The Festival of Freedom-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The Podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan.

(Justin Regan) At the recording of this episode, much of the world continues to be in the grips of a global pandemic. And I hope you and your family are doing well. For what it’s worth, my family is healthy, and I am grateful for that. This pandemic also intersects with Passover. Pesach. The festival of freedom and foil. Many seders were canceled or went virtual. As one meme puts it; in an ironic twist, Passover, the holiday about plagues, is canceled due to a plague. And I’m sure someone on the internet has also made a joke about how Elijah and Miriam, the prophets associated with the festival, have to practice social distancing. Although I’d argue they can be considered essential staff. Especially seeing as leaders the world over gave the coveted designation to the Easter Bunny. Regardless, this reminds me of a conversation I had with Elijah many Passovers ago. My grandparents on my Mom’s side were hosting the seder. They have one of those houses with a lot of white carpet, so you either have to take off your shoes or ‘walk’ on your knees to the kitchen. During the seder, the time came to let in Elijah so I rushed to the door, flung it open and said ‘Come on in Elijah! But take off your shoes. Grandmom has light carpeting’ It’s probably one of the funnier passover memories in my family. 

(Regan) This year my grandparents, who live five minutes away, were on a blurry screen for the family seder. We didn’t even share food out of concern for contamination. Passover this year has been different for a lot of people. But it’s crucial not to forget how important the season is. A time for education and reflection. Of spring cleaning and tales from long ago. We must find a way to stay connected to the festival of freedom. So for this year’s rabbi roundtable episode I asked rabbis we’ve met on in this podcast to record themselves sharing some of their most significant Passover memories. We begin the trip down memory lane in the heart of the Old North End of Burlington, Vermont.

Hi, this is Rabbi Jan Salzman. I’m the rabbi of a Jewish Renewal congregation in Burlington, Vermont named Ruach haMaqom. And we have been around since 2016. I have two basic memories of Passover that come to mind when asked the question. One of course was being at the table with the family. My Grandpa always trying to rush through the seder, ‘When are we done? When are we done?’ But what I remember mostly, or what I remember clearly is after the meal was over, all the women, my mother and two sisters, my aunt, my Grandmom, would go into this small kitchen and they’d spend the evening washing all the dishes. But I went and hung out with the men in the other room while my Grandpa smoked a cigar. And I remember that I really just wanted to hang out with the guys. More because I was interested in what they were doing and what they were saying. I wanted to be part of a conversation and not washing the dishes. So that’s one memory. 

(Salzman) The other memory is one year I was home from college, a very hot fiery, politically oriented young woman. And my father made a remark and I hollered at him for making a racist remark. And I screamed at him. I hurt him. I hurt him so badly. And he got up and walked into the other room. That room where we would normally gather after dinner. And he sat there on the couch and he was shaking. I realized the eruption was truly profound and I was horrified. And I walked in to that room which had held so many wonderful conversations, and I apologized. And he was still so shaken that I don’t think he could hear it. But eventually everyone got back to business and we finished the seder and we went home. But I’ll never forget how much I hurt him. He’s been dead now for 31 years, 32 years, something like that. To this day the rawness that we can bring to our seder tables to our family dinners is sometimes a rawness that can erupt into words that we wish we can take back into our mouths. I will probably forever wish that I had not hurt him so much. On that night. Other than that, Passover was a great time. We would clean the house, you know the usual. And I by and large had an incredibly loving family. And I was really blessed with some great Passover evenings. Thank you. 

I’m Jon Spira-Savett and I’m the rabbi in Nashua, New Hampshire at Temple Beth Abraham. My of my favorite memories of Pescah was from my freshman year in college. I came from Minnesota and when I got to college there were so many kids from  the bigger communities like New York and Los Angeles. I felt intimidated to be in Hillel even though I had been very active in my own Jewish community. I was there periodically but not nearly as much as I thought I would be. Until Passover came. It kind of happen that all the kids from the big Northeastern cities especially went home for Pesach and all the people who had been leading programs and activities and services were gone and those of us who were the ‘second string’ had to step up. So I volunteered to lead a seder, it may have been two seders, in the dorms. And it was a terrific chance to find my feet as a Jewish leader again. 

