Recall

 

Saturday afternoon.  I am over in the next county sitting in the waiting room of a giant auto dealership, waiting for one of our cars to be serviced.  We have two vehicles, completely different models and manufacturers, but both have been subject to recalls in recent months.  Lacking a mechanical bone in my body, I don’t even try to understand what electronic thingamajig has to be replaced or adjusted to avoid having our vehicle go up in flames or self-destruct in some other equally dramatic fashion.  While I’m there, they can change the oil and check our alarm system that keeps going off, at least according to our landlord.

Funny thing about recalls.  It used to be that when a product was recalled, it meant that you could return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.  While this construct continues to apply to hummus, kids’ toys, power tools and gardening equipment, somehow the concept hasn’t caught on with big ticket items like automobiles.  Giving me my money back seems like a reasonable form of demonstrating contrition for screwing up.  I’m sure the dealership isn’t thrilled about having to conduct free repairs on hundreds of cars, but presumably they are being compensated by the manufacturer.  As for me, my Saturday is now shot and there is no compensation to be found.

They have the A/C cranking at the dealership and the waiting room is freezing.  My allergies, already having kicked into overdrive (gotta love springtime), decide to have a little party at my expense while I am a captive audience.  I’m glad I remembered to bring a handkerchief.

I brought a thick book with me, but rather than improving my mind, I am allowing it to turn to mush by messing around on my phone.  The place has wifi, so what the heck.  In walks a man and his developmentally disabled teenager, who sit across from me.  Every time I cough, the boy looks straight at me and asks “Are you alright?”  His father does not admonish him.  Perhaps I am nothing but an inveterate meanie (or just an incorrigible old fart), but my thoughts are not particularly charitable at this time.  About the third or fourth time that I cough and he asks the same question, I blurt out “Yes! Are you?”

Then my mother calls.  She wants to fill me in on the blow by blow of the Chabad Seder she attended on Monday evening.  This is followed by the details of the community Seder that my sister attended over in the Bay Area.  I should mention that I have very little contact with my sisters (believe me, it’s for the best), so Mom feels compelled to fill me in on the minutia of their lives.  I roll my eyes and say “yep,” “uh-huh,” “that’s good” and “wow!” in the appropriate places.

For the uninitiated, Chabad is an Orthodox Jewish organization that specializes in outreach to Jews scattered all over the world, particularly those in remote locations where little or no Jewish life is available.  They encourage donations, but unlike other synagogues, never require anyone to pay anything to attend a Passover Seder in the spring or High Holy Day services in the fall.  Although I strongly disagree with many of their beliefs, I continue to support them and am proud of their inclusiveness in that they turn no one away, Jew or non-Jew, black or white, religious or secular, poor or rich, old or young.

I have attended several Chabad communal Seders with my parents, most recently last year.  My mother’s description of the disorganization, the bad food and the strange characters in attendance sounded exactly like what I remember.  She complained about the constant conversations that prevented her from hearing the rabbi and caused her to keep losing track of what blessing he was saying and what everyone was supposed to be eating at any particular point.  The Seder attended by my sister was no better.  Having had bariatric surgery (years ago now), she could not tolerate the food and kept having to leave the room to upchuck the bite or two she managed to get down.

I cough.  My mother asks if I have a cold.  The kid sitting across from me asks “Are you alright?”  Grrr!

My mother is fed up with the Chabad Seders but she says it’s better than sitting at home and having a Seder with just my father (who has no interest in anything religious).  However, she points out, my other sister (the one in Texas) did exactly that with her husband this year.  Instead of a big family celebration, it was just the two of them.  Next year, Mom tells me, she is making the Seder in her home.  I quickly check the date on my phone and find that it falls on a Friday night.  Yes!  I’ll be there, I tell her.  (And think to myself:  God willing.)

Who knows what will happen between this Passover and next?  Will I still be around?  Will both of my parents, who are in their eighties?  It occurs to me that it is not only cars that are recalled.

My mother and father begin arguing in the background.  He wants to go into town to do some shopping and she says no, it’s too late in the day already, she’s going to start dinner.  They can go tomorrow, she tells him.  No!  He doesn’t want to go tomorrow, he’s going to mow the lawn then.  Mom:  We can go before or after!  Dad:  No!  I’m too tired to go if I mow the lawn!  Mom: Okay, then we’ll go Monday!

