For Hayden, On the Occasion of Your Dedication on Easter Sunday

Auntie Cute

Today, Easter Sunday, my little grandniece is being dedicated in church.  A feeble attempt at wisdom from a doting uncle.

Dear Hayden,

This is your uncle and aunt speaking.  As they say in the vernacular:  Yo, listen up.

We held you on the day you were born.  We drove all night to be with you and, wow, was it worth it!  We were awestruck by how amazing you were on Day 1.  We have yet to lose that feeling.  We don’t think we ever will.

We are so looking forward to watching you grow up and being a part of your life.  Living more than 600 miles away is starting to get rough.  We see a lot of driving in our future.  Hmm, it might be time to buy a new Haydenmobile.

So what do we wish for your future?  Every good thing in life.  Too many things to list.  But on the day of your dedication, we’d like to mention a few of the really important ones.

We wish you never-ending wonder.  You are already well on your way to this goal.  We cannot help noticing how much you enjoy colors and shapes and playing with your mobiles.  Keep going on your journey of discovery, Hayden.  We hope you remain curious about everything the world has to offer.  Never stop asking questions, even the really hard ones.  When you ask us why the sky is blue, you will send us scurrying to the encyclopedia, er, we mean to the Internet.  When you ask us where babies come from, we will change the subject.  We are looking forward to this roller coaster ride.  Buckle up.

We wish you education and learning.  Yes, we started a college fund for you on the day you were born, but not all learning occurs in school.  We hope you become a reader, that you read every book you can get your hands on, both the good ones and the bad ones.  It won’t take long before you know the difference.  We hope you cultivate a love of words and this amazing English language of ours. We hope the dictionary becomes your best friend, but we promise not to send you there when you ask us what a word means or how it is spelled.

We wish you abundance.  That is a pretty big word that means:  May you never lack for anything.  Abundance is not measured by dollars, or by how many toys you have, or anything like that.  Abundance is measured by how much good stuff you can fit into your heart.  Just remember:  There is always room for more.  We hope you have an endless capacity for love.

We wish you friends.  May you experience many deep and long-lasting friendships throughout the years.  We hope you become friends with people your own age, with old folks like us, with Abby Cadabby and Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter.  When you find friendship, cultivate it, nurture it and cherish it always.  For it is friendship that will color your life in rainbow hues and season it with the most delicate of flavors.

We wish you fulfillment on whichever of life’s roads you choose.  We hope you do what you love and love what you do.  Life is like a great big fitting room, Hayden:  Pick what is beautiful and try it on for size.  If it doesn’t fit, try something else.  And when you find the one that fits perfectly, don’t look at the price tag.

We hope you remain sensitive to the needs of others, even when they are very different from your own needs.  Be kind to everyone, even when it’s really hard because they’re not being very nice.  Do not turn away from those less fortunate than yourself; they may never have had the advantages that you do.  Give of yourself.  Share your riches.  For you shall reap rewards far greater than anything you give.

Be brave and fearless.  As the Nike ads say, just do it.  Don’t become jaded.  Never let the word “can’t” creep into your vocabulary.  Don’t let the naysayers get you down.  They’re wrong, you know.

Stand up for what you believe in, cry out against injustice, do something, Hayden.  Do something good and right and awe-inspiring.  Speak your mind.  Take action.  Be bold and keep God at your side always.

We wish you peace.  As the years go by, may you look back in contentment at your many accomplishments and smile.  Do not harbor regrets.  Always try to do more and be more, but also be satisfied with everything you’ve already been and done.

We wish you appreciation of beauty.  May you be in awe of the sunset, may you count the raindrops on your window pane, may you stand on the beach and be mesmerized by the vastness of the ocean and its crashing waves.  As the Leeann Womack song says, we hope you dance.  And we hope you sing, play a musical instrument, draw, paint, write poetry and keep a journal.  We hope you find beauty not only in the great works of art, but also in the everyday — in your reflection in a puddle, in the whistle of a passing train, in the smile of a stranger, in the flower that pushes its way up between the cracks in the sidewalk.

And we hope you laugh.  Laugh often and long.  Don’t take yourself too seriously, Hayden.  Find humor in your daily life.  Stop to smell the roses.  Take a picture with your iPhone.  Tell a story.

We wish you gratitude.  Sure, your parents will teach you to be polite and say “thank you.”  But when you say “thank you,” really mean it.  Appreciate your talents and share them with others.  Count your blessings on a regular basis.

Be reverent.  Praise God every day for your many gifts, as we praise Him for the gift you are to us.  Pray.  As the Bible teaches us, pray without ceasing.  There will always be people who will make fun of you because of your beliefs, who will belittle the fact that you pray, that you trust in the Lord.  There will always be small-minded, mean-spirited people who will try to bring you down, Hayden.  Pray for them.

What other advice can we give you, dear Hayden?  Brush your teeth every day.  Use sunscreen.  Eat your vegetables.  Stay healthy.  Take good care of yourself so you can love your neighbor as yourself.  Oh, and text your uncle and aunt once in a while.  We may be old fuddy-duddies who live way out in the middle of the desert and don’t understand your music, your lingo or your passions, but we love you.

So, as we say in Hebrew, shalom.  Um, that means “peace, out.”

 

The Four Questions

Questions

When I was in school back in the early ‘70s, some of the tie-dyed shirt and sandals crowd started wearing buttons that urged everyone to Question Authority.  I think that’s very much in the spirit of Passover:  Asking the hard questions and demanding thoughtful, reasoned answers.

