Uncle Guacamole Does the O.C.

I don’t know where we are.  Costa Mesa, probably.  Either that or Tustin.  Or it may be Irvine or Santa Ana or any of a dozen other places.  I really don’t know.  The car headlights (or headlight, singular, in our case, as one of ours seems to have inconveniently burned out) zig and zag, now to the left, now to the right, creating crazy quilt paths as the freeways flow into each other, exit and entrance, up over one another, down under and in and out in a sexy dance that is nighttime in Orange County.  That’s California, pilgrim.  Home of Mickey Mouse and (quack) the Mighty Ducks.

We were trying to avoid the 405 because of what happened the previous evening.  Carmageddon may be nothing but a bad memory, but we had to find out the hard way that late night construction is an ongoing process necessitating the closing of the freeway.  You can’t get there from here.  So tonight we stay off the interstate, instead wandering the local streets as the towns and cities melt one into another with nothing to show for themselves but all-night bodegas, gas stations and a 24-hour donut shop/Chinese take-out place.  I’ll take an order of tofu with eggplant and two maple bars, please.

Harbor House counter
Harbor House counter (doo wop, doo wop)

Following a lovely afternoon at the beach, we had returned to our hotel for a nap and now it was getting late and I wanted some decent food.  My wife did not feel like going out.  No, I do not want a vegetarian burrito from Del Taco across the street.  Come on, let’s go.  She griped and moaned, accused me of never being satisfied with anything, but ultimately went.  I let Google lead us to the Harbor House by the ocean in Sunset Beach.  We were both amazed by the quantity of food that they bring to the table, French toast with eggs and sausage in my wife’s case, a plateful of lovely steamed veggies and a baked potato for me.  Squaw bread on the side, which turned out to be toasted deep, dark oat bread, slightly burnt and completely delicious.  The fifties music made me feel as if we were on a date back in high school and should be sipping a strawberry milkshake, two straws.  Born too late for you to notice me, tra-la.  Ohhh, please, stay by me, Diana.  Wake up, little Susie, we gotta go home.  Out the window, the neon sign glowed and the cars floated by on the Pacific Coast Highway and yes, this was it, old time cruisin’ California or as close as you can get to it in the twenty-first century.  I wonder what it would have been like to have grown up in this place instead of in New York.

Harbor House food
Vegetarian yumminess at the Harbor House, Sunset Beach

We crawled back to the hotel on the surface streets, found the directions on my phone to not be very accurate, got lost, dead ended into a giant condo subdivision, turned around, stopped at red lights in a couple of places that looked like where you find the bodies, snaked through the quiet, late night streets until we found our way back.  In five hours, I would have to haul myself out of bed, get dressed up and head to downtown Santa Ana to sit in a room full of computers with my fellow job applicants to take a test to see which of us might be called for an interview.  I had done the same thing, in another such computer room in an industrial park in Irvine, on Friday.

In between, we had the weekend.  On Friday afternoon, we took a leisurely drive to Newport Beach, where we had lunch at Côte d’Azure out in Balboa, near the dock where the catamaran picks up passengers and ferries them to Catalina Island, out in the middle of the ocean.  We did some shopping and determined that the whipping wind made it a less than auspicious beach-going day.  Besides, an email had just come in from yet another Orange County employer to which I had applied, informing me that I had used the wrong form and would be barred from further consideration unless I completed the correct application form and emailed it prior to close of business.  Back to the hotel we go.  Purchase wi-fi access from the front desk.  Drag out the laptop.  Try to cobble together the requested information from old emails since all of my paperwork was back at home, some 450 miles north.  The hotel’s internet connection is horribly slow, Adobe Acrobat refuses to cooperate, I invent some interesting swear words under my breath.

Cote d'Azure
Cote d’Azure cafe, Balboa

By Sunday, the wind has died down some, and we head out to Laguna Beach, hoping to come upon an ideal spot to set up our beach chairs and admire the rolling waves.  Clearly, this place is loaded with money.  We creep past oddball boutiques, fancy cafés and surf shops, watch the beachgoers crossing the street wrapped up in towels and carrying surfboards.  I feel out of place, as if I have a hell of a nerve, a hick from up north, a poseur trying to infiltrate the rarefied atmosphere of the O.C.

Dana Point
Beach at Dana Point

Heading south out of town, we end up in Dana Point and stop for lunch at Hennessey’s Tavern, where we are pleasantly surprised to find a local band playing 70s and 80s favorites, the Eagles and George Michael, on the patio.

Hennessey's
Hennessey’s Tavern, Dana Point

My wife is delighted to find one of her all-time favorites on the menu, tomato soup with grilled cheese and kettle chips.  I order a vegetarian sandwich minus the dairy products and dig into the jar of Grey Poupon on the table.  This place has class.  We split an enormous order of French fries.  Full and happy, we turn north and find our spot for enjoying the sand and surf at Aliso Beach County Park.  Lots of families, coolers, kite flying and sea gulls, all overseen by the trusty lifeguard on his perch.  A ruddy-hued pigeon waddles right up to us as if to say hello, or perhaps just to beg for crumbs.

