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I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.
These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.
Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.
In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.
On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.
As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.
I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”
I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.
He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.
My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.
I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.
“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”
“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”
My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.
As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.
In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”
But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.
I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?
I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.
The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.
I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.
My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.
Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.
The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.
Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.
We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.
My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.
While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.
But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.
I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.
This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.
It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.
I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.
Christmas is a week away and many interfaith families are busy with preparations for their family celebrations – buying gifts, packing for travel to relatives, baking, decorating, and shipping presents. This makes many in the Jewish community nervous.
They worry that engagement in this Christian holiday will confuse children who are otherwise being raised Jewish or diminish their Jewish identity. They believe that participation in Christmas is religious syncretism and will make it less likely that Judaism will be passed on to future generations. They say that to be Jewish; a home must not include any other religious observances because they create ambiguity.
Many interfaith families like mine agree with the point that a home should have one religious identity, and that is why we have chosen a singularly Jewish path. But identifying as Jews does not mean that we ban Christmas from our homes or decline to participate in the holiday activities of our extended families.
What many within the Jewish community fail to understand is that, for a large number of interfaith families, including mine, Christmas is not religious. Yes, Christmas is technically a religious holiday, although it is not considered to be the most important by the Church. It is simply the most popular culturally and socially, and that is how many Jewish interfaith families honor it.
According to InterfaithFamily’s 2013 December Holiday Survey, 88% of us celebrate a secular Christmas that lacks religious content. We give gifts; we enjoy a holiday meal and festive foods, and spend time with relatives. Most of us celebrate Christmas in the same way as I did as a Jewish kid growing-up in a Jewish family.
My childhood Christmas included a tree in my home, dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve with my father’s Jewish family, and a similar celebration on Christmas Day with my mother’s Jewish family. It was a period when everything slowed down, and was a convenient time for my family to reconnect with out-of-town relatives we did not see on a regular basis.
I thought that my family’s celebration was entirely secular because we were Jewish, and it was not “our” holiday. So, I assumed, when I met Cameron that I would experience a more religious observance. After all, my in-laws’ faith is very important to them.
My father-in-law is a graduate of theology school and a layman in the Episcopal Church, and my mother-in-law sits on the vestry. They attend services most Sundays. But not on Christmas or Christmas Eve (too many “C&Es” – people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter).
What I have learned since joining the Larkins, is that just because a family is Christian does not mean that their observance of a Christian holiday is religious. The Larkin family Christmas has no religious component; no church services or prayers, no reading of scripture or discussion of the nativity story. It is with the exception of stockings and more decorations, the same as my childhood Christmas.
Christmas Eve is a buffet dinner and a grab bag with my father-in-law’s extended family, and Christmas is a lazy, relaxing day filled with food and gift giving. Like my Jewish family’s Christmas, the Larkin’s Christian Christmas is about enjoying time with family.
So the concern in the Jewish world about interfaith families’ religious observance of Christmas made me cull through my memories for my most religious Christmas moment. What I realized is that the most religious thing that my family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.
When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, we observe, the holiday, religiously after our secular Christmas. If we are in Dallas, Cameron, Sammy, and I light the candles at sundown in front of our tree often with Jewish friends. If we are in Vermont, we kindle the menorah with my in-laws, sister-in-law, and nephew. Sammy, Cameron, and I say the prayers in Hebrew and our not Jewish extended family read the blessings in English. In these moments, there is more religion, spirituality and talk of God than there is in any other part of our family Christmas celebration.
I wish more Jewish academics; leaders, professionals, and laypeople took the time to understand the significance or lack thereof that Christmas has in the lives of many interfaith families choosing Judaism. Instead, they assume, like I did, that because Christmas is a religious holiday any observance of it must be religious too.
They also assume that all intermarrieds are the same; we all raise our children in two faiths or none at all, and allow our children to choose their religion when they are older. Therefore, celebrating holidays from different faiths must be syncretic and confusing. But just as there are different kinds of in-married families – secular, cultural, ritually observant, and somewhere in between – there are different kinds of intermarrieds including ones who have a solely Jewish identity.