One aspect of the multilayered Passover story encourages us to question injustice rather than submissively accepting the status quo as inevitable and unchangeable.  An imbalance of power does not alter the imperative to ask questions.  “You can’t fight city hall” is not a phrase in the Jewish lexicon.  We may be the underdogs and we may be in chains, but we take that as a temporary state of affairs rather than resigning ourselves to the vicissitudes of fate.

The Passover story also teaches us that we are not insignificant as individuals, that one person can make all the difference in the world.  Moses was one such person.  Sure, he was a charismatic leader, but he hailed from humble beginnings.  As a baby, the king’s daughter found him floating in the Nile in a basket; as an adult, he suffered from a speech impediment that made it difficult for others to understand him.  But he couldn’t bear to endure the suffering of his people.  We are told that he went so far as to kill a cruel overseer who was mercilessly beating one of his people to death.  Not only was Moses unable to accept injustice, but he took action at critical moments.  Rather than engaging in hand-wringing and head-shaking, he stood up and did something.  This takes an extraordinary amount of faith and courage.  Undoubtedly, the fleeing Jews of Egypt were certain they were headed for a watery grave in the Red Sea.  It took a true believer to dip his toe into the ocean before the ocean split to provide a road to freedom.

The drama of the exodus is introduced early in the Seder service when the youngest person present traditionally asks “the four questions” (ha’arbah sha’a lot in Hebrew or der fir kashas in the Yiddish vernacular).  Obviously, this means the youngest child who is able to read the questions from the page of the Hagaddah.  But we do not forget the infants among us; even the babe in arms has a place in the story.

The premise is that young children will be awestruck in wide-eyed wonder at the glowing candles on the gleaming white tablecloth, at the strange foods displayed upon the table, at the rituals of washing and dipping and breaking matzahs.  What’s going on?  What’s all the fuss about?  Why is this night different than all other nights?

The Seder encourages children, at the earliest age possible, to observe and then question authority:

  • On all other nights, we eat either leavened bread or unleavened matzah.  Why on this night does everyone eat only matzah?
  • On all other nights, we use whatever kind of condiments we want.  Why on this night does everyone use only bitter herbs?
  • On all other nights we don’t serve even one kind of dip at dinner, so why on this night do we dip twice?
  • On all other nights, we either sit up straight in our chairs or recline, as we please.  So why is everyone reclining tonight?

It would be easy to answer each of these questions quickly and dismissively, but the text of the Hagaddah does not do this.  We believe in the right and obligation to question authority.  We respect the person who does not merely accept what is observed, but instead raises his or her hand and says “excuse me, but what the heck is going on here?”  We believe that this person is entitled to detailed, thoughtful answers.

As a staff trainer, I am terribly impressed by what happens next in the service.  The
liturgy recognizes that different kinds of people require different kinds of answers.
  The ancient words bear out what every trainer knows — that everyone learns differently and that instruction must be tailored to the individual’s learning style.  But instead of identifying visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, etc., the text generalizes, in a highly allegorical manner, by identifying four types of people (“sons” — sexist, I know), all of whom require answers to their questions.

The “wise” or “righteous” son realizes the gravity of the situation, takes part in the communal responsibility, and asks what exactly the Lord has commanded us to do on this occasion.  To him we respond by describing the laws of Passover in detail.

The “wicked” son asks “What does this service mean to you?”  He says “you” as a means of excluding himself from what he believes is mere foolishness.  He wants no part in the communal responsibility.  The leader should respond that “this ceremony is in recognition of what the Lord did for me.”  That is, “for me” and not “for him,” since he is excluding himself now and undoubtedly would have been deemed unworthy of redemption had he been in Egypt at the time of our emancipation.

The “simple” son just asks “What is this?”  To him, we respond:  “With a mighty hand did the Lord bring us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

Finally, as promised, comes the baby, the one who is not yet able to recite the four questions, “he who hath not the capacity to inquire.”  It is for him that we recount the entire story of the exodus from the very start, beginning with the command “And you shall relate to your child on that day, this is done because of what the Lord did for me, when I went out of Egypt.”

Through the years, many have tried to convince me that I have no duty to follow the rituals because the events of history that occurred so long ago have nothing to do with me personally.  After all, I wasn’t personally freed from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaohs, I wasn’t saved from being burned alive as an apostate in the Middle Ages, I wasn’t saved from death at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Quite the contrary.  In the Jewish faith, no man is an island.  We are indeed our brothers’ keepers, a part of the greater whole, as inextricably bound to our ancestors of centuries past as to our community in the year 2013.  There is no “me” and “them,” only “us,” only the community of mankind.

So ask me a question if you have one.  And don’t be surprised if, in true Jewish fashion, I tell you a story.

 

Passover Memories

Haggadah

My mother always kept a kosher home, which meant that we had two sets of dishes and two sets of flatware.  By the time my sisters and I were seven or eight years old, we knew the difference between the milkhig (dairy) patterns and the fleishig (meat) ones.  We never mixed dairy and meat at the same meal; the food that was served dictated which dishes and utensils were used to set the table.

This division between dairy and meat may seem way too complicated, but when you’ve been doing it all your life, it becomes second nature.  In truth, we had it easy.  I knew some kids who had two dishwashers at home.  And rumor had it that there were some people who actually had two separate kitchens.