Aliso Beach
Aliso Beach County Park

Up north in the Gold Country, I miss the ocean.  And just now, right here in this place where children shout with glee, the gulls cry and wheel their arcs overhead and the waves roar out their approval over and over again, we know we have found a little piece of paradise.

Utah

The Bluetooth in our car seems to get all confused when my wife and I are both in the vehicle and two mobile phones are trying to sync up to it at the same time.  This is particularly true when we have one of the phones plugged into the aux in order to stream our iPod playlists through the car’s speakers.  I probably should have noticed that something was awry, but I had slept much too late, we were eager to hit the road for our trip down south, and it just never occurred to me that I had failed to hear the ubiquitous female voice intone “transfer complete.”

That’s why I missed the call.

I was flying down the I-5, rockin’ out to our tunes, while my wife napped.  When she awoke, she asked whether I was hungry.  I answered in the affirmative, suggesting that we have lunch in about an hour at our planned refueling stop in Santa Nella, down in Merced County.  Checking the internet on her phone, she suggested an alternative, mentioning that there was an Olive Garden about twenty miles ahead and that we should arrive there just when they would be opening for lunch.

My wife is crazy about Olive Garden’s pasta e fagioli and salad lunch (and also about their lasagna).  “Mmmm,” I said, visions of roasted garlic hummus making my mouth water.  Done deal.

That’s when she glanced at my phone.

“Hey, you got a voice mail.”

“Uh-oh.  From whom?”

“From 801.”

“UH-OH!!”

“Why?”

“UTAH!” I shouted.

I had done a telephone interview with a hiring panel for a management position in a company located north of Salt Lake City.  I thought the interview went well and that I had at least a halfway decent shot.  They said they’d get back to me in “one to two weeks.”  After two weeks went by without a word, I began to expect a two-line form rejection in my email any day now.  But a phone call from them, I knew, could only mean good news.

My first thought was that they want me to come out for a second interview to meet me in person.  Then it occurred to me:  They might be calling to make me an offer right now!  I began to entertain visions of turning right around and heading home to start packing.  As for the two cattle calls to which I was headed in southern California, good riddance!

Wait, not so fast, I told myself.  Their starting salary was pathetically low and you were going to negotiate money, remember?  Don’t forget to ask them to contribute to moving expenses.  I started doing calculations in my head and drove right past our exit.

I turned around and went back.  We were not going to miss out on our lunch.  Meanwhile, I began wondering whether I was going to be able to catch the HR lady before she went to her lunch, considering the one-hour time difference.

The second I put the car in park, I played the message and dialed the callback number.  She answered the phone, likely just as she was about to walk out the door.  She related how this was such a difficult decision as I did so well at the interview and it was between me and a guy from Washington State.  Unfortunately for me, Mr. Washington just edged me out because he had once worked for the company.  They wanted to let me know personally because they had been so impressed with me.

Um, thanks?

I must admit that this was a first for me.  Never before has a potential employer called me to tell me that I didn’t get the job.  Still, I think it’s an incredibly polite and respectful thing to do.  When one considers that they could so easily send a form email and be done with me, I consider their actions nothing short of remarkable.  If I see another opportunity become available with this employer, I wouldn’t hesitate to apply again.

The end result is that this employer let me down easy, I am pleased to hear that I did so well at the interview, and I don’t feel as if I have wasted my time and energy.  It looks like I really did have a shot.

And next time, it will be my turn.

Oranges

Today I sing a song in praise of oranges.  Sweet, juicy and packed with Vitamin C as they are, I think they’re pretty special.

In the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, oranges were considered a luxury and a rare treat, particularly in England and continental Europe.  Due to the warm climate required for growing oranges, the British had to import them from places like Spain, Italy and northern Africa.  It was considered desirable to provide children with oranges to fend off scurvy, particularly during the cold, damp English winters.  Hence, using oranges as stocking stuffers became a Christmas tradition.

While conditions were not quite as austere in the 1960s New York of my childhood, oranges were definitely not on the everyday menu.  Oranges had to be transported from Florida, and they did not come cheap.  Our Vitamin C came in the form of orange juice, either the frozen variety or canned.

The first challenge one met upon removing a can of orange juice from the freezer was opening it.  This required prying off a tear strip that was often frozen to the can and refused to budge regardless of how strong one’s fingernails were.  My mother taught me the technique of using your teeth.  Once open, it was necessary to dig out the frozen mass with a spoon and wrestle it into a pitcher. Then add three cans of water and stir, stir, stir, using the side of the spoon to chop up recalcitrant pieces of frozen goo that refused to melt.

Orange juice in those big 46 ounce cans was a lot easier.  You just punched a hole in it with a church key.

The first time I ever saw an orange growing on a tree was during a very long car trip to Florida to visit my grandparents over Christmas vacation when I was in eighth grade.  Interstate 95 was not yet completed on the central Florida coast at the time, so we had to detour off onto the state highway between Fort Pierce and Vero Beach.  We drove past miles of orange groves, gawking all the way.  Dozens of fruit stands were open for business, catering to all the looky-loos from up north, just like us.  And the oranges were cheap!  At least by New York standards.  We filled the back of the station wagon with a pile of mesh bags of oranges to take home.

