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


Oct 18 2016

A Little Bit Extreme

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me “Eat your vegetables!”

When I was growing up, we started every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and the Lord’s Prayer.
When I was growing up, we would watch with awe as NASA scientists built rockets that could send human beings to the moon.
When I was growing up, I learned about the Christian Crusades rampaging across Europe on their way to the Holy Land, while most of Islamic Spain and Portugal flourished in a golden age of science, medicine, trade, poetry and culture.
When I was growing up, people were marching for civil rights, for women’s rights, for equality for all people.

My mother’s idea of a correct dinner plate was one composed of 3 parts: there was a protein item such as beef, chicken or pork, there was some sort of starchy item such as rice or potatoes or macaroni, and there was some sort of veggie such as broccoli or asparagus or corn. We never had that all-American staple of the 1960s, the peas and carrots mix (with little pea-sized cubes of carrots) because I was allergic to the peas. My mom often served slightly unusual veggies like artichokes to keep me and my brother interested in them. But regardless of what type of veggie there was on my plate there were always the 2 other items there too. But today it’s not enough to eat veggies with every meal. You are encouraged to be extreme and you have to eat nothing but the veggies. You have to be Vegan and nothing that ever breathed oxygen should pass your lips.

The Pledge of Allegiance had no mention of God when first written, but it did by the time I was in school.  The Lord’s Prayer, a specifically Christian prayer was not a part of my Jewish experience. Nevertheless, to me, as I recited it every morning with my Christian classmates, the prayer was just words, without any strong significant meaning. The words certainly didn’t interfere with my identity as a Jew. I got my identity from my home and family. The Founding Fathers had as one of their very fundamental principles, the idea of the separation of Church and State. They were educated men, these inventors of our country. They knew about the horrors that State-sponsored religion had visited on Europe in the past (mainly by the Christian Church) and they wisely wanted to avoid this. So if we really wanted to do as the founders wanted, there would be no prayers at all in the public schools. But today the Pledge and the Prayer have become a battleground between those who don’t want them in the public schools and those who insist they should be there. Prayer in school, mainly Christian prayers, seem to have become a rallying point between those who fanatically believe that America is a Christian country and everyone should be a Christian or at least participate in Christian prayer and those who believe that a Christian prayer in a school is an infringement on their own personal non-Christian rights. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists and everyone else who have an alternative belief should be forced to endure it. Once again, a plate with a variety of flavors, is being rejected by the extremists.

In the days when we watched men travel to the moon, scientists were respected. Real science was taught in school. Darwin’s ideas about evolution had long been proven as fact. Exploring all areas of the world for more knowledge about life was considered important. We believed that life could be made better for everybody though science. But today Science is considered suspect. Scientists too. Scientific knowledge is rejected in favor of unfounded belief.  Evolution? A bunch of hooey! Climate Change? Just bunk! Moon landings?  A big conspiracy. Vaccines? Don’t do it because they cause autism. Rape? Not a big deal because you can’t get pregnant from it since the body rejects rape pregnancies. I am just waiting for the flat earth people to start demanding that to be taught in schools.

These days the Dark Ages are long over. The Pope no longer exhorts his followers on organized rampages across Europe in the name of God. But instead, a fundamentalist version of Islam is on a holy war against the non-believers, intent on wiping out all who believe otherwise. Extremism at its finest. It doesn’t really matter who’s God is in charge when the extremists insist on deciding who is right and who is wrong.  Everyone is sure to suffer.

The days of standing up for inclusion; for fighting for equal rights for women, for people of color, for the handicapped, for all minorities seem to be long over. Instead we have a presidential candidate who makes fun of the disabled, is vulgar and rude about women, who threatens to jail his opponent if he is elected. His followers at his rallies shout things like “Kill her.” or “Trump that bitch!” or “Build a wall — kill them all.” They threaten violence towards anyone in their midst who voices a dissenting opinion.The hatred for The Other has replaced the idea of equality for all which once ruled this land.

The world is definitely not like it used to be when I was growing up. And I’m not really sure about the reason for why this is. But now we are living in an age of extremism and I have to say that I am getting extremely fed up with it.


Oct 10 2016

Day of Atonement

This evening is the eve of the Jewish Holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is probably one of the most important holidays in the Jewish Calendar. Unlike most of the other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is not celebrated by eating a large quantity of food. On Yom Kippur one is supposed to fast for the entire day. And one is supposed to atone for the sins you have committed in the past year – to say one is sorry, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.

This evening is also the evening before I leave for my trip to New York City. I stand next to my bed and look at the piles of clothing and other things that I have been laying out – choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. Is this item what I want to take with me on my trip or is it something I want to and can leave behind me, unneeded?