When Passover rolled around, we upped the ante.  Instead of using the “everyday” dishes and flatware, we’d bring out the beautiful glass Passover dishes and the fancy drinking glasses.  The week before Passover, my mother would polish her silver in anticipation of setting the Seder table.

In observant Jewish households, it is standard to have a dairy set of Passover dishes and a meat set of Passover dishes.  These two sets are used only during the eight days of the holiday, and then put away for an entire year until they are needed for the next Seder night.  In our house, however, we had only one set of Passover dishes, and they were used for meat meals.  Passover dairy meals were eaten on paper plates with plastic utensils.

The idea of using two sets of dishes is a product of rabbinic law and custom surrounding the Old Testament prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother’s milk.  On Passover, however, we have the additional obligation to ensure that the dishes on wish we eat have never been used with any of the leavened foods and legumes (hametz) prohibited during the festival.

My earliest memories of our family Passover Seder are from when I was six years old and we were living in a fourth floor walkup apartment in New York City.  Instead of eating at our little kitchen table, we dragged folding tables into the living room, pushing them together and covering them with a single white tablecloth.  The larger area would be needed to accommodate the Seder plate, the wine and water glasses and the array of delicacies that would grace the table.

When we finished recounting the Haggadah’s lengthy story of our enslavement in Egypt and subsequent emancipation, the shulkhan arukh (festive meal) would begin.  In our family tradition, the dishes were served in a particular order.  First, we would pass around a platter of whole hard boiled eggs; each of us would take one and dip it into the zaltz wasser (salt water).  The salt water is a custom that is said to refer to the tears shed by the Jews in Egypt due to the backbreaking labor forced upon us by cruel taskmasters as well as the mandatory separation of husbands and wives.  Next would come the gefilte fish, wonderful little fish patties out of a jar.  They would be served cold with a bit of jellied broth on a lettuce leaf with a slice of tomato.  The hot horseradish from the Seder plate would be our seasoning, the crunchy matzo our side dish.  Then came my mother’s matzo ball soup, which typically contained a slice of carrot and more than a few pieces of chicken.  Only then were we ready for the entrées, generally two of them.  Although they varied from year to year, one would be beef, the other chicken.  We would help ourselves from platters of vegetables, usually broccoli, carrots and boiled potatoes.

As a kid, my favorite part of the Seder meal was always dessert.  Among the “four questions” asked from the Hagaddah earlier in the evening is “Why is this night different than all other nights?”  For me, the answer was:  “On all other nights, we do not always have even one dessert, but on this night we have many!”  Cups of steaming hot tea with lemon slices would be served and we’d start the dessert off with fresh fruit salad or peaches or apricots stewed by my mother.  Then we’d open the packages of Passover sweets for which we’d waited all year.  There would be a sponge cake and a honey cake with slivered almonds on top.  There would be coconut macaroons and sometimes chocolate ones.  Treats might include coconut covered marshmallows, chocolate covered raspberry jellies or jellied candy “fruit slices” in a rainbow of orange, red, yellow and green.

By the time we were ready to sing the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic songs ending the Seder, the hour would be late.  I would be stuffed, happy and falling asleep.

That Seder when I was six years old was the first without my grandmother, who had passed away that January.  My grandfather led the Seder on the first night, but the second Seder belonged to me.  Grandpa had to be somewhere else and my parents didn’t read enough Hebrew to recite the service from our paperbound Haggadahs, free of charge courtesy of Maxwell House coffee.  Having been thoroughly versed in the ins and outs of the Seder in my first grade class, I felt up to the task.  It made me feel so grown up!

That summer, my parents bought a house in the suburbs and by September we had moved in.  The next Passover, I was seven years old and we held our Seder and our new oval dining room table.  Both leaves had to be inserted to lengthen the table sufficiently to accommodate our embarrassment of culinary riches.  As for me, I looked forward to presiding over the ceremony once again.  My grandfather was still back in the city he so loved.

In my Orthodox Hebrew school, nothing but the Seder, and Passover generally, had been discussed by my classmates for weeks.  We spent much time in class reviewing the parts of the Seder, the meaning of the prayers and verses recited, and the traditions passed down l’dor va’dor, from one generation to the next.

A few days before Passover, the rabbi who was my teacher phoned my mother at home.  “Why don’t you make your son a Seder?” he asked reprovingly.  Mom was taken aback by the question and assured him in no uncertain terms that we had a full Seder every single year on both the first and second nights of Passover.

My mother couldn’t imagine why he would even think such a thing.  Soon enough, the situation became clear.

In class, the rabbi had asked his young students “Who makes the Seder in your house?”  Everyone answered that their fathers did.  But I answered “I do!”  What I meant was that, because my parents couldn’t recite the Hebrew, that I led the ceremony.

It never occurred to me to mention that my mother spent days of planning and shopping and cooking and preparing for the very elaborate family event of the year.  So it’s no surprise that my teacher imagined me facing the sad anticlimax of the season by sitting in a corner with a Haggadah and a piece of matzah, singing to myself.

Ah, to be seven years old.

 

Passover Pity Party

chocolate silk pie

Take my advice:  Don’t — I repeat, do not — attend a party during Passover.  Not if you’re the least bit observant, anyway.