When my parents retired to California twenty years ago, they bought a new house in what was once an orange grove.  Sixty orange trees remained on their property.  They’re all dead now (the trees, not my parents).  Apparently, it takes an awful lot of water to keep an orange tree alive, particularly in the broiling hot summers of California’s Central Valley.  At first, my parents irrigated them with drip lines, but then they got old (my parents, not the trees) and it became too hard.

When one considers that oranges are so pleasing to both the eye and the palate, one may wonder why they have not played a more prominent role in popular culture.  It seems that the still life paintings of famous artists are filled with fruitbowls containing apples, pears and grapes.  One rarely sees an orange.

Then again, there is the famous rhyme about “oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clemens.”  And there is the well-known riddle that asks whether the color orange was named for the fruit or vice-versa.  And there is the oft-cited observation that there is no word in the English language that rhymes with “orange.”

I suppose I should round out this post by including a photo of some gorgeous oranges hanging on a tree.  However, we are traveling and I am posting from my cell phone and I have no idea how to do that fancy shit.

The End is Near

I don’t remember what’s it like not to have a regular paycheck.

For the most part, I’ve been gainfully employed since I finished college more than thirty years ago.  The first time I had to apply for unemployment was in 2009, and I had to go online and figure out how to do it.  It took me eight months to find another job, and I had a steady stream of (reduced) income during the entire period thanks to federal unemployment extensions.

Then came September of last year, when I was laid off by my broke employer.  This time, I knew how to apply for unemployment.  The funds that the state direct deposits into my checking account constitute only a small fraction of the income I had been earning as a middle manager.  But you know what?  I’m grateful for them.  They allow us to put food on the table and gas in the tank.

A week from tomorrow, I will receive the last one of those precious checks.  The lifeblood that keeps us going will stop, much like the last heartbeat of a life that has come to an end.  The last grain of sand will have passed through the hour glass.  Time’s up.

The state will keep you going for 26 weeks.  After that, the baton passes over to the feds.  But they’ve refused to take it, resulting in an early finish to this relay race.

I know that I’m more fortunate than most.  It’s been more than 26 weeks since I was laid off; I’ve been able to delay the inevitable by doing a few weeks of temporary work in between.  And we have the benefit of the economic and emotional support of extended family.  And we don’t have children to feed.  Hundreds of thousands of my fellow Americans don’t have these advantages.  They’re just plumb out of luck.

Still, it is going to be a strange experience indeed to not have any money coming in.  I imagine it must be something like the sound of one hand clapping, an odd sort of economic silence.

The state gives you a finite amount of time to find another job before it cuts you off.  Beyond the argument about limited government resources and a fair distribution of tax dollars, the implied philosophy is that six months should be more than enough time to secure gainful employment (and if it’s not, then it must be your own fault).

When this theory doesn’t work out so well due to a lack of jobs in a sluggish economy, the federal government considers it an “emergency” that warrants a temporary extension of unemployment benefits.  At the moment, however, our elected representatives appear convinced that the economy has improved enough, and that the unemployment rate is low enough, that no such extraordinary measures are needed.

The fact that I have applied and applied for jobs doesn’t seem to matter.  There aren’t as many jobs advertised in my field as there were the last time I found myself unemployed.  Still, most weeks I am able to find several to apply for.  And then I go apply for several more in other fields, or for which I am overqualified, or which pay a quarter of my previous field, or which are located two or three thousand miles away.

The rewards of my efforts are mostly in the form of silence.  Occasionally, I receive a form email containing such encouraging words as “Although your skills and experience met the minimum requirements for this position, we have had a strong candidate pool and you have not been selected for further consideration.”

I started out reacting to these kiss-offs with abject disappointment, then moved on to anger, and now have reached the stage of stoic silence.  Like Diana in A Chorus Line, I feel nothing.

When I admit to be sick of writing insipid essays that are supposed to convince employers that I am qualified to be a manager in their companies, my mother helpfully reminds me that “applying for jobs is your job now.”  And so I take yet another packet to the post office and pull out my stash of change while the clerk weighs the envelope.

This week, we are taking a longshot gamble.  Tomorrow we will hit the road so that I can attend a pair of cattle calls 450 miles away in southern California.  In order to avoid the necessity of making two trips, I was able to schedule one on Friday and the other on Monday.  This means we must hang out all weekend and pay for four nights in a motel.

I expect scores, if not hundreds, of applicants to show up on Friday morning.  But to really obtain a good picture of the scope of what is going on here, you must realize that this is one of six such sessions that the employer is holding.  That’s right, folks, for one job.  In total, I’m sure there must be thousands of applicants.  As I said, it’s a longshot gamble.  But what else have I got at this point?

I have already passed the first part of my application; after emailing a series of essay responses to the employer’s questions and sending off my résumé and references, I received a “congratulations” note inviting me to this cattle call.  At least it’s an interview, right?  Heck no!  I will be sitting in a room full of computers writing still more essays, my “written assessment.”

