Passover is sweeter when we celebrate our freedoms

Passover Greetings for 5781! And also a very happy Easter to my friends and loved ones celebrating that holiday. The Spring Equinox* is nothing to sneeze at, either, except, maybe, for the allergies, a little.

May spring offer hope, renewal, and joyous freedom to everyone reading this post.

You can gauge the season in my home by the drift of matzah crumbs across the kitchen floor. Note to those new to a cracker-based diet: no, it is never a wise idea to eat matzah without a plate for catching the inevitable crumbs. Don’t let my husband or children tell you otherwise!Passover Pesach matzah

In 2021, I found myself rueful that yet another פֶסַח Pesach would be celebrated without guests or even family. Due to necessary medical appointments, we were socially if not spiritually distanced even from my in-laws who live downstairs within our home as this holiday commenced.

Yet, still, we had so much for which to be grateful.

Chief among all blessings, the festival of liberation from bondage reminds me annually of my husband’s exodus from an oppressive regime which persecuted his family for its Jewish heritage. Thank God for a United States of America welcoming refugees! My husband, his beloved parents, and his grandmother z”l all benefited from that largess.

Anyone familiar with DH’s academic record knows how the USA benefits, in turn, from his ground-breaking scholarship in—and beyond—the natural sciences. Certainly, IMHO, the likelihood of international fame ought not be a prerequisite for offering refuge to “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”** And yet, time and again, immigrants such as my husband prove their worth far beyond such beleaguered beginnings.

Cover of Richard Codor's Joyous Haggadah book

I hope that not a day goes by when I do not thank God for the blessing of my husband’s freedom, but I thank Passover for the fact that a year never could. The Haggadah—the story of Passover related by Jews at a סֵדֶר seder or order of telling—includes the answer, “It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt” to the question asked by a child who can’t even formulate a question about what the holiday means.

“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”

I must admit to not being particularly literal in my general understanding of the Torah. I believe God gave us a legacy of poetry, using metaphor to offer millennia’s worth of new understandings of the same old words, letting scripture rise to the occasion of ever-evolving human capacity.

And yet… in this case, I take scripture fairly literally. It is, frankly, because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt that everything else in my life carries so many of its multitudes of meaning.

That Egypt is a metaphor, yes. But, from where I sit, “Egypt” is a place I was, yet here I am, free.

Compared with 2020, I gave thanks in 2021 for plenty of capacity at the stores to get groceries delivered, and no shortages of either mundane or ritual items we needed for our seder.

At this time of year, in addition to counting my blessings, I am inclined to count my freedoms. The liturgy of the season Deuteronomy (26:5–8) includes the phrase:

God took us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:1-5 on the page

Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:5-8 on the pageUnderstanding the mighty/strong hand tends to be trivial. God is mighty; God is great. Translation doesn’t dilute this understanding much, in my experience.

The outstretched arm is, perhaps, less obvious, but sometimes more compelling, at least, to me.

You can find Jewish scholarship on the topic of the strong hand and outstretched arm all over the internet. But here’s what that extended arm means to me.

The outstretched arm reminds me of my obligation—always!— to reach out to the wider world. I believe I must use my personal freedom as a tool to work toward the liberation of others. At my seder, I can’t help but reflect upon current events. This year, that included paying attention to the illegal coup taking place in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

The New York Times reports that:

“Ten days after seizing power in Myanmar, the generals issued their first command to journalists: Stop using the words “coup,” “regime” and “junta” to describe the military’s takeover of the government. ”

When that didn’t work, the military junta that staged the coup in Myanmar—overthrowing the legitimate, democratically elected government—arrested more than 50 journalists for continuing to report the truth.

I wish I could do more than thumb my nose at these tyrants by defying their chosen vocabulary. This is the small strength of my individual hand, however, so that’s the little bit of power I will wield today.

Page view from Haggadah describing The Simple Child

After mentioning this outrage against human dignity, I’m also inspired to consider the question: Which child of the Passover seder am I aping, as I ask?

The Pesach Haggadah prompts us to answer questions about our liberation from slavery in Egypt for the benefit of four children: the one who is wise, a wicked child, a simple son, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask what s/he needs to know.

Modernity offers most of us instant connections across the globe, yet few of us seem blessed with the wisdom to use what should probably be considered a superpower to its utmost. Staring at the atrocities in Myanmar, I wonder if I’m the child who can’t even formulate a sensible question.