For interfaith families like us who have chosen Judaism, and nurture their Jewish identity year-round through Shabbat and holiday observance, Jewish education and community engagement; what happens on one day in December has little, if any, impact on our embrace of and commitment to Jewish life. Just as the lighting of a menorah with Jewish relatives by an interfaith family that has chosen Christianity does not call into question the family’s Christian identity.
For dual-faith or no-faith families observing Christmas may well create ambiguity and confusion. I do not know; I am not one of them. All I can say is that our Christmas celebration has no power to shape the identity of my Jewish (interfaith) household, just as it had no power to influence my childhood connection to Judaism. So excuse me for rolling my eyes at the prognosticators who predict that Jewish continuity is in jeopardy because people like me are celebrating Christmas.
I arrived at the Dallas Arboretum at 8:30 am on an early fall Saturday. The lush gardens were quiet in the pre-opening hours. I breathed in the crisped air on the walk to the building where I would be spending the next eight hours.
As I approached the location of my congregation’s Women’s Retreat, the stillness of the setting was broken by the buzz of female voices. A friend, who happened to be standing by the door, greeted me with a warm embrace and “
As I scanned the hallway and refreshment area, I saw old friends and acquaintances, mixed with many strangers. I saw born Jews and new Jews, those in the process of becoming Jewish and women not Jewish but connected to the faith through a spouse or partner. I saw 20-somethings and 80-somethings, and every age in between. It was truly a group representative of the diversity of my synagogue.
As I worked my way through the crowd to the coffee, greeting people along the way, I could feel myself begin to relax. Like many of my mom friends who were in attendance, there was much coordination involved to get here; from clearing Cameron’s calendar several weeks before the event so that he could be with Sammy, to preparing breakfast before I left, walking and feeding the dog, and going over the logistics of homework that needed to be completed.
Tearing away from these duties as commander in chief of the household was never easy. But the opportunity to spend eight hours with women I love, and make connections with others that I did not know, was too good to pass up.
After coffee and conversation, our group of 80-plus women came together for a non-traditional Shabbat morning service that incorporated yoga and poetry with standard pieces of liturgy. During our worship, we stretched, we sang, we danced, and we listened. We moved, and were moved physically and spiritually.
At one point in the service, our female cantor said, “I have a Shabbat gift for you.” She asked us to close our eyes and she began to play a subtle melody on her acoustic guitar. She then began to sing “May I Suggest” by the singer-songwriter Susan Werner.
May I suggest
Cantor Niren’s beautiful voice sang the lyrics that deeply touched us, and as the music faded away, the only sound that was heard was women sniffling, as many of us had been moved to tears. The song inspired presence and reflection, and was a lyrical present. But as the day went on, I began to feel that this moment was part of a larger gift called connection.
The song and retreat were, in a way, just vehicles of goodwill that enabled us to be in the right frame of mind to receive this more meaningful gift. In an ideal world, taking the time to foster relationships like this would happen regularly and organically, without such grand preparation of the body and mind. But the reality of our daily lives often makes this difficult, if not impossible. So, it becomes necessary to physically and mentally separate from our everyday distractions in order to nurture our souls.
When we do this, we are able to draw closer to others, and reconnect with our better selves. After a day of talking, walking, dancing, praying, and actively engaging, I felt energized and rejuvenated, not tired. I understood why we are so often advised to take time for ourselves.
After my “me-day” spent with many wonderful women, I was refreshed and would be returning home a calmer, more patient and clearheaded wife and mother. This was a gift for me, and for Cameron and Sammy.
As I left the arboretum with a spring in my step, I called Cameron and Sammy to check in. Sammy answered the phone. “Hi buddy!” I said. “How was the day with Daddy?”
“Hi, Mommy. Our day has been great! Daddy and I went to brunch, then we took Brady (our dog) to the park and then we went to Daddy’s office. While he worked, I did my homework. Then we went home to get some jackets and now we are on our way to the state fair,” Sammy said.
“Wow, sounds like you’ve been busy. Do you want to meet for dinner?”