These two have been arguing about everything for nearly 65 years.  I am amazed at how they have managed to stay together, particularly when I remember the knock-down, drag-out screaming matches they used to have when my sisters and I were kids.  The many fond memories I have of my childhood can never make up for that.  It doesn’t help that their current conduct reminds me of that past ugliness nearly every time I visit or talk with them on the phone.

And yet.  They’re my parents.  The ones who raised me.  The ones who put up with me when I was not at my finest.  And I know that they’re not going to be around forever.  I am getting old and am not in the best of health myself, so I have to laugh when I realize that I’m at the point of wondering who will go first, me or them.

Despite all I’ve been through, I know I will take it hard when they’re not around anymore.  By the same token, my father has let me know in no uncertain terms that he will never forgive me if I die before he does.  Note for a future post:  Do dead people need forgiveness?

I hope it is God’s will that we all make it long enough to attend that Seder together at my  parents’ house down in the Central Valley on March 30 of next year.  I plan to take the day off work and arrive the night before.  I can help make the sweet haroseth and then set the Seder plate by referring to the Hebrew embroidery on my grandmother’s matzah tosh (covering for the three pieces of ceremonial unleavened bread).

I tell Mom I have to hang up because the car is done.  The dealership tells me that I should replace my battery and air filter, that two of my running lights are out, and a couple of other things that sound like automotive Greek to me.  How much?  The guy punches numbers into a calculator and tells me it’ll be about $320.  Are you kidding, man?  I text my wife, who is up north with her family for Easter, to confirm that we’re not buying their bullshit.  Car guys, geez!  Shysters all, who live and die by the upsell.

I pay for the oil change and head for the door.  I cough.  “Are you alright?” says the kid, followed by an enthusiastic “bye!” as I walk out.

“Bye!” I respond.  “Have a great day!”

May all our recalls be of the automobile kind, fixable in an afternoon.

 

Passover Food Challenges

With the eight days of Passover starting Monday night, I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic.  I first led a Seder, the traditional family dinner at which we recite the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, at the age of six.  Neither of my parents were able to read the Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah, and I had already been attending an Orthodox Jewish school for two years.  We hold two Seders, on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, and I have attended at least one nearly every year of my life.

This year will be an exception.  I thought about driving four hours to visit my parents and attend a Seder at their synagogue, but that would have required me to take two to three days off work.  I could attend a communal Seder at one of the area synagogues, but even then I’d have to take at least a day off work.  The Seder can’t start until sundown, and usually lasts until well past midnight.  That makes it tough to get up for work at 4:30 in the morning.  So I will have to skip the Seder this year, although that doesn’t mean that I will “pass over Passover.”  The holiday comes with many dietary restrictions and I plan to honor as many as I am able.

As bad as I feel about not attending a Seder, the whole matzo situation makes it even worse.  Matzo is the traditional crackerlike flatbread that we eat for eight days to remind us of the unleavened bread pulled abruptly off the hot rocks of Egypt before the loaves had time to rise when the Jews were thrust out into the wilderness without a moment’s notice.  Granted, it gets old after four or five days, but I know I will miss it.  Made of only wheat and water and baked for less than seven minutes, it’s not a food for the gluten-sensitive.  Sure, I could order an expensive box of gluten-free matzo online, but it wouldn’t be made of wheat and therefore wouldn’t satisfy the ritual requirement of the mitzvah.  So what’s the point?

At the Seder, we eat many traditional foods, including a green vegetable (always celery in my family) dipped in salt water, super hot horseradish, and the delicious haroseth (apples and walnuts chopped up fine, seasoned with cinnamon and a dollop of grape wine).  We drink four cups of wine or grape juice.  And then there is the dinner, which at my parents’ house always included hard boiled eggs (dipped in the salt water left over from the celery), chicken soup with matzo ball dumplings, gefilte fish (cold fish patties with salty fish jelly), homemade borscht (beet soup, usually served cold) and then meat, potatoes, carrots and dessert.  My mom usually served homemade applesauce before we put the tea on to boil and broke out the honey cake and coconut macaroons.  It’s hard to leave a Seder without being utterly stuffed.

