Preserving Jewish tradition

Community CorrespondentApril 8, 2014 

Intertwined within the tapestry of the diverse communities in the Mountain Area hills is the small strand of the Mountain Jewish Community. We are individuals from diverse Jewish backgrounds and different levels of observance who, like the rest of our larger foothill community, have chosen to live in proximity to the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains because of our love of nature and a desire to leave large urban areas behind.

Although we are scattered throughout the towns of Mariposa, Ahwahnee, Oakhurst, Coarsegold, North Fork, O'Neals, and Yosemite Lakes Park, and do not have a religious leader or building, we are connected to each other through a shared faith and culture grounded in Torah (what the Christian world refers to as the Old Testament).

Since community is such an essential part of Jewish life and observance, we connect with each other through the shared celebration of Jewish holidays. We also have a Jewish women's group that gets together for study, discussions, conversation, and laughter.

Many of the Jewish holidays, most of which have their origins in the land of Israel, have a nature component in addition to a spiritual one. Since Israel's climate is very similar to our own, the Jewish holidays often reflect what is happening in our own natural foothill environment.

The holiday of Passover, for example, which we celebrate in April, is referred to in the Torah as the Holiday of Spring. It falls at the same time that our Sierra foothills are bursting with the wildflowers of spring. It is a celebration both of nature's renewal and the Israelites renewal as a people when they gained their freedom from slavery.

Our Mountain Jewish community, like Jewish communities around the world, as they have done for more than 2,000 years, gather with family and friends to celebrate together.

Judy Weiss, a resident of Oakhurst, captured the essence of the holiday when she explained that, "For many Jewish children and adults, this is their favorite and most meaningful of Jewish holidays — at least it was for me, because of the gathering of extended family and all the ritual and symbolism involved."

The ceremonial part of the eight-day holiday of Passover is the seder (which means order) held on the first night of Passover, and in some households the first two nights, when family and friends gather together. Through the use of prayers, songs, questions, discussions, stories and special foods, the seder makes us feel as if we, ourselves, were there with our ancestors experiencing the lash of slavery and the joy of freedom.

Using the seder as a framework to trigger discussions that can be uniquely Jewish or universal, Passover remains relevant each year. The participation of children is an important aspect of the seder as we are commanded in the Torah to tell the story of Passover to our children. It is our responsibility to pass on our heritage, from generation to generation, through the celebration of our holidays and traditions and the telling of our stories. By doing so we are saying to our children — "this is who you are."

The youngest child who is able to, chants in Hebrew or in English the "Four Questions," starting with "Why is this night different from all other nights?" That question and others are answered by the adults in a format that is relevant to the age group gathered around the table.

In the answering of the questions, the story of the Israelites' enslavement, freedom, and gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai is told, and retold, each year.

Despite both traditional and modern attempts at keeping children involved in the seder, it can be challenging to maintain the interest of young children. Marcia Freedman, a resident of Oakhurst, recounts the first seder that she can remember when she was three years old. After a big build up to the seder night, and after sitting through prayers, songs and discussions, some of which were in Hebrew, she announced to her family: "If this is a seder, I'm going to bed."

Ceremonial foods are eaten during the seder as reminders of springtime (parsley or other green vegetable), the drudgery of slavery (haroset which is a mixture of fruit and nuts which is reminiscent of the mortar between the bricks used to build the pyramids of Egypt), and freedom (unleavened bread called matzah). These ceremonial foods aid in transmitting the story of the Exodus and Jewish values from generation to generation.

Matzah is referred to at the beginning of the seder as the bread of affliction, the bread of the slave, because of its simple ingredients of flour and water. Later in the seder, it is transformed through the telling of the Exodus story into the bread of the freed Israelites wandering in the wilderness without an opportunity to let bread rise. We learn that how things are perceived changes their nature.

While we enhance our joy during our celebration with the "fruit of the vine", we also diminish our joy by pouring out some of our grape juice or wine to physically show our compassion at the memory of the Egyptians who died in our sacred story so that the Israelites could go free.

As part of our celebration, we share a wonderful meal of special Passover foods such as matzah ball soup, matzah kugel (a type of casserole made with vegetables or fruit and broken up pieces of matzah), tzimmis (a mixture of carrots, honey and sweet potatoes) and often macaroons or cakes made without flour for dessert.

After dinner the children hunt for a hidden piece of matzah called the afikoman as the seder cannot continue and come to its conclusion until it is found and everyone shares a piece of it. Since there is a prize for the child who finds the hidden matzah, they enthusiastically search the room in the hope of being the one to locate it.

The seder concludes with spirited singing and the hope that next year all people will be free.

NOTE: Passover begins Monday, April 14, at sundown. Jewish families around the world join in this festive meal and ritual. During the meal, the uplifting story of the Passover is told by reading from the Haggadah (the telling). The opening prayer, reads in part: May all who are enslaved throughout the world, come to know freedom. May all who are free, appreciate the blessings of abundance. May all of us dwell in the house of God and give thanks for our good fortune as we celebrate these rituals of Passover.

Marcia Freedman and Judy Weiss contributed to this story. For more information about the Mountain Jewish Community or the celebration of Passover, contact susanrappaport@gmail.com.

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