsuit for unpaid (and unknown) American property taxes puts my anxiety levels through the roof and I end up taking anti-anxiety meds just to get through my days.
  • The organization I had worked for as a graphic designer, for almost 10 years, closes 6 months before I turn 65 and I am left jobless.
  • Håkan gets sick, spends 2 months in hospital and needs brain surgery.

Yeah, that should do it. That should be enough to fill a decade. No wonder I don’t want to get out of bed sometimes. But what should I tell my friend so he doesn’t end up drinking all his own booze at his party?

My first piece of advice was this:
Stay healthy. I know that everyone gives advice about exercising, taking all your vitamins and not eating a bunch of junk food. But you know what? That’s all a bunch of crap. If it helps to make you feel like you are in control of your life by doing those things, then by all means keep doing them. But if catastrophic illness strikes you, it probably doesn’t really have anything to do with exercise, vitamins or junk food. After all, James Fixx, the guy who started the jogging craze with his best-selling books about running and who preached the gospel that active people live longer, died of a heart attack on a Friday while on a solitary jog in Vermont. He was 52 years old! So, I don’t know…maybe it just means don’t jog by yourself.

Piece of advice two:
Keep on top of all your financial obligations. Know what taxes you need to pay and pay them. Don’t collect more stuff than you can afford, or need. Pay off your credit cards each month. (my mother taught me that one) Make sure you have money saved or a pension. After all who needs to have all that worry about money.
It is the real cause of wrinkles.

Piece of advice three:
Work – Keep working as long as you can (because this also applies to the previous point) but make sure it is work that you love. Or at least like. It should be something that makes you feel good about yourself, competent and appreciated by others. If you don’t get that from your work it’s time to think about retiring and finding something else that makes you feel useful and appreciated and competent. If you have been careful about point two you might be able to do this fun stuff pro-bono.

Piece of advice four:
Make phone calls. We all have that fabulous smart phone in our hands. Texting messages back and forth is great. Showing what you ate for dinner on social media is great. Email is great. But making a phone call is even greater.  A few days ago I called an old friend in New York and by old I mean I have known her a very long time – she’s actually almost 10 years younger than me. The first thing she said after hello was, “Are you OK, is everything alright? Is Håkan OK? What happened?” It took me a while to reassure her that we were all ok and that I was just calling her to say hi. We talked for over an hour. So don’t wait to call friends and family only when you have bad news. Call just to talk. Better yet – have lunch together if you are close enough. But we live in a big world and people are often far away, so call them. Use Skype if you are far away. You can look at each other and see if the other person has more wrinkles. And its cheap. See point two.

And finally, last but not least, point five:
Figure out how to laugh and do it often. Learn how to tell a joke and make other people laugh. Because life is just so crappy sometimes. It hits you when you least expect it and if you can’t laugh then you’re doomed.

So, health, work, money, loved ones and laughter.
That pretty much sums up all the advice I have to give right now. We’ll see what I can come up with in a few more years after I’ve started my big 7 0.

 


Dec 22 2019

The Chanukah lights

Now, I am going to say something that if someone else said it or I saw it written that someone else said it, I would think to myself, “Boy that is so corny.” But I am going to say it anyway. “My heart is filled with love.”

Tonight was the first night of Chanukah. The last Chanukah to be celebrated in this decade. My group of J.A.P.S.* gathered together this afternoon at the apartment of my friend Marina and her family. Between 3 and 4 pm people arrived carrying pans of latkes, cheese pancakes, sugar-coated stars of fried dough, fruit salads, cookies and cake. The homemade donuts were already there awaiting our arrival. People filled the kitchen, organizing the reheating of the latkes. Others were centered around the large oval table in the living room, arranging a multitude of hanukkiahs, the nine-armed candelabra used at Chanukah, with a bit of aluminum foil placed under each one to catch the drips from the colored candles. I spread boxes of matches between the silvery candlesticks and placed the Holiday Bag on the coffee table, ready to be filled with small presents as each new group of people came in.

