3 Tips for Surviving Passover Without Passing Out!

Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday. As a kid, I loved the rituals, songs and ceremonial foods commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt over 3,000 years ago. Okay, I admit it was tough to wait for hours before dinner finally arrived, but luckily my mother’s snacks and my dad’s irreverent sense of humor kept our family happy. This year we’ll serve an extra helping of gratitude for being able to gather safely together in person instead of over Zoom.

But if your childhood Seders bring back memories of a growling stomach, drooping eyelids and endless prayers in a strange language, you may not share my joy at this holiday. But hey, your family may have assumed that if Moses and the Israelites could survive on matzah and manna for forty years in the desert, then waiting a few hours for dinner wasn’t going to kill you. “Oh yeah?” I hear you muttering, “why should I suffer just because my ancestors did?” Okay, I get it.

That’s exactly why I’m offering three tips to make your Seder experience more manageable, meaningful and magical:

Tip #1: Don’t Arrive Hungry

Jewish holidays may be all about the food, but that doesn’t mean the main meal will arrive any time soon! It could take several hours to answer the question of “why this night is different from all other nights?” So, nosh on a little snack or a late lunch before the ceremony. You’ll feel better with something in your belly as you start on the four cups of wine. Now sit back and relax. After a while, you won’t notice how hungry you are anyway.

Tip #2: Don’t Bring Bread

That means no baguettes, cakes, cookies or anything with yeast. At Passover, it’s traditional to eat only unleavened matzah like our forefathers in the desert. But that doesn’t mean no desserts. There are many recipes for flour-less cakes and other delicious goodies. Oh, and please no pork such as bacon-wrapped asparagus, tasty though it is. If you’re still unsure what to contribute, how about some candles, flowers, or an extra beverage?

Tip #3: Expect Chaos before Order

In Hebrew seder means order and Israel derives from the root for struggle. Put them together at Passover and you have an epic struggle to make order! If your Seder is anything like mine, there will be much boisterous debate, though not mean-spirited. Everyone will be talking fast and “arguing the hind legs off a donkey,” as my mother liked to say. If you don’t jump in, you won’t get a word in edgewise!

Bonus Tip #4: Have Fun with Hebrew

Don’t be afraid to spit out those guttural Hebrew words with gusto. The prayers may feel prickly on your tongue, but their inner meaning will sweeten your soul.

Now, if you haven’t passed out by the time the chicken soup arrives, enjoy another cup of wine (or grape juice) and sing “Dayenu!”

Keeping Readers Engaged on a Journey Through Time

You make the path by walking on it. — Antonio Machado

A pathway through the woods

In writing Newcomers in an Ancient Land – the story of my youthful quest for adventure, love and self-discovery in 1960’s Israel – one of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to keep readers engaged through all the twists and turns of my journey. After all, every journey has its share of doldrums as well as excitement. So if I wanted to my readers to live and breathe my experience at a visceral and emotional level, “just the facts, ma’am” would not be enough. First, I would have to find the language and structure to recreate the scenes, sights, sounds and smells that first captivated me in Israel. Second, I’d have to excavate and communicate the meaning of my experience in a way that would resonate with my readers.
At first, the task felt overwhelming. After producing far too many piecemeal scenes, my chapters still felt like a bundle of patchwork pieces waiting to be sewn into a cohesive quilt. Slowly it dawned on me the writing was leading me on a new odyssey, one that would require just as much faith and perseverance as my original adventure. Without a clear roadmap, I’d have “make my path while walking on it.”

Find Your Turning Points | Set Your Compass

But once I finally decided on a manageable timeframe – a single pivotal year – to serve as a compass – my job got easier. From that fixed point, I could use flashbacks to my life’s turning points to provide context and motivation without losing the main thread of my story. Like the North Star or a Mother Ship, readers could return to the original impetus of my story while still following its twists and turns.

The Time Machine Technique

Next, I needed a vehicle to retrieve my long-ago memories. Two tools emerged as my best allies: Meditation for clearing my mind; and guided imagery, for accessing my memories. Imagining myself as the pilot of a time machine, I could zoom back to the very time and place I wanted to write about, there to be greeted by the young redhead who still lives inside me after over half a century. The sound of her welcome “Shalom!” immediately reconnected me with the bravado, passion and naiveté of my youth. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to write her story with all my five senses. (Another lesson: I had to take that first flight of imagination completely solo. No inner critic or editor allowed, lest they undermine my creativity.

