Teaching Our Children The Story Of Passover

Ever since our first year of marriage it has been a tradition for my husband and I to eat matzo pizza while watching Prince of Egypt at some point during the week of Passover. It is one of the most beautiful depictions of a Biblical event that exists, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it I am always struck with the magnificence of the Passover story. I cannot watch (or listen to) the burning bush scene without my emotions being rubbed raw. Between the dialogue and music it always manages to bring the sting of tears into my eyes.

So, you can imagine the conflict I felt when my son (who has yet to see the movie) asked to join our annual viewing. On one hand I was excited. Finally I get to share this gorgeous biblically based filmography with my kid. On the other hand I was hesitant. Is he ready for certain scenes? Is he ready to know the specifics of what Moses was up against?

This year Passover has gotten a little more exciting than it has before. My son, being 3 1/2 years old, is at a point in his life where he is starting to internalize the more abstract workings of the world. This means that as we prepare for Passover he is asking a lot of questions. Why do we need to buy special crackers? Why do we need to deep clean the house? What is a Seder, and why do we have to eat horseradish? Sometimes his questions have a straightforward response. Other questions require significantly more detailed explanations and a careful choice of words. Exodus is packed with the theme of G-d’s redemption and the fulfillment of His promise. I am beyond joyful to share those elements with my children. There are, however, darker portions of the narrative. Slavery. Murder. Even justice is a struggle to understand in the situation of the exodus. Telling only half of the story isn’t good enough. To understand the magnitude of G-d’s miracle, one must be aware of what Israel was being freed from, and what it took to accomplish that redemption.

I am a firm believer that if children are able to ask the right questions, they are ready for at least some version of an honest answer. Yet I don’t feel ready to explain to my small child the wrath of G-d,  and it pains me to introduce him to things such as slavery and oppression. His perception is still innocent. In his mind people are still good and the world is a safe place to live. Evil isn’t something that has caught his attention yet, so why point it out while he’s still in this very brief moment in life where everything is secure?

As much as I wish to keep him in the dark for a little longer, I am also against the idea of purposely withholding honesty in favor of over protectiveness. He has been asking questions, therefore I have been delicately crafting careful yet honest answers. As we prepare for Passover this year he has become a little more aware that there are, in fact, bad people in the world. There are people who hurt other people. There is unnecessary sadness caused by evil. And sometimes, in order for the greater good to prevail, G-d responds with force.

As my mind shifts from the chaos of seder preparations to the intricacies of how to explain what is true in a way that is not going to scar a child’s mind, my thoughts are also churning over the deeper messages I as an adult still need to contemplate during this season. Part of observing Passover includes the acknowledgment that people around the world have always suffered, and continue to suffer, under the hands of oppression. Persecution and annihilation attempts directed toward Israel didn’t stop upon leaving Egypt. From Antiochus’ desecration of the Second Temple, massacres taking place as a response to blood libel in the 1100’s, the still-tender memory of the holocaust, or the more recent comments made by leaders such as Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (e.g. Israel is a “disgraceful blot” that needs to be “wiped off the face of the Earth”), antisemitism has presented itself within every generation.

And if it isn’t antisemitism it’s other people, in other places, with other versions of suffering.

Rwanda. Cambodia. Child soldiers. Bosnia. Darfur.  Blood diamonds. Guatemala. Sudan. Isis. Human trafficking. Civil war.

We have a list of buzzwords that can easily cause us to wince and recoil, because they serve as reminders of atrocities human beings are capable of. This is all too evident as news reports and videos of the recent Syrian chemical attack make their rounds in our media at this very moment. As I sit here contemplating how best to comfortably present a movie to my child because it depicts an animated and watered down version of evil, parents elsewhere in the world do not share that same luxury. The nightmare of such maliciousness is an everyday reality for them, and it has no care for the age of it’s victims.

