April 17, 2008
Israelis build new traditions at L.A. seders
Nitzan and Shaul Barakan|
Nitzan and Shaul Barakan had to come all the way from Israel to the United States to learn words like "afikoman" and "seder plate."
The couple, both born and raised on Kibbutz Kinneret, didn't have a clue that there is a haggadah that looks nothing like the one they used on the kibbutz.
"We had huge Passover seders every single year, with 1,000 participants in the kibbutz dinning hall" recalled Nitzan, a Hebrew teacher. "Every class performed a song, but those were not necessarily the songs from the haggadah, but spring songs. Even the songs from the original haggadah had a different melody. This holiday was all about nature, the beginning of spring and little to do with religion."
The kibbutz, Nitzan admitted, never had much to do with religion. They were careful not to place a loaf of bread on the seder table, but bread was part of every meal in the days to follow.
It's funny, they say, that they discovered their Jewish roots only after emigrating, but over the years, for the sake of their children and friends who came to their home to celebrate Passover, they have combined materials from the kibbutz haggadah with more traditional ones and created their own family version.
"We don't have the traditional blessings, we created our own," she said. "Our seder today is much more traditional than the one we had in our youth. We have the seder plate, and when the children were younger, we used to hide the afikoman."
Another new discovery was the Elijah cup that is left on the table for the prophet.
"We decided to adopt this custom as well," Nitzan said, "but instead of leaving the cup of wine and chair for Elijah, we leave it for our kidnapped soldier, Ron Arad, in the hope that one day soon, he'll come back home."
Last year, for the first time ever, Shirly Brener didn't celebrate Passover. Brener, an actress who has a role in the upcoming film "Righteous Kill," alongside Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, said she felt "a little sad."
"All my friends went out of town; my mother and my stepfather were visiting family in Israel, so my husband Bruce and I were all alone here in L.A. with no one to celebrate with," she said.
Born in Israel, Brener immigrated to the United States with her mother when she was 15, and she has fond memories of Passover seders in Israel.
"Passover in Israel is nothing like Passover here. You don't feel the holiday in L.A. The atmosphere is missing," she said. "The only way I know it's Passover, or a holiday for that matter, is because there is less traffic on the streets. There are so many Jews who live in this city that during the two Passover days, it's very quiet on the streets. People celebrate at home with their families."
When Brener was 10, her parents divorced, and she started splitting the seder nights between two homes.
"My grandmothers lived in Haifa, a short walking distance from one another," she said. "So I started the night in my Hungarian grandmothers' house, a Holocaust survivor, and the second part of the night with my sabra grandma, Michal, who was active in the Palmach [the Jewish army under British rule]."
Passover was a very important holiday for both grandmothers.
"My Hungarian grandmother used to prepare stuffed peppers and matzah ball soup, and my grandmother Michal used to make amazing gefilte fish," Brener said. "She worked a whole week to prepare them so they'll be just right."
"We didn't read the entire haggadah, we used to skip pages, concentrate on the important songs such as 'Mah Nishtana' and the four brothers," she said. "When we got to the meal part in the haggadah, we usually stopped reading altogether and stuffed ourselves with food. After such a meal, we usually didn't have any energy to continue reading."
Brener also said she misses the afikoman hunt and the presents that followed: "We used to receive lots of gifts and surprises, no matter who the finder was."
"For me, Passover was always a family holiday, a time when all the family gathered together to celebrate," Brener said. However, once her mother decided to move to the United States everything changed.
"It was not a family event any more; it was more a social thing," she said. "Our seders turned out to be a big dinner event with 30 people or more. People who didn't have their family here to celebrate with.... Some spoke Hebrew, some spoke English only, so we had to read the haggadah in both languages. It didn't feel the same."
Brener said that she not only misses the family gathering around the seder table, but also all the preparation beforehand.
"In Israel, everybody gets ready for Passover weeks ahead of time," she said. "You see housewives cleaning the houses, taking blankets and mattresses out the windows to get some air. Every corner of the house is being sparkled. It's a big deal."
She said she hopes to celebrate Passover again one day with family in Israel, but this year she'll be filming a movie in Louisiana.
Passover at Parviz Nazarian's home in Beverly Hills is a big event, with 70 family members and friends gathered around the table.
"We have Jewish friends as well as non- Jewish friends that we invite to the seder, so they can learn about our tradition" said Nazarian, founder of CECI (Citizen Empowerment Center in Israel).
In Iran, the family often invited guests who didn't have anywhere to celebrate the seder. Here, the Nazarian family keeps up tradition and will celebrate both nights of Passover with dozens of guests.
A well-loved Iranian tradition at the Nazarians' house comes when they get to the part of "Dayenu" in the haggadah. "We all get fresh green onions and hit each other on the shoulder with it, in the memory of the suffering of our people in Egypt," he said.
The small flicks of the green onions (some use celery sticks) quickly turn into gleeful matches, with all the guests snapping at one another as hard as they can. All in good spirit, of course.
Nazarian insists on reading the haggadah to the end, and each guest is invited to read a portion.
"We read the haggadah in Hebrew and in English, so everybody will understand," Nazarian said. "Passover is very important for us, because we want our children to know about Jewish history and what their ancestors had to go through in order to be free."
The Millo seders were always grand affairs. Gilad Millo, Los Angeles' Israel consul for media and public affairs, is the son of a diplomat father who took the family with him around the world, to wherever he was stationed as an ambassador. Seders were celebrated at the ambassador's residence, with all the embassy envoys and leaders of the community in attendance. The events drew as many as 100 guests.
"My father was stationed in Germany the year I was born, so I don't remember much about those Passovers, but I remember many others in different parts of the world," he said. "I remember Passovers in London, were my father was stationed in 1976. There were always many guests from the embassy and the Jewish community. We always went on a trip after each seder. It was our family tradition, which I still keep."
His father's work took the family to New York, Turkey and Italy.
"For me, Passover always has a connection to the embassy, because I mostly celebrated Passover there," he said. "There were times however, when we celebrated with my family in Israel. My parents had to stay behind because of my father's work. It was great seeing all the family together after being away for so long. I remember those Passovers very fondly."
Today, Millo is leading much the same life his father once did. In the past three years he has served in Los Angeles, and prior to that he was stationed for two years in Kenya with his family.
"My children are living my own childhood," he said.
This year, they will celebrate their last Passover in Los Angeles before returning to Israel. "Our whole family and friends from Israel are planning to come and celebrate with us in Los Angeles. They know it's their last chance to visit us here before we go back."