Taking the stodgy out of seder

Taking the stodgy out of seder

Barnert Temple workshop provides food for thought and fresh insights

Rabbi Eliza Scheffler teaches at Barnert Temple. On the wall behind her, drawings of recently retired Rabbi Elyse Frishman and her predecessor, Rabbi Martin Freedman, look out at the room.
Rabbi Eliza Scheffler teaches at Barnert Temple. On the wall behind her, drawings of recently retired Rabbi Elyse Frishman and her predecessor, Rabbi Martin Freedman, look out at the room.

We all may be used to our own seders — parts of them might be boring, parts might be fun, but usually little of it is new. It can be exciting, even inspirational, to be exposed to ways to introduce something different into something as beloved but stodgily unchanging as our seders can be.

Last Sunday, Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes offered both members and nonmembers a lively, interactive four-session workshop that included humor, history, eclectic recipes, and song parodies, as guest speakers borrowed ideas from the oldest rituals outlined in the Haggadah.

The “Preparing for Passover” program gave attendees a chance to laugh, reflect, taste, sing — and learn.

Rebecca Rund of Franklin Lakes, Barnert’s new fulltime communication and engagement coordinator, has been a member, volunteer, and lay leader at Barnert for 20 years. Speaking of the program with great enthusiasm, she said: “We have a diverse group of temple members who come from varying towns and family backgrounds. Many of us follow the Passover recipes passed down to us that are seen through an Ashkenazi Jewish lens.”

Convinced that food helps in making connections, Ms. Rund said several Barnert members whose backgrounds are not Eastern European described how their families would prepare charoset, the mixture of apples, nuts and wine meant to symbolize the mortar the Jews used while enslaved in Egypt. Coming from the Hebrew word cheres, meaning clay, the sweet mixture offsets the bitterness of the herbs served on the seder plate.

Cantor Marina Voronina, left, Rabbi Eliza Scheffler, and Rebecca Rund

“We learned different variations on the old standard recipes of our youth,” Ms. Rund said. “The stories told about the recipes from various cultures added depth to each recipe.” Charoset from Curaçao, Italy, India, Iran and Greece, along with a sprinkling of Sephardic and Ashkenazi old favorites were provided to the attendees in tasting cups. The charoset-makers regaled the group with memories of family debates over the specific portions and ingredient details. “So many recipes, handed down from generation to generation, are not necessarily written down,” Ms. Rund said. “Food can often express identity.” Attendees left with handouts of recipes for each of the delicious versions. “It was charoset with a twist.”

Like the rabbis and Jewish educators he’s read about and learned from, Murray Spiegel of Roseland, who is a software engineer, speech researcher, and author, has enjoyed thinking out of the box to design engaging and creative multicultural seders for Jews of various affiliations. His book, “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions,” uses puzzles and games to make the Passover seder both fun and interesting.

In keeping with the workshop’s theme of making YOUR seder night different from all other nights, Dr. Spiegel offered a humorous multimedia presentation about ideas for unusual and often wild contemporary versions of the seder in general, and in particular, about asking the Four Questions. As noted in a 2002 New York Times article by Frederick Kaimann, Dr. Spiegel has found that many seder innovators are motivated by their children’s short attention spans. “I want the seder to be a new experience for people and not something that results in ‘oh this old thing again?’” he said then. From Arabic to Zulu to the anapestic tetrameter of Dr. Seuss to the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, Dr. Spiegel told new and different ways to ask the Four Questions.

Barnert Temple’s assistant rabbi, Eliza Scheffler, who oversees adult education, joined the congregation last July, after a rabbinic internship at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. She led a discussion-based class featuring the four sons in the Haggadah. The earliest source texts are rooted in the Torah; next, they’re found in the Mekhilta (a collection of midrashim about the book of Exodus from the first and second centuries of the common era) and in the Jerusalem Talmud. More recently, various haggadot offer a more expansive view of the four sons as four children, perhaps even as four daughters.

