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Prepping for Passover


When family mishegas or tzorres threaten Pesach

By Allison B. Spitzer, M.A.

allisonWhen your teen has tzorres, your machatanim drive you mad, the cost of holiday food has you faklempt, and your adult children give you anxiety (angina), is a “zissen Pesach” just a joke? You are not alone. Every family has issues—financial problems, health challenges, someone with anxiety, depression, addiction. The family today that doesn’t is rare. Here are some strategies to make the inevitable holiday stresses more relaxed, and the moments together more meaningful.

First, there are NO rules. The host decides the game plan. If that’s you, be inventive. Use place cards to keep warring family members at opposite ends of the table. If you’re not the host, call and discuss.

Haggadah? Tell the story. Once we were slaves. Now we are free. This is a story of hope. There IS hope today to feel better, be better, do better. Go around the table and ask each person to say what their struggle is — and ask others to comment on how THEY might help “set them free.”

It’s not about just changing the dishes: change your mindset. Contact your guests and mishpochah with issues that trouble you in advance of the seder. Let them know your bottom line for the event, and your hopes (that is, a best case scenario) for the evening. Ask if they can be on board with it. If you can’t make the call, talk with someone who can. Focus on what is doable for the evening. For example, “I want to make sure that everyone feels valued. So, no picking on Cousin Emma, no teasing Billy, no arguments about politics with Henry.”

Distract. Families are living organisms. Relationships are never truly static. If you are stuck in a negative rut of troublesome interactions, consider in advance what topic, question or activity you might add to the evening to dodge traditional roadblocks. Bring pictures to share of something you’ve done recently. Buy everyone a 50-cent Wooly Willy game and run a contest for the best “Pharaoh.”

Ask for help. If your heart is heavy, or your bank account busted, or your Bubbe not doing well, it’s time to make life simpler. We’re Jewish, this is not so easy, eh? People feel valued and respected when we reach out to them and ask for their help. Ask Cousin Minnie to help keep your niece with ADHD occupied during the seder. Ask Aunt Selma to bring a kugel and a vegetable instead of a box of Barton’s. Skip the fish. Be silly with the plagues (mini marshmallows thrown up in the air make great hail!). Pay a high school kid to wash dishes and help during the meal. Say a mi sheberach right at the start for Bubbe. Ask your ditsy daughter to ratchet things down, just for a night. Thank everyone for their extra effort this year as they walk through the door.

If you are a guest who dreads the event, don’t go. Or, ask whoever is hosting if you can give some input to make things more palatable for you (and probably everyone else!). Or, explain that you can only stop by for “dessert and coffee” because, well…use whatever excuse you’d like (you have to work, you have a cold, the dog is alone).

No, you’re not Woody Allen, and it’s likely that your family doesn’t need therapy. However, using a few little therapeutic strategies might make family peace and – who knows? – even fun attainable! This year, not in Jerusalem, but around your table.

Allison B. Spitzer, M.A., of Trumbull is a life skills coach and interpersonal communications expert practicing in Fairfield County and beyond. Her clients’ issues include anxiety, depression, ADHD, stress, grief, relationships, parenting, and more.

She can be reached through www.periwinklehealth.com.



MatzaH mania! Who knew that mixing flour and water could be so nuanced?

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org

How hard can making matzah be?

Mix flour and water, and bake.

Actually, there are various ways that one can go about producing matzah—and the results are all a little different.

When you’re standing in the supermarket just before the holiday trying to choose matzah, it might help to know what you are looking at. It’s not just the orange box versus the blue box, or even hand-made versus machine-made. According to leading kashrut supervisors at the Star-K and Orthodox Union (OU) kosher-certification providers, there can be differences between the flour, the baking process, and even the time it takes for the matzah to be produced.


The flour

Rabbi David Stein, head of the Star-K in Israel, says the differences between matzah start even before the wheat is harvested. There are three types of flour: shmurah mi’sh’as k’tzirah (made from grains that have been supervised from the time of their harvesting until the actual baking of the matzah), shmurah mi’sh’as techina (made from wheat guarded from the time it is milled into flour), and shmurah mi’sh’as lisha (watched from the time the flour is mixed with water).