And I mean any kind of party — a 5-year old’s birthday, a retirement shindig or even a humble pot luck in the break room at work.  I know you have good intentions and the reason you’re there is to support the honoree or the spirit of the occasion.  But face it:  You are not going to be able to eat the cake (not even the fashionable sliver so coveted by dieters), you are not going to be able to drink the champagne and you are most certainly not going to be able to eat any of that lovely food so colorfully taunting you from the buffet table.

What you will do is bring a piece of matzah in a baggie.  And cry.

For observant Jews, our Passover food restrictions are quite severe.  If it contains an ingredient that came in a bag, a box or a can, it is likely off-limits due to the presence of corn syrup or soy products.  Explaining this to anyone who did not grow up with it is futile.  They will look at you as if you hail from the lower depths, then smile wanly and slowly back away.

I am reminded of the way I occasionally explain the challenges of starch limitation that is the life of a Type 2 diabetic.  “What do you mean, starch?” they will ask.  “Think about any kind of food you really enjoy, without which your life would be greatly diminished,”  I reply.  “That food is starch.”

Passover is kind of like that.  If you like it, forget it.  Better start crossing the days off your calendar now.  And there are eight of those days, bucko.  Eight looooong days until you can have pizza and beer again.  Eight looooong days until you can have tacos and quesadillas again.  Eight looooong days until you have donuts and ice cream again.

You can quit your whining now.  Shut up and eat your matzah.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t eat meat.  And just what do we eat during Passover?  Besides matzah, I mean.

Meat.

Lots of meat, lots of fish.  Eggs in the morning, eggs in the evening, eggs at suppertime, tra la.  Being a semi-vegetarian, my staples include tofu, veggie burgers, veggie dogs, veggie sausages and fake lunch meat made of textured vegetable protein (TVP).  In other words, soy, soy and more soy.  None of that may be eaten during Passover.

Fortunately for me, I have been conducting a long-running, lurid love affair with the tuber they call the potato.  I would go so far as to say that, during the eight days of Passover, the potato is my savior.  Baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, potatoes fried in olive oil, garlic potatoes roasted in the oven.  Between the potatoes and the matzah, suffice it to say that I will not be checking my A1C glucose level any time soon.  If my doctor complains, I’ll shove a piece of matzah down his throat.

Well, today I broke what I thought was my hard and fast rule.  I attended a party on the second day of Passover.  That’s right, it’s only the second day!  Six more days of this!  Ugh.

I daintily picked at the fruit bowl.  I ate a carrot stick, but couldn’t dip it in the ranch dressing.  And I swear, the tortilla chips and guacamole were mocking me.  The cute little rounds of French bread surrounding the spinach dip were jeering at me.  And I’m pretty sure that sound I heard was the plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies giving me the raspberry.

As if that weren’t enough, a pie was brought out and placed in the center of the table to be the star of the show.  A pie with lovely little tufts of whipped cream fluted around the edges.  Oh no, not any pie.  After all, it’s Passover!  We wouldn’t want to serve a plebeian apple or cherry pie, now would we?  Some kind of plain Jane everyday pie at which I could smile wanly and slowly back away?  That would never do.  No siree, Bob.

Someone had to bring a… chocolate… silk… pie.  From Claim Jumper.  Aggghhhh!

I guess it could have been worse.  It could have been a chocolate mountain cake with Neapolitan ice cream.

Excuse me, I’m going to eat a piece of matzah now.

 

Matzo Man

matzah
Matz-o, matz-o man, I want to be a matzo man . . .

I remember my mother dancing in the kitchen while we sang Passover lyrics of our own invention to the tune of the Village People’s “Macho Man.”

Matzah, the crunchy, unleavened cracker that we eat during Passover, gets a bad rap. We make fun of “Pesakh bread,” we gripe and moan about having to eat it for eight days, about it causing us to gain weight, about ending up constipated.

But when it counts, matzah does get the respect that it deserves. The English word “Passover” refers to the tenth and final plague that the Lord visited upon Pharaoh, king of Egypt, when he repeatedly reneged on his promise to emancipate the Jewish people from slavery. While every Egyptian household had its dead, we were spared when the plague “passed over” Jewish homes. In Hebrew, however, the word for Passover is Pesakh, which actually refers to the Paschal lamb that we were commanded to prepare and eat the night before our great escape from Egypt. But in the liturgy, the holiday is referred to as hag ha’matzot hazeh, “the festival of matzah that we now celebrate.” Thus, matzah is the very definition of the holiday.

When setting the Seder table on the first night of Passover in my parents’ home, the place of honor in the center of the table was always occupied by my grandmother’s matzah tash. This was a white cloth matzah cover, composed of three compartments to contain the three sheets of matzah used during the service. The outside of the matzah tash featured some of the most beautiful embroidery I have ever seen. Bordered in purple grapes and green grape leaves, a large orange circle contained the Hebrew words, also rendered in orange, for each of the items on the ceremonial Seder plate. Right next to Grandma’s matzah tash would be the Seder plate itself, featuring the symbolic burnt bone and burnt egg, as well as the crunchy celery, hot horseradish, Romaine lettuce and sweet haroseth that we eat during the Seder service.

Not only does the matzah tash protect the matzahs and prevent them from breaking into pieces and crumbs, but the white covering is a sign of purity and respect. When the matzahs are removed from the tash during the Seder, it is something of a grand reveal, the centerpiece of the festival officially presented to our family and friends in attendance. Then, of course, we get to eat the matzahs in all their crunchy glory.