Once everyone had arrived, we dimmed the room lights and gathered around the large table to light the shames candle which was then used to light the remaining other candle, symbolizing the first night of Chanukah.

Together we said the prayer over the candles.
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.”
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light”

As we waited for the colored lights to burn down, I went over to the coffee table and picked up the Holiday Bag. One at a time I took out a small gift and calling out the name written on the package, handed our young people their presents. Young people I must call them for they are no longer the small children they were when I first met so many of them long ago.

With most of the candles now burned down to ash, we moved them all to the center of the table as people gathered around a counter top filled with trays of different kinds of Latkes and choices of apple sauce, sour cream and lingonsylt to eat them with and cheese pancakes sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and fruit salads and all the rest of the delicious and oily treats everyone had brought. We filled our plates and went to find a place to sit and gorge and talk to friends we hadn’t seen in a while. The apartment was large enough so that groups could form: the young people sat together around the coffee table and eventually started playing a board game my son had brought. The oldsters divided up into several groups and I circulated between them dropping in to the various conversations, all of them interesting. Finding something to talk about with these long time friends has never been a problem.

And then the first of two remarkable things happened. As my friend Barbara was making her way around, about to leave, she stopped and said she had something to say to the whole group. Now, because of my inability to remember conversations verbatim, I am just going to paraphrase what she said. She started off by telling us that she wanted to express her gratitude for this group, that we exist. That because of this group she has been able to stay in touch with her sense of Jewishness and the group has helped to contribute to her children’s sense of being Jewish too and she was very grateful for that. Then she turned to me, who was standing beside her, and said she wanted to thank me for forming this group and organizing all the gatherings and keeping it going and she wanted me to know how much she appreciated all my work and effort. She said a bit more in that line and then everyone clapped. Now I have to admit that I don’t mind making myself the center of attention but…when someone else makes me the center… hmmm…that’s different. I also have to admit that my first reaction to her words was to feel embarrassed. But then, slowly, as Barbara continued talking, this warm glow started to come over me and I found myself feeling so happy and yes…I will even use this very cliché word, joyful. And all I could say then was thank you.

On the way home with my son, as we sat on the bus together, I asked him if he had heard what Barbara had said about me. He responds by saying, “Oh, you mean when we all had to clap?”
“Yes”
“Yeah, I sort of heard what she said. But don’t let it go to your head.”

Later that evening, after Bevin and I had come home and decanted all our stuff, Håkan asks Bevin if he had a good time at the Chanukah party. He answers, “Yes. And by the way, I have Chanukah presents for both of you.”

As Bevin goes into his room, Håkan and I look at each other, practically in shock! Our son has bought Chanukah presents for us??!! He comes out and hands a beautifully wrapped present to each of us.

“When did you do this?” I ask him.

“Last Tuesday, when you went out with your friends. That’s why I wanted to know if you were going out that evening.”

I stare in shock at the present in my hands and then at him. I undo the wrapping and there is a book entitled Nonviolent Communication – A Language of Life by Marshall B Rosenberg. Håkan got a game for his Nintendo Switch.

“Pappa can read the book after you do.” Bevin says to me, with a big smile on his face.

So two remarkable things happened today: the people who I have been shepherding for the past 22 years said thank you and my son bought me a Chanukah present.

Truly the lights on the menorah are shining so very brightly on me tonight and I am filled with love.

*Jewish American Parents in Stockholm

Feb 25 2018

Minyan

My minyan - from a while back
My minyan – a while back


Minyan is the Hebrew word for a quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations. The most common activity requiring a minyan is public prayer.

According to the Orthodox view a Minyan requires 10 Jewish men to be official. The Reform movement says it only needs to be 10 Jewish adults, either male or female.  I’m on the side of the Reform movement and I feel I can be flexible as to the number 10.

