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Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Passover is nearly here, only days away.  The continued paralysis in the peace process in Israel-Palestine makes preparation for the holiday just that  more difficult this year.  Raised in the Reform tradition in the 1960s and ’70s by non-observant parents, my experience of the holiday was limited to a single, simple (and incomplete) seder.  Over the years, I’ve searched for the traditions, for meaning in traditions that can be expressed by my own family’s efforts to observe the holiday.

Last year’s Knitted Seder was an opportunity for learning well beyond the simple explanations contained the array of Reform haggadahs we’ve collected, and well beyond my expectations.  This year I’ve made an effort to continue my knitter-ly study of Pesach traditions by exploring the tradition of Bedikat Chametz, cleaning out the chametz (prohibited leavened or fermented foods) from the home.

Jewish families world-wide are preparing for the arrival of Passover.  For “traditional” Jews, the preparations begin with rigorous spring cleaning of the home, culminating in the family’s ritual search for chametz throughout the house, a search conducted with a wooden spoon and feather, illuminated by the light of a single candle, and concluded by burning the collected remaining crumbs.

Spring cleaning happens in my home, and the commitment we make to a week of matzoh has always served to keep us free of chametz.  But this year’s study suggests something new to consider:  to my amazement, I’ve just learned that the search for chametz also symbolizes metaphorically a spiritual house-cleaning, the opportunity to discard the unwanted in ourselves and our communities.  Traditional Jews describe spiritual chametz as the yetzer ha’ra, or “evil impulse;” these are the desires, and fears, that can enslave us emotionally and spiritually.  In my effort to understand this teaching, I’ve found Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s description especially helpful:  chametz is “what lifts us up throughout the year – leads to our working harder, searching deeper, loving more. It is the yetzer, or swelling-impulse, of the soul. But allowed to swell and grow without restraint, it becomes yetzer ha’ra, the evil impulse. It impels us not only to productivity, but to possessiveness; not only to creativity, but to competitiveness; not only to love, but to jealousy and lust. So once a year we must clean out even the uplifting impulse; we must eat the flat bread of a pressed-down people’. (Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, p. 144, cited here).

I incline towards the creativity Rabbi Waskow describes as a search for spiritual chametz.  I’d like to direct it toward an expansiveness that will bring the values of the holiday for Jews into closer contact with issues of oppression and liberation beyond Jewish narratives (real or mythological) of  persecution and redemption, to make the most of the reflection (I know know) my tradition proposes I pursue at least twice a year (Passover and the High Holiday period).  In spite of the shortage of time, I’ll explore some of the supplementary or alternative haggadot  out there – it’s time to work out the chametz that impedes progress toward a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine.  I can start with the Shalom Center’s
Passover of Peace: A Seder for the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah, and I’ll also have a look at the Passover Haggadah
Haggadah Supplement for Etically Oriented Jews and our non-Jewish Allies
(Michael Lerner, Tikkun Magazine).

Or maybe, since there won’t be any small children at my family’s table this year, we’ll cut to the chase and spend time exploring how we can reconcile spiritual chametz with  Cherie Brown’s “Seven Principles about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Beyond the blame game”.

1. Every situation, including the current conflict in Gaza, can provide us with new opportunities to think, take leadership, and move the conflict forward, if we are able to act outside of hopelessness and discouragement. Even as the violence continues, new opportunities arise for us to mobilize others, put out correct information, and gain allies for good policies.

2. A just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taking longer than any of us want, and we need to grieve about the horrible loss of lives on all sides. In particular, we need to grieve about the current setbacks, which are real. But even with these setbacks, there are also important new opportunities for increased dialogue, leadership, mobilization of others, and action.

3. No one group or country deserves to be targeted as the sole perpetrator of the current conflict. Not the Israelis who feel threatened by continued rockets landing in Israel and then seek safety and security by striking back. And not the Palestinians who send the rockets when they feel besieged by an occupation that has lasted way too long.