Get your Metaphor Mojo Going

For better or worse, my love affair with metaphor has led some to call me the Queen of Metaphor! Their power to signal connections far deeper than their literal meaning is phenomenal. In one of Sue William Silverman’s memoirs, a purple scarf becomes the symbol of all she longs for but cannot have with her married lover. Yet she admits to writing several drafts before realizing the scarf’s greater meaning. This felt encouraging, along with her urging to “write from a very sensory space using the five senses” in order to access the power of metaphor. I’d add intuition and poetry as sixth senses because what can’t always be captured in prose may germinate from a seed in the womb of poetry. (Now there’s a metaphor.) But here’s another lesson learned: too many metaphors can be too much of a good thing. One per paragraph is probably enough.

Themes – Connecting the Personal to the Universal

If metaphor can serve to bridge time and space, readers respond most strongly to themes that evolve from the personal to the universal. In Newcomers, I discovered multiple meanings within the recurring images of water and ships, symbolizing not only my own turbulent passage from adolescence to adulthood, but also my mother’s experience as an immigrant. What began as my personal journey came to include hers. Then our individual stories joined the larger universal narrative of immigration, displacement, and the longing to belong – themes whose poignancy resonates today.

Structure – Linear, Circular, Patterns and More

When it came to structure, I learned that not all memoirs need to be logical or linear. Sheryl Strayed’s seamless interweaving of action and flashback in Wild is a great example. Narratives can also swirl from a multi-faceted center like the whorls of a nautilus, offering more paradoxes than answers, as in Things Fall Apart, another of my favorite books, by the African novelist and poet Chinua Achebe. But even a convoluted structure needs recurring themes to keep readers on the path. Like a tree, my story needed a foundational trunk and roots to support its leaves and branches. (Oh-oh, two metaphors in a single paragraph.)

In short, bushwhacking the writing path by walking on it taught me many lessons. The most important? Learning to trust my own internal compass when I got lost in the weeds, so I wouldn’t lose my readers too!

What fresh lessons await me now, as I embark on the next leg of my memoir journey, this one set in France?

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 22: Sunrise over the Golan

The pitch black sky was studded with stars as I crept down the dimly lit paths of Kibbutz Dan on my way to work in the kerem (vineyards) at 4:30 in the morning. My heart thumped as I passed the terra cotta bungalows, children’s houses, health center and hadar ha’ochel (dining room). The exhilarating scent of damp grass filled my lungs. Being out before dawn felt slightly illicit and every cell in my body tingled on high alert.

Shadowy figures converged across the lawn, the men in baggy brown overalls, the women in blue work shirts and shapeless pants, on their way to work like me. A groggy young soldier crossed my path on his way home from guard duty. Although both men and women served in the army, only men pulled night duty. I couldn’t help noticing how traditionally the workforce was divided by gender – men in the fields; women in the kitchen, laundry, health center, school and children’s houses, while men held all the leadership roles. I was beginning to see the gap between the real and the ideal in the collective ideology of the kibbutz. So much for a truly egalitarian society.

Swinging the beam of my flashlight over the darkened eucalyptus and oleander bushes on both sides of the dirt road, I hoped the crunch of my work boots would ward off any snakes. The pre-dawn was turning a shade of gray, a few doves cooed hypnotically, and the pungent odor of manure from the nearby lul (chicken coop) and refet (barnyard) prickled my nose. The cock-a-doodle do of a rooster suddenly piercing the silence, sent a stab of fear up my spine like the point of a knife. What if an infiltrator lurked in the shadows?  (We did not yet call them terrorists.) Shivering, I quickened my pace. It was still a kilometer to the kerem, and only a stone’s throw of the Syrian border.

The only visible signs of the still-active state of war between Israel and Syria were a few haphazard warnings posted on rusty rolls of barbed wire and broken blocks of concrete: DANGER, EXPLOSIVES, KEEP OUT! But their faded letters in Hebrew, English and Arabic looked abandoned. A faint braying floated from beyond the barbed wire. Squinting, I glimpsed the billowing white-robes of a man plowing his fields behind two donkeys. The sight sent me back to a bygone time. Compared with the modern tractors used on the kibbutz, his world seemed light years away. In this bucolic atmosphere, war seemed surreal, much less the possibility that Israel might one day capture this territory from the Syrians and annex it as the Golan Heights.