In the unlikely event that I am lucky enough to be among the handful called back to interview, we will have to pay to make this trip again.  It’s enough to make a person unsure of whether he wants to be selected or not.  Believe me, my wife and I discussed the situation over and over again, analyzing it inside and out, in an effort to decide whether it’s worth going at all.

So we lay out my white shirt and tie, pack the suitcase, fill the gas tank and say goodbye to another $500 out of our dwindling savings.  The trip involves eight to nine hours of driving, and I do hope that we are able to arrive back home at a reasonable hour on Monday evening.

I need to be up early on Tuesday so that I can dress up again, put on a smile and engage in firm handshakes as I pass out résumés at a job fair.

Passover Finale

Approximately four hours from now, I plan to go out to dinner with my wife.

This may not seem like a big deal, but believe me, it is.  Passover will finally end at sundown today.  After eight days of eating vegetables, fruit and hard, dry matzo, I am so ready to eat some decent food.

Now, you may say that vegans never eat any decent food.  This is the farthest thing from the truth.  But the religious dietary rules of Passover, which are difficult to follow for even dedicated carnivores, make putting together a proper vegan meal a real challenge.

So what do I look forward to eating?  Some protein, for one.  I now know that it’s possible to go eight days with virtually no protein, but it’s not exactly a thrill ride.  I definitely see a veggie burger and French fries in my immediate future.

It always takes me by surprise how things are honored in the breach.  We don’t really appreciate the good things in our lives until they’re gone.  Even things as simple as a toasted bagel.

So I’d like my soy products back, please.  And my legumes and my grains and my vinegar, too.  I think it’s time to buy a big block of super firm tofu.  I’m ready to toss a handful of green olives on my salad again, to indulge in a juicy, salty dill pickle and to eat a big bowl of oatmeal with soy milk for breakfast.  I want to find a loaf of crusty bread and slather it from here to tomorrow with hummus.  I want to make myself a bean burrito.  I want to enjoy a big bowl of tomato soup with rice and a plate piled high with spaghetti.  And I want my coconut milk “ice cream” for dessert.

I just hope that the transition back to my usual eating patterns doesn’t mess up my stomach too badly.  When you’re on diabetes medication, take it from me that any change in diet throws your gastrointestinal tract into fits that can reach epic proportions.

Today I marked the last day of Passover by preparing a feast of leftovers.  Just as we sweep all the hametz (leavened food items) out of our homes before the holiday, it is now time to get rid of what remains of the Passover food and return to your regularly scheduled program.

feast
The salad and baked potato were made fresh. The eggplant, carrots and boiled beets were all leftovers.

Passover is our festival of freedom, during which we celebrate our liberation from 400 years of slavery in ancient Egypt.  I like the idea that it is an opportunity to free ourselves from the bad patterns of action into which we have fallen, to break the bonds that enchain us to unproductive behaviors.  When it comes to food, I think it’s pretty safe to say that we all have habits that could stand to be broken.  But that doesn’t make the absence of our favorite foods any easier to bear.

It looks like I’ve made it through another Passover.  But I’ll risk irreverence by saying that I won’t miss it when it’s gone.

Vegan Passover

“Passover is a hard holiday,” my mother has always said.  And also:  “It’s Passover, you have to suffer a little.”

When you’re a vegan who observes the already formidable food restrictions of Passover, you suffer more than a little.  Particularly if your cooking skills are very limited.  My only saving grace is my wonderful wife who humors me and is a wiz with a grocery list.

During the week of Passover, we are not permitted to eat any hametz (leavened bread or any other product that contains or may contain leavening) or kitniyot (leguminous vegetables and most grains).  This is how it pans out:  No hametz means no bread, cake, muffins, bagels, cookies, pizza dough, pasta, mustard, grain-based alcohol or vinegar.  No kitniyot means no beans, peas, corn, peanuts or peanut butter, rice, quinoa or oats.  In other words, most commercial products that come in a can, box, bag or jar are out.  For one thing, almost everything contains corn syrup or corn starch or vinegar these days.  That crosses off most items you would find on a supermarket shelf, including soda pop, tomato sauce, soup, pickles, olives, salad dressings, jelly, candy, pretzels, yogurt, ice cream — you name it.

One coping mechanism that is tried and true among observant Jews is the purchase of specially made Passover products that don’t include any forbidden ingredients.  There are Passover cookies and cakes, Passover ice cream, Passover jam, Passover pickles and olives, Passover ketchup, Passover mayonnaise and on and on.  I used to buy these things with alacrity, and at premium prices too, back when I lived in the New York City metropolitan area.  But just try finding this stuff in a rural area of the western United States.  You can’t!  Some compensate by making the sixteen hour round trip to Los Angeles to pick up Passover specialties.  Others order Passover items online and have them shipped to their homes.  However, these tactics are out for me at present due to unemployment and its attendant budgetary restrictions.

eggplant

Baked eggplant with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes.