Rabbi Scheffler showed images various artists have drawn of the four sons throughout the centuries. Those images can tell us about the aspirations and anxieties faced by Jewish communities throughout the centuries, she said.

These three versions of the Four Sons, from three haggadot from different times and places, are a primary source for social history.

For example, often the wise son is shown as an observant Jew sitting at a desk with a book; he’s studious, pious, scholarly. But an early Israeli Haggadah written in 1952 portrays the wise son as a strong and brawny person of the land; with his sleeves rolled up, he’s prepared to get his hands dirty.

“In analyzing images depicting the four sons from as early as 1879 to the present, it is not always clear what perspective the authors and artists of the haggadot are trying to offer us,” Rabbi Scheffler said. “It’s open for the readers to interpret.”

When we look at a particular image, we might ask which is the wise son. Is it the studious one who pores over scripture, or the businessman who is assimilated into the outside world, or the boxer who fights to defend himself and brings pride to the Jewish people? Is it possible for the wise son to be all of these: the one who immerses himself in his studies, earns a living, and fights for the continuity of the Jewish people?

The images of the wicked son from a Polish Haggadah made in early 1934 reveal a man looking to emulate Hitler, with a porkpie hat and toothbrush mustache. He seemingly wanted to eschew his Jewishness and present himself as a Nazi-like character. This characterization exhibits the fears we might have about how the next generation of Jews will carry on rituals and traditions or abandon them, possibly leading to an atrophying of Jewish identity.

The attendees were asked how they might have interpreted the children described in the Haggadah. Is there one in particular with whom they identify? Is it possible that each of us at one time or another has had the characteristics of each of the four children? Was it possible that the four images they looked at were chronological images of the same person as their identities changed?

To make this more clear, Rabbi Scheffler elaborated: “At the seder, we might be feeling excited about the ritual (the wise one), alienated by parts of the tradition (the wicked one), confused by the parts we don’t understand (the simple one), and not even know where or how to begin (the one who does not know to ask).”

Rabbi Scheffler noted that since at least 1996, some contemporary haggadot show four children; others, including “The Wandering Is Over,” produced by Jewish Women’s Archive in Boston, show four daughters.

Marina Voronina, Barnert Temple’s accomplished cantorial soloist, has been with the congregation for seven years. Cantor Voronina was born in the Soviet Union. She and her mother arrived on Long Island in 1990, when she was 11. Her older brother arrived a few years later with her grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins. Her passport was stamped Jewish, just as other peoples were stamped Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Polish. “Jewish, the religion, was considered a nationality in the Soviet Union at that time,” Cantor Voronina said. “But even with that stamp, I knew nothing about being Jewish.”

When she got to America, she found the local synagogue in Kings Park welcoming. “We were given rides to the two annual neighborhood seders and later to Hebrew school,” she said.

Cantor Voronina recalls being terrified, knowing that the youngest child would be asked to recite Ma Nishtanah — the Four Questions. “I didn’t know Hebrew, but everyone sang along with me.”

As a member of Kings Park Jewish Center, a Conservative shul, she learned many tunes while participating in community seders. “I wanted to learn as much as I could about Judaism,” she said. Later, as a student at Brandeis University, Cantor Voronina participated in different types of services that took place concurrently for different types of Jews. “Reform Judaism offered different tunes from those I grew up with,” she said. She collected a repertoire of tunes in both Hebrew and Russian.

“Everyone grew up with different traditions and learned different melodies, but often people forget the words to the songs of their youth or skip over the lines they don’t know,” Cantor Voronina said. “The internet is a wonderful resource for Passover songs.”

Providing song sheets that included both traditional Passover songs and parodies of some of them, Cantor Voronina led the group as they sang new words to the tune of the Brady Bunch’s theme song and “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” The Passover story was retold in song, and everyone enjoyed finishing the program with festive music.

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