Early in the ceremony, we break the middle matzah in two and, traditionally, the children at the table hide one half of it. Later, when it is time to eat the missing piece of matzah, the adults pretend to search high and low for it, without trying too hard. Shrieking with laughter at the adults’ “ineptitude,” the kids “ransom” the matzah for gifts or money. In some families, considerable negotiation ensues. This is followed by the second reveal of the evening, in which the kids remove the half matzah from its hiding place and the adults praise them for concealing it so well.

The combination of the respect we accord to matzah and the merriment we derive from it is nothing short of amazing. It teaches us to place things in perspective, that it is possible for us to appropriately appreciate the gifts in our lives without taking ourselves too seriously.

It makes me proud to be a matz-o man.

Cup of Elijah

Elijah

Of the many cherished rituals of the Passover Seder, one of my favorites is the setting out of the Kos Eliyahu, the Cup of Elijah.

Many families set an extra glass of wine in the center of the table, and some have an entire extra place setting before an empty chair.  At a particular point during the service, we open the door to invite the prophet Elijah to come in and join us at the festive table.

The Bible tells us that Elijah was ferried up to heaven in a chariot of fire.  Many of our faith believe that he is the Messiah and eagerly await his return.  On that day, it is said, the dead will rise and the Diaspora will end, with the Jewish people gathered up al arbah kanfot ha’aretz (from the four corners of the earth) to return to the Land of Israel where the Holy Temple will be rebuilt and we will again offer the Biblically prescribed sacrifices as in the days of old.  “Next year in Jerusalem!” we sing at the Seder table.

There is deep, multilayered symbolism in setting a place for Elijah at table and opening the door to invite him to enter.  The empty place at table is an obvious reminder of those no longer among us:  Members of our own families who have passed on, those who have given their lives for our country and even those who live on, but from whom we are separated by miles and circumstances.

“Come, all ye who are hungry” and celebrate the Passover with us, we recite in the liturgy.  Passover is a celebration of freedom from the shackles of bondage, but we are reminded that there are still multitudes of our fellow humans who are not free.  In many parts of the world, people remain enslaved by ideologies, cultural restraints and draconian laws.  Here at our very doorstep are the hungry and homeless; we are reminded that it is our duty to ease their suffering and to tend to their needs just as God tended to ours so many centuries ago in Egypt.  And, of course, let us not forget the many among us who are imprisoned within their own souls, victims of mental illness, addiction and despair that rob them of the opportunity to fulfill what might have been.

Opening the door is a symbol of our obligation to open our hearts to those less fortunate than ourselves.  We speak in poetic terms of caring for the widow and the orphan, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.  There is never a shortage of people in need within our own communities, and we are reminded at this time of year that we must not harden our hearts and shut them out, regardless of how distasteful we may personally find the task.  Seeing the homeless on the street may offend our senses and the idea of giving up some of our hard-earned money as charitable donations may offend our sensibilities. But we must never forget that there, but for the grace of God, go we.  For so many of us, the distance between here and there is little more than a paycheck or two, just one illness of a child or automotive breakdown away.

There are some who compare leaving a glass of wine for Elijah on the night of Passover to leaving milk and cookies out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.  In the case of dear old Saint Nick, however, this classic childhood gesture is primarily one of thanks for the gifts.  In the case of Elijah, our gesture is infused with a profound sense of hope.  As we pray for our own redemption, we are called upon to recognize that a better future for us and for our children is only possible when we open our doors, our hearts and our wallets to the disenfranchised who would love nothing better than to sit down at our table and be counted as valued members of our families.

 

Wasabi, Nephews and Nieces

wasabi

Until very recently, I was sushiless.  There wasn’t a single restaurant that served sushi in this town.  Let me give you some advice:  Do not, I repeat, do NOT live in a town without sushi.  Believe me, it is a pretty sad state of affairs to know you have to drive a hundred miles to get a sliver of maguro.

Luckily for me, one of the two Chinese restaurants in town recently changed ownership and installed a sushi bar.  I heard about this through word of mouth and finally had the opportunity to try it out for lunch today.

The timing was perfect, as I make it a point to go out to eat the day before Passover.  We have some really good family-operated Mexican restaurants in town, and I might easily have chosen that for my Last Meal.  After all, I’m about to embark on eight days without rice, beans or tortillas.

Faced with eight days of matzah eating, however, indulging in sushi seemed the obvious choice.  The raw tuna and salmon was wonderful, even the rice was delicious, and I savored each taste of wasabi and ginger.

It had been almost a year since I last had my sushi treat, so I had forgotten just how hot wasabi can be.  I mean, I know it’s super hot, but brain knowledge is not the same as mouth knowledge.  That old green condiment took my breath away and sent me scrambling for my water glass as soon as it hit my tongue.

Feeling that wasabi burn seemed appropriate to the season.  At the traditional Seder dinners on the first and second nights of Passover, we eat hot horseradish along with the sweet haroseth (a mixture of apples, cinnamon, walnuts and a little grape wine for moisture) to remind us of the bitterness of our people’s slavery in Egypt and the sweetness of freedom following our emancipation.  Living out in a remote section of the desert (though hopefully not for 40 years), I am located too far from family to enjoy a traditional Passover Seder and too far from any synagogue to attend a community Seder on a work night.  And although I haven’t bothered preparing haroseth, I do have my matzah, my macaroons and the memory of my hot, hot wasabi.

