Passover Reflections

Well, I made it through Passover.  Eight days of dry matzo.  And, as a vegan, eight days of no protein.  That, of course, is not totally accurate, as some vegetables that I eat regularly even when it’s not Passover (spinach and broccoli, for example) contain some protein.  Nevertheless, I look forward to returning to my chick peas, my tofu, my Boca Burgers and all my other soy stuff.

I ended up attending only one of the two Passover Seders this year, but it’s better than nothing, which is what I’ve been stuck with on a few recent occasions.  “You can always read the Hagaddah by yourself,” my mother offered last week, before proceeding to complain about how pitiful would be the little Seder that she would have with just my father present.  “You’re supposed to have other people there,” she told me.  I bit my lip as I was thinking “You really should invite someone, then.”  Two of her children live four hours away and the other lives in Texas.  It’s not that easy for us to get away.  I begged off this year by citing the fact that I just changed job assignments a few days earlier and couldn’t very well tell my new boss “Thanks for hiring me.  May I have a day off?”  I didn’t mention anything about fervently desiring to preserve my sanity in light of the outrageous shenanigans that transpired during our most recent visit.

As fate would have it, I couldn’t have gone anyway.  The week had been particularly hectic at work with me interviewing applicants and trying to hire some new staff, starting to learn the details of my new job and assisting my replacement as she stepped into my former role.  The day of the first Seder, all hell broke loose, as it does from time to time in a busy office.  My boss was about to go out of town for meetings and needed dozens of things prepped for her.  I ended up working so late that I had to cancel my plans to attend a Seder at a synagogue about 30 miles away.  I settled for attending a Seder the second night, held at the rabbi’s home.

I had never met this rabbi before, nor had I ever attended his synagogue.  It is a Chabad synagogue, which has the advantage of being highly inclusive and welcoming to everyone (whether they can contribute financially or not), but has the disadvantage of being ultra-Orthodox, which is decidedly not my cup of tea.  As it is for many Jews whose incomes don’t allow them to support a synagogue beyond a small donation at the High Holidays, I am usually stuck with Chabad or nothing.  Most of the time, I choose nothing.  I have my prayer books and pray daily at home (or often, on the way to work while my wife zooms downs the freeway).  I wish things were different, but I do understand that someone has to pay the expenses of operating any house of worship (they have mortgages and utilities just like everyone else, and programs to run on top of it).  As our faith prohibits us from handling money on the Sabbath, we can’t just “pass the plate” like churches do.  Still, it is kind of sad that most synagogues in the Conservative movement in which I was raised do distasteful things like ask prospective members to meet with their financial officers or dun them for monthly payments.  Some have an established schedule of how much members are expected to pay based on their incomes.  No.  Just no.  There is something inherently wrong about being asked to pay to pray.  It’s not how God operates.

Passover, however, is a little different.  Other than the autumn High Holidays, Passover is arguably the most important Jewish holiday of the year.  It is deeply steeped in a plethora of traditions, among which is literally opening the door so that all who wish to join us may do so.  Chabad requested a donation of $36 per person, primarily to cover the food, as the Seder includes a full dinner.  I called the rabbi in advance and explained that no extra food should be prepared for us.  My wife is a very picky eater, I explained (traditional Jewish food is not her thing), and as for me, well, I’m a vegan, so there you have it.  I did pay $36, as I felt it was only fair to make some type of contribution.  As it turned out, my wife wasn’t able to attend, as she had to be up early for Easter service the following morning.

I arrived at 9:00 p.m., the scheduled start time of the Seder.  Half an hour later, people were still arriving, and we didn’t get started until 10:00 or so.  The rabbi introduced himself and shook my hand as I entered, after which I simply sat and waited for an hour.  Friends and family chatted amiably among one another, while I, who did not know anyone, sat in a corner and observed it all.  No one bothered to say a word to me.

Later, at the Seder table, two of the people sitting near me asked my name.  Eventually, one asked what I did for a living.  And that was about it.  I wish now that I had said “Actually, I’m a blogger, so smile!  You’re on candid camera!”

The young man seated to my right worked in a local health care facility and had to leave around 1 a.m. to make the start of his shift.  I heard him tell another attendee that he considers the Bay Area his home and rents a room there to which he repairs on his days off.  The young man at my left appeared to be the son of the woman sitting next to him.  He was one of those people who can only be described as of indeterminate age:  He could have been 13 or 25.  He remained silent throughout most of the Seder.  I suspect that he may have had some type of developmental disability.  When asked to read from the Hagaddah, he stammered out about two sentences in English and then refused to read when asked thereafter.

About 20 of us were present, seated around three tables.  We were urged to recite in the language of our choice, and I belted out the paragraph in Hebrew on the two occasions on which I was asked to read.  When it came to the traditional Four Questions, the rabbi wanted them recited in as many languages as we could manage.  Among those assembled, we managed to recite the passage in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Russian, Yiddish, English and undoubtedly a few other languages that I don’t recall.  In typical Orthodox fashion, one of the rabbi’s sons (no older than 12 or so) made explanations of several portions of the service in well-rehearsed, fluent Yiddish.  I remember this well from my nightmarish days at an ultra-Orthodox elementary school.