Who should determine the form of government of any nation? Am I remiss in assuming the majority’s opinion offers the critical vote?

What is our obligation, as outsiders, to support those agitating and risking their lives in hopes of bringing democracy to a nation? Is it enough when I simply simply ponder their fate?

When are we called upon to act as opposed to bearing witness? How many civilians must a military coup murder before free people of the world feel obligated to take action?

Where should I draw the line between my own liberation and that of another oppressed person?

Why have I been blessed with so much more freedom than the people of Myanmar?

How can I make the world better given my limited strength and resources?

In this spring of optimism across the developed world as a pandemic God willing wanes, I hope those of us living in the bosom of privilege, safety, and freedom from want can provide some sort of meaningful support for those in  Myanmar and elsewhere living beneath a cloak of oppression.

* With a special nod to the pagan holiday of Ostara, aka Eostre, from which Christian Easter stole borrowed what it needed to convert the masses. Please note, friend Christians, that I don’t think Jesus himself is in any way incriminated in this wholesale holiday obfuscation. The social history is pretty fascinating, however, to a nerd like myself.

Hebrew acronym for zikhronah livrakha, meaning “May her memory be a blessing.” Read more about this Jewish acronym at My Jewish Learning dot com.

** Excerpted from Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, as etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Here’s one rabbi’s thought on understanding how translation affects a well known, widely “understood” passage such as the one I’ve quoted here.

Cheer a grumpy Christmas by stacking tiny bricks of gratitude

2020 hasn’t been a normal year. This won’t be an average Christmas.

Xmas tree - 1Many of us are heeding public health advice and avoiding travel. Some of us are still grieving lost loved ones whose presence defined* special holidays. Ignoring these very real sources of pain is neither healthy, nor possible in the long term.

But does acknowledging the bumps in life’s road mean choosing between being a humbug or a Grinch? I hope to prove otherwise.

I’m afraid I’m having a Very Grumpy Christmas. While I wish for better for every reader, I suspect my miseries enjoy plenty of company.

When I’m in this kind of snit—so easily degenerating into a full on funk—about the only remedy is the doing of good or the counting of blessings.

As I took advantage of an un-rushed school vacation week morning today by staying in bed for an extra hour with my book, I was grateful for not yet having reached the end of the last series of novels my mother will ever recommend to me.

She bugged me for months to pick up the first one. Why did I resist until after she was gone? I wish with every page that I could tell her how much I’m enjoying them…

Comforting myself with this small thing for which I could give thanks, I realized each little blessing is a brick. If I stack up enough of them, I’ll have built a sizable structure. One brick won’t do a person much good against an invading army, but enough humble chunks of masonry suffice for The Great Wall of China.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1So perhaps I’m not playing so well with others, today. I’m hardly a Sugar Plum Fairy. I’ll be a builder, though, of my own Great Wall of Gratitude.

I think it will hold.

QC city walls

Here are a few more trivialities I’ve found to be thankful for today:

  • My husband went back to the too busy, too crowded day-before-holiday bakery when they forgot to include my favorite cinnamon buns in the pre-packed bag he went out for at dawn.
  • My teenager told me he loves me… without me prompting him by saying it first.
  • My younger one never hesitates to show me affection, not even when his friends can see him doing it.
  • My kids can collaborate on a project and produce something great without adult supervision.
  • My pantry is full; I’m not afraid for how I will feed my family.

Readers, please feel free to share in the comments what you can find to be grateful for this topsy-turvy holiday season. Your smallest joy would be a Really Wonderful gift to me.

* I can’t look at a Christmas decoration without being reminded of my mother, who died of cancer in 2019. On the other hand, to ignore her favorite holiday would be the most disrespectful possible thing as far as honoring her memory goes.

Today’s post is brought to you in memory of Mother Christmas.

Mom decorates Christmas tree with ornament

That would be the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. Find them listed in order here; I’ve made it to book 13, Glass Houses. You definitely do want to read these in chronological order if you opt to give them a try. They’re decorous enough for readers of cozy mysteries (Mom), but complex enough for those of us who like to pretend we’re exercising our minds with our choice of literature.

Be warned, however: If you get into these mid-pandemic, you’ll be cross that you can’t make a visit to Quebec, which Penny paints as paradise… if you can get past the political intrigues and frequent murders!