4. Even if no one side is totally to blame, it is still each side’s responsibility-and obligation-to stop wrong actions and to reach for rational policies and solutions that take everyone’s long-term needs into account.

5. It is not helpful for Diaspora Jews to attack Israelis for the difficulties they have in being able to think clearly under conditions of hopelessness and terror. It is not helpful for Israelis to attack Diaspora Jews when they seek to find their own independent voice and articulate the role that the U.S. government can and should play in moving the current situation forward.

6. Any solution that is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will need to take all historic injustices into account but not be bound by them. Both peoples (and their allies) put out narratives about the current situation that have correct information in them-but these narratives also contain distortions that are a result of a history of mistreatment and painful emotion. One narrative says Israel is being besieged: Hamas is primarily a terrorist organization, and there is no choice now but to engage in a long protracted war in Gaza until Hamas is totally defeated. Another narrative says Hamas is primarily a liberation organization, working to free the Palestinian people from occupation by Israel, and therefore should not be blamed for sending rockets into Israel. Any narrative that portrays one side only as a victim and the other side as worthy of all or most of the blame for the conflict does not have the full picture. Any narrative that describes the current situation needs to take into account the history of mistreatment of both peoples; both sides’ hunger for peace, justice, and security; and the need to prevent outside forces from pitting one side against the other for purposes of greed and exploitation.

7. There are no military solutions to this conflict that will achieve lasting peace and justice for Israelis or for Palestinians. Any solution will require the engagement of all Israelis and all Palestinians, including Hamas, in dialogue and negotiations. No people in the current situation can ultimately be destroyed, expelled, or beaten into submission. Attempts to do so will, in the long term, only engender further violence and retaliation, as well as increase the length of time it will take to reach a negotiated settlement.

Cherie Brown is the executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute, an international leadership training organization dealing with anti-oppression issues, and she has been involved in Jewish Middle East peace groups for 35 years. She is currently on the board of Brit Tzedek V’Shalom.

More information about the Bedikat Chametz tradition is available here.

As with all my tikkunknitting projects, the patterns will be available for a contribution in support of peace-building efforts in Israel-Palestine.  Try my Patterns for Peacebuilders page if you are interested in making your own set of “Chametz Patrol” tools.

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A year ago, the living room was covered with lumber, bins of paint and brushes, as our painted sukkah slowly took form.  This afternoon the boys (now men) visited to help us erect The Sukkah again, and we look forward to the week’s many breakfast and dinner visitors, and inter-faith gatherings.

With the work of contributing to the presidential campaign, it’s been a challenge to find time to tikkun-knit for the sukkah this year.  Creating a knitted lulav has been on the drawing board since last year, but since Sukkot observance was not a part of my childhood, there’s been much to learn in order to move the project forward.  What a treat to spend a few late night hours exploring the historical iconography of the ritual symbols of the holiday: the lulav and etrog.

The importance of these symbols to the creation and transmission of Jewish identity over time is remarkable.  Torah features the observance of the harvest festival (Sukkot) as the principal catalyst for the resistance that informs the Exodus narrative and its ancient model of community identity (Exodus 5:1 is the node) . The lulav and etrog number among the central symbols of Judaism on the synagogue mosaics and national coins of late antiquity, expanding their significance beyond ritual with inscriptions that proclaim the desire for peace and idependence. (source of mosaic below left; coins from the 1st Jewish Revolt, 66-73 CE, image source) and 2nd (Bar Kokhba) Revolt, 135 CE)

Knitting Sukkot

Last year my concern about the commercialization of the lulav led me to knit plastic etrogs; this concern persists, and I continue to avoid contributing to what has become a billion dollar industry (the “Jewish industrial complex”?) based on diaspora anxieties.  So I continue to work on producing my own versions of the ritual symbols.  One late evening’s labor recently yielded a knitted and felted etrog, which now joins last year’s knitted versions.