Rosh Hashanah was just around the corner. This is the Jewish holiday celebrating the arrival of the Jewish New Year. It comes around just as the leaves start to change color every fall but it’s not always on the same day in the ordinary calendar so it can be hard to keep track of, if you are not actually looking for it. Together with Yom Kippur, it is one of the most important of the Jewish holidays. It’s usually celebrated with other Jews by going to synagogue, to pray together. When I was a kid, I would be dragged along by my parents to the relatively new Reform synagogue they were members of. In my early twenties, I would sometimes come home to visit my folks for Rosh Hashanah and spend the day with them in synagogue. After services, when we got home in the afternoon, we would eat dinner together. I never belonged to a congregation when I lived in New York – didn’t seem to feel the need for it then – I had my family to be with.

The notion of family has always been important to me. In my twenties, I might not have wanted to admit that to myself. At that point in my life, it was friends that seemed to matter more. And… it wasn’t like I came from a family that was all warm and encouraging and accepting, building self-confidence and creating harmony, kind and loving. No, my family was none of that, though occasionally, some of those things peeked out when the coast was clear.  We weren’t a very big family, just my parents and me and my brother and my mom’s brother and his wife and their kids and of course, Bertha, my maternal Grandmother. My family was a typical Jewish family, loud and noisy and opinionated and not too accomplished when it came to diplomatic skillsets. As my mother used to say about her mother, “Bertha always thought it was better to give a knock than a praise.” Maybe that was good though. It made you strong – able to take it. It certainly didn’t build self-confidence though. But you did learn to talk back and speak up….eventually. That was, after all, your only defense. So, family gatherings were often loud argumentative affairs with people talking all at once, no one listening, no one given the time to finish a sentence and often someone’s feelings getting hurt and ending up crying in the bathroom. Those were the good gatherings. Sometimes, you just remained at the table, cowering, hoping no one noticed you. And no one ever said “I’m sorry.”

But in spite of all this I still wanted to join our family get togethers, especially the big ones, Passover and Thanksgiving. Those holidays were celebrated either in my parent’s home or my uncle and aunt’s home. On smaller holidays such as Mother’s Day, we would all meet up in New York City at Radio City Music Hall and see a show. Then we would drive down to Chinatown for dinner. When we were out in public we were more civilized; though I do remember an interesting argument between my grandmother and her son, my uncle, about how to use chopsticks. I remember sitting there, as others talked about what to order – always a lengthy process – watching the two of them; just waiting for the irritation to build up into an explosion. I really wanted to be sitting at a different table with other diners during that meal.

After us kids started to move out, live on our own, there were less and less gatherings. We still met for Passover and Thanksgiving though. I always took the bus from New York City home to New Jersey, to my folks or to my uncle and aunt’s. But then, I moved to Stockholm and that was a lot longer than any bus ride could take me.

For the first few years I would return once a year – to join my family for Passover in the spring or Thanksgiving in the fall. They would catch me up on what they had been doing and I would tell tales of life in the foreign land called Sweden. In 1988 my cousin Karel hosted the family Passover gathering for the first time, in her small New York City apartment. She showed great bravery in doing that. Our grandmother, Bertha, insisted Karel could not host the Passover Seder because she was still unmarried. And Bertha insisted she would not come to it. Karel ultimately managed to squeeze a lot of people into that space. We weren’t a very jolly bunch that year due to the fact that Grandma Bertha had died just three days prior to the event. The funeral had been the day before. So, we sat there, reading our Haggadahs and eating our chicken soup and matzah balls, feeling the lack of our Matriarch who had made us feel Jewish with her Yiddish accent. Luckily for us, my cousin had a two hour long video tape of an “interview” she had done with Grandma just six months earlier. We all sat and watched it while we drank our coffee and ate our flour-free desserts. “Why are you so late? What kind of jalopy are you driving?” were the first words out of Grandma’s mouth when Karel walked in the door of her apartment. No hello. No how are you. No I’m glad to see you. In the following two hours, Bertha managed to say something uncomplimentary about every single person in that room. We all felt much better after that. Someone summed up the movie by saying, “Yep, that was Grandma.”