Expressing gratitude for delivery drivers with snacks

In March, I hung a sign on our mailbox, thanking the postman* for working as a then-unknown virus blossomed in our metro area from hundreds of cases to thousands over the course of a few weeks.

Most of us were sheltering in place; he faced the world every day. He’s a gentleman who looks to be approaching retirement age. I wanted him to know his service to our community was not going unnoticed.

Green foam sheet saying Happy Holidays & Thank You to essential delivery workersHere are photos of my new, similar-to-what-I’m-talking-about, winter Happy Holidays gratitude sign. The first one was pink with flowers in honor of the approaching spring. Also flowers, like the holly I’ve sketched here, are easy to draw even without artistic talent. Both were drawn with Sharpie marker on EVA foam construction material to withstand the elements.

Though I’d exchanged pleasantries with our mailman pretty regularly, and friendly waves often, he took time from his rounds to come to our door and acknowledge our well wishes. Our letter carrier told me he’d posted a picture of our little sign to his social media, he felt so touched. He wanted other postal workers to see that people cared.

It mattered, to our most regular delivery driver, that we had made an effort on his behalf.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1The pandemic has raged on, waning over the summer here in New England, and waxing again under the current punishment of the second wave. Essential workers carry on, and delivery drivers are keeping my family—which includes two septuagenarians with pre-existing conditions and a child with asthma—fed, medicated, and able to enjoy many of the usual trappings of the winter holidays we celebrate.

Without these men and women, business would grind to a complete halt. Never mind those of us who choose and can afford to shop from home; without deliveries, there would be no parts to assemble in factories, no flow of goods or services, no products to buy on the shelves for those who still prefer to visit stores in person.

Delivery drivers are the pulsing lifeblood of modern society. I’m grateful for every one of them, for showing up at work, for keeping our economy functioning, for taking on personal risk to allow me to protect the vulnerable members of my family.

Words alone can’t express the depth of my gratitude!

Winter/Xmas/Hanukkah decorated box of snacks with note of thanks to delivery driversHere’s one tangible way that I’m saying thank you to the drivers who serve my community.

I got the idea for putting out snacks from the internet. I decorated the box with scraps of wrapping paper in hopes the festive decoration would lift spirits while the calories in the snacks nourish bodies. I tried to include a mixture of sweets, savory, and tangerines for a bit of healthy.

Gratitude sign text: Delivery drivers, please take any snack you like as a token...I was a little surprised, actually, by how easily I found an array of grab-and-go snacks in my pantry. The cessation of packed school lunches has left me with more “extra” individual serving items than I might have in normal times. Some of these items were included in a gift basket from a colleague, the cereal was one type in a multi-pack that my family didn’t go for, the kosher doughnut came in a Hanukkah Cheer package we received from a local Jewish group.

Pile of moneyThe internet—and the official sites for the United States Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS—offers conflicting advice on whether and how one may tip professional delivery drivers. Officially, cash seems to be a no-no, or at least strongly discouraged; off the record, I know some drivers sometimes accept gratuities of money or gift cards.

espresso with foam art served with sparkling waterIf I were going out, I might buy a dozen or so small denomination gift cards for places like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts that abound in our area. $5 cards to drive thru restaurants seem reasonable, but I hesitate to offer gift cards that may be against the rules for drivers to accept.

I suspect they would be taken, and appreciated, if I had some to leave out; I’m just rule-abiding, perhaps to a fault, but I offer the idea to my renegade readers.

Insulated thermal carafes labeled Hot Water and CoffeeI wish I could think of a hygienic way to offer a warm drink on cold days right at my door, but leaving out a flask of hot coffee seems unappealing while a contagious virus is circulating.

goSun oven bake cookies from prepared dough - 4If my snacks go quickly and appear popular, I may also try home baked items I don’t know if drivers would risk a homemade muffin in a baggie, but I’m comfortable with the waste if those go untouched. I’d rather keep offering something rather than nothing if my packaged options dwindle. I’ve committed to shopping as rarely as possible as our hospitals fill and COVID-19 case counts continue to rise in our region.

If you’d like to do something similar, I’ve uploaded a PDF of my gratitude sign. Feel free to print it and use it yourself, or adapt it in any way you’d like. I laminated mine because I have a plethora of home business equipment, but a sheet protector offers some protection from the elements, and even a layer of tape extends the life of paper in light rain.