I feel these piles are also an apt metaphor for Yom Kippur. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur one must ask forgiveness from those one has wronged. And on Yom Kippur you are judged whether you have done right. I have hurt people. I have said unkind things. For this I am so very sorry. And like the items on my bed that I choose not to bring with me on my trip, I would rather not carry my atonement and its subsequent forgiveness with me. It’s not enough to just ask for forgiveness. The other half of the equation is that forgiveness is given. Without that, the books can not be closed and the journey becomes harder to continue.

I guess when I was younger, I thought that by the time I had reached 65 I would have figured out Life, be settled – know where I have come from, know where I am, know where I am going. But even at 65, it is still all so confusing. Where am I going? How will I live my life? What am I doing?

Tomorrow I will be traveling to New York City – the city of my heart. The first time back to the East Coast in over four years. The place I left almost 30 years ago to live here in Stockholm. I will be staying there for a whole month – the longest time back there in over 20 years. I am no longer the same person that packed her bags in 1987 to move to a foreign land. How will it feel to be reunited with my heart? Will we even recognize each other?

And after that month, I will return here to my home, Stockholm, to pick up the pieces of my life once again, hopefully forgiven. With all my baggage, all the pieces taken with me and even those I thought to leave behind – all the pieces of my life.


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


Dec 16 2014

One light at a time

Tonight is the first night of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah is not one of the major Jewish holidays but because of its closeness to Christmas it has taken on much larger importance in the Jewish calander.

The holiday actually has nothing at all to do with Christmas. It celebrates an event that took place approximately 165 years before Jesus was even born. The name Chanukah comes from the hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate” and that is what the holiday commemorates: the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the local Greek-Syrian rulers. Jewish forces led by Judah Maccabee (Judah the hammar) revolted against these rulers and eventually won the war against them and restored the Temple. The story goes that there was only found in the Temple enough oil for the holy lamp to be lit for one day but a miracle happened and the oil lasted for 8 days, enough time to make more oil. So today we light candles for 8 days to remember the miracle of the oil. And eat oily foods like latkes and fried donuts.

But the real story, the back story, was probably not so wonderful. Judea, the Jewish kingdom that Jerusalem was the capital of, was a conquered kingdom, ruled by the Greek-Syrian Selucid Empire, the local remains of what had once been Alexander the Great’s empire. During the time when the events of the story happened the lure of the hellenic culture was very strong, even in the Jewish kingdom. The hellenized, secular Jewish faction was in conflict with the Jews who were much more consevative and felt Jews should live strict Jewish lives and not follow the Greek hellenistic way. When Antiochus Epiphanes, the Selucid Emperor, sided with the hellenized Jewish faction, the conservative Maccabees revolted and cast out him and his forces. The whole thing was in effect a civil war, Jew against Jew, with the help of some outside forces. But the religious leaders who came after the war didn’t want to commemorate and keep remembering a civil war, Jews fighting against Jews, so they came up with the miracle of the oil in the Temple and Jews once again being able to be Jews. They felt it was better to remember the positive and put aside what was evil. So to this day, when we celebrate Chanukah we celebrate by remembering the miracle of light. A much better thing to remember as I see it. And when we light the candles on our Chanukias we always add one more candle each night. Each night we add more light!

menorahs

I now own 3 chanukiah, as the special 9-armed menorah is actually named. The largest is a silver and gilt one that my mother bought for me sometime after the birth of my son – for us to use as a family. The smallest one, on the right, is a gift given to me by my cousin Karel when I moved here to Stockholm so that I could remember my family back in New Jersey while I celebrated the holiday here in my new homeland. The third one, the middle-sized one in the front, is actually my newest yet my oldest. It is the one that my family lit thoughout my childhood and which I only brought back with me to Stockholm after the death of my mother three years ago. The two larger chanukiahs use the customary chanukah candles one buys in any judaica shop. The small one uses birthday candles.

Tonight, the first night, my son Bevin and I will light all three and Bevin will be given a small gift. The holiday is about the lighting of the candles and presents are not really relevant. The giving of gifts on each night of Chanukah is more a response to the gifts children get for Christmas. The more important thing is to light the candles.

In these dark days, when a member of the Swedish parlament says that Jews can never be considered real Swedes, when Islamists and Palestinians claim that the Jewish people have no right to be in Jerusalem, when synogogues are once again being burned, and Rabbis are attached, I am glad I can light my Chanukah lights together with my son, in freedom, in my home, in the land I live in. The candles remind me that Jews lived in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, before Christianity existed, before Islam existed. Now we live in many countries. We know how to live as Swedes and as Jews. As Americans and as Jews. Being Jewish is a plus situation. It isn’t an either/or proposition. We can be both a true citizen of the country we live in and a Jew at the same time. We know how to integrate without losing our identity. We have been doing it for over 2 thousand years. In this cross-cultural world we live in, this is something we can teach the world.