Of course, as a vegan, I no longer eat most of these things.  And being gluten-free clearly does not help the situation.  Traditionally, on Passover we eat no bread, corn, rice, cereal, pasta, legumes or anything that might become leavened.  This means no corn, including any prepared item containing corn syrup.  It means no beans, including soybeans, which means no tofu.  In other words, most of my vegan protein sources are off-limits for the next eight days.  Most Passover desserts contain dairy, eggs or both, so those are out for vegans.  It makes an already difficult holiday just this side of bearable.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Lots of meat and fish, lots of eggs and lots of dairy.  Good luck, vegans.  We do eat fruit and some types of vegetables.  In my case, I go through many pounds of potatoes and carrots, plus some eggplant, zucchini, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms, and lots of salad.  My favorite fake burgers, made of pea protein, are out.  So is my fake cheese and anything made with vinegar (think mustard, salad dressing, pickles, olives, hot sauce).  I flavor everything with black pepper, garlic and lemon.  I eat lots of plums, apples, bananas and citrus.

In the old days, my Passover breakfast might be cottage cheese with fruit and matzo with cream cheese or fried eggs or matzo brei (pieces of matzo dipped in egg and fried).  Now, it’s potatoes.  In the old days, my Passover lunch would typically involve tuna on buttered matzo and hard boiled eggs with maybe a slice or two of tomato.  Now, it’s potatoes.  Maybe with some carrots or plain salad with lemon.  Very boring and largely protein-free.  I try to remember to eat spinach or broccoli each day, as they each contain a small amount of protein.

My mother has always referred to Passover as “a hard holiday.”  However, the difficulties are tempered by many delicious traditional foods and lots of Passover sweets.  None of those benefits accrue to those eating a vegan, gluten-free diet.  True, you can be creative, particularly if you cook.  I don’t.  I am highly fortunate that my wife is willing to boil pounds of potatoes and roast vegetables in the oven for me.

And yet here I am, with Passover not yet begun, already looking forward to the holiday being over.  I suppose I should look at the bright side.  Perhaps I will gain an improved perspective on the hardships faced by my ancestors who, having escaped slavery due to the Lord splitting the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for forty years.

Eight days seems mighty reasonable by comparison.

 

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.

Why I Eat Matzo at Passover

Yehuda matzos

“Passover is a hard holiday,” my mother would always say.

True, Passover involves a lot of food restrictions, no eating out in restaurants, too much work cooking and cleaning and a seemingly endless procession of constipation-inducing matzos.  Nevertheless, Passover is my favorite holiday of the year, although I must admit that this has not always been the case.

As a kid, the days preceding Passover always engendered some small measure of excitement, for the food at the Seder if nothing else.  Not only was the shulkhan arukh, the festive meal, an excuse to stuff my gut, but it always ended with coconut macaroons, sponge or honey cake and some type of candy.  By the second Seder night, we’d be into the coconut covered marshmallows, the Ring-Jells (both the orange and the raspberry ones) and the “fruit slices,” which were pure sugar in hues of yellow, orange and green.  Some kids were giddy at the prospect of sipping from the Seder’s four cups of wine and pretending to be drunk, but for me it was all about the sweets.

The ritual of the Seder itself, fairly boring for most kids, was a big deal to me.  Most of the guys who I knew from school were called upon to ask “the four questions” if they were the youngest in the family; otherwise, the only really fun part was getting to stay up late.  Back then, all the kids I knew lived in two-parent families; Mother cooked and Dad led the Seder in Hebrew, often in his white kittul, offering explanations in Yiddish or English as he went along and doling out stern warnings to fidgety youngsters.  In my family, however, neither of my parents knew Hebrew.  True, you could read from the English side of the page in the Maxwell House Hagaddah, but it wasn’t the same as the mellifluous sound of the Hebrew and Aramaic.  When I was very young and we still lived in New York City, my grandfather, who lived downstairs, climbed up to the fourth floor to lead our Seder.  From the age of six, however, as the yeshiva bokher (religious school student), I was the designated Seder leader.  This meant a lot to me because, let’s face it, when you’re six years old (and eight and ten and twelve), you don’t have a lot of opportunities to be a big shot and tell the adults what to do.