It isn’t important exactly what you do. But, if possible, find some way to thank the delivery drivers making daily life possible in your area. Every one of us has been touched by their contributions.

* The same person who has routinely delivered our mail for many years at this address. I’m thinking of a particular man, hence my choice of the gendered job title.

I wish I had some single serve drinks to include, but my feelings about wasteful packaging keep me from buying many of those. I didn’t have any on hand to include. Any beverage I might offer would have to be schlepped to my house by a delivery driver; is the lugging of liquids worth it in this case? I’ll admit; I’m a bit conflicted on that point.

I would affix a label matching my home address to offer confidence I wasn’t a creeper, up to no good, trying to poison someone!

Mail a greeting card in 2020 to uplift lonely holidays

Even if you don’t usually send Christmas cards or other holiday greetings, this year might deserve to be an exception. So many people are lonely and missing far-flung families due to the pandemic; getting a hand-written note in the mail may be the most human connection in a person’s day. That is well worth 55 ¢ in postage and a few minutes of your time.

greeting cards on desk blotter with pen and stampsI send cards sometimes; other years, I don’t get around to it.

I have written Hanukkah greetings, Christmas cards, acknowledgements of the Winter Solstice, and best wishes for happy New Years. I send the message I think the recipient would most appreciate; my religion* in no way dictates the blessing I offer a friend of a different persuasion.

My family hung the same red felt banners on the entry hall wall every year of my life. They went up early in December, empty canvasses, ready to receive holiday missives as they arrived. The oldest was made by my mother’s mother and features pockets and a waving Santa at the top; Mom had to craft another when I was little to accommodate the deluge of communiques that her sociability and dedication to friendship and public service inspired. Cards were pinned or stapled to that display.

In 2019, my mother died.

Somehow, that year also saw a huge reduction in the number of Christmas cards my widowed father received. In years past, every inch of these many yards of felt was hidden by the volume of cards and letters; last year, only one banner ended up even partially covered.

Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

I don’t believe that people were intentionally ignoring my dad in the absence of Mom, though her enthusiasm** for Christmas did put that of other, mere mortals to shame. I received fewer cards last year, too. The dentist and the auto body shop we used only once historically sent pre-printed cards, untouched by even a secretary’s hand. A lot of that has stopped. I suppose it’s a sign of the growing reliance on electronic communication, and I don’t miss impersonal mailings from businesses too much.

Dad’s passing comment about getting so few cards, however, was like a punch in the gut to me. It was already such a hard year for him; I grieved again to see him feeling forgotten. What a dreadful time for the world to decide to save a tree and skip a mailed paper greeting!

I’m going to be sending at least a few cards this year, myself. I’m prioritizing older relatives, and those who live alone. Even if you never send cards, hate to write, or don’t celebrate any of the winter holidays, this may be a year to reach out in the spirit of warmth, light, and joy—just because.

There’s no real deadline, either, in case you’re worried about the already overburdened postal system. Send Warm Winter Wishes in January, if that feels more appropriate. After the happiest of holidays, that month can be a real let-down. After a grim, lonely season you believe should have been festive? January could be gruesome.

Our shared humanity is reason enough. Care for others is the animating gift of all societies. Winter is dark and feels too long in the good years; 2020 has not been a particularly good year for most. Pandemic winter is an enemy to us all, but a terrorizing monster to the isolated and the lonely.

Reach out, if you’ve got a few minutes, an envelope, a stamp. You’ll be making the world just that little bit better for someone else. I’m willing to bet it will brighten your day, too.

I might even argue that the very definition of faith makes the fear of someone else’s difference a rather fundamental failing of it…

** Mom liked to say that Christmas was the reason the rest of the year exists. She called herself Mother Christmas, and Dad had a song commissioned for her about that by a talented musician friend. My parents’ over-the-top outdoor decorations were so spectacular, their house was featured in a television public service announcement in the 1990’s. Mom had a unique holiday outfit for every day between Thanksgiving and Epiphany, reckoning the arrival of the Wise Men was the true end of the Christmas season.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock to more paper spam either. This is not an argument that we return to physical documents for conducting most business.

That said, I do notice, enjoy, and appreciate the personalized greetings sent by some institutions, such as my son’s school and my former personal trainer who takes the time to hand write all of his cards.

When is a box really a coffer?