The years passed and my son came along. I discovered there was a Jewish Center here in Stockholm and when my kid was a year old I started taking him there to a mother/toddler sing-a-long group once a week. I could speak Swedish by then, though fluent was not a word I would use to describe my skill. I learned to sing baby songs in Swedish. I had no idea they were also in English – well, maybe I recognized the Swedish version of Itsy Bitsy Spider. The older my kid got, the more I started to feel the need for family – Jewish family – on my side of the ocean. And I needed it in English – because Moses said “Let my people go”. He didn’t say “Släpp mitt folk”. So in 1997 when my son was almost 6 years old, I put an ad in the American Woman’s Club magazine saying I was looking for other American Jewish mothers to join me to celebrate Jewish holidays with our small kids. The 6 or 7 women who responded were women who I had met occasionally during the past few years at one thing or another. We always said we should get together but we never did.

Finally that fall, on a dreary grey day, we all met and celebrated Rosh Hashanah together. We started with Tashlich, the ceremony where we “cast our sins into the depths of the sea”. Together with our kids, we walked down to a nearby lake and threw our bread crumbs, symbolizing our sins, into the water. Just as we were about to leave, the sun came out from behind the clouds and shined down on us. I couldn’t have ordered better special effects. I figured God was giving us his approval. Back in my friend’s house, we lit candles and said prayers over challah and apples dipped in honey and sweet red wine, in both English and Hebrew (I had to do some research for that). Then we ate chicken soup, and brisket and chicken with honeyed almonds and sweet noodle kugel and teiglach. All made from Jewish recipes we had to look up because most of us had never bothered to ask our bubbies how to make these dishes. It didn’t matter. They were all wonderful.

That was 20 years ago and we have been meeting to celebrate the New Year and other holidays ever since. My baby boy is now a tall thin, 26 year old computer programmer with a full time job and I am retired. I named my group Jewish American Parents in Stockholm or J.A.P.S. for short. Through the years, we have joined together to read the Haggadah at Passover Seders. We baked tons of hamantaschen for Purim. We shared an amazing variety of latkes at Chanukah. We tasted cheese blintzes with hallonsylt at Shavuot. And at every holiday, I gathered our kids around me and watched as they pulled out objects relating to that particular holiday from the Holiday Bag; a Lego horse, a wooden apple half, a small portrait of a woman with a crown, a mini menorah, a draidle. I explained to them what each object they were holding stood for and what its significance to that particular holiday was and why we were even celebrating that holiday. (I have to thank Rabbi Google for all the help. I couldn’t have done it without you)

We have also joined together for Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs and school graduation parties. We have consoled each other over dead or dying parents and have rejoiced with each other for birthdays and anniversaries. And we have eaten many, many more helpings of brisket at our cyclical celebrations of Rosh Hashanah. I had found my family. I had created a minyan – on this side of the airplane flight.

This past fall, the leaves were starting to turn color and it was Rosh Hashanah season once again. A few weeks earlier, Janet, one of my J.A.P.S. since the very beginning, texted me to ask what we were doing for Rosh Hashanah this year.  She was the only one who asked. I realized I didn’t really have an answer for her. It wasn’t like I didn’t remember that it was coming up. It was sitting there in front of me like a giant sign on a highway in Kansas. But I just wasn’t feeling very Rosh Hashanah-ish.

Every year I invite my J.A.P.S. to my place for Rosh Hashanah. I live right near water so that makes the bread crumb thing easy. People bring tons of food with them. We go down to the canal in front of my building and throw our sins out to the ducks who greedily eat them up. Then we trek back up to my apartment to say our now memorized blessings over the wine and candles and challah and apples. We eat and schmooze; until the food is done and it’s time to go home. But this year, I didn’t send out any emails asking who can come. I didn’t tell people what time it would start or what food they should bring. My apartment was a mess and I had no desire to clean it for company. I just didn’t feel like doing any of the organizing that I always did to make sure our get-togethers got together.