I take for granted that I am able to shelter my children from the vile ways people can treat one another. I have the ability to protect their innocence, and build for them a foundation of safety and security. That is a blessing I am relieved to have, and I bow my head in thanks for the mercy G-d has given our family.

But that is all the more reason to not shy away from the specks of curiosity our children begin to show. Our unviolated safety makes it even more important for us to introduce them to things we would rather pretend don’t exist. Eventually these issues will hit their radar. They will process a little more clearly the events described in their books. They will catch snippets of news reports and over hear the adults whispering among one another. The existence of evil won’t be hidden forever, and when we leave them to process this information on their own we run the risk of allowing such things to turn their hearts and minds bitter.

We need to confront the situation and we need to extend a guiding hand for our children. We need to teach them that they can be different than this. They can be the difference. After Israel came out of Egypt, G-d introduced them to laws that included instructions such as feeding the poor, caring for the orphans and widows, and treating the sojourners among them humanly. The commands within Torah are filled with love and compassion. After being redeemed from enslavement and abuse, Israel is called to be something better than those who had oppressed them. They are called to improve the world by example.

This is the element I cling to when talking to my children about the Exodus, and all the baggage that comes with such themes. Yes, there are bad people in this world. Yes, people hurt other people. There is no use hiding from it since those truths will be crystal clear eventually. But rather than pulling the covers over our head and pretending there’s nothing to be done, we need to think about what contributions we have to fix our situation.

Fred Rogers, known as the beloved Mr. Rogers, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping'”.  As we explore these difficult topics with our children this is the attitude we need to have. While they are still young and soaking in all we have to instill within them, we need to point out the warriors who combat nefariousness with love, compassion, and mercy. We need to draw attention to the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who’s fear of G-d led them to defy Pharaoh’s command to kill newborn Hebrew boys. We need to point out the “righteous Gentiles” who helped hide and aid Jews in Europe during the holocaust. We need to show them the various ways people continue to work toward feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, sheltering those in need of protection. We need to teach our children how to become those people.

I could give it another year. I could choose to ignore the grit of what Passover is, and leave it as a holiday where we have a fun dinner and eat special crackers for a week. But a lot of development happens in a year, and more of my son’s personality is going to establish itself within that span of time. Eventually we have to teach our kids this reality, because it is not something we want them stumbling upon elsewhere. We shouldn’t let the bad overshadow the good. We have to be intentional in pointing out that for every mean person who raises their hand against others, there are good people rushing to defend. We learn our history so that we don’t repeat it. We retell these stories so we become familiar with what went wrong in the past, as well as what went right even in the face of monstrosity. There is a G-d who has upheld His promises and will continue to do so. The world is currently suffering, but He will intervene at the time He deems right.  He led us out of Egypt, He brought us our Messiah, and we can confidently believe with complete faith that He will come back to correct the wrong and bring restoration. Until then, however, we have our own work in repairing our broken world. Despite the challenges that are sometimes found in upholding kindness, compassion, mercy, and love, it is what we are called to do.

I want my children to grow into people who stand up in righteousness. I want them to be an example of love that casts a light against the shadow of hate. These lessons start in our home and from there they are carried to the playground, extra curricular activities, schools, work places, and wherever else life takes them.

So I stick with my original conviction that if children know the right questions to ask, they are ready for some version of the truth. We don’t have to side swipe them with the gory details that can haunt their psyche,  but being age appropriately upfront and honest at a time when personalities are being cemented is, perhaps, one of the most effective ways we as parents can change the world.

Lavender Maple Vanilla Sufanyot

I love Hanukkah. A celebration of miracles. The warm glow of candles for 8 nights in a row. Oh, and fried food. Let’s be honest, the fried food is a major highlight. After kicking off the first night my house now has a delicious leftover smell that reminds me of the state fair. For dinner we had latke grilled cheese sandwiches, which I’ve established as a family tradition since I discovered the idea last year. That scrumptiousness was then followed by sufganiyot (Israeli donuts). We also may have slipped in a few pieces of  cheap gelt after some dreidle playing. No one ever claimed Hanukkah was about health, and I’m perfectly okay with that.