I’ve been poring over photos and descriptions of the Four Species (Arba’at Ha-Minim): the ritual Lulav‘s palm, willow and myrtle branches, and the prized etrog (citron).  With a bit of persistence (and knitting during walks to work or in rehearsal breaks), my needles will shake daily to offer their own “first fruits”.  I’m still not sure about adding scent to my etrogs (my precious bottle of organic lemon oil just can’t substitute for the extraordinary scent of the etrog).  Nonetheless, I’ll look forward to sharing them, and my knitted lulav ‘s three other species, a pair of knitted palm leaves (lulav), two willow (aravah) branches and three myrtle (hadass) branches, with neighbors when they stop by on the annual urban sukkah tour.

As always, patterns for these examples of knitted Judaica for Sukkot are or will be available as Patterns for Peacebuilders.

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G’mar Chatima Tova
(may you be sealed in the book of life


Arthur Szyk, “Shalom”
The Hebrew on the Torah in the illustration is ‘ V’ahavtah L’rayahkah Kahmokah’ (Love your Neighbor as Yourself) (Lev. 19:18). One hundred years before the Common Era, Rabbi Hillel taught, ”That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah: The rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Talmud Bavli Tractate Shabbat 31a.  (source)

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A Rosh Hashanah story from a master of our tradition:

While passing through a marketplace, Rabbi Kehot of Veritch, a disciple of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, overheard a conversation between two horse dealers.  “I was thinking,” said one to the other. “What does the psalmist mean when he says, ‘Do not be as a horse, or a mule, without understanding, their mouths stopped with bit and bridle’?[Psalms 32:9.] Well, when you put a bit in a horse’s mouth, he thinks that you are giving him something to practice his chewing on. Don’t be like a horse, King David is saying. When your Heavenly Master sends something your way, understand that it is more than something to chew on…”  Rabbi Kehot related this exchange to his teacher. The Baal Shem Tov was greatly excited by the horsedealer’s insight, and was inspired to a state of d’veikut (meditative attachment to G-d). In his ecstasy, the Baal Shem Tov began to sing a melody. This is the melody to which the rebbes of Chabad would pray on the first night of Rosh Hashanah.  (source).

May the sound of the shofar this year motivate us all to recognize that we’ve been given an extraordinary opportunity this year to act for change in our country, and for a secure and peaceful future for ourselves, our children, our communities, our country and our global neighbors.  Don’t just chew … vote!

To a healthy, sweet and productive new year.
Shanah tova!

(and if you’re inclined to model action instead of chewing, to wear your politics on your sleeve – or in this case, your keppe –  make and wear your own Obamakah (Obama + yarmulkah); I embroidered mine after knitting and felting one based on CozyColeman‘s pattern (available here).  Or get a specially-printed suede Obamakah here from Jews for Obama.

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With so much energy committed lately to electoral matters, the High Holidays crept up on me.  But not so quickly that I wasn’t able to finish a few Tikkunknitting projects on needles since last year. Continuing my knitterly study of Jewish ritual and symbols, I’ve added a shofar and pomegranate to last year’s new year apple.

  • The shofar is the principle of Rosh Hashonah.  A ram’s horn, it’s sound amplifies the reading of the Aqedah during the holiday, confirming (Abraham’s) commitment to relationship with God (Genesis 22).  (Here’s what the shofar call sounds like, at least to Ashkenazim).
  • According to (Sephardic) tradition, the pomegranate contains exactly 613 seeds, precisely the number of mitzvot, Biblical obligations traditional Jews seek to fulfill. Even the non-traditional Jew can eat the pomegranate to express the wish that life during the coming year will be filled with as many good deeds as the pomegranate has seeds.
  • The round apple represents the hope that the New Year will be joyous from the beginning until it goes full circle. Dipping an apple in honey speaks of the wish for a sweet New Year. (Here’s the traditional prayer for anyone interested).

