Digging for What’s Real on Passover

by Judy Gruen

Reposted with permission by

Reprinted with permission by Peter Mesnik of BeyondtheGate.

I once attended a class on Passover preparation taught by a rabbi who told his all-female audience that outside of the kitchen, the entire search for chametz, the leavened products we may not own during Passover, should take no longer than one hour, tops. Mind you, this was a rabbi speaking to women who had been going mano-a-mano with the business side of a scrubbing sponge for days. He was never seen or heard from again, undoubtedly whisked away into the Kosher Witness Protection Program.

Was the rabbi right? Who knows? Who cares? Whatever his bona fides as an expert in Jewish law, his words were sacrilege. Most traditional Jewish women I know are hard-wired to become a little neurotic about scrubbing and polishing their homes to within one matzah’s thickness of their lives until they are satisfied their homes are kosher for Passover. I agree that Passover cleaning often becomes an extreme exercise, yet I confess: I secretly enjoy this Passover clean-a-thon. Honestly, if I don’t give this place a working-over each spring, by the time Yom Kippur rolls around, I’ll strike the left side of my chest several extra times during the confessional, adding, “And for the sin of not giving away those too-tight shoes to Goodwill, and for the sin of allowing the dust bunnies in the closet to multiply like rabbits, spiking allergies in the entire family…”

Even though Passover cleaning is not meant to be a spring cleaning, I say, why not? Passover is about our liberation from slavery to freedom, and don’t professional organizers always preach about how liberating it is to whittle down our material possessions?

This year, I have shipped a dozen pair of ancient prescription glasses to the Lions Club, which recycles them for the needy nearsighted.  I am gathering retired cell phones from all family members to another recycling program that will benefit our enlisted men and women. My daughter and I have donated an almost embarrassing amount of quality clothes and shoes to a group that distributes to the local needy. And when I’m not liberating myself from outdated or excess stuff, or cleaning, I’m thinking about or reading wonderful and profound essays about the true meaning of Passover.

As a kid, I never liked this holiday. I didn’t get the connection between eating hard, dry matzah and the concept of freedom. Wouldn’t freedom signify eating fluffy soft bread instead? Of sitting back and taking it easy? Well, no. What I only began to appreciate as an adult is that true freedom — and true happiness — comes from understanding who you are and what your purpose is. I also began to see that you can’t achieve those goals without accepting what my teacher and friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin calls “God’s blueprint for living.” That blueprint, set down in the Five Books of Moses, articulates a path for a life of morality, spirituality, meaning, possibly even transcendence. True freedom requires discipline. That’s such a foreign concept in today’s society, where following your feelings has made almost everything else subservient. Who agrees with me that the results of this have not been pretty?

I can’t begin to imagine what my ancestors endured as literal slaves in Egypt, nor the terror and barbarism that my much more recent ancestors suffered in pogroms and concentration camps of Eastern Europe. The words that we read in the Haggadah every year, that in every generation enemies rise up to try to kill us, unfortunately continue to have special resonance. Thousands of Jews are leaving France, their home for generations, and they will surely be followed by Jews who no longer feel safe in long-established communities in places such as Manchester, England, Brussels, Belgium, and a growing list of cities.

But Jews remain a people of hope and optimism. The last song we sing at the Passover seder is “Next year in Jerusalem.” We keep our vision and prayers directed toward the place that God promised us and where He took us, in a very roundabout way to be sure. We began as a ragtag group of former slaves, only to become the first nation in history whose peoplehood was defined based on a covenant with God.

So I really don’t mind all the cleaning and de-cluttering. It gives me time to remind myself about what truly matters, which is my relationship with God and the enormous gifts I have as a Jew. It gives me time to remind myself that the disciplined path to freedom sometimes starts by wading into an overstuffed closet until it splits like the Red Sea, and tossing out material and egotistical clutter until we reconnect with the essentials.

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Type A Men and the Women Who Love Them

by Judy Gruen


Newlywed wives get ready for a nugget because I am going to teach you a lesson: when men get sick, even the manliest among them morph into sissies. A husband could be a four-star general who has led brave men into battle with guns blazing, but infect that man with a 24-hour virus and he can barely muster the courage to stick out his tongue for the doctor and say “Ah!” He has been known to faint when surrendering a vein for a blood test, even when the syringe is teeny tiny.

My husband, Jeff, is also a bad patient. A very bad patient. He may not be conscious of wanting to be pampered, nor does he fear the sight of a tongue depressor. No, Jeff is a bad patient because he lives in denial that there is anything wrong with him, even when he is white as a freshly bleached sheet. My biceps are strong because I have to practically tie him down to keep him from going to work when he is feverish. But when I block the door and demand that he stay home, he gets his revenge by getting “busy” with various household tasks.

As you have now guessed, he is an unrepentant Type A. He wants to be useful, no matter the cost to his health or my sanity. This is why taking care of him is exhausting – he needs a maximum security environment to prevent him from attempting to wash dishes, check the filter in the heater, and other random acts of productivity. This sense of responsibility is part of what makes Jewish men so desirable as husbands. But when he is an impatient patient, he drives me insane.

