Archive for : Holidays

A Mexico City Night Different From All Others

The Shabbat candles flickered, and chicken soup umami wafted from the kitchen.

After a week of preparation, I peered down the makeshift dining table at my roommate Diana and my twelve guests. None were local to Mexico City. We were all transients, strangers in a strange land. We were a mix of Jews, Christians, Catholics, and atheists. A mix of Americans, Mexicans, and an Argentinean. A mix of East and West Coasters, Midwesterners, and Southerners. A mix of black, brown, and white.

All twenty- and thirty-somethings, our colors and backgrounds blended like the ingredients in the charoset, each one highlighting the other, making for a sweet combination more than the sum of its parts.

Diana and I—the Jewish contingent—introduced ourselves, explaining that seder is a storytelling process followed by a festive dinner. That we would lead the way but we hoped everyone would participate. That we wanted people to question, and if we couldn’t answer, Google surely could.

We began with a round robin sharing our placecards. In addition to our names, each held factoids about a Jewish community around the world.

“I’m Macarena,” my Argentinian friend announced when her turn arrived.

“Hiiiiiiiii Macarena,” we all responded in chorus.

“What do Hungarian Jews place on the Seder table to represent the precious gifts given to the Israelites as they departed Egypt?”

We all looked around dumbfounded, until, in Spanish, she gave us a clue. “Sería un buen regalo para mujeres. Seguro que todas las mujeres aquí tiene… (It would be a good gift for women. All the women here definitely have some…),” she added, winking my direction.

“Chocolate!” we shouted. “Wine!”

“Noooo…. Joyas!” She shared gleefully. Jewelry.

After we made the rounds, Diana and I shared a bit of the history of the Jewish community in Mexico. We explained that we hoped tonight would be an opportunity to share diverse stories of struggle and liberation. That we would learn together from the story of Exodus, and explore its relevance today. “We are not merely telling a story here. We are being called to a radical act of empathy,” I read from Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah.

We embarked, popcorn-style, around the table, trading off reading mostly from a racial justice Haggadah that quoted Fannie Lou Hamer, Carl Sagan, Harriet Tubman, and Bryan Stevenson, along with the Torah. Diana’s grandparents looked down at us from their crystal frame on our TV console, and my grandparents’ loaned Maxwell house Haggadahs peered up from the table, stained and bent from decades of use.

When we arrived at the first handwashing, we read from a feminist Haggadah about the role of women, and water, in the Exodus story. We invited our guests to wash the hands of the person to their right, but not without first asking for consent. They eagerly complied, each one looking into his or her neighbor’s eyes—some for the first time—speaking in hushed tones, then gently pouring water over their neighbors’ hands.

We moved from the handwashing (urhatz), to eating a green vegetable dipped in saltwater (karpas), to breaking the middle matzah (yahatz).

Why does the Haggadah urge us to feed the hungry at this point in the seder, when it’s already more or less too late, we asked ourselves, with the help of Safran Foer. “Could it be teaching us that this night, in one crucial way, is just like all other nights? On all other nights we eat to satisfaction without a thought for the hungry stranger. Tonight, we speak of hunger, but do nothing to alleviate it.”

We reflected silently, asking ourselves why that is so, and what we should do differently.

Then there were bowls of matzah ball soup with cilantro and jalapeño—a nod to our host-country. A cucumber, tomato, avocado and serrano chile salad. Fish with mole-inspired rub. My mom’s sweet and sour brisket. Flourless chocolate cake. Lemon bars. Matzah toffee rocky road bites.

And then, the great hunt for the afikoman commenced, Vanessa emerging triumphant from beneath the table. We followed a rich meal with those final dry bites, and we read:

“[The afikoman] embodies the faith that there is always a way, concealed though it might be, to make the transition from the suffering that we know, to the future that we dream…. We sit together with our great diversities of worldviews, for we are celebrants of freedom and will brook no tyranny of thought. But we all eat the afikoman together, gesturing toward a sense of the world that sustains us in our hope.”

We stood up and opened the door for Elijah, arms slung around each other. Diana and I began to sing Eliyahu hanavi, surprised when the voices of our guests, high and low, joined in the Hebrew on the second round.

As our celebration of our freedom came to a close, I silently prayed that those voices would continue to echo through our minds, sustaining us in our many fights for freedom, at least until next year.


Ryan Cohen is a Fulbright-García Robles conducting research about how to advance social mobility in Mexico City. She previously worked for the Obama White House, ACLU of Michigan, Department of Justice, and Mayor of Los Angeles. Her writing has been featured in the Huffington PostReformaUniversity of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Social Change, and Kennedy School Review, and can be found on her website ryanashleycohen.com.

Turn the Tables: A Refugee-Focused Seder in Kansas City

This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis. All across the country this Passover, people found ways to share refugees’ stories during their seders and to talk about the issues they face. Using resources and materials from Repair the World’s Turn the Tables project, they were able to add additional meaning and spark important conversations at their tables. Here, Kansas City resident, Malinda Kimmel, talks about her experience hosting a Turn the Tables seder for friends and family from a wide range of political backgrounds.