It’s hard to explain the importance of the Seder dinner in the Jewish tradition.  At the table, we spend hours praying and singing from a book called the Haggadah (the “retelling”) that recounts the Book of Exodus story of our enslavement by the Pharaohs, the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the destruction of our enemies under the leadership of Moses.  With candles burning in the center of the table and one savory dish after another brought out from the kitchen, the extended family gather round and discuss their lives, their hopes and their dreams, not unlike parents enslaved in Egypt who dreamed of freedom and a better life for their children.

Typically, little children attending the Seder become cranky at staying up too late, all of us drink four glasses of wine, some uncle gets into an argument with some cousin and someone says something that hurts someone’s feelings.  That’s what you call family!

I’ve been thinking about extended family a lot lately, not only because of the onset of Passover, but also because of the shifting nature of my own family.  I guess you could say I’m feeling a little guilty.  You see, in a recent post, I referred to all of my nephews and nieces by name.  Since then, however, I realized that there are others whom I did not name.  They are the “exes.”

My sister-in-law has been married and divorced twice.  She birthed three children during her first marriage, then married a man who already had eight children of his own.  My wife and I came to know and love these children as our very own nephews and nieces.  Many of them have since grown to adulthood.  My sister-in-law and her ex-husband were married for only a year, although we got to know the kids a few years before the wedding.  Now that they are divorced and the children are scattered, should we still count them among our nephews and nieces?  It may hurt the feelings of my family if I do or those of the kids if I don’t.  After all, they weren’t related to me until my sister-in-law married their father, and now that she is no longer married to him, the kids are no longer related to me, right?  But, of course, my wife and I had taken those children into our hearts, and that isn’t something that one can just dismiss as if it never happened.  On the other hand, we rarely hear from any of those kids anymore.  I hear that a couple of them are married, some are working and others are in the Armed Services.  A couple are still in high school.  Most of this is third-hand information at this point.

This unresolved situation hit me right in the face last month when we travelled north to attend Grandma’s funeral.  Two of the girls showed up, one with her husband and the other with her fiancé.  It was good to see them, but man, it was awkward.

We’re not really auntie and uncle anymore, but we can’t simply blot out their names with a black Sharpie either.  That’s not the way love works.

This post dedicated to Ica, Brittany, Dessirae, Clarissa, Frankie, Jesse, Michael and Raymond.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Veggie

photo
Guilty pleasure confession: I like McDonald’s. And I don’t even eat hamburgers!

I’ve heard all kinds of negative things about McDonald’s over the years: That they’re not environmentally conscious, that they destroy both the rain forest and local family businesses, that they encourage childhood obesity. Does any of that stop me from heading for the drive-thru early in the morning? Not a chance.

Breakfast at McDonald’s is one of my favorite ways to start the day, and I typically indulge in all its greasy, calorie-laden glory a couple of times a week. Even a non-meat-eater like myself can find some tasty ways to increase his lipids and get his cholesterol up.

I cruised over to the drive-thru on Friday morning and placed my usual orderr: Two sausage McMuffins with egg, no sausage. And a hash browns.

“Ohhhh yeah, no meat on Friday during Lent,” came the voice over the speaker.

“That’s every day for me,” I responded.

No, I’m not Catholic. I’m just a Jew-boy from New York who got farblonget and ended up in the middle of the desert. When it comes to my eating habits, one day is the same as the next. No meat for me, please. And don’t even think of serving me that pig meat crap they call sausage.

I’ve heard all the vegetarian arguments about McDonald’s: It’s all made with the same meaty, greasy utensils, they make it in advance and just take off the sausage patty, the oil that they cook it in contains animal fats. So I do a really bad imitation of a vegetarian and I’m a terrible Jew to boot.

But I still love my McDonald’s breakfast anyway. This little habit will probably take a year or two off my life, but I suspect it’s worth it. I’ve never smoked, but I think I’ve caught a glimpse of what it’s like to be hooked on the cigarettes that you know will result in your untimely death.

Oh, it gets worse. I also like McDonald’s fish filet sandwiches. I had to try their Fish McBites that they rolled out just in time for Lent, but I was not impressed. They are too salty for my taste. Besides, there is just something about that slice of American cheese on the fish filet sandwich.

It seems that everyone’s getting in on the act. In some locations, McDonald’s lowers the price of its fish filet sandwich from over four dollars to about a dollar and a half on Fridays during Lent (but not in our little town). Their fast food competitors have to keep up with reduced fish filet prices, the broiled cod sandwich (Carl’s Jr.), beer-battered fish tacos (Del Taco) and so forth. I love Lent!

I do try to balance out my horrible fast food habit with eating more healthily the rest of the time. One of my favorite dishes is roasted vegetables (pictured above). My wife cuts up the veggies, I spread them out on the pan and season them, then into the oven they go. Quick, simple and delicious. Protein? We don’t need no steenkin’ protein! I make a meal of this alone. Prepared this way, veggies are truly delicious and they are so filling.

This is an extremely easy dish to prepare; there is nothing to it. I don’t really cook and this is the kind of food we make all the time. Preheat the oven to 375°F, place a sheet of aluminum foil on a flat plan, then grease it with some cooking spray or a little olive oil. Cut up whatever fresh veggies you have on hand (today we used zucchini, carrots, bell peppers, white mushrooms, onions and one large potato). Sprinkle on garlic powder, onion flakes, oregano or Italian seasoning, black pepper and whatever other spices you like. Stick it in the oven for 15 minutes. That’s all! The potatoes will come out very al dente. If you like your taters a little more toward the well done side, put them in the oven separately 10 or 15 minutes ahead of time, then have the rest of your colorful veggie family join them on the heat.