“Well, we really want to go to the fair. Is it okay if Daddy and I do that?”
“Of course. I’ll see you at home later.”
Cameron and Sammy arrived home about 9:30 pm. Sammy walked in and said, “This was one of the best days ever! Daddy and I had so much fun!”
Seeing Sammy’s excitement, I realized that a relaxed parent and spouse were not the only gift Cameron and Sammy received from my participation in the retreat. They were able to deepen their bond by spending the day together. Extended father-son time was rare given the demands of Cameron’s job. Being able to connect with each other one-on-one was a wonderful opportunity.
I know the clergy and lay leaders who organized the Women’s Retreat saw it as a way to bring the women of our congregation into relationship with one another. I do not know if they realized how the program’s benefit would extend beyond the participants. But hearing from Sammy and Cameron about what a fun day they had together made me see that the retreat was a gift that kept on giving.
I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.
My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.
I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.
For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.
Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.
Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.
This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)
But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.
My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogue’s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when we’re on vacation. In fact, when we’re away we don’t celebrate Shabbat at all.
My son Sammy keenly pointed out this fact during spring break. As we rode the chair lift to the top of a mountain in Colorado, he said, “Mommy, its Friday.”
“I know, one more day of skiing,” I responded.
“No, it’s Friday,” he said. “It’s Shabbat!”
“Oh yeah,” I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.
“How are we going to celebrate?” Sammy asked.
“Well, we don’t have candles or matches and even if we did, I don’t think it’s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while we’re out or asleep,” I answered. “We’ll celebrate next week when we’re at home.”
“We can still say Shabbat Shalom,” Sammy replied.
“You’re right, we can do that,” I said.
“Shabbat Shalom,” we said together and gave each other a kiss.
It wasn’t the most meaningful observance, but at least it was something.
After we got home and back into our regular Friday night routine I began to think about how we might maintain our ritual on vacation. I was motivated to find a way to do this before the start of our summer travels.
I knew packing candles and matches was out of the question since we would be flying, and buying Shabbat supplies at our destination would require too much effort. I wanted an easy and convenient solution. I wanted an app.
Now, I recognize that a Shabbat app is very…un-Shabbat. It’s not exactly kosher to use an electronic device to mark a holiday on which you are meant to disconnect, but I decided to check my phone’s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.
I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to “light” the candles by dragging a “flame” to the wicks and provided the words for the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration. A selection of traditional melodies such as Adon Olom and Sholom Aleichem could be played in the background while the candles “burned” over a two-hour period.
With app in hand we embarked on the first leg of our month-long vacation in mid-July. On a Friday night in Seattle we test-drove iShabbat in a park near Pike Place Market as we watched the sun set over Elliott Bay.
We opened the app, and Sammy lit the candles as we recited the blessing together. Then we played Sholom Aleichem and wished each other Shabbat Shalom as we took in the beautiful view. It was a meaningful way to mark our family tradition and ensure that we carry Shabbat with us on vacation.
There’s something about that age, for my kids, anyway. Three is where they start to get a concept of God – and I find it absolutely magical.
When Jessica Mary was three, she was so fascinated by the concept of God that I started looking much more seriously at Judaism, because I wanted a strong religious foundation for her. There was no Church of Melissa that I could send her to for formal instruction, and when I looked at raising her in my spiritual tradition or Marc’s – Marc’s was the clear winner. On the theological bones of it, Judaism was such an easy fit for my beliefs – and Judaism had the added bonus of already having a huge community waiting to welcome her. She loved the rituals, lighting the candles and making the blessings, and explaining that something was a mitzvah was the quickest way to ensure her cooperation. As a three year old, her spirituality was already so defined.
When Samuel Earl was three years old, he was the same way. He wanted to have a birthday party, just him and God for his fourth birthday. Part of that was that he didn’t like people all that much and at least God wouldn’t be looking at him and making him talk – but part of it was also that he had a profound connection to nature and trees and being outside. I called him my little Druid – he was intensely connected to nature. I remember him sobbing after a really bad storm came through and so many trees were lost. It was painful for him on a level that was hard to watch. For Sam, his belief in God has always been intense and natural and easy. God is his friend, God made the trees and when there is damage done to nature, Sam is devastated, not just for him, but also for God.