It had taken me a couple years to figure out all of the tips and tricks to frying, but once I got the hang of it I immediately began playing around with various flavor combinations and recipes (hence the latke grilled cheese sandwiches). This year I continued my interest in experimenting with lavender, and decided to try out a jelly concoction in my first round of sufganiyot.

I’m happy to say that it turned out to be quite enjoyable, and the flavor paired excellently with the donuts. I used one full jar of the jelly for  donuts, and the rest is going to be given away as gifts. Pretty soon I’m definitely going to make another batch!

So…how to make these things…

For The Jelly

Ingredients
3 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup lavender buds
1 tsp cardamom
1 lemon
1 envelope of pectin
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 vanilla bean
4 cups sugar

Directions
Bring water to boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Once the water reaches a boil, take the pan off of the heat and add lavender. Cover pot, and let it steep for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, strain the mixture through a cheesecloth or other fine mesh cloth into a deep pot. Discard the lavender buds.

Stir in the juice of the lemon and pectin until the pectin is completely dissolved.  Add the maple syrup and vanilla bean.

Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, and add sugar. Return the mixture to a rolling boil. Stirring occasionally, allow it to boil for about 3 minutes.

To determine the consistency of the jelly, and whether or not it has cooked enough, use “the spoon test”. Keep a metal spoon in cold water nearby. Dip the spoon into the boiling mixture. If the jelly runs off of the spoon, keep cooking it for a little longer. If it turns to a “jelly” consistency when the spoon is lifted out of the pot, it’s done.

For The Sufganiyot

Ingredients 
2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 packet of yeast (or 2 1/4 teaspoons)
1/2 salt
2 large egg yolks
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tbs butter
6 cups canola oil (plus more for coating a bowl)
Jam or jelly
powdered sugar

Directions
Combine flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in a bowl. Add yolks and milk, and mix until dough is shaggy. Add butter and continue to mix until dough is smooth.

Coat a large bowl with oil. Form dough into a ball, and roll in the bowl until it is covered in oil. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth or plastic wrap, and allow dough to rise for 1 1/2 hours.

When dough is done rising, coat a baking sheet or cutting board with flour. Roll out the dough until it’s about 1/4 inch thickness. Using a round cookie cutter (about 2 inches around) or the rim of a cup, cut out as many rounds as possible. Take the leftover dough and roll it out again to redo the process until all of the dough is used.

Lay out the cut out rounds on a baking sheet. Loosely cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and allow to rise for 30 minutes.

While the dough is rising, heat the 6 cups of oil in a dutch oven or heavy bottom pot. The temperature of the oil should reach about 350 degrees.

When the dough is done rising, pick up a round with a spatula (not your fingers, as this can deflate the donut). Drop them into the oil to cook. Once the bottom of the donuts are browned, flip them over using a fork. Once completely cooked, lift them out of the oil and place them on a baking sheet lined with a paper towel.

Once the donuts are finished cooling, pour jelly into a piping bag. Puncture the side of the donuts, and squeeze about a teaspoon of jelly into the donuts.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar, and enjoy!

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Seven Species Muffins

I am a firm believer in the saying “without tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof“, and as my husband and I continue to build our home I find myself relying heavily on tradition for help. Growing up in a secular household I only had speckles of traditions here and there, but nothing particularly concrete or foundational. It was more along the lines of routine rather than tradition.  When I came to Messianic Judaism as a young adult, I suddenly entered into a world overflowing with traditions. As Tevye the dairyman in Fiddler On The Roof elaborates: “we have traditions for everything! How to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes…“, and that is no exaggeration. In Judaism there is a way to confront anything and everything in life. How to mourn, how to celebrate, how to face the big and important stuff, and how to get through everyday routines. Having transitioned from a life without traditions into a life overwhelmed with them, I very clearly realize the importance of keeping them alive whether they be great or small. With the traditions I’ve eagerly taken a hold of as my own I find myself on a steady surface that helps hold me upright while the world around me seems unsteady and shaky. As a mother trying to raise her child to be righteous and G-dly, I am in great need of such steadiness.