So what exactly do we eat during the eight days of Passover?  In Hebrew, Passover is known as hag ha’matzot, the festival of matzo, but man does not live by this dry, crispy cracker alone.  Traditionally, we eat meat, fish, dairy products, vegetables and fruit, purchasing these items fresh and avoiding canned and prepared products that may have impermissible additives.  As a vegan, however, the first three items are crossed off that list, leaving me with vegetables and fruit.

The most difficult part of observing Passover for a vegan is that soybeans are considered kitniyot and hence, no soy products are allowed.  As I do little cooking beyond what I can throw in the microwave, this restriction eliminates most sources of protein from my diet.  Veggie burgers, veggie hot dogs, tofu, soy milk, hummus, nondairy “cheese,” nondairy margarine — all go right out the window.  My other primary source of protein is beans, lovely chick peas, black beans, pintos, white northern beans.  All of these are legumes and hence prohibited.  Even my old standby, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, is forbidden.

So what’s a vegan to do for protein during Passover?  Some cope by ignoring the kitniyot restriction and eating soy products, justifying this on the grounds that Sephardic Jews (those whose ancestors hail from Spain) traditionally do so.  This is fine (I suppose) if you happen to be Sephardic.  If, like me, however, you’re of eastern European heritage and definitely not Sephardic, this justification for eating soy during Passover is really nothing but a bit of self-delusional folly for one’s own convenience.  And yet, there are plenty who play “let’s pretend” and do just that.  I think this is a bit like me pretending to be a Christian so that I can indulge in the Easter ham.  It makes no sense whatsoever.

Those of us who wish to be honest are left to eke out whatever protein we can find in non-leguminous vegetables.  Some say that spinach is an excellent source of protein, while others dispute this assertion.  This article claims that spinach contains 13 grams of protein per serving, while this article claims that it contains only one gram of protein.  Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and even potatoes also contain some protein, although nothing like what you get from beans.

orange stuff

Carrots and yams, Vitamin A à l’orange

The answer for a vegan who observes Passover is that you do the best you can.  I double down on spinach, broccoli and potatoes, along with my usual salad greens and fruit.  I eat lots of orange stuff, like yams and carrots, to get plenty of Vitamin A.  Dry matzo is made more palatable by spreading guacamole on it.

However, with avocadoes going for 88 cents apiece around here, I’m glad that Passover is only eight days long.  And that Tuesday at sundown it will be just a memory.

That is, until next April rolls around.

A Vegan Walks into a Seder

So a vegan walks into a Seder . . .

It sounds like the start of a not very funny joke with the punch line “the duck quacked up!”  Unfortunately, this is not too far from the facts.

On the first night of Passover, I attended a community Seder with my parents at their local Chabad House.  The rabbi, his wife and their children live there; the synagogue is in an unused bedroom and the Seder was conducted at long tables pushed together in the living room.

The Seder was advertised to begin at 7:15 pm.  As we are well aware that dinner is not served until an hour or so into the service, we ate at home beforehand.  It’s a good thing we did.

7:15 came and went with everyone milling around and chatting.  About a quarter to eight, the rabbi called everyone into the synagogue for a pre-Seder evening service.  He personally herded in all the men in attendance to be sure of a minyan (religious quorum) being present.  Only a few of the women entered the synagogue room to sit on the opposite side of the divider (men and women are required to sit separately).  Most of the women remained in the living room, socializing.

The Seder actually got underway a little after 8:30.  After the opening prayer, we sipped wine and ate a tiny piece of potato dipped in salt water, representing the contrast between the tears shed during our 400 years of slavery in Egypt and our freedom today.  From thence, approximately two more hours elapsed until dinner was served.  This was largely because the service was drawn out unnecessarily by interruptions for the playing of guessing games and other such palaver designed to make the proceedings more “meaningful.”  The prayer book (called a Hagaddah) used for the service, which tells the story of our exodus from Egypt, was in a similar hippy-dippy vein.  Traditional translations were mangled into unrecognizable mush.  For example, “the wicked son” (part of the parable of the four sons) was translated as “he who is totally chilled out.”  And “pillars of fire” was translated as “mushroom clouds.”  I half expected to find “Dude!” or “Far Out!” in place of “Amen.”

The rabbi presided over the service from the head of the table, while I ended up seated at the far end of the long living room, nearly at the door.  The hubbub of dozens of conversations buzzed all around me, as if no one were paying any attention at all to the service.  How rude!  The combination of the cacophony and my distance from the rabbi meant that I was barely able to hear anything that was going on at the head table.

Meanwhile, people were getting hungry and therefore dug into the Seder plate and the appetizers that had been set out in advance, taking no notice of whether or not it was the correct point in the service to do so.

Dinner began coming out to the tables shortly after 10:30 pm.  The first plate served consisted of a slab of salmon, some egg salad, a lettuce leaf and a slice of tomato.  Being a vegan, I passed my plate on down the table.

Next came the gefilte fish.  Pass it on down.

Then came the chicken soup.  Pass it on down.