I’ll add another post on traditions and iconography shortly, but can offer my own responses to the most basic traditional ritual.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leshoma kol shofar.  [Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has blessed us in his commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.]

I am thankful for the opportunity to study tradition and hear again the sound of the shofar.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higianu la’zman ha’zeh. [Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.]

I am thankful for surviving another year, for the richness of my life, and for the opportunity to re-examine my values, commitments, and actions during this holiday season.

(and without speaking further, here are a few of the daily “100 blasts” of the shofar)

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Wouldn’t it be better for all us — Palestinians and Israelis — to be in the mindset of Sinai rather than in the mindset of the Egyptian enslavement? (Jerry Haber, The Magnes Zionist, “Observing Passover When Still Enslaved“)

Genevieve Sideleau “Covered “, 2006
(Sweater Project Series I)

Making a knitted seder this year was more than simply producing copies of the common elements of the Passover seder, or re-producing tradition. It was also an opportunity for thinking through what makes a seder a seder, how tradition works, how religious traditions are made, and the relationship between family and religious tradition

My sister and I faithfully served recipes from our family’s archives: the Ashkenaz charoset recipe we’d grown up with, Aunt Zena’s sweet potato pudding, Nana’s Brisket, and so on. What surprise we created as we changed the the menu – that dense, spicy Yemenite date paste my sister presented years caused quite a stir), the year I started adding ginger and parsely to my matzoh balls forever changed our views on this staple of the Passover meal, and the year we stopped serving the favorite chocolate torte on account of cholesterol challenges practically brought tears to the eyes of some of us. My approach to the knitted seder was similarly open. (More photos of my “knitted seder” are available here).

The Exodus as a metaphor – and the extensive history of Passover observance – speak volumes to me about Jewish experience of living in the world, about a history of anti-Semitism, and Jewish response to it. This is the essential meaning of the holiday, as a creative response to the challenges of persecution since late antiquity. It was this meaning I tried to share with my family, and which I sought to explore, as I prepared for – and tikkunknitted – the holiday this year.

So at our second seder, we began to discuss revising our seder plate …

We discussed the origins and implications of Passover’s traditional symbols and traditions, and also the possibility of making new symbols and traditions. Like others, we added an orange and olives to the seder plate – the orange expresses the modern progressive Jewish approach to gender equality in Jewish life and ritual practice (observed by many Reform and Reconstructionist Jews), and the olives … to acknowledge the destruction of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli authorities (a business completely prohibited by Torah!), and the need to reach a just peace with this people displaced by the creation of the state of Israel. We also explored some of the problematic aspects of the narrative of the plagues, how the annual recitation of the Maggid may contribute to ethnic conflict and impede peace-building in the Jewish community.

Next year perhaps I’ll add a knitted beet to the plate, to acknowledge the sensitivities of the vegetarians at the table (Talmid is often cited in support of this alternative custom – see Pesachim 114b for a discussion of the use of the beet or yam). At my sister’s seder, I’ll suggest adding a potato to the seder plate, to acknowledge Jewish loss during WWII, rather than using the copies of the Israel Haggadah brought by her in-laws (though there are enough copies to go around our (fortunately) large table). It’s and explicitly Zionist tract that makes me very uncomfortable, and the possibility of avoiding it might just be the stimulus to produce that Haggadah I’ve been promising my family for decades.

While I have no desire to reside in the real Jerusalem, perhaps these changes will create a seder space in which I’ll be comfortable toasting a final cup of Passover wine to “next year in the spiritual Jerusalem” that is possible if we allow ourselves to create the new symbols and traditions that might build the freedom that was the promise of Sinai described in the Exodus narrative, the peace within our community, and the peace with neighbors.