There was one Jewish story told by the rabbi that I had never heard before.  A verse of the Hagaddah states that the Lord gave Mount Seir to Esau as a possession, but his brother Jacob went down to Egypt with his sons.  “Whatever happened to Esau?” asked one of the rabbi’s sons.  “He died there!” replied the rabbi, before explaining exactly how.  Years later, when Jacob died, Esau attended his funeral.  Apparently, Esau, who had a reputation from his youth as a wild, uncivilized man, was carrying on and making trouble.  One of Dan’s sons (grandson of the deceased Jacob) was deaf and didn’t understand what was going on.  All he knew was that Esau was creating a ruckus at a solemn occasion, so the young man unsheathed his sword and summarily lopped off Esau’s head.  As the story goes, the head then rolled into the tomb of Jacob.  Although Esau’s body was buried elsewhere, his head will share his father’s final resting place for eternity.  Interesting, isn’t it?  I didn’t dare ask whether Dan’s deaf son spent the rest of his life in prison for murdering Esau.

Dinner, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the service, didn’t even begin until after midnight.  Passing up the beef, the chicken, the fish, the soup and the traditional hard-boiled eggs, I still managed to eat fairly well just off the side dishes.  There was a beet and onion salad, a mango and avocado salad, pickled cucumbers and a sweet potato kugel.  And plenty of matzo.  Like many of the Orthodox, this rabbi used schmureh matzos, which adhere to the strictest of religious standards and are very carefully watched from the wheat field through the baking process to ensure that no leavening enters the product.  They are very thin, huge and round, and were extracted from large boxes bearing the name, address and phone number of the bakery in Borough Park, Brooklyn.  They were about half the thickness of the already thin rectangular matzos that I buy, but unfortunately these were pretty well burnt.  As they are flash baked for an extremely short time in pizza-style ovens, I don’t know how they had time to get in that condition.  While I was impressed that they had traveled all the way across the country to reach our table, I did not enjoy eating them.  All I tasted was — charcoal.

I left before dessert was served and before the second part of the Seder began, as it was well past one o’clock in the morning and I still had a 40-minute drive home.

On the way home, I thought about my parents.  They attended a Seder at a similar Chabad near their hometown on the first night of Passover, but were by themselves for the second night while I was at a Chabad Seder near here.  “Who could my parents have invited?” I wondered.  They don’t have any friends in the area.  Even though they’ve lived in California for 17 years, most of their acquaintances are still back in New York and New Jersey.  My parents have never been social people anyway.  They have always kept to themselves.  Somehow, that seems kind of sad, particularly for octogenarians.

I called my parents this morning, but we didn’t talk long because they were on the way out to attend services for the final day of Passover.  Now, a phone call with my parents, even the rare short one (most go on for more than an hour), is always an adventure.  I think of it a bit like a roller coaster ride.  I never know what is going to come out of my mother’s mouth.  She might say something insulting that will force me to hang up on her.  Or, as she did today, she might tell me an old family story that I’ve heard dozens of times before, repeated because, 50 years later, she’s still angry about what happened.  Or she could relate detailed stories about what’s going on with my sisters.  Or she might get into a bit of Jewish folklore.  She did that today, as well.

This time, she explained the reasons that Jewish parents do not name their children after themselves.  For example, you almost never find Jews with names ending in “Sr.,” “Jr.” or “III.”  The tradition, my mother told me, is that if a child is named after either the mother or the father, either the child or the parent will die.

“Oh, Mom, that’s a superstition,” I replied.

Actually, there is another more practical reason for this, she continued.  In the old days in Europe, large extended families lived together in compounds.  If a daughter had the same name as her mother, terrible things could happen.  Without electricity, they had very dark nights.  If the husband was in bed and called out for the wife, a daughter with the same name might come instead, get in bed with him, and the proceedings from there would be in the nature of incest.  To prevent this from happening, daughters are never named after their mothers.

To place this is in context, you have to remember that there is a long Jewish tradition of mistaken identity regarding the woman who is in bed with you, going back to the Book of Genesis.  Jacob falls in love with the young, beautiful Rachel, but, in a classic switcheroo, unknown to him, Rachel’s older plain-looking sister, Leah, is swapped out on their wedding night.  Jacob only figures this out after the damage has been done.  When it’s really dark, can any man truly be sure whom he’s having sex with?

The whole thing sounds beyond hokey in our current day and age.  Besides, it would seem that boys could be named after their fathers because they (one would hope) wouldn’t be called upon for command sexual performances deep in the night.  But then there’s that thing about either the father or the son dying.

How such ideas persist into modern times is beyond me.  But as I sat through the dozens of rituals that are part of the Passover Seder, I was reminded of the fact that tradition dies hard.

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