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.

New Zealand Day 0: Hagley Park perambulation & restaurant revelations

It has been stated and re-stated on this blog that I am not an energetic traveler. For this reason, after a red eye or overnight flight, I consider my first day in a far off locale as a recovery day. I have no goal beyond arriving in one piece and finding my lodgings, perhaps unpacking for good measure.

If I can manage to stay awake until “local bedtime” or something like it, I consider it a journey well completed.

It goes without saying that the voyage to New Zealand is a long one from almost anywhere else. This trip, in particular, found me inclined to give myself a break on “day zero.” Even DH, who usually hits the ground running* gave himself the afternoon off for mental and physical recuperation.

Our most gracious hosts at the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch let us check in early. Read my more thorough review of this well located, comfortable lodging here.

It was mid-morning when we arrived from the airport, but I wasn’t competent enough in the moment to note the precise hour. DH’s colleague was kind enough to pick us up from baggage claim. It was a quick 15 minute or so drive into town.

After dropping our bags—and taking one of those glorious post-red eye flight showers that heals body and spirit—I stretched out to rest my grumpy joints while DH did the manly provider thing and went in search of sustenance.

Without a rental car at this stage of the journey, he set out on foot. Happily, a natural foods store was our nearest grocery, and it was only a block or two away. He picked up convenience foods we could enjoy if hunger hit at odd hours due to the inevitable jetlag. Almonds, cherry tomatoes, bananas, and fizzy water topped my list.

Oh yes, and some local New Zealand wine. It was research so I could share with you, of course! DH opted for a few more exotic fruits for himself. I know there were figs because I ended up spilling them all over the floor of our eventual rental car.

We also needed to stock up on non-perishable, portable snack foods for our upcoming journey across the Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine train. Reviews warn that the cafe car on board sometimes runs out of food, though more often on the return journey from Greymouth. I’ll add a link when I eventually review that trip.

After this much refreshment, we took advantage of visiting the Southern Hemisphere in February and went for a walk in the park.

NZ trip Hagley Park sign - 1Ah, summer in February! It was a breezy but beautiful 70º F day in Christchurch, and we were staying just a few blocks from Hagley Park. As any New Englander can tell you, February usually means bundling up and shoveling snow, not short sleeves and outdoor pursuits.

Like cricket!

We did indeed spy folks playing cricket in a designated section of the park. It looked like a casual game to me, which is to say no one was wearing a spiffy white outfit. As I’m wildly unclear about the details of the game of cricket, including the usual costume, take all of this with a grain of salt.

For all I know, they were doing something else entirely, but the signs did say it was a cricket… field? Court? Ground? One of those things they were holding might have been a wicket. I’m probably the wrong source to be reporting on this particular topic.

Terminology aside, it added local color to my experience of the park.

NZ Hagley Park me walking

Summer day in Hagley Park; notice my big hat for sun protection

On what I believe was Victoria Lake, there were people sailing beautiful little toy boats. Terminology again: I suspect I’m supposed to call them “model” boats instead of toys because the skippers were older men, not children, and they were lovely ships. Probably they’re also “ships” not mere “boats,” too. Anyone know?

Again, charming, and the sort of thing I delight in seeing. I have a very soft spot for miniature models of almost anything.

Naturally, I failed to get photographs of any of this.

Luckily, DH snapped a few sunny park shots, including the one above where you can appreciate my enormous, sun-protective CoolibarBeach Hat. Its internal cord was absolutely vital to keep it on my head with the stiff breeze that kept blowing, and sun protection is a necessity in this part of the world.

Here’s my complete New Zealand summer capsule wardrobe overview.

There were loads of young people partaking in the usual sunny afternoon pastimes. Joggers, frisbee golfers, and cyclists abounded. Ladies strolled arm in arm with heads together. Fitness buffs followed a marked cardio circuit. All of this was a scene very like I would have seen on a summer day at home, but probably not in February.

It was easy to see what a central role this park has held since it was set aside as green space by Christchurch’s early settlers in 1855, though. It showed great foresight about the value of nature and open space to city dwellers, even if the park mirroring the Canterbury region overall is dominated by imported plants that better reflect European species than those native to New Zealand.