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Passover study and preparation certainly has kept my tikkunknitting needles flying. Committed to Passover as a symbol of freedom for any and all of us, as an opportunity to gather, share traditions, and build hope for a peaceful future, my knitted seder table included the basics:

  • a plate full of the ritual symbols of the holiday, commemorating the narrative of the liberation of the Israelites from servitude in Egypt, and
  • a knitted cup for the prophet Elijah, whose anticipated arrival by Jews presages the achievement of an age of universal peace, was the tikkunknitting project of the moment.

But no seder is complete without the recitation of the Maggid (the Passover story), including its enumeration of the Ten Plagues, purportedly inflicted on the Egyptians for their Pharoah’s defiance of the Israelite God. As they appear in the Hebrew Bible, the plagues include:

  1. Blood (Dam, Exodus 7:14-25): rivers and other water sources turned to blood killing all fish and other water life (Dam, Exodus 7:14-25)
  2. Amphibians (Tsfardeia, Exodus 7:26-8:11): commonly believed to be frogs, but medieval Jews conceived of them as crocodiles (look here for an interesting discussion of Talmudic references, possibly explaining the illustration in the 14th-century “Sarajevo” Haggadah from Barcelona, bottom of folio)
  3. Lice or gnats (Kinim, Exodus 8:12-15), like the dust of the earth
  4. (Arov, Exodus 8:16-28) flies or beasts
  5. Blight (Deverm Exodus 9:1-7) disease of livestock
  6. Boils (Shkhin, Exodus 9:8-12)
  7. Hailstorm (Barad, Exodus 9:13-35), hail mixed with fire
  8. Locusts (Arbeh, Exodus 10:1-20)
  9. Darkness (Choshech, Exodus 10:21-29), commonly understood to have inflicted the Egyptians alone
  10. Death (Makat Bechorot, Exodus 11:1-12:36) of the first-born of all Egyptian families

My family typically involves the children in the telling, and this year I attempted to give them some tikkunknitted prompts for the job. Having put in a few late nights, I was able to contribute a complete story-telling basket for my niece-lets.

The task of researching and creating knitted representations of the plagues prompted a degree of study and learning well beyond my expectations. For instance, I learned more than a little about the life of frogs (the second plague) in ancient Egypt, and in modern Israel-Palestine. It should have come as no surprise that a plague of frogs appeared early in the purported contest between Pharoah and the Israelite god; frogs were an important symbol of fertility for the ancient Egyptians, represented by the frog-headed goddess Heqet (who breathed life into the unborn), the source of the hieroglyph for the number 100,000 (a multitude rivaling that of the Israelites placed in slavery, as Jewish tradition tells the story). (check out the Hieroglyph Translator!).

The plague of frogs is a particularly interesting example of religious irony, the Israelite god turning the table, so to speak, on the Egyptians – suffocating them with their own beliefs and traditions, rendering them lifeless with their own symbol of life. It’s also a means of connecting to modern experience of plagues … most notably, the plague of conflict in Israel-Palestine. Frogs have long been a part of the landscape of Israel-Palestine; indeed, fossilized tadpoles have been found in the Negev (source). Yet the symbiotic relationship between the life of frogs and the land is seriously threatened in modern times. According to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and disease have endangered six species of amphibians in Israel. And one specie, the Israel/Palestine Painted Frog, has been extinct since the 1950’s, when its Galilean lake habitat was drained to accomodate the expanding post-war Jewish population (see source; and the reconstructed images of the Painted Frog).

My knitted frog is inspired by the origami jumping frogs of my childhood. It is a creature of the water, being felted (or more properly, fulled) in a lengthy hot water bath. With a bit of knitterly “paint” she will be transformed into the amphibian lost to the unrestricted development of Israel-Palestine by Jewish immigrants since 1948. I’m hoping fiber artists and needle workers will respond to my invitation to contribute frogs to the TikkunTree, If enough to, there might be a plague of frogs to deal with.

A plague of peace frogs … what a thought.

Knitters will soon find a pattern for this origami-style felted frog available as part of the Patterns for Peacebuilders series. Additional images of my set of knitted plagues can be found here.

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