More often than not, when he is home sick I am the one who will need a new prescription – for blood pressure or anxiety. Recently, for example, Jeff’s back “went out,” leaving no forwarding address. This forced him into a “stay-cation” of a most painful variety. Part of the problem is that Jeff has enjoyed such good health for so long he doesn’t “do” illness very well. Unlike my husband, though, when I am unwell I have no trouble slipping under the blankets and moaning softly, wondering how long it will be before anyone other than the dog notices my pathetic state and offers me tea and toast.

I wanted to take Jeff to the chiropractor for his wayward back. I have gone to this doctor so often and for so many years that he should have ordered a vanity plate for his BMW that reads, “Thx, Judy.” Naturally, my suggestion was rebuffed.

“No need to go out,” Jeff said. “I’ll be fine in no time. Can you reach that glass of water? Who put it six inches away from me?” Mind you, this was said as he was lying down on a heating pad, working with his iPad held aloft, his face a study in grimaces.

“Let’s go. Look how much pain you’re in!”

“It’s not so bad if I lay totally still,” he said. “When do I get another Ibuprofen?”

I made the mistake of leaving him unattended for about twenty minutes and then caught him in the act of trying to be industrious. He had marshaled all his manly stubbornness and was hobbling down the hall, his posture like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, clutching a box of light bulbs.

“Just where do you think you’re going with those?” I demanded.

“Front porch light went out. Didn’t you notice? Can you just bring me the ladder?”

“Hand over the light bulbs and no one gets hurt,” I said. “Now, I’ll help you to the front porch, and from there to the car. We’re going to the doctor. If you cooperate, I’ll let you get on a ladder by the end of the week, and you can even hang some pictures if you want.”

He grumbled, grimaced and griped, but he had ventured too far from the heating pad to get anywhere without my help. Over the next few days, I was worn out from trying to keep my good man out of mischief. At the first hint of mobility, he would attempt stealth missions involving the hauling of trash, watering the yard, and examining the cause of a slow-draining sink. Thankfully, even he knew better than to try to lift my mega-sized roasting pan filled with enough chicken and rice to feed the lost Ten Tribes and bring it to the table. This is a feat suitable only for professional athletes and Jewish mothers with strong biceps (like me).

I am happy to report that Jeff’s back has mostly returned, and he has gone back to work where he belongs. I have removed the ankle tracking device from his leg, and am enjoying my freedom from my stint as a nurse-warden. Now I can get back to my own work and to running this joint the way I see fit, without any meddling from my well-meaning, but sometimes maddening man.

This column originally appeared in slightly different form on Aish.com. 

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Everybody Loved Phyllis

Phyllis Cohen, 1938-2015

by Judy Gruen

She had a personality as vibrant as her flaming red hair. She was full of life, full of love, and very, very funny. She offered common sense to the sense-challenged and blunt assessments of everyone and everything. She never met a poker game she didn’t like. Her accent was pure, unadulterated Brooklyn. She said “bee-you-tee-ful” and “Oh my gawd.” Her greatest pleasure was her family.  Small-time gambling was a close second. Even when watching TV with her grandkids each Thursday, she bet a dollar with the kids about who would win the final round of “Jeopardy.”

She was Aunt Phyllis, and everybody loved her. She was my aunt through marriage – the younger (and only) sister of my husband’s late mother, Laura. Aunt Phyllis was a lifelong New Yorker, and we have never left L.A., yet we managed many visits over the years. She flew out to help celebrate bar mitzvahs, once with her eldest daughter Barbara, and came to our eldest son’s wedding. Sometimes, she came just to get out of the cold. You knew that a visit with Aunt Phyllis would keep you smiling and laughing. You just felt good being around her.

The snow had started falling hard and fast as the funeral began on Monday on Long Island. The rabbi who officiated said that this was the most laughter-filled funeral he had ever attended. He correctly observed that this was not disrespectful, but in fact a tribute to Aunt Phyllis for the laughter and smiles that were her special gift to her family and friends.

Aunt Phyl fought off cancer several times. As her daughters Barbara and Allison said, she never let it stop her; she just scheduled chemo around Mahjong, visiting her grandkids, and shopping.  When Allison’s husband, Bill, invited Phyllis to accompany the family on a trip to Greece a few years back, Allison was afraid the travel would be too much for her. “I took Mom to her oncologist to get his opinion,” Allison said. “He said she should absolutely go and he’d reschedule her chemo. Mom just laughed at me as she went out of the room. She was planning to go no matter what I said. We had a great time.”

Aunt Phyllis had a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She laughed at the pretentions of others and just as easily laughed at her own embarrassing moments, including the time she tried to eat the earplugs at a bar mitzvah, thinking they were mints. Years ago, she had us all laughing till we had to hold our sides as she retold a story about a long-ago summer trip when her husband, Victor, struggled to dock their little boat.

“I was yelling, Viktah, the boat is starting to move! Get off the dock! And he said, ‘I know what I’m doing, Phyl!’ He had one leg on the dock and the other in the boat, and I thought he was going to split in half! Of course he ended up falling into the lake. Oh my gawd it was so funny!”