Hagley Park offered yet another sort of refuge after a devastating earthquake struck the city in 2011. Immediately adjacent to the Central Business District—much of which was cordoned off for up to 859 days! for repairs—the open space of the park made an ideal escape in the immediate aftermath of destruction, and must still figure in survivors’ minds as a place of safety should flight God forbid! become necessary again. At least one memorial to that quake was held here, as are many more joyous public events.

NZ Hagley Park bird flying away

When I was in the park, I first noticed both the abundance and variety of the birds** in New Zealand. I’m not even a casual bird-watcher, nor do I have any special skill or knowledge in that pursuit, though I did enjoy that Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson comedy, The Big Year, which made bird watching seem pretty compelling. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a couple of hours.

Many of New Zealand’s birds seemed visibly different to me. There was a bit of a tendency in shape that caught my eye, and there seemed to be a difference in movement patterns in some of them, too. I mean, I recognized some that are either imports (swans) or probable commuters (ducks and geese) from the less distant world, but there were also quite obviousothers.

NZ me with moa silhouette annotatedI think it is so cool when you can see highlighted before you the difference between Here and There as you travel. That’s at least some of what I’m hoping for when I venture far out into the world.

Christchurch itself presents rather fewer immediately obvious differences from places I’ve experienced before and elsewhere, and that’s somewhat by design. It is known as “the Most English of Cities” in New Zealand. (I may be getting that motto slightly wrong, but that’s the gist of it.)

This is a place that English people and others chose to settle and begin new lives, not a site of penal transportation, like the American and Australian colonies. I was told by DH’s hosts from the University that skilled builders and craftspeople, in particular, were encouraged and invited to come to Christchurch by leaders of the new city, and that one still sees evidence of the same tradition of excellence when getting work done on a home today.

Though the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake is still plainly visible around this small, approachable city—cranes and construction fences pop up every few blocks—the desire to re-create a certain kind of “Home” is writ large here. Christchurch is a city that celebrates its British heritage.

In spite of that pride, there’s nothing forced or Disney-esque in the implementation. As is common around New Zealand, one of the strongest themes I experienced here was that of a sensible, measured approach to making life function smoothly.

Homes and buildings appear to be built and maintained to a high standard. Public services seem to be well managed and placed thoughtfully throughout communities. The needs of travelers are seen to, with roads well marked and attractions highlighted in a clear but unobtrusive way.

Facilities*ahem* toilets, even public ones in far flung locales, are generally present where wanted and kept to a high standard of hygiene when compared to similar American ones.

DH hates to travel, but he liked New Zealand. It’s an easy place to appreciate.once you’ve recovered from the long flight.

We spied several restaurants as we meandered back to the hotel, but, in our exhaustion, were more inclined to squabble than make sensible decisions about where we wanted to eat. The glory of the internet is that menus can be found for almost everywhere, and we settled on an early dinner at Trevino’s, in large part because it didn’t require crossing the busy street out front that had increasing traffic as rush hour loomed.

Also, they offered a plain and simple steak for DH, and he declared it good.

As usual, I confronted the difficulty of ordering something I knew I’d like, or something more daring that might prove too exotic for me to actually eat. I dared to order the Moroccan Spiced Meatballs from the Small Bites menu, and they were fantastic. I added a side salad and had the perfect size meal for my appetite.

This was also when I discovered that nearly every dish served in New Zealand comes with large pats of butter. This made sense with my sliced bread at dinner, but surprised me alongside an order of nothing but chocolate cake at a roadside cafe. Is that a bit odd to anyone else?

The restaurant service we received in New Zealand tended to be friendly, competent, but not overly quick. It also seemed usual to step up to the counter to pay even in sit down mid-range restaurants with table service, but whether that was due to our mismatched sense of urgency with staff or actual policy, I’ll probably never know.

We didn’t try fine dining even once on this trip, so I can’t offer a comparison.