While I try to incorporate certain traditions into the nooks and crannies of the everyday, holidays are perhaps most dominated by traditions. One of my favorite things about Judaism is the fact that these holidays are almost always observed kinesthetically. On Rosh Hashanah we blow shofars. On Yom Kippur we fast. On Sukkot we build and dwell in sukkot. On Hanukkah we light the menorah. On Purim we literally reenact the book of Esther, and on Pesach we go through the motions of Israel’s escape from Egypt during the seder.

And then there are minor holidays such as Tu B’shevat, which is the “new year for trees”. While it was once a day used to calculate agricultural cycles, it quickly became a sort of Jewish Earth Day. While I’m not particularly hyper with go-green sentiments, I do appreciate nature as G-d’s creation, and I most certainly believe it is our responsibility to tend and enjoy it. Even more important to me is the fostering of a culture which we now deeply connect with, even for the minor stuff. So this year Tu B’shevat was on my radar.

I was then left with a question of how to observe. After an ice storm we couldn’t plant trees as is tradition to do. I have a strong aversion toward “Tu B’shevat sedars”, and while it is completely appropriate to donate money toward planting a tree in Israel, it isn’t something my toddler could be involved in.

So I went with two activities that gave a nod toward the day (three if you count watching the Tu B’shevat episode of Shalom Sesame). First we planted my son’s very first herb garden which included cilantro, parsley (hopefully to be used at our seder in a few months), chives, and oregano. We placed the containers in front of a large window at my son’s level so they continue to be his responsibility and enjoyment.

Of course, like almost all other holidays (with the exception of Yom Kippur), there is  traditional food to be prepared. With Tu B’shevat it is customary to eat a new fruit and/or the seven species of Israel (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and honey, which is all derived from Deut. 8:8). Originally I wanted to make a full meal that incorporated all of these elements, but ironically enough our ice storm had us locked in the house a couple days prior to Tu B’shevat, and that had me hustling at the last minute.

I ended up going with one recipe that included all seven elements, and it was delicious. My toddler enjoyed helping since there was plenty for him to pour and mix. It’s a simple enough process, though I did have to grind my own barley flour since my regular groceries store didn’t carry it (I found the grain in the Mexican aisle though!).

The result was delicious, and definitely something I will continue to do every year.
A nice little way to celebrate a nice little holiday. A new tradition.

Ingredients
3/4 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried figs
1/2 cup dates
1 1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup applesauce
1 tbs cinnamon
1 tsp all spice
2 eggs
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup barley flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup pomegranate seeds
honey as a spread

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Chop up dates and figs and put them in a blender or food processor along with milk, applesauce, cinnamon, and allspice. Blend until the consistency is smooth and thick. Set aside.

In a bowl mix eggs, olive oil, sugars, and the vanilla. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, mix the flours, baking soda, and salt. Toss in the pomegranate seeds until they are well coated.

Pour the blended fig/date mixture into the flour mix and stir until well blended. Add the egg mixture.

Fold in the raisins

Spray a muffin tin with cooking spray, and spoon in batter. Place prepared muffin sheet in the oven, and immediately turn heat down to 375 degrees F.

Bake for 23 minutes.

When muffins are cool, cut in half and spread honey in the middle of them.

Enjoy!