In all three cases, the “watching” aspect (“shmurah” in Hebrew) is meant to ensure that the wheat does not get wet and transform into chametz (a leavened product). The longer the grains are watched, the more kosher—and generally, the more expensive— the matzah will be.


Hand vs. machine

The most obvious difference between types of matzah is how the matzah is produced: hand and machine are the two most common types. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operation officer of the OU’s kashrut department, says hand-made matzah precisely reflects that description.

“This is the way it was always done before the advancement of machinery, and the way it is still done in many communities,” Elefant says.

The reason that many people still opt for hand matzah is for the intention behind the process, explains Elefant. Not only is it a Torah commandment to eat matzah on Passover, but according to some opinions, the Torah requires us to perform the act of making matzah “l’shmah,” for the sake of the mitzvah.

The Haredi “Consul” Rabbi Matityahu Cheshin invited Ambassador Shapiro and his wife, Ms. Julie Fisher, for an insightful tour of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah She’arim, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Jerusalem. During the tour the Ambassador and his wife were able to witness the hustle and bustle of pre-Passover preparations. The tour included a rooftop view from the great Synagogue of Breslov, a walking tour of the Batei Ungarim (Hungarian houses), and a visit to a Passover lesson at a local elementary school. Ever wondered where Matzo comes from? At a local Matzo bakery, the Ambassador himself had a chance to hand grind some of the meal and to witness the thin dough shuffled in and out of the oven. The tour proceeded to the famous Challah bakery of Lendner, where the Ambassador and Ms. Fisher plucked challah out of the oven to discover that they spelled out “U.S.A.” We concluded the tour at the great synagogue of Belz, a centerpiece of the Belzer Hasidim community, which can seat 6,000 in its main sanctuary.

Hand-made matzah production in the Meah She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem.

“Many people prefer hand matzah for the seder because the baker has to have that intent of making matzah and a machine does not have the ability to have intent,” says Elefant.

Yet making matzah is an inexact science, Stein says, explaining that not all machine matzah or all hand matzah is made the same. “If you don’t know where you are getting your hand matzah, it is better to get machine matzah,” he says.

There are three types of machine matzah as far as the level of kashrut is concerned, but much more variation in hand matzah practices. Stein says the Jewish sages teach that it takes at least 18 minutes for matzah dough to become flour. The kashrut level of matzah changes depending on how careful the factory is about these 18 minutes.

In the most lenient factories—the so-called “regular” machine matzah factories—the matzah-making machine isn’t cleaned almost all day long.

“Some regular factories will have someone standing there with a vacuum cleaner that will clean the dough as it falls off,” says Stein. “Some don’t, and the machine goes straight through the cycles without cleaning. Really, anything that falls would be botul (‘insignificant’ in Jewish law), but this is not the best situation.”

The next level of machine matzah is 18-minute matzah. This is matzah produced in a factory where the machinery is designed to be dismantled and thoroughly cleaned every 18 minutes.

In either case, there is always a team of dough kneaders who ensure the dough not being fired is constantly needed; as long as the dough is being kneaded, it will never become chametz.

A final and strictest level is matzah “chabura.” According to Stein, in this situation, all dough must make it into the oven within 18 minutes, whether or not it’s being kneaded. After 18 minutes, the machinery and all of the tools, bowls, and other materials are thoroughly cleaned.

“These people make sure there is no chametz left over,” says Stein. “The price of this level—and each different level—is significantly different.”

Today, most machine matzah consumed around the world is imported from Israel, where there are dozens of matzah factories. Only one machine matzah factory—the facility of Manischewitz—exists in the United States, according to the OU.


Non-traditional traditions

There are some smaller communities, especially variant sects of Chasidim, that add extra levels of stringency to their matzah baking practices. For example, according to Stein, there are those who mill their matzah by hand.

“This is not a very popular chumra (stringency),” says Stein, noting that today this is mostly practiced by the Sanzer Hasidim of Kiryat Sanz, in the Israeli city of Netanya.