Throughout all the years we have been meeting, it’s always been me who organizes each event. Regardless of what day the holiday falls on I decide for us to meet on a weekend. That usually helps to assure attendance. First, I send out SAVE THE DATE emails. Then I send out emails asking who can come. A few years ago I started sending the emails directly to the kids who have their own email addresses. They are now old enough to decide for themselves. Often I don’t just ask. I coax and cajole and wheedle them into joining us. I feel it’s important to get as many as possible to come. I organize the symbolic food we need to celebrate the holiday and the food we just eat and I suggest who should bring what, based on understanding of each individual’s cooking skills. The Holiday Bag no longer appears – the teens started to revolt – so I stopped with that. And to be honest, I now have trouble remembering all that information I once taught them, so it’s easier not to bother. So… mostly… now we just gather together with all our food, say the blessings and then we eat. (and schmooze of course. It wouldn’t be Jewish if there wasn’t a lot of talking) I know everyone has a great time and enjoys being with each other in spite of my bully tactics. And it’s usually only at Passover that I get so over-stressed that I start yelling at people. Eventually some brave soul dares to take me by the arm and bring me over to a quiet corner to sit and calm down. But this Rosh Hashanah I was already really tired and I hadn’t even started. I didn’t have the energy to herd cats.

I don’t think any of my J.A.P.S. are particularly Jewish in the sense of religious. They are like me – a pretty secular bunch. But over the years, many of them have said to me how glad they have been that we meet, that I organized these holiday events, that I taught their kids some Jewish knowledge. They appreciate and thank me for what I did for them! I try to respond modestly.  But the truth is I didn’t do it for them at all.

I did it for me! I did it because I wanted a family here. I wanted a small community of English speaking Jews like myself to raise my child in, to be Jewish with. Hilary Clinton wrote “It takes a village” and I built myself a village. I finally understood the meaning of the concept of a minyan. It had nothing really to do with men – and the number 10 is simply an approximate tipping point for being able to build a community. The J.A.P.S. became my Minyan, comprised of Jews and Goys and our children, who I hope learned to feel Jewish because of what I did. I never bothered to count the number of Jewish heads.

But now what? My child is grown. He is as Jewish as I can make him. The members of my Minyan have also become my friends. So I ask myself, “Do I still need a Minyan and how big does it have to be?” Maybe the real question is, “Does my Minyan need me?”

Back in the states, my parents are gone. My Uncle and Aunt are over 80 and not up to having big family events at their home. Some of my cousins have taken over the task of family gatherings, at least for Passover and Thanksgiving. Not being there, I don’t know more than what Facebook tells me as to what other sorts of family shindigs get organized.

At this point in my life I can do pretty much anything I want. So what is it I want? Probably what I always wanted – to be wanted, to feel needed and to feel part of a community.

So instead of the usual big gathering we were just a few. I made a big batch of honeyed chicken and rice. Janet came over with a bag of salad. Her boys came too. Risa came by because she called at the right time. She brought brownies. And Evelin, another of our youngsters dropped by at the last minute. We blessed apples and honey. We ate Challah that Håkan baked. We sat and ate wherever there was room in my messy living room. And as I sat there with the others,  I decided that my Minyan was just the right size.

 


Apr 15 2017

Passover minyan 2017

As I sit here writing this post, the 5th day of Passover is almost over. My supply of matzah is already half eaten, though there is still more than enough left to do a matzah brei tomorow. This year, as usual, I attended 2 Seders.  The first one was a Swedish one – Progressiv Judendom i Stockholm’s Seder. I’ve been on the board of PJS for over 10 years and as a board member, I help out with all the activities we have done through the years. This year we did an especially good Seder. Eva Ekselius, with the help of Marianne Prager and Mats Frisk, led us through the Haggadah and even added other interesting tidbits of information. Marianne’s singing and Mats’ guitar playing were wonderful and helped to make it a fun evening in spite of the fact that I was in the middle of having a horrible cold. I can only hope I didn’t infect everyone I talked to that evening. Oh, and the food was good too!