One by one, the stars winked out. A faint glow now silhouetted the hills against the sky’s dark dome. I knew those hills harbored bunkers, and in those bunkers sat Syrian soldiers cradling Russian-made Kalashnikovs that might well be trained on me. But in that moment, the dawn’s beauty eclipsed all human conflict. While part of me realized how easily the soldiers could pick me off, my imagination fancied that the odd sight of a young gingit in shorts, boots and bandana, might offer a welcome distraction from the tedium of war.

By now light was gathering at top speed, rimming the hills with opalescent clouds of apricot, lavender and magenta, until suddenly, in a blaze of gold cannon-balled over the horizon. There was nothing gradual or subtle about sunrise in this part of the world! The intense contrast between darkness and light made me want to cheer the new day and grieve the loss of night all at once. Despite my exhaustion at the end of each shift, I couldn’t wait to creep along the dirt road again the next morning when the sun would give birth to a newborn day.

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 15: Night in Eilat

I shuddered at the thought of venomous vipers, as snakes were called. But darkness had long since fallen and I could no longer put off finding a place to sleep. The youth hostel was full, my fair weather English friends were sleeping on the beach, and I’d finally given up on finding my road partner Mordechai. I was truly on my own now. With a mix of relief, guilt, dread, and excitement, I shouldered my pack and began walking in the direction of the abandoned kibbutz described by the boy at the café. The desert had turned suddenly very cold, and the wind whipped through my thin sweatshirt. Before long, Eilat’s few streetlights disappeared, leaving only the half-moon as my guide.

After a while, I made out some adobe buildings. The half-demolished barns and bungalows had the look of an abandoned settlement all right. Following the sound of something dripping, I discovered an old shower pipe protruding from a bathroom wall. Its ruined ceiling gaped open to the sky. Droplets glistened in the beam of my flashlight. To my amazement, when I turned the shower knob, water gushed out like Moses striking the rock! The temptation to wash away the salt and grime of the day was too much to resist, so with the moon as my only witness, I stripped naked and let the cool stream pound over my hair and skin like a waterfall. Wet sand oozed up through the cracked ceramic tiles beneath my feet but I didn’t care as long as it wasn’t a viper. Shivering, I let the breeze dry me off. Even my dirty clothes felt cleaner now. Now, if only I could find a safe spot to sleep. But was I the only hitchhiker seeking sanctuary in this abandoned kibbutz?

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 5: Hitchhiking

The Negev Desert was a land of extremes – by day a white-hot griddle; by night a blackened skillet; at dawn a copper pot; at dusk a painted gourd. Its unforgiving rocks and sharp scent reminded me of my early childhood in Texas and Kansas, where the harshness of the land had somehow made me feel strong. Did the Bedouin woman trudging along the road feel that way too?

But the gloomy Northern California coast where I’d later grown up had zapped my strength under a depressing blanket of fog. I knew without knowing that to dry up all my tears, I had to escape to a hot place. Now the merciless desert was restoring the strength I’d known as a child. I could feel my life energy surging up into my bones. Or was it the rumble of a giant semitruck grinding to a halt as I stuck out my thumb on the side of the highway?

“Climb into the back,” the driver shouted over the idling engine. Catapulting over the tailgate, I clung to a rough wooden bench as the colossus lurched forward. Like a prairie schooner, a canvas tarpaulin offered shelter from wind and sun. From its oval opening, the road spool out behind me like a wide-angle screenshot. Here and there, the greenhouses of an agricultural outpost broke the monotonous beige of rock and sand as the road wound ever deeper into a narrowing chasm and the hours slowly passed. Just when I thought we’d reached the end of the world, the brakes hissed and the truck ground to a stop at the top of a ridge. I had just enough time to scramble out before it barreled downhill, showering me with dust in its wake.

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 4: Gingit!

 I couldn’t resist the beauty of the nocturnal sky as I crept up on deck alone. A shimmering canopy of stars arched over the cobalt sea, falling to the horizon like a fishnet tugged tight by unseen hands. Flying fish played in the ship’s wake, their silvery tails and bellies twisting and flashing in the starlight. Leaning over the stern, I let the salt spray wash over my face. Boundless as eternity, time stood still. Only the low thrum of the engines, the slapping of the blue-black waves, and the starry dome overhead reminded me I was still on Planet Earth. As I watched, a poem I’d written in third-grade floated into my memory net, shiny as the flying fish.