Eat this regularly and you can almost justify that lovely, greasy McDonald’s breakfast that you know is calling your name.

Freedom of the Press, and of the Tunes

newspaperradio
I suppose it’s a part of growing up. There are some things my parents did that drove me crazy when I was a child but make perfect sense to me now. And as may be inevitable for a man squarely in the grip of middle age, I realize that I have become my father.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Anytime I’d be in the car with my father (and I was always thrilled with the opportunity to ride up front with him), he’d tune the radio to either news radio or to easy listening music. I could handle that, but what really bugged me was the way he’d either flip stations or turn off the radio whenever a commercial came on. He’d refer to the results of the latter alternative as his favorite song, “The Sound of Silence.” (I hadn’t yet discovered Simon and Garfunkel.) He made it clear that he wasn’t going to have the idiocy of Madison Avenue forced upon him. Occasionally, he’d leave the radio on just so he could mimic the ridiculous ads (“rub it in, in, IN!”), which he’d usually follow up with a stream of swear words that I’d try my hardest to ignore.

Well, I don’t do the swear words thing, but I’ve now reached the age where I find myself changing the station or turning off the radio as soon as I start to hear a commercial. In my little town, this is no small statement. I refuse to listen to the Spanish stations or the Christian stations, which leaves me with exactly two choices. There is a powerful country music station over in Arizona and there is our little hometown radio station that plays an eclectic variety of music. I find our local station charming. I never know what to expect and I am often delighted. Turning on the radio, I may be transported back to another era by one of my favorite doo-wops, followed by something from Kenny Chesney or Carrie Underwood, then a classic from the Stones and a tune by Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj.

With entertainment like that, it seems the least I could do would be to support the station by listening to the commercials that pay their bills and then patronizing those businessess. Sorry, Charlie. Nothing doing. I may have been bopping and drumming to the song that just ended, but when a commercial comes on, I am gone. Out of there. Splitsville.

Too often, both our local station and the Arizona country people are playing advertisements at the same time. Like my father, I’ve come to accept and even enjoy “the sound of silence.”

Back in my college days, I used to argue about this with a friend of mine. He’d insist that radio stations are businesses, and that like any business, their sole purpose for existing is to make money. Bah humbug, I’d say. The purpose of radio is to entertain me. If a station ceases to do so, either because of its music selection or because an idiot commercial has come on, it’s adios, amigo. That’s not fair, my friend would respond. I’m receiving a service for free, while the radio station has to pay its bills. Not my problem, I’d tell him. No one is forcing the radio station to entertain me for free. The public has every right to take advantage of its largesse. If someone has dropped a quarter on the ground, why shouldn’t I pick it up?

When my wife and I purchased our current car, we found that it “came with” a six-month subscription to Sirius XM radio. Thus, we discovered the world of radio by paid subscription.

The technology fascinated me. Just to think that Sirius XM could send a signal specifically to our car antenna, a signal from a satellite orbiting the earth that we could pick up but the car in front of us and the car behind us could not. Amazing!

The best thing about paid subscription radio, of course, is no commercials. Well, sort of. I’d happily sha-la-la and whoa-woah along with Sixties on 6 and Seventies on 7 in commercial-free heaven, but when we switched to the comedy channel, we found the routines constantly interrupted for commercials. Not just any commercials, mind you. Commercials for . . . ah, um, er, products of an “intimate nature.” And we were paying for this!

Well, for the first six months it was free with our new car. But after that we were paying for it. Yes, we shelled out the bucks and renewed our subscription several times. This, of course, is exactly what Sirius XM hoped we would do. Get ‘em hooked, then send ‘em the bill.

After about a year of this, we figured out that it just wasn’t worth it, particularly with the idiot commercials that interrupted our favorite stations. We could get that for free on over-the-air stations.

That’s when we started keeping CDs in the car us. We’d slip them into the disc player to entertain us on our frequent trips between northern and southern California. Of course, the CDs weren’t free, but at least we only had to pay for them once rather than being billed every six months for a subscription. And no idiot commercials!

The downside of the CD solution is that you end up playing the same music over and over. Not only that, but we realized that we tended to buy a CD for one or two favorite songs, while the rest of the album really didn’t interest us.

iPhone to the rescue! We already had iPods, and when we purchased iPhones, we had our music right on our cell phones. With the aid of a little adapter cord, we were able to plug in, set the music on Shuffle and go rockin’ on down the highway. I’d be singing along at the top of my lungs (off-key, of course) and before I knew it we’d be past Bakersfield.

This was better than CDs. We had exactly the music we wanted to hear. No idiot commercials and no B-side boring stuff. Of course, this didn’t come free. Every time we thought of another song we wanted, we’d just go online and buy it. We found that most songs were 99 cents or $1.29 to download. Very reasonable, particularly when you build your music collection a little at a time.