And then, a few days later on Good Friday, I led my J.A.P.S.* Seder as I have been doing for almost the past 20 years. These people are my minyan, my family, that I feel like I gave birth to here in my adopted homeland. The Jewish People have a long history of moving from one country to another (not always as voluntarily as my choice was) and building from scratch, a full Jewish life in the new place. It wasn’t until I moved to the land of the blue-eyed blond that I discovered just how much the Jewish life I left behind in New York City meant to me. And how much I needed it. I knew I would miss friends and family but I didn’t know I would miss Jewishness. So I set out to rebuild it for myself and for my son. And 20 years down the line I feel I have succeeded.

The kids

The kids

At this point, we are 7 families with children (can we still call them children if most of them are not even teenagers any longer?) and a few who come on their own. This year the group was smaller than usual because a number of us were traveling to other places. But still we filled my Co-op’s party house with 20 people.

Before we start the seder proper, I always welcome my minyan with a little speech and even though I was sick and stressed and just plain tired and thought I would just skip the talk, I couldn’t let it go. As usual I had to say a few words. These are the words I said:

Welcome everyone
I won’t bore you with a long speech. I have a cold and don’t feel really up to long speeches.

We are a rather small group this year. A lot of our young people are not able to be with us. Many of our children are now old enough to have their own agendas, not just what their parents want them to do. This absence of our youngsters, made me think of the reason we are commanded to celebrate the Passover – to teach our children. To tell them the story of the Exodus, to remind them that once we, as Jews, were slaves and now we are free.

The oldies

The oldies

By commanding us to tell our children, the entire process of Passover becomes a generational event. To tell our children, we need to also have the mothers and fathers at the Passover table – mothers and fathers who once were themselves children, listening to the story their parents told.

My grandparents, immigrants from Poland before the second world war, were the first people whose Seder I remember being at. They didn’t do much story telling – mainly because they really didn’t know much about it themselves. But it always somehow felt very authentic to my child’s mind though my mother told me that my grandfather basically just said Kiddush and then we ate. But he said it with a strong Yiddish accent so I guess it just felt more real. After my grandfather died when I was ten, my mother and my aunt took over hosting the Seder – alternating years between them. By then, our families had graduated to using the free Maxwell House Haggadahs that many American Jewish families in the 1950s and 60s grew up with. Each year we would take turns going around the table reading portions from the color-coded and illustrated texts. It was a sort of Haggadah for Dummies. It told you with detailed instructions what you were supposed to do and when. We sat there and endured the boringness of the ritual, once again just waiting for the food without really understanding what the words meant.

It wasn’t till I was no longer a child and, on the outside at least, finally a grown-up, that I was invited to a Seder led by someone who actually knew what the whole thing was about. It was then that I realized that it didn’t have to be that meaningless mumble that it had always been my whole life. Since then, I have tried to lead a Seder that had meaning. I don’t know if I always succeeded but I tried. It has to be about more than just waiting for the food to show up.

Passover is truly about generations of parents passing on this story to their children and then they to their own children and so on and so on. My greatest hope (well maybe not my greatest hope but at least as it applies to Jewishness and Passover) is that my passing on of the Seder story to our next generation will continue into the future as it has for several thousand years past.

In addition to the absence of some of our children, when I look around this group I remember some who have celebrated with us who are no longer able to be here. Last year Marina’s mother, Rachel was here with us. Before that Danielle’s mom, Lydia celebrated with us and even further back my own mother, Evelyn. Now they are no longer able to share in our Seder or pass on what they know to their daughters who are still here.

So I want to start this year’s Seder by asking Danielle and Marina to join  me in lighting the candles, in memory of our mothers, as we once again start the yearly telling of the story of the Exodus  – of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Chag sameach.

*Jewish American Parents in Stockholm

Photos are all courtesy of Danielle Shevin


Apr 26 2016

Passover 2016

This year was a very busy one for me Passover-wise. I organized or celebrated or participated in almost 4 Seders this past weekend. The planning process started many weeks ago for two of them. While not an actual Seder, the weekend started off on Friday evening with dinner at the home of the chair of the Progressive Judaism i Stockholm association. Together with other board members, I had a chance to sit down to a wonderful dinner and a lively conversation with Rabbi Eli Reich who would lead the PJS Seder that I would attend on Saturday evening. Later that night, at 12.30 am, I sat down with my cousins in New Jersey at their Seder via SKYPE. And finally on Sunday was my own J.A.P.S.* Seder which I have been leading since the late 1990s. 