By this time, some of the guests sitting near me were concerned that I wasn’t eating anything.  “Are you a vegan?” one of them asked.  Answering in the affirmative, my predicament was passed on to the rabbi’s wife and her assistants in the kitchen.  Thus, when the entrée came around (roast beef and turkey), I was handed a plate with some glazed carrots, a piece of yam and a pile of beets that looked like chopped-up escapees from a recent batch of borscht.

Fortunately, there were little dishes of guacamole and ratatouille on the table, and I ate a lot of this slathered on matzo.

I should report that the next night turned out much better.  We held the second Seder at my parents’ house, with just the three of us in attendance.  My mother announced that she was too tired “to make a production” and that dinner would consist of a boiled egg and gefilte fish out of a jar.

At least I knew what to expect.  We started the service at a more reasonable hour and reached the dinner service about an hour later.  I had prepared my own baked eggplant, tomato and mushroom dish (with plenty of onion and garlic) and took it out of the oven piping hot just before it was time to eat.

Delicious!

 

Passover Stories

matzo

My teenaged niece, who is not Jewish, asked me to explain why on Passover I will eat sunflower seeds in the shell, but not sunflower nuts in a jar.  She then asked me whether I am required to eat nothing but matzo for the entire eight days of the holiday.

It’s awfully hard explaining our traditions.  As she did not know the story of Passover, I attempted to summarize the Book of Exodus as best I could.  My wife said I was taking too long and should deliver the short version.  Then she asked me if this was the short version.

Someone hand me a Haggadah, please.  After all, the Bible teaches that it is our duty to retell the story of Passover year after year, to teach it to our children so that it is handed down l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation.

I attempted to synopsize the story of the Jews going down to Egypt due to a famine in the Land of Canaan and then being enslaved by the Pharaohs for 400 years.  I covered the rise of Moses as our leader, the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians and how the houses of the Jews marked with the blood of the lamb on the doorposts were “passed over” on the night of the slaying of the firstborn.  I explained that the women kneaded dough for bread every day and left it on the hot rocks to rise and bake in the Egyptian sun, and that when Pharaoh thrust the Jews out of Egypt without a moment’s notice on the morning following the tenth plague, the women grabbed the dough that was barely a flat cracker because it hadn’t yet had time to rise.  This, of course, was the prototype of the hard, crispy, unleavened matzo that we eat during Passover to this day.

I encouraged my niece to read the Book of Exodus and learn the whole story.  She asked me whether it is scary.  “Not as scary as the Book of Revelation,” I replied.

I don’t expect her to take me up on my offer.  Even if she did check out the second book of the Bible, she would learn nothing about the customs regarding kitniyot, the legumes (corn, beans, peas, peanuts and products made therefrom) that we traditionally avoid during Passover.  And she certainly would not be enlightened as to the Talmudic origins of why this week we don’t eat nuts and seeds unless we remove them from the shells ourselves.  I’m sure she would be even more confused if I tried to explain the difference between kitniyot and hametz (most grain products) or if I told her that Jews in some parts of the world eat the former but not the latter during Passover.  We have so many laws, rules and customs, some Biblical and others of rabbinic origin, some ancient and others that have evolved over time.

When I told my niece that Joseph went down to Egypt after his brothers sold him into slavery, I was pleased that she remembered that he was an interpreter of dreams.  I’m sure she remembers some Bible stories from when she was little and attended Sunday school and kids’ church.  But I fear that it is no longer reasonable to expect the teens of today to read the Bible.  To them, even the Vietnam War reads like ancient history, much less events that occurred thousands of years ago.  Perhaps it’s our own fault for not presenting the Bible as a living, breathing work that may be more relevant today than it ever was.

And what about our other Passover stories?  There are the happy stories, the ones in which many of us have experienced personal miracles in our lives during Passover.  But, alas, there are also the truly frightening stories of blood libel, when Passover was used as an excuse to slaughter Jews by the hundreds following unjust accusations of such ghastly horrors as using the blood of Christian children in our rituals.  The facts that the consumption of blood and the primitive practice of human sacrifice are both strictly prohibited by our faith were routinely ignored.

On the first night of Passover, I attended a community Seder (our traditional service and dinner) at a synagogue with my parents.  As the participants gathered, the early arrivals milled about, enjoying the snack table while they renewed old acquaintances and made new ones.  I listened attentively as the rabbi held forth to a group of people on how strictly observant shmura matzo is made.  These matzos are round rather than the commercially made rectangular box matzos.  They are super thin and therefore have a tendency to be burned at the edges.  The word shmura means “watched,” and watched they are — from the time the grain is harvested through the flour grinding process and the baking.  Matzo is made from just two ingredients, flour and water.  To avoid the possibility of unintentional leavening, the flour must be held in a totally dry area separated from the water until kneading.  From the moment the water touches the flour until the final, baked product comes out of the oven, no more than eighteen minutes may elapse.  The rabbi told us that with modern, computerized ovens, baking occurs in a matter of ten seconds.

I soon began a conversation with the rabbi’s wife.  She related to me that a non-Jewish member of the community phoned the synagogue a few days earlier to request lamb’s blood.  Assuming that, as Jews, we would be slaughtering a lamb for Passover, he asked if he could please purchase some of the blood.