(Spira-Savett) And I remember some time afterwards in the dinning hall running into one of my acquaintances and he came up to me and thanked me for the seder and for leading it. And told me what a great job I had done. Maybe said something like ‘you can be my rabbi anytime’ I had been thinking about that. Not like it was the source of my idea. But it really meant a lot to me. And that particular Passover my freshman year was the door that opened that enabled me to come back and become active the following year in Hillel and everything that came after that.

My name is Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, I live in Boston. It’s hard to pick one Passover memory that is my favorite. But I’ll share one from my year in Jerusalem when I was a rabbinical student. I went to the seder of a wonderful rabbi, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, who leads the community Nava Tehila in Jerusalem. And we had a beautiful time with her family. The seder went until about two or three in the morning. And I stayed, I was too tired to walk home. So I just stayed on their floor on living room cushions and fell asleep to the sound of Rav Ruth and her children, her grown children, chanting Shir Hashirim, the song of songs, all the way through. Which is their custom on the first night of Pesach. And it was a powerful, beautiful experience. And when I woke up the next morning, pretty tired and walked back to my apartment I felt a deeper sense of connection to the chag, the holiday, then I had before. Connecting it to the spring, to love and to the sacred sense of connection we had had the night before on the seder.

Shalom. My name is Rabbi Darah Lerner and I am with Congregation Beth El in beautiful Bangor, Maine. One of my favorite memories of Passover was from when I was still not even Bat Mitzvah. We lived in a Southern California suburb and most of our friends were middle class families. And at that ripe ol’ age of 11 or 12 or whatever I was, I wrote off my friend’s parents, as many kids do, as just suburban parents. One of my friend’s moms, I thought of her as having a few dollars more and her the kind that would go to the country club or get her nails done, or whatever I envisioned. 

(Lerner) One Passover, I was ease dropping on the adults’ table, maybe more than usual, and I overheard her talking. And what I over heard has stuck with me to this day. Now she is all of five foot nothing and maybe had a few extra pounds from a comfortable lifestyle, and as she discussed many years earlier in her life. The time she spent in Israel. In Palestine, before the founding of the state. And she talked about those years when she knew personally ‘Manachem’. Or at least that’s how referred to him, Manachem Begin. My ears perked up and thought ‘What? She knew Manachem Begin? And she said ‘Yes, when I was in the Irgun with Manachem Begin’. ‘ The Irgun? Wait. Those were a fighting bunch. A bunch working to liberate and establish the state of Israel.’ Well I have to say I was completely amazed and it totally changed the way I looked at her, the way I saw many of my parents other friends. And I thought to myself ‘Wow. This is a Passover to remember.’ We not only come out of Egypt, but we are constantly coming out of different places, expectations and discovering a whole new world out there. May this Passover be one of unexpected surprises about the people you know, the people you care about, even if you are celebrating far away from them.

Hello I’m Rabbi Robert Haas. And I want to wish everyone all the best for the holiday season. I think now more than ever it’s especially important that we spend time with family and friends during this Passover. And again, I wish everybody all the best. As for my favorite Passover memory, It came when we held seder at my uncle’s house. I was in my 20’s. And my brothers and cousins, all guys, were in our 20’s. We had a wonderful seder with wonderful trimmings and of course following tradition of remembering everyone about the most embarrassing moment in their lives. Until we came to the moment of the afikoman. Of course, we’re in our twenties, we didn’t want to look for it. So my uncle said ‘Well, you don’t have to.’ And he gave each of us a sheet of paper. And on that paper were questions about our family history. He said we have to answer all of them before we finish the meal. So we got together and answered as many as we could. But there was a bunch we couldn’t answer from way back. So what did we do? This was before I was religious, we ended up calling all our family around the country, interrupting their seders to get the answers to the questions. So not only did  we spend time with the family in my hometown but we also spent time with my family from all around the world. I think it’s especially important today seeing what we’re all going through. So I want to again wish everybody all the best. I hope you answer every trivia question correctly and find the afikoman. And may it be a safe and happy year for all of us. 