I had the following words to say before we started this year’s Seder.

Passover seder 2016

Passover seder 2016

 

Hi everyone. I want to start off by saying that I am very glad to see all of us gathered here together again to celebrate Passover.

Two days ago, on Friday night, I was able to take part in the Seder that my cousins held in New Jersey. At midnight, my laptop sat on my kitchen counter while I prepared the matzah balls which we will all share later this evening. A similar laptop sat at the dining table in my cousin’s house in the US. Through the miracle of modern tech, I was able to say hello to my uncle & aunt and all their children and grandchildren. And they were able to see me sitting here in Stockholm as I listened to them saying the prayers and eating their matzah.  

I think our group of Jewish Americans here in Stockholm have been gathering, most of us at least, to celebrate this holiday since about 1998. Back then our children were all little kids and now as I look around, a good many of those kids are looking pretty grown up these days. When I used to make my list of who were coming to a J.A.P.S. gathering I usually grouped people by family and the emails went out to the grownups. But now our younger family members are starting to have their own position on my list. Many of you have had your own emails for quite awhile already. You, Carly coming with Peter, you have your own space on that list, as do Nadine with Mattias. As one gets to the point of volunteering your own contribution of what to bring to our holiday gatherings, you get your own place on the list. And that is as it should be.

For all the years I attended Passover Seders when I still lived in New York, I don’t think I ever brought anything more involved than a bouquet of flowers to either my mother or my aunt’s house. My Mother and my Aunt took care of all the food. My Grandmother while she was alive contributed the chopped liver.

The holiday of Passover is a time for looking backward, as we remind ourselves of the days when we were slaves in Egypt; a time for looking at the present and being grateful that we can live our lives as free human beings; and a time for looking forward when we end the service with the thought of next year in Jerusalem.

Probably the idea of looking back is why, as Passover draws closer, I often find myself thinking of past Seders which I have been part of with my family and my cousins.  Most of my family members were loud, noisy and opinionated and seriously lacking in any diplomatic skills. Traits which I have also inherited, for both good and bad. No one was able to finish a sentence before someone else butted in and every statement was met with a rebuttal. My father and my aunt, who both married into the family learned to keep pretty quiet. Each family gathering contained at least one argument about something and rarely did we get through a whole meal without someone leaving the table crying. We just accepted that as normal and saw no problem with it. I don’t know what the outsiders I occasionally brought with me must have thought of us. But regardless of all that, I still find myself remembering those Seders fondly because of the memory of family that they bring back. And that was something I missed, here in Sweden, family.

This group of people, all of you sitting here tonight are here because I gathered all of you together! I didn’t do it for any of you or to satisfy your needs. I did it totally selfishly – I did it for myself. Because I wanted a family that I could feel comfortable sharing Passover with. I had no way of knowing if the people I met almost 20 years ago would still be here with me, sitting in front of me, today. But here you are.

Starting in June I will officially be retired, a pensionär as we say here in Swedish. I have no idea how this happened. How did I get so old? I admit that it was not something I was looking forward to. But here I am. Standing on the brink of a new chapter of life.

The words at the end of the Seder about “next year in Jerusalem” are often believed by the orthodox to express the hope that in the future the Jews will return to Israel and rebuild the temple. I don’t take it so literally. I believe that it is a metaphor used to express the belief and the hope that we Jews will have a next year. And another. And another. That we will have a future.

And I for one can say, that as I enter this new chapter of my life, this uncharted future, I am so glad that I can start this journey with this family that sits before me.

So now let us start our Seder, and retell the story of our past, be grateful for our present and look forward to our future.

 

*J.A.P.S. – Jewish American Parents in Stockholm