Food served was almost universally good to very good, especially with regard to quality of ingredients. DH found it fairly easy to order the simple, fresh foods he prefers. I had no trouble finding something interesting—but approachable to my various sensitivities and picky preferences—wherever we went.

It was common to encounter “different” spice combinations from what would typically be seen on equivalent American menus, but also easy to order a relatable dish for a finicky eater. Along the same lines, one could eat “the usual” to an American beef or chicken almost everywhere, but lamb and unknown to me species of fish were also widely available.

Menus almost always indicated items suitable for a variety of special diets. It was common, though not universal, to see Vegan, Gluten Free, and Dairy Free choices marked. Servers always knew, or were willing to find out, about common allergens and frequently avoided ingredients.

Overall, food in New Zealand reminded me most of America’s Pacific Northwest, at least in the foodie oriented and health conscious venues I’m likely to frequent. Beets are very popular these days in both places.

Specifically, I’d liken it to the farm to table ethos prevalent on the San Juan Islands off the Washington Coast where lots of stuff is fresh and local, in part because it’s sometimes easier to grow your own on an island rather than trucking boating stuff in. As with New Zealand, they’re lucky enough to boast an awesome climate for growing temperate food crops. It turns out to be much easier to “eat locally” when you live in an area of agricultural abundance.

Excellent coffee was almost universal, and I had to fight my baser nature to avoid sleepless, hyper caffeinated nights. McDonald’s ads and gas stations touted their “barista made coffee,” though I didn’t test quality in either of these to share an opinion.

nz-petrol-gas-station-espresso-barista-coffee-1.jpg

Another frequent sight in the cafes I visited was a self serve counter or tray for tap water drinkers. Unlike most other places I’ve been, this usually included small bottles or pitchers to make table side refills super convenient. Aside from discouraging the sale of wasteful disposable bottled water, and encouraging a healthy level of calorie free hydration, this is ideal for groups with a lot of water drinkers or moms with kids’ cups to refill. Constantly. Because kids can be a real pain, especially when you travel alone with them.

NZ restaurant tap water glass free availableMy father routinely asks servers in the USA to please “leave a pitcher” of ice water on our table, but sometimes gets told the restaurant doesn’t have enough extra vessels to oblige. New Zealand offered the smartest solution to this situation that I’ve ever seen: not just glasses, but pitchers for sharing, too.

Is there nothing the Kiwis can’t do better than the rest of the world?

Right, yes: allowing pedestrians to cross safely is not their forte. But, come on, no country is perfect. New Zealand just comes really close.

*i.e., hits the hotel room’s most comfortable piece of furniture with laptop humming

**Some of the birds shown here were photographed elsewhere, or by DH, but all images were captured in New Zealand. My pictures aren’t really organized enough for me to recall the difference, but I’ll try to specify if anyone is curious about any particular one. Let me know in the comments!

A digression on public toilets in New Zealand:

I actually took a fair number of photos of public toilets on this trip. Not because I’m a crazy potty pervert, but because, in New Zealand, even off the beaten path, the facilities were almost always clean, well-maintained, and appropriately suppliedwith the necessary paper, soap, etc. As a tourist, that’s something I’d like to know about a place, but it doesn’t feel very delicate to inquire.

I feel comfortable posting photos of the worst public restrooms I used in New Zealand, because they weren’t very bad at all.

There was a paper toilet roll on the floor and it didn’t offer soap. The floor had a bit of tracked in dirt because the parking area wasn’t paved, but it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for hours, not weeks. That’s it.

The primitive toilet along a trail had some rubbish on the floor, but it was mostly clean, dry looking paper. The graphics on the instructional poster suggest they get a lot of visitors from non-Western nations who use squat toilets, so perhaps that was “seat covering” paper that ladies often use when something like footprints decorate the rim? Even here, with no running water, there was hand sanitizer on offer, and the dispenser was full. The building itself was sound; insects were successfully excluded unlike most similar facilities I’ve used in the USA.

Even the public washrooms in a Christchurch Metro bus station were something I would use without being in physical pain from need. I think most American women who’ve used big city facilities will understand why I choose to comment on the fact!