My father-in-law is a gentleman of the Old World whose interest in art often takes him to local auctions. For himself, he attends auctions in search of under-valued original works of art. But, when he finds a good deal on housewares that are antique, delightful, and a bit too fancy for his own table, he often thinks of me.

Yay!Silver box etched with floral ang geometric patterns

He gave me this silver plated box a few years ago.

Maker's mark indicating James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield, EPBM 1155My fairly brief investigation into the hallmark engraved on the bottom gives me the impression that this box is not too fancy, and not so valuable. It is electroplated silver over base metal, made by James Dixon & Sons, of Sheffield, England.

Regardless, I find it quite fetching.

2 lit tapers on wooden table next to open silver chest containing beeswax candlesI immediately put my little silver box to good use. I store my Shabbat candles inside.

There is a notion in Judaism of Hiddur Mitzvah, whereby the act of beautifying a ritual enhances its spiritual significance. I find myself in complete agreement with this idea: to engage all of the senses in worship seems, to me, an obvious acknowledgement of the beneficence of the ultimate Creator.

One day, during the pandemic, I asked my child to fetch the coffer so I could put out the Shabbos candles. This led to the sort of inane conversation with which all parents are likely familiar.

“Please bring the silver coffer out of the cupboard, my darling,” says Mother, “so that I can get the candles for Shabbat.”

“The what?” asks Punk Kid #2.

“There is a shiny silver box inside the Kitchen Queen in the dining room,” replies Mother, still beaming with the sabbath peace. “The candles are inside.”

“What’s a Kitchen Queen?” responds Punk Kid #2.

“The Kitchen Queen is the antique wooden cabinet in the dining room that came from my grandmother, of course,” says Mother, rapidly losing her cool.

“Some people would call it a Hoosier Cabinet,” I offer as the steam billows out of my ears, my dear child looking on, taking no action, drooling, and perhaps going a bit cross-eyed…

Shalom bayit recedes into some future Shabbat during which I fail completely to engage with my own children and therefore achieve inner peace…

We could go on at some length describing how not one, but two, intelligent children failed to find a quite visibly special box containing the ritually important candles used to usher in the day of rest in a Jewish home, but, well, what value is there in teasing my kids?

I found it fascinating how definitely I defined my silver box as a coffer, and how my younger child immediately latched on to his own mental definition when I asked for one.

He was looking for a “box full of gold,” by the way, which is not a ridiculous notion for what a coffer might be.

Dictionary defining coffer as a chest or strongboxMy little box—it is about 6″ tall and 6.5 × 8.5″ at the base—may not be as imposing as a medieval lord’s strongbox. The lion heads at the sides, however, imbue a certain gravitas. Their noble expressions may be my very favorite part of the box!Lion head holding ring handle on side of silver box

Candles were a scarce, valuable resource in the not-so-distant past, needing protection from nibbling* by mice or rats. It’s not ridiculous to guard them with the mightiest of cats. They deserve to reside in a finely decorated coffer.

Though my children had managed, somehow, to not even notice my box’s presence, it has become an integral part of my celebration of the weekly joy that is Shabbat.

The idea of a holiday, every seven days, given to us to break up the monotony of a lifetime of work? I find the very notion miraculous. I’m eternally grateful for it.

During a pandemic, the relief of such a holiday is even more wonderful. Where one day piles up upon the next in a potentially never-ending heap, a simple break is a gift in a web of byzantine complexity!

Jewish menorah and hanukkiah candelabrae

Coming up soon, of course, for some of us, is another very light-specific and candle-involved holiday: Hanukkah. My photo here shows a Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, next to a standard Jewish menorah with only seven branches.

While the pandemic pounds the normalcy out of so many of our experiences in 2020, it has little influence on the celebration of a small band of guerilla fighters against the greatest army in the world during the second century BCE.

When I take a candle from my coffer to kindle against the darkness on 25 Kislev (10 December, 2020), I will commemorate and publicize a miracle. I will battle darkness with my own small light. I am good, and I will defeat that which is wicked.

May humanity deal COVID-19 a similarly devastating blow in 2021, offering us a future of uncovered faces and robust health for the multitudes.

EPBM stands for “Electro-Plated Britannia Metal,” which is a cheaper version of the electroplated nickel silver that was, itself, a cheaper imitation of sterling silver goods.

*Remember that early candles were made of tallow, or beef fat. For a rodent, that stuff is like caviar or manna from heaven.