I love reading newspapers almost as much as I enjoy listening to music, and I don’t think I should have to pay for either one, at least when I am not picking and choosing my content. Back in my New York days, on Sunday mornings we’d go out to buy fresh bagels and pick up The New York Times. The Sunday Times was truly a marvel. It was thick and heavy, with many sections. I’d head straight for the “magazine” section and the book review. Then I’d settle back with Section 2, the famed Arts and Leisure section, where I’d ogle the full-page announcements of Broadway shows with a mixture of awe and delight. Of course, the Times wasn’t free, and its price increased as the years went by. But it was a once-a-week indulgence, and we could skip a week or two anytime we felt like it. It’s not like we had a subscription.

My parents didn’t even subscribe to the local paper. Both they and I knew that it would largely go unread and back issues would inevitably be stacked up in heaps to be carted out to the curb on recycling day.

But that was back in the Stone Age before the internet came along. Soon, I found myself being able to read The New York Times online for free anytime I liked, weekday or Sunday. This was wonderful, particularly after I moved to California, and then to a remote area of the desert where I couldn’t go to the corner and pick up the Times with my bagels and cream cheese.

Like all good things, this one didn’t last. It didn’t take long before the Times realized there was money to be made out there in the wilds of cyberspace. Inevitably, the Times began charging for its service. But you know me. I’m not going to pay for it if I don’t have to.

This is how I worked it out: First, I downloaded The New York Times on my iPhone. As I am constantly reminded by the insipid pop-ups, “Top News is Free. Subscribe for full access.” I don’t think so!

First phase accomplished: I get to read about a dozen top news stories on my phone for free every morning. Of course, the Times attempts to tantalize me into paying by dangling what I’m missing in front of my nose. I can click the “Sections” icon and view the headlines and the first sentences of all the great articles I’m missing in Opinion, Books, Travel, Arts, Dining, and on and on.

And so on to the second phase: Grab a scratch paper and make note of the titles of the articles I am really interested in reading but don’t have access to. Then I log into www.nyt.com on my laptop, find the articles I’m looking for, and read to my heart’s content.

Well, not exactly. Surely you don’t think the venerable Times will make you pay on the iPhone but give it up for free on Windows? Of course not. I am able to read ten articles per month for free on my laptop. After that, I am blocked by the ubiquitous message to subscribe in order to continue reading.

Fortunately for me, my wife doesn’t object when I log onto her account on her laptop and get to read another ten articles in the Times.

To paraphrase Billy Joel, “he’ll take what he’s given as long as it’s free.”

An Unexpected Kindness

hamantaschen
Passover may be nearly upon us, but I must tell a story about the wonderful gift I received for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which we celebrated last month.

Don’t feel badly if you’re unfamiliar with Purim. It is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that falls in the late winter or early spring in the lunar calendar month of Adar. Purim is the day we commemorate the historical events described in the Biblical Book of Esther. Specifically, we celebrate the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation by the decree of Haman during the reign of King Xerxes I of Persia in the 5th century B.C.

There are many customs and traditions associated with Purim, including the public reading of the Book of Esther, making charitable donations to the poor and exchanging mishloakh manot (gifts of food) among friends and neighbors.

Although Purim is traditionally a festive and merry holiday, this year, the week of Purim was not a happy occasion at all for me. For it was then that my wife’s grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, met her final decline and passed away. Grandma’s funeral was a very difficult time for all of us.

My elderly parents were unable to make the trip north to Olivehurst, but I spoke with them on the phone several times. When they related how they had attended synagogue on Purim, exchanged gifts of food and tasted the traditional hamantaschen, I felt a pang of yearning for days gone by. The closest synagogue to our remote desert community is one hundred miles away. Some years we drive out to Phoenix to attend a Purim service, but not this time.

I particularly missed the hamanthaschen.

Hamantaschen (literally “Haman’s hats” in Yiddish) are three-cornered pastries (generally made from cookie dough, although I’ve seen them in a flaky, Danish style as well) in which the center is filled with jam. The jam flavors vary (prune, apricot and raspberry are popular), but the traditional filling is preserves made from sweetened poppy seeds (which we called by its Yiddish name, mohn, when I was a kid).

In the suburbs of New York City, I remember how all of the local bakeries displayed hamantaschen in a variety of flavors for many weeks. My mouth watered. I could just taste them! If only I could get some now, I lamented.

The day after the funeral, we made the eleven-hour drive south to our home and my job in the desert.

I cannot describe my shock when, on my first day back at work, I walked into the break room and found, sitting prettily on our table, a plastic tub filled with hamantaschen. The Lord answers prayer!

How was this possible? I was sure that no one at work had ever heard of hamantashen, much less tasted one. I waited not a moment to indulge in the pastry treat I had been longing for. It was just as good as I remembered.

Of course, I had to find out whom to thank. Upon making inquiries, I learned that a retired employee, one whom I had met only two or three times, had stopped by and brought the treats while I was away.

I obtained the retiree’s phone number and texted her to express my appreciation for fulfilling my Purim wish. She texted back that it wasn’t she who brought them.

I made further inquiries. My coworkers insisted that yes, she was definitely the generous party, but perhaps she had forgottten. I texted her again. It turned out that she had visited twice and had indeed forgotten that she had brought the pastries on her first visit. She told me that she picked them up at Costco during a shopping trip to the Coachella Valley.

“I almost bought biscotti instead!” she exclaimed. She had no idea that the pastries she had purchased were called hamantacshen, nor that they are traditional for the holiday of Purim. I don’t think she had ever even heard of Purim.

And as amazed as I was to receive the very thing I had wished for, she was just as surprised to learn what her gift meant to me and how she had performed an unexpected kindness.