Sailing boat, sailing boat, sailing away

Over the ocean and far away

Will you come back or will you stay there?

Where will you go? Where, where, where?

I still didn’t know the answer to that riddle but I was on a quest to find out. Where was home? Where did I belong?

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 1: Making Life Happen

As a young woman my mother had made her own Atlantic crossing to bring my sister and me from England to America. Our parents had met in the midst of World War II, when Dad was an American GI stationed in Britain and Mom was coordinating live entertainment for the Rosy the Riveters, working in the munition factories. Despite the chaos and carnage of war, they had managed to fall in love. But for our mother, marriage had meant leaving her own mother behind. As I grew up, she rarely mentioned this fateful decision and I learned not to ask. Instead, she’d adapted to her new life in the US with a grace and courage I had taken for granted. Now, as I gazed over the ship’s railing on my way to a year abroad in Israel, a wave of empathy engulfed me. I let my tears fall into the foam – as if the sea needed more salt.

Had my mother also had felt this poignant mix of elation and dread as she sailed toward an unknown future? My life just happened to me, she’d often say in a slightly wistful tone. So much of it had been beyond her control. Coming of age during the war years, the conflict had dashed her dreams of a career on the London stage, despite having trained at the prestigious London School of Speech and Drama. But I was determined my life would be different. Headstrong and idealistic, I would make my life happen!

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT from the INTRODUCTION: Israel Then and Now

eilat settlement, 1950s

The Israel that greeted me on that distant, dusty road no longer exists except in memory. Today, parts of the Promised Land have been paved over to such an extent that the life and landscape of the early sixties in this story may sound fantastical. Humming freeways carry a population of nine million between skyscrapers and shopping malls. Villages have become towns and towns have burgeoned into cities in a building frenzy designed to accommodate a population that has tripled in half a century. Jerusalem, while officially united, remains a tale of two cities deeply divided, East and West.

Tel Aviv Israel city skyline

Of course, I too have grown from a teenager whose book was practically a blank slate to become a professional woman, mother, grandmother, and writer. But back then, Israel and I were in many ways coming of age like a pair of adolescents (we had, after all, come into being only three years apart). In that sense, the country’s cocky chutzpah and can-do attitude were a good match for my own mix of idealism and bravado. Israel’s pioneering spirit inspired me while my post-war generation was a source of hope and renewal after the Holocaust.

But the country’s heady idealism was not shared by all. As I was falling in love with my adoptive homeland, I was barely aware that Palestinians were grieving the loss of theirs. What Israelis called the War of Independence, they called the Naqba—a national disaster that had driven them into squalid refugee camps in an unwelcoming diaspora.  But after two thousand years of exile and persecution, the new Jewish inhabitants had little sympathy for the misfortunes of Palestinian refugees. While ordinary citizens on both sides longed for peace, security and geopolitical and issues beyond their control increasingly overshadowed their desires. Although it would still be several years before the War of 1967 launched the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands outside Israel’s recognized borders, the clouds of conflict were never far from the horizon.

However, this book is not meant to romanticize, politicize, or rationalize past or present affairs but to tell the story of a personal journey that came to determine the course of my life, though I had no idea of this at the time. I went to Israel in search of a closer understanding of my father through his Jewish roots, but planted my own roots there instead. Not only was I leaving my small hometown, I was also leaving my mother for a foreign land, just as she had left hers. On top of this, I was struggling to become an individual, distinct from my identical twin. Lurching on the tightrope between fear and the urge for independence, I plunged into the future with all the inexorable momentum of youth. That quest has now become a reverse journey through the arc of time, connecting the young girl I was with the woman I have become.

NAMW Interview About “Newcomers”

I was honored to be interviewed on June 13, 2019, by Linda Joy Myers, founder of NAMW (National Association of Memoir Writers). It was a special pleasure because I had worked on this memoir in Linda’s Writing as Healing class over several years. With Linda Joy’s encouragement and support, I discovered an authentic voice and my writing evolved to include poetry as well prose.  In this interview, I share my struggles with the inner critic, and the importance of expressing my story with love. You can read more of this interview at the NAMW.org. You can also listen to the audio archive here.