Another stringency is “kefirah shel yad,” hand-reaped matzah.

Finally, there are those who hold that the matzah eaten at the seder must be made in the afternoon on the same day Passover starts. The holiday begins on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, when the Passover sacrifice was brought to the Jewish Temple. The matzah being baked that afternoon models the time of the sacrifice. Such an enterprise requires great care.

“People who do this will start at chatzot (mid-day),” says Stein, who does this himself in his synagogue in Rehovot, Israel.



Today, there is a growing community of gluten-free individuals who cannot eat matzah made of wheat flour and water. For those people, oat matzah is produced. Stein says he knows of no hand-made oat matzah factories, but that the product is becoming plentiful on the grocery store shelves.

“It is very difficult to eat oat matzah if something isn’t done to take the bitterness out,” says Stein. “The oat matzah is very expensive.”

Sephardim eat a softer version of Ashkenazi matzah. There is “nothing theoretically wrong with this,” says Stein.

“Ashkenazim don’t eat it because we are afraid. The Ashkenazi minhag (custom) is to eat only matzah that is crisp and thin,” he says.

Egg matzah—which is no longer made with eggs, but rather with apple juice or grape juice, according to Elefant—is another type of matzah that Sephardim love and Ashkenazim should stay away from, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

“The halacha (Jewish law) says that other liquids mixed with chametz make the flour rise quicker,” says Elefant. “Avoid it, if you don’t have to have it.” The same goes for chocolate-covered matzah.

“On Pesach, we try to avoid foods that are chametz or can become chametz with one exception: matzah,” Elefant says with a chuckle.

He continues, “Pesach is a holiday of customs and traditions. Each family and community has its own traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. One thing remains consistent: matzah.…The matzah we eat is forever.”



Passover books for kids

By Penny Schwartz

(JTA) — Afikomen hunts, a rambunctious pup and the catchy classic “Dayenu.”

All are featured in a half-dozen new Passover books for children that will inform and entertain even the littlest kid — or a whole herd of ‘em.


Passover is Coming
Tracy Newman, illustrated by Viviana Garofoli
Kar-Ben; ages 1-4; $5.99

Readers follow a family as it prepares for the holiday, from spring cleaning and using home-grown parsley for the seder plate to learning the Four Questions and anticipating the hunt for the afikomen.


Pesach Guess Who?
Ariella Stern; illustrated by Patti Argoff
Hachai; ages 3-5; $9.95

An interactive, lift-the-flap book with rhyming clues to “who am I” questions — e.g., “I’m a food that’s baked in a hurry, but I still taste great, don’t worry.“ The end page poses a series of holiday observance questions, and there’s a glossary, too.


ABC Passover Hunt
Tilda Balsley; illustrated by Helen Poole
Kar-Ben; ages 3-8; $17.99, hardcover;
$7.99, paperback

An alphabet hunt is on in this lively book that introduces young kids to Passover themes, customs and foods. Lots of activities, including puzzles, mazes, riddles and maps.


More Than Enough: A Passover Story
April Halprin Wayland;
illustrated by Katie Kath
(Penguin Random House; ages 3-5; $16.99)

A riff on the Passover favorite “Dayenu,” a song that echoes with the theme of gratitude.

Readers follow a family as it readies to celebrate the holiday, including a trip to the farmer’s market, where they adopt a kitten from a shelter.


Kayla and Kugel’s
Almost Perfect Passover
Ann Koffsky
Apples & Honey Press; ages 3-5; $9.95

Kayla and her dog invite readers into their home for a seder. Kids will enjoy the mayhem when the mischievous Kugel sets the family off on an adventurous hunt for the afikomen. Koffsky’s author’s note poses open-ended, engaging questions to spark family conversations.


A Place for Elijah
Kelly Easton Ruben;
illustrated by Joanne Friar
Kar Ben; ages 5-9; $17.99

When a rainstorm causes a neighborhood power failure, only the lights in Sarah’s home stay on. So, one by one, the neighbors appear at the family’s door to join in their seder. Kids will be surprised by the story’s satisfying end.

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