My eyes grew wider as the story went on.  Could it be that some still don’t know that animal sacrifice stopped with the destruction of the Holy Temple thousands of years ago?  The caller began pleading, the rabbi’s wife told me.  He explained that we are experiencing a “blood moon” and that if he doesn’t paint some lamb’s blood on his doorposts, something terrible will happen.

“What a lunatic!” I blurted out.

Seeing that I was getting stirred up by this story, the rabbi’s wife finally relented.  “I’m kidding,” she admitted.

I didn’t find this funny at all, but then again, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of having no sense of humor.

 

Passover in the Here and Now

MADERA

The neighborhood roosters begin crowing you awake long before the rising of the sun. Soon, the cacophonous chirp and twitter of a veritable avian orchestra joins them, led by a pair of mourning doves calling to each other, seemingly without surcease.  Someone’s donkey is braying good morning.  Hauling myself out of bed to sit on my parents’ back patio with a cup of tea, I can barely see the horse next door.  It is virtually camouflaged by outbuildings and undergrowth, the swish of the tail just visible  as it munches the dry grass close by the fence, with only the occasional whinny to remind the world that it is here.

I am visiting my parents for a week at their home out in the country.  I will catch up with old friends in Fresno, trade words across a Scrabble board and munch matzo with my my mother and father at the two Passover Seders.

In spite of the early morning hullaballoo occasioned by the local fauna, this place is notable for its peace and quiet.  My parents say they are bothered by the sounds of cars speeding past on their way out to Road 37 or Highway 145, heading to work or shop in Fresno and points farther afield.  But it is different for me.  As I live a block from a freeway exit, here I notice only the sounds of the birds and the animals.  The roar of eighteen wheel diesels, to which I have become accustomed, is conspicuously absent.

It is springtime, and my parents are constantly out gardening and tending to their large property.  Recently, they had to kill a couple of poisonous snakes.  My mother complains about the moles digging up her vegetables.  She has put down wire mesh beneath her box plantings to deter the rodents.  Touring her garden, I notice the plethora of insects and worms in attendance.

“The birds must love it here,” I remark.

“Why don’t you ask them?” she replies without missing a beat.

At the age of eighty, my parents’ quick wits and definite opinions are as sharp as ever.  My mother complains about everything:  My weight, my clothes, my career moves, my sister, her cousin from Los Angeles, the neighbors, supermarket prices, even the birds.  There is one bird on her property, she insists, that mocks her by calling out “Debbie stinks, Debbie stinks, Debbie stinks!”

During my visit, my mother spoils me by cooking my favorite traditional dishes:  Lima bean soup, borscht with boiled potato, stuffed cabbage, homemade apple pie.  But she just finished a course of antibiotics for an infection in her arm, and she finds it painful to do all that chopping and grating.  I have agreed to prepare the haroseth tomorrow, the traditional paste of apples, walnuts and cinnamon that we eat during the Seder.  I will add chopped dates, the way she likes it.  Saving her all that peeling and cutting is the least I can do.

Now it is evening, and we drag folding chairs out of the garage to enjoy the cool breeze that blows down the driveway.  We chat about old times, describing our memories of events that occurred fifty years ago.  Then it is time for the great star show.  With few street or house lights, it is dark out here; the jewel encrusted night sky shines forth in all its twinkly splendor, as if for our enjoyment alone.  The only constellation I recognize is Orion.  My mother points out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and Cassiopeia, while she searches for red-hued Beetlegeuse, which was burning out even when she studied astronomy back in college, she tells me.  Later, after TV episodes of “Call the Midwife” and “The Good Wife,” we will sit on the couch and pore over albums full of black and white photos from the sixties and seventies.

I wonder how long this will last.  My father still dons a hat and heads out to mow the property in 95 degree heat.  My mother still digs and plants and prunes and waters.  As their health issues increase, however, it becomes painfully obvious that this cannot go on forever.

The nightly cricket concert is well underway, and I have box seats courtesy of my open window.  And as I allow the chirping to lull me to sleep in the guest bedroom of my parents’ house, I am reminded that I must cherish every moment here.

For as much as I miss my wife and my comfortable routine back at home, I can’t escape the fact that today could be the last time I get to do this.

 

 

Unemployment Extension Passes in the Senate (House Repubs Say “So What?”)

The procedural feints, the delaying tactics, the fights over amendments and the attempts to filibuster have finally come to an end.  After three months of political wrangling between Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. Senate finally passed the unemployment extension bill on Monday.

The final vote was 59-38, with 51 Democrats, six Republicans and two independents approving the measure.  The bill would provide five months of benefit checks to the long-term unemployed, those of us who have been out of work for more than six months.  Most states provide unemployment benefits for the first 26 weeks after an employee is laid off; typically, the federal government picks up from there.  However, the federal unemployment extension enabling legislation expired on December 29, cutting off more than a million Americans from any source of income.  Since then, another million and a half of us have run out our six months of state benefits, leaving us out of money and out of luck.

