April 4, 2020
Thanks to my daughter, Emma, our family has recently begun a fun evening activity: watching Jeopardy! together. Emma, and her fiancé, Tyler, live in Santa Barbara, and one day last week Emma suggested that we call each other on FaceTime while turning on our TV sets at 7:30 pm and watch this show. Our rule is that, like the contestants on the show, you need to wait until Alex Trebek finishes reading the answer before you can provide the question. I get a the warm fuzzies every time we cheer for each other when someone gets the right answer (or, should I say, question). We were all totally impressed when Dan knew in final Jeopardy! that the three countries that border the Yucatan Peninsula were: Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.
After the game is over, we hang out together on the phone, Emma and Tyler really want to see our dogs, Hope and Josie, so we focus the phone on them and oooh and aaah over their cuteness. I think it kind of freaks the dogs out to hear and see them on the screen and hear their voices, but I also think they’re getting used to it. We have all had to get used to a new kind of normal in this time. Yes, even the dogs.
This Jeopardy! activity has been so enjoyable that Emma asked, “Why haven’t we been doing this before?”
I don’t really have a good answer to this question other than the typical “We are all busy with this and that” but the truth is, we could have been doing this all along. In any event, the building of a new family tradition is an anchor in the midst of a battle that rages all around us, and I cling to it and appreciate it as for the blessing that it is.
As you most likely know, this coming week we celebrate Passover in honor of God and Moses leading the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. It is the single most celebrated holiday among Jews, even more so than the High Holy Days. It is meant to be a day of sharing and caring and joy. How ironic it is that here we have a holiday that celebrates freedom when we are urged to stay at home. And how ironic is it that we recite the ten plagues that ultimately led to our freedom when we are currently surrounded by a plague the restricts our freedom of movement.
Passover has often been celebrated in times when the Jewish people were facing oppression. Our history is rife with tyranny and the many times when even being Jewish meant that one’s existence was precarious. We have been through the Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms, and the horror of all horrors: the Holocaust. While many of us have been fortunate to have only experienced freedom in our lifetimes, there are Holocaust survivors among us who remember what life was like when freedom was mercilessly wrenched away.
One of those was a gentleman named Michael Kutz whose resilience in the face of tragedy is inspirational. Here is his story from Azrieli Foundation’s “Holocaust Survivors Memoir Program”:
In April 1942 we had twenty-two Jewish partisans in our group. Because we had all lost our own families, we felt like a family - we became brothers and sisters to one another. One of the Jews in our group, Moishe Abramowitz, who had escaped from the town of Bobruisk, had brought with him a small prayer book that he kept hidden in his boots. He helped our group cope with the difficult conditions in the forest and the tragedy of our people. Reminding us that Passover was fast approaching, he managed to obtain some beets to make a red soup to substitute for wine, traditionally used during the holiday ritual. We had no matzah, but he dug up some horseradish from nearby fields. On the night of the first seder, we gathered near our underground bunker.
As I was the youngest, it was decided that I would ask the Four Questions, the Ma Nishtanah. I knew them well since, as the youngest in my family, I had always been the appropriate candidate. Here in the forest I interpreted the answers to the questions somewhat differently. In answer to the question, 'Why is this night different from all other nights?' I replied, 'Because last Passover all the Jews sat with their families at tables beautifully set with matzah and goblets of red wine. Last year, each of us had a goblet on our plate and listened to the oldest person in our household conduct the seder. Tonight, in the forest, our lonely and orphaned group, having miraculously survived, remembers our loved ones who were taken from us forever.' Tears fell from our eyes. After this, we continued to keep the traditions of all the Jewish holidays, which gave us the courage and the will to survive. With God's help, we would eventually live in this world as free people.*
- Michael Kutz, If, by miracle
My intention is not to say, “See how much worse other people have had it?” It IS, however, to say that we can still enjoy the fact that we CAN still be together, we DO have the freedom to honor our heritage and our traditions even if it isn’t exactly how we all would wish it could be. It is these traditions that bind us to each other in new ways that we will remember for the rest of our lives. We can still rejoice in freedom, liberation and redemption, the themes of this holiday.
Rather than mourn the freedoms we do not have right now, be grateful for those you do. We still have freedoms that so many others all over the world can only dream of.
Telephone and computer technology, which we so often take for granted, now allows us opportunities that previous generations could only have dreamed of. We are hosting a Passover Seder online and for the first time in 30 years, I will be able to celebrate with my brother who lives in Japan. My Mom will log on from Florida, Emma and Tyler from Santa Barbara, other family members from Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles and other places. For me, that’s a miracle and I am very grateful.
In 1973, Paul Simon released a beautiful song called American Tune, which he says was composed just after the re-election of President Richard Nixon. It was a dark period in our nation’s history, the Vietnam war was not yet ended, the Watergate scandal was about to explode, the Vice President ended up resigning over accusations of tax evasion, eventually the president himself resigned. Last week Paul Simon released a YouTube video of himself singing this song, and in listening to the words, we realize that they hold as much significance as they did back in 1973. “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease,” he sings. And later, “We come on the ship they call the Mayflower. We come on the ship that sailed the moon. We come in the age's most uncertain hour and sing an
American tune. But it's all right, it's all right. You can't be forever blessed.” It’s true. Not every period of your life is going to be amazing. Things will not always go the way we want them to go. But the way to survive is to cling to what you DO have. There can be peace in a moment. There can be reassurance in familiarity. And there can be comfort in tradition.
The song ends with these lines: “Still, tomorrow's goin’ to be another working day. And I'm trying to get some rest. That's all I'm trying to get some rest.” There may be a feeling of resignation, but there is also the comfort in the familiarity of putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.
So, on this holiday, I hope you find that peace and that comfort in the familiarity of the Seder. It may not be the Passover you had hoped for. But it’s what we have now so I hope that you are able to find blessings and happiness contentment with your loved ones or even among new online friends who are also celebrating in isolation. May you enjoy this most beautiful of our traditions wherever you are. I’d like to ask that you consider making a donation to a food bank. Our Jewish Family Service will not receive the nonperishable items they generally rely on at this time of year. Please go online and see how you can make Passover brighter for someone else.
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach & Happy Passover.
Cantor Cheri Weiss
April 3, 2020 * Courtesy of The Azrieli Foundation: The Holocaust Survivors Memoir Program https://memoirs.azrielifoundation.org/articles-and-excerpts/new-entry