Shalom. My name is Haim Ovadia. My special seder memory comes from about 30 years ago when we lived in Bogota, Columbia. My wife invited for la seder a piano companion. A Russian Jew, who got a letter form her grandmother reminding her that Pesach is coming. And as she showed it to my wife, my wife said ‘Please come to us for la seder’. They finally showed up at the middle of the Haggadah. We had to start because they were a little late. And as they stepped in, Angelic was holding a beautiful large white box, that obviously contained a cake. In that moment, my wife’s face turned much whiter than the box. She was clearly going to faint right there seeing that chametz invading her house on la Seder after all the preparations. I sort of saved the situation. I took the box and hurried to the kitchen, I left through the backdoor and gave it to the doorman and we continued the seder. And after all was over and dessert came up, Angelic joined my wife in the kitchen and told her in Spanish with a Russian accent ‘Edna, yo sabia que ustedes no pueden comer eso. Pero [me] dije una sola vez, que va a pasar’. In other words, ‘I know you can’t eat this, but I said to myself only one time, what’s going to happen?’ 

(Ovadia) We were talking about it for a while. But we really appreciate that she came for la seder because she told us in Russia the only way her family was able to observe Pesach was get two pieces of matzah from a man who would dress as a traveling agent and pass door to door with a beaten suitcase giving two matzos per family. So the fact that she was still connected was a great thing for us. And we remember that and we laugh once in a while. Have a beautiful Pesach. 

(Regan) In order of appearance, those were Rabbis Jan Salzman, Jon Spira-Savett, Shoshana Meira Friedman, Darah Lerner, Robert Haas and Haim Ovadia sharing some of their most significant Passover memories.

(Regan) As for my Pesach memories. Asking Elijah to consider my grandparents carpets was one of many funny tales from the seders of my youth. A lot of laughter and overcooked meat. My birthday falls around the festival, so one year my dad made kosher for Passover baked Alaska, because true liberation is casting off the yoke of corporate cylinder box macaroons. Anyway, Freshman year of College, was the first time I had four full cups of wine at a seder. It’s a weird experience being drunk in a synagogue packed with families. A few years back I produced several Kosher for Passover cooking videos with another friend where I made delicacies like matzah nachos (or ‘Matchos’ as I call them) and eggs Benedict. They still exist somewhere in the bowels of YouTube if you’re up for a virtual afikoman hunt. Last year my girlfriend, whom you met in the previous episode, joined my family seder for the first time. After living in Arizona, it was my first seder at home in years and we also hosted a family friend who had recently lost her mother. It was a blend of old times and new developments. And this week has been memorable. My computer and podcast microphone became quasi additions to the seder plate. This Passover, the first cup of wine was needed for setting up the virtual hangout. But it eventually worked and turned out to be a lovely evening. It all makes me think about last year’s Passover episode, where I asked rabbis what the phrase ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ means to them. Seems like it’s quite relevant now. Last year, it was a more open-ended goal. A way to reflect on making the world a better place or improving oneself.  That’s still crucial, but this Passover, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ feels more like ‘Next year with you’. A simple, focused request that next year we can be more grateful for the time we spend with people in person and beyond the narrow spaces of the computer screen. 

(Regan) This episode of American Rabbi Project was written and produced by me Justin Regan. Thanks to Derek Povah, Sarit Dann Rathbone, Jeremy Krones, Beth Vanderstoep, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. If you like what you’re hearing please consider donating to my project. You can do so by going to rabbiproject.com and clicking on the donate tab. My email is justin@rabbiproject.com. I’m on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject, Instagram with American Rabbi Project and facebook.com/rabbiproject

And until next time, Happy Passover and stay safe. 


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