The problem with the limited amount of state employment available is that, in the present economy, a person who is laid off requires far more than six months to find another one.  Without the federal extension, those who lose their jobs have also been losing their homes and depending on the assistance of Food Stamps, food banks and extended family to keep their kids from going hungry.

Now that the Senate bill has passed, what does it mean for us?  Not much.  Will unemployment checks resume anytime soon?  No.

The most important thing my fellow unemployed Americans should know at this point is this:  Do not spend or borrow even a penny in anticipation of the unemployment extension.  The check is not in the mail, folks.  And it probably never will be.

True, the bill has passed in the Senate, but it still has to pass in the House of Representatives and be signed by the president before it can become law.  President Obama has long favored extending unemployment benefits, so that is not an issue.  The problem is that it will be extremely difficult for the measure to pass in the House.

This is not to say that passage in the House is impossible.  Anything is possible.  It just doesn’t seem very likely at this point.  House Speaker John Boehner has made it clear that he has no intention of bringing the unemployment extension bill to a vote.  Not that anything could be done for a while anyway.  Starting Friday, the House will be out of session for the next two weeks.

It has already taken three months of head-butting and grandstanding in the Senate to get this far.  And that’s with a Democratic majority.  The House, which is more than quadruple the size of the Senate, is controlled by Republicans.  And congressional Republicans, starting with Boehner, have made it clear that they have no intention of bailing out more than three million Americans who have been rendered penniless after the economy left them choking on dust.

In my last post, I suggested that Sen. Rob Portman, who broke ranks with most of his caucus to help the unemployment extension pass, meet with Boehner, his friend and fellow Ohioan to try to talk some sense into him.  Now that the measure has gone to the House, it appears that others have had the same idea.

Glimmers of hope amidst controversy

According to The Washington Post, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, one of the six Republicans who voted yea, has requested a meeting with Boehner to discuss the unemployment extension.  Meanwhile, seven congressmen from Boehner’s own party have written him a letter requesting that the House take up the Senate bill immediately.  The letter was signed by three representatives from New York, three from New Jersey and Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada.

However, Boehner had previously indicated his opposition to the Senate bill because it is not tied to jobs-creation measures and because expecting states to cut checks retroactively is “unworkable.”  Some congressional Republicans claim that issuing checks all the way back to December could result in massive fraud and could even result in millionaires receiving unemployment extension benefits.  Other suggest that many states simply lack the data processing muscle to handle retroactive issuance of benefits.  Still others point out that it would be next to impossible to find all the claimants who would be entitled to back unemployment checks.  Many Democrats regard these arguments as smokescreens.

The bottom line is that congressional Republicans oppose helping unemployed Americans because they believe that we are lazy and don’t want to work.  If we are suffering, the argument goes, it is all our own fault.  If we were to diligently pound the pavement, we’d find a job and would be able to support our families without depending on government handouts.

The hubris of this viewpoint is illustrated by the fact that free market creation of jobs has stalled while the unemployment rate remains steady at about 6.7%.  The argument against this figure is that the unemployment rate is “only” 6.7%, down from 10% seven or eight years ago.

What the unemployment figures fail to account for, however, is that many Americans have been out of work for a very long time and have simply fallen off the charts.  If someone lost his or her job four or five years ago, searched hard and long for work and finally gave up in hopelessness and despair, that person is considered to have left the job market and is not included in the unemployment statistics that are published in the news.  If everyone falling into this category were counted, the true number of unemployed Americans would likely top the 10% figure reported at the height of the recession.

Boehner and his Republican brethren also argue that we cannot afford the expense of the unemployment extension.  Of course, we can afford everything else, from funding the Keystone pipeline to sending money overseas to a trillion dollar military budget.  What we’re talking about here is providing needy families with some temporary help to the tune of about $256 weekly for a period of five months.  To say that this is a budget-busting measure that would destroy efforts to reduce the federal deficit is nothing short of ridiculous.

And then there is the Republican argument that recipients of back unemployment checks will quickly run through their windfall, leaving them still unemployed and still seeking government support.  Considering the dire straits in which hundreds of thousands of unemployed families have found themselves, it is undoubtedly true that back unemployment benefits will be used for things like food and paying overdue rent.  Making these types of purchases will expand the economy and create jobs, making re-employment of aid recipients more likely.

So, you see, the unemployment extension is itself a job creation plan.  In fact, it would create as many as 300,000 new jobs, by the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate.  Boehner’s assertion that the Senate bill should not move forward unless a way is found to create more jobs represents circuitous logic that is as mindless and exhausting as a dog chasing its tail.

RIP Duke Griego.  Your small-town diner will live on as your legacy in our community for decades to come.

 

References

Associated Press, “Unemployment Benefits Bill Headed to House,” Washington Post (Congress, April 8, 2014).

Isquith, Elias, “House GOP Hopes to Ignore Senate-Passed Unemployment Insurance Extension,” salon.com (April 8, 2014).

Lowery, Wesley, “Senate Passes Extension to Unemployment Insurance, Bill Heads to House,” Washington Post (Post Politics, April 7, 2014).