In our small family, Aunt Phyllis was the last of her generation. She was treasured not only for this special status, but because while every family has its thorny relationships and its members who tussle, argue and grate, Aunt Phyllis was one person everyone loved, indisputably. Phyllis would tell you off if she felt you needed it, without drama, emotional blackmail or resorting to a punishing decibel level. She’d let you know you had been a jerk in her plain-spoken way. You never resented her for it because you knew she was right.  She was her daughter Barbara’s best friend, and Barbara wrote about their special relationship in a column that was published in a local paper.

She had the wisdom that comes with age and that is increasingly in scarce supply. She never griped about difficulties or setbacks, always looking forward, never back. Her cancer began to spread in June 2013, and the prognosis wasn’t good. We had heard that even Aunt Phyllis was a bit depressed, and we called, hoping to cheer her up. She sounded a bit down, but still steadfastly refused to worry. “What good is it going to do, right? I’m just going to live my life, trust my doctor, stay as active as I can. I don’t waste time worrying.”

That is a form of greatness.

Phyllis’ proudest role was as a grandmother to Joshua, Natalie, Faith, Rafi and Leora. She babysat weekly for more than sixteen years, played with them, read to them, watched TV with them, cooked with them, and of course, taught them how to play Casino and Rummy 500. Every game was played for money. Natalie, 13, made a special “girl power” fist bump handshake to use with Grandma, just one more thing that strengthened an already incredible bond. Every year Phyllis went on the Autism Speaks walk with Barbara and her family. Even with cancer, Phyllis walked most of the mile each year. This was one thing she could do for her grandson Rafi, and she wouldn’t be sidelined. True to form, on New Year’s Eve, just weeks before she passed away, Phyllis danced with Barbara at a New Year’s Eve party at a local Jewish community center.

Thank you, Aunt Phyl, for all the love. For showing us how to live without blame or worry. And of course, for all the laughter. We miss you.

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8 New Year’s Resolutions You’ll Mostly Like

Research has shown that worldwide, more than 3 billion people make New Year’s resolutions, but who really keeps them? My guess: about 16 people. Most vows to eat more fiber, hire a personal trainer and open a retirement account get dropped faster than cell reception in an elevator. Maybe we’re just aiming too high.

I say, make resolutions, but keep them reasonable. Make the kind of resolutions you will want to keep. Here are some that have worked for me:

Read on …

10 Fiction Books to Add to Your Wish Lists

‘Tis the season for adding books to your wish list. Here are ten of my absolute favorite modern fiction works. While none of these are very new, all are worth reading and savoring. I hope to follow up with other lists over time with other top 10 lists in other genres as well, including classic literature, non-fiction, and humor.

I have linked my full reviews to these books to my posts on Goodreads.com. Happy reading!

Read on …

The Return of the Grown-Up Kids

(Photo credit: imgur.com)

A few days after our daughter left for a far away college, I called my friend Esther. I was still teary-eyed from our new status as empty-nesters, as our daughter is the youngest of our four kids. Now it was just my husband, me and the dog, whose cuteness barely compensated for the shedding. (I mean the dog, not my husband.)

Read on …

This Thanksgiving, Be Grateful You’re Not a Vegan

We who live in sunny, star-studded Los Angeles are often envied by people who live in less glamorous, climactically inhospitable places, such as Embarrass, Minnesota. But to those who live in Embarrass, Minnesota I say: Don’t envy us till you’ve walked a mile for parking in our Birkenstocks. We have plenty of problems of our own. 

Read on …

Online Shopping From Soup to Nuts

“Who bought all this stuff?” my son asked in astonishment the other night. The question was not a brazen act of chutzpah. Half the living room was piled with heavy white bags, emblazoned with the logo of Google Shopping Express. Now my guilt was compounded. Not only had I buckled under the lure of another e-tailing enterprise, but during my maiden online shopping expedition, I accidentally ordered duplicates of lots of bulky things. At least I won’t run out of paper plates, facial tissue or laundry detergent till 2017.

Read on …

Don’t Hate Me If I Voted for the Other Guy (or Gal)

One of the dumbest things I ever did was to satirize a friend’s political point of view on Facebook. Yeah, I really did that. I hadn’t identified her by name of course —I’m that that dumb—but she knew I was talking about her and let me know how upset she was. I felt lower than a slug. I was shaken and apologized. Thankfully she ultimately forgave me. You betcha I haven’t made the same blunder again.

Read on …

Twelve Tips to Write for Laughs

Writing for laughs is seriously hard work, but the payoffs are priceless. If you can make someone laugh with your words (because you intended to, not because your writing is so God-awful they can’t help but spurt coffee out their noses), you’ve done a great thing. You’ve brightened someone’s day, and improved their health, unlike those miserable wretches who make their living by writing traffic citations or delivering subpoenas. Why not try your hand at the humor game? You’ll have fun, and if you don’t have fun, at least you’ll have more appreciation for those who do make you laugh. Here are my twelve tips to make your readers laugh out loud.

Read on …