My Obsession With Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a huge deal to me. Once November hits I immediately begin brainstorming menu ideas, and researching new techniques for old recipes. I start eyeing the turkeys at the grocery store, and crossing my fingers in hopes that the sugar pumpkins don’t go out of stock before I’m ready for them (because yes, I use actual pumpkin puree in my cooking). Since my husband and I have been spending our holidays together, I’ve scratched my brain over how to make Thanksgiving work in my favor. I disliked the idea of sharing responsibilities and not hosting in our home. Hospitality is a particular gift I want to strengthen within myself, and it’s a form of ministry I want to keep up with. However, I also need to respect the traditions of my husband’s family. I completely understood that I couldn’t dominate the holiday and expect everyone to make their pilgrimage (no pun intended) to my house from various parts of the region just because I wouldn’t give up my insistence that I host Thanksgiving every year..

So I compromised. Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, and within Judaism we prepare special weekly meals on Friday nights in order to welcome in Shabbat (the Sabbath). Right there was an easy solution, and one that actually adds a deeper meaning to this beautiful holiday. Thursday we do whatever the rest of the family is doing, while the next Friday night we extend the celebration with out closest friends for a Thanksgiving-Shabbat meal. It also gives us an opportunity to be thankful not just for our blood relatives, but also for our closest friends who we consider part of the family as well.

This would be the first year I’m throwing this Shabbat Thanksgiving dinner, and I’ve been pondering what it is that makes it so important for me to host Thanksgiving. Taking one look at my son, I knew the answer to this immediately: It’s for my children.

In my memories, Thanksgiving is distinct and precious. My grandmother woke up early to prep the turkey, and by noon the house smelled incredible. I remember the happiness that radiated off of her as she stood in the kitchen all day, watching every detail that went into preparing the food. I remember sitting at the table stirring various mixes, and taking in all of her kitchen know-hows she was passing along to me as I assisted her. It’s a memory heavy with warmth, and something I believe helped shape me into the person that I am.

I want to cook Thanksgiving dinner, because that is a memory I want my children to share with me. I want them to see me planning menus, comparing turkey sizes, spending a week dividing the work into increments of what can be prepared ahead of time and what will be cooked day of. I want my kids to see me in the kitchen, radiating with happiness and spouting my own kitchen know-hows as I create culinary masterpieces from scratch. I want them to inhale the same smells I breathed during the Thanksgivings of my own childhood.

In our world, we get so caught up in our individual successes. We want the jobs that come with flashy titles and fancy pay checks. Our vacations and adventures define how much we are truly “living” life. Simplicity is boring, and we’re pushed to spend our most lively and energetic years in “self-discovery”. As I’m growing more and more into my role as a stay at home mother in the most traditional sense, I’m beginning to realize the worth of this simple lifestyle, the kind of lifestyle where cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my family and friends every year is an enormous deal.

Despite the simple lifestyle I lead, I still acknowledge the fact that I’m in my years of self-discovery, and I fully take advantage of the energy I have as a young 20-something. I learn who I am by the things I’m instilling in my child, pulling out the morals and convictions that are most important to me, and observing the changes in the way I view the world now that I’m responsible for raising another human being. I wear myself out keeping up with a toddler while at the same time keeping my home a comfortable environment for the entire family. As Thanksgiving rolls around, I’m making shopping lists and looking ahead to a week of constant food preparation. I’m doing these things while I’m still young and able, fitting in as much of it as I can in my life.

Yes, I am definitely living life. As I sit back this Thanksgiving basking in the tremendous relationships that I am blessed with (whether it’s my son, husband, family, or friends), I will be spending every moment thanking G-d for the beauty of it all.

So perhaps I’m a little frantic when it comes to Thanksgiving, but it is my way of showing my loved ones how Thankful I am for them. It’s not about the food itself, though I do admit I have a deep love for cooking. It’s about the message that the food carries. When I’m 65 years old, perhaps I’ll be ready to pass the kitchen over to someone else. Preferably a daughter of mine (be it my own child or an in-law). That is still quite a few decades away, and until then I fully intend to exhaust myself, because that is what my loved ones deserve, and that is how I want to live my life.