And my Julianna Ruth, who turned three in April… Last night, I started reading her a book that I had picked up for Sam for summer reading. First Book of Jewish Bible Stories - and I just read the beginning of it, where God first created the world. She was fascinated. It was a story she’s heard before, because she goes to preschool services at the synagogue, and she knew the song about the days of the week, ending in Shabbat. She was so excited about it, reading about her friend God. She announced that he was her new best friend, and how he must have created people so that they could be his friends – and I thought about what a fascinating way children have of boiling down theology to their level. And how safe and reassured she was – God was out there, and God loved her and she loved God, and it was so exactly what I wanted her to take away from the story.
I struggle sometimes with Judaism. I don’t feel at home with the culture all of the time. I don’t like gefilte fish, and don’t understand Hebrew. But what I love about it is that the Jewish God is my God. He (or She) is the one that I’ve been connected to for as long as I remember, and I have always felt as though we have a very personal, individual relationship. And when I’ve struggled the most is when I’ve felt cut-off from that relationship. But in the end, I believe what my kids believe. I think three year olds know it all already, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand it: That God loves us, and gave us tools to make it easier to connect with each other and with God, that the natural world is intimately a part of God and that in the end, the world is a better and brighter place because of our relationship with God.
In Hebrew, a blessing is a Brachah. We say a Brachah before we light Shabbat candles, and before we eat or drink anything. There is a Brachah for when we see a rainbow, hear thunder or smell something particularly delicious to the senses. We even say a Brachah after using the bathroom.
What is the point of the Brachah or blessing, anyway? The first word in a Bracha, Baruch, is related to Brechah, or spring (as in water source). By saying a Brachah, we acknowledge that G-d is the source of everything in our lives. It’s a way of saying thank you.
Every night at bedtime, part of the routine with my son is to pray for the people we care about. The last part of the prayer is to tell G-d we’re thankful. I say thank you for all of our live’s “Blessings”, whether it’s an invitation for a Shabbat meal, some hand me downs from a friend or the opportunity to do a Mitzvah. One day soon, my son will add to our list.
This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.
An obvious theme of Passover is slavery. The Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. The slavery was particularly awful because much of their work was back breaking labour meant more to waste time than to actually build anything.
The word for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, meaning constriction, also relates to the theme of slavery.
Every year as we approach Passover, we are reminded to ask ourselves about what enslaves us. What is slowing us down from reaching our potential?
I think my list can go on for a very long time. I am impatient. I am stubborn. I very much cannot let things go until they are resolved.
Even today, I am tested on those weaknesses. I am trying to book lodging through a website. This should be a simple task. The owner has not yet accepted the reservation through the website (but he messaged me saying, “Great see you when you arrive!”) which means there is no reservation. Nothing will happen. I don’t get the actual location of this lodging and there is no payment. Talk about constriction!
I feel my anger and frustration building. It isn’t easy to find the best place for a vacation and once you find THE place, you want things to go very smoothly. I keep staring at my inbox waiting for the confirmation. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.
I know what I am doing. I know it’s all from G-d. I try short bursts of busy work, but I am back at the laptop. Refresh.
What enslaves you?
This post is the third post, part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.
One of the main activities of Passover is the retelling of the story of Exodus. We retell the story to remember. We retell the story to learn from the past. The cycle of Jewish holidays is described to be spiral; although we end up at the same point after each cycle, hopefully we are moving up and growing.
One would hope that in the retelling of the Passover story each year, we will gain new perspective. We will pick up on some detail we missed the previous year or some lesson that we will integrate into our lives.
In our family, there is homework for our Seder. I ask each person (I admit, so far it has only been my husband and myself) to share something connected to one of the themes of Passover. The idea is to find something meaningful to share and hopefully in the sharing we will pick up that new thing each year.
This year I am excited to be hosting our first ever guests at one of our Seders. I have already asked them to find something to share and they are very excited to participate.
How do you retell the story each year?
This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.