What inspired you to host a refugee-focused Passover seder?
For me and my family, this seder made sense. Refugee issues are something we are passionate about, and Pesach is a story of leaving one country for another to come to freedom and safety. Also, three of our seder participants work at JVS Kansas City, an organization that works to resettle new refugees into our community. The seder allowed us to share with others the importance of refugee resettlement in our community.

How did you weave refugee issues into the seder?
We began our seder with the Turn the Tables guided discussion. We made sure all guests understood our seder was to be a safe space for open discussion and respectful conversation. Our guests really jumped in and opened up, allowing us to talk about the connection between Jews in Egypt and others now who flee their countries for freedom and safety.
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From Queen Esther to Emma Watson

It’s no coincidence that the Jewish holiday of Purim typically falls in March, AKA Women’s History Month. Okay, maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s a great one. The Purim story, after all, is built around two mighty women: one who stands up for her rights (Queen Vashti) and another who stands up for the rights and safety of her people (Queen Esther).

As we remember and celebrate Jewish tradition’s early female heroines, it is also important to remember that women’s rights issues – everything from gender pay inequality, to women’s healthcare and education access – are still critically important both in America and around the world. That’s why, this Purim, we want to shed light on this ongoing work.

Who better to do that than Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, Emma Watson, herself? In addition to giving a killer speech about gender equality at the UN a couple years back, Watson is a leader of HeforShe, a UN Women campaign focused on bringing all voices around the world together in support of women’s rights.

In the video below, Watson teams up with Broadway star Lin Manuela Miranda (of Hamilton) for an amazing beat box/freestyle flow session about gender equality. It’s worth a watch – we may have watched it twice – and a visit to the UN’s HeforShe campaign page.

And for more on Purim’s heroines, check out this post on My Jewish Learning called Vashti & Esther: A Feminist Perspective.

#8Nights of Hanukkah Service: Give Unexpectedly

Join Repair the World in celebrating the #8Nights of Hanukkah service as we dedicate the Festival of Lights to helping others. Each day we will suggest a service project, donation opportunity, or other way to spread tikkun olam and get involved for the holiday. After all, Hanukkah is a holiday of miracles – why not make some? Tonight: Give unexpectedly.

We’ve all got long holiday shopping lists. There’s mom and dad, bubbe and little sis. Add on best friends, teachers, and your significant other and that’s a lot of Hanukkah prezzies to coordinate.

But this year, we invite you to think about your Hanukkah gift list a little more broadly. There are so many people who make a huge difference in our daily lives in little ways. There’s the barista who always remembers your order. There’s the UPS driver who walks your packages up to your door, and the blogger you’ve never met who writes something that makes you cry tears of relief/recognition/happiness.

There’s the teacher you had in 5th grade who’s voice and wisdom you still hear in your head all these years later. There’s the nurse at your doctor’s office who comforted you at your last appointment, and the guy in the subway who makes your commute better by playing his fiddle.

Whatever and whoever these people are, our interactions with them make our days a little brighter. And these moments of tiny, quiet kindness bring light into our year the way the Hanukkah menorah brings light to our homes.. So this year, be ready to surprise them with a Hanukkah gift when they least expect it.

There are a million ways to achieve this goal, but here’s one idea: Make up a bunch of cards (MOO lets you make super stylish ones – or just print out something simple out on your computer) with an image you love on one side and the words “Thanks for making my day brighter. Happy Holidays” on the other. Carry a handful of them around in your bag along with some chocolates. Whenever you have an encounter with someone kind, hand over a card and a chocolate along with a smile.

You’ll make their day – and their holiday – as much as they make yours.

Keep your eyes peeled for each service gift idea – and this Hanukkah, let your spirit for volunteering last for eight days and nights!

#8Nights of Hanukkah Service: Give Information

Join Repair the World in celebrating the #8Nights of Hanukkah service as we dedicate the Festival of Lights to helping others. Each day we will suggest a service project, donation opportunity, or other way to spread tikkun olam and get involved for the holiday. After all, Hanukkah is a holiday of miracles – why not make some? First up: give the gift of information.

Let’s face it, the news these days can be more confusing then illuminating. On this first day of Hanukkah, give your loved ones and the people in your wider community the chance to get informed and empowered with knowledge. Here’s how.

Give: Magazines. Purchase your friend a yearlong (or two years!) subscription to The New Yorker, the Economist, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Tablet Magazine, or another magazine that offers in-depth, reported pieces on stories that matter.

Give: Books. Same idea as above, but replace a timely, thought provoking book in the place of a magazine. Ta-Nehishi Coates’ Between the World and Me and I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai are two great options.

Give: Education. Make a donation to DonorsChoose, a website that lets classroom teachers crowdfund supplies and educational resources they need for their classrooms.

Give: Experience. Nothing teaches quite like reflecting on one’s personal experiences. Volunteer at an organization like 826, a writing and tutoring center that gives young students the incomparable opportunity to share their stories.

Keep your eyes peeled for each service gift idea – and this Hanukkah, let your spirit for volunteering last for eight days and nights!