The problem, of course, is that Passover is an eight day long holiday.  The two Seder nights would come and go quickly, leaving me with six more long days of eating matzo and boiled eggs, matzo and tuna, matzo and gefilte fish, matzo and matzo and more matzo.  Matzo is a hard, dry cracker that we eat instead of bread during Passover.  There is no cereal for breakfast, you have to drag matzo to school with you for lunch (and inevitably answer questions about it, particularly after I began attending a huge high school where maybe two other students were Jewish) and you come home to dinner with (what else?) the box of Streit’s or Horowitz-Margareten matzos prominently placed in the center of the table.  All your favorite foods are forbidden.  You can’t have Cheerios or toasted bagels or spaghetti or rice or baked beans or Entenmann’s chocolate donuts or even mustard, for heaven’s sake.  It would get old fast.

Kids would get a kick out of calling Passover “a crumby holiday,” ostensibly referring to matzo, but, you know (nudge, nudge).  By the fourth day, the cry of “I never want to see another matzo again!” would be heard in the land.  We’d be dreaming of macaroni and cheese, PB&Js, noodle pudding, mint chocolate chip ice cream and Oreos.  Any mention of fresh rye bread would leave us writhing in paroxysms of drool.

Four or five decades later, I actually relish the food challenges associated with Passover.  As a vegan, those challenges are many times more restrictive than they are for most of my fellow Jews.  The eggs, meat, fish and dairy that are Passover staples are out.  Unfortunately, so are the soy products and beans that constitute the primary sources of protein for many vegans.

And yet . . .

The whole idea behind Passover is reminding ourselves from whence we came.  “Slaves were we to Pharaoh in Egypt” begins the traditional narrative recited at Seders around the world.  “Why is this night different from all other nights?” the liturgy asks.  Tonight is different because we eat only unleavened bread, because we eat bitter herbs, because we dip into fancy hors d’oeuvres and because we lean in comfort on pillows.  The first two differences in that list stand in stark contrast to the last two.  The hard matzo cracker and the horribly burny bitter herbs remind us of the forced labor, the chains and the whippings, the treatment as things rather than as people that we endured at the hands of the Egyptians for 400 years (followed by another forty years of wandering in a dry and barren desert).  Today, however, we enjoy freedom and live in comparative luxury, symbolized by fancy food and relaxing like kings and queens.

“But you weren’t there!” people tell me.  “All that happened centuries ago.  You were never a slave, never had to sacrifice a lamb and paint the blood on your doorpost, never had to run out of Egypt at the last minute with half-baked crackers instead of bread.  God doesn’t care what you eat.  Why do you have to make such a big deal out of Passover?”

And yet . . .

The Book of Exodus teaches us v’higad’tah li’vinkah bayom hahu, “and you shall tell it to your children on that day.”  For centuries, people have been aware that those who refuse to remember history are doomed to repeat it.  Indeed, the very name of the Passover prayer book, the Hagaddah, means (roughly) “the telling.”  L’dor va’dor (from generation to generation), the liturgy recites, you shall regard yourself as having been personally freed from slavery.  For if the Lord had not freed us from slavery, we and our children would still be slaves to this day.  If we don’t know where we’ve been, how can we possibly know where we’re going?

The food restrictions of Passover are minor inconveniences indeed compared to being worked to death in the hot Egyptian sun.  Adhering to the Passover food rules seems a very small act of thanks to God for the miracles performed at the Red Sea and in the burning sands of the desert.

These days, many rabbis point out in their sermons that, although the Jewish people were freed from slavery centuries ago, it behooves us to consider those who continue to suffer in abject poverty right here in our own country as well as under repressive regimes around the world.  Just as when Moses beseeched Pharaoh to let his people go worship in the desert, there are still millions who are not free to openly practice their faiths in the lands they call home.  The lesson here is one of tolerance.  What right have we, as former slaves, to hold grievances against others merely because they have different religious practices than we do, dress differently or speak a different language than we do, have different sexual preferences than we do?  What right have we, as former slaves, to turn our faces away at the homeless person holding out a cup on a city sidewalk or to make rude comments about the woman in front of us in the supermarket checkout line who is paying with an EBT card?

There is no “them.”  There is only “all of us.”

There is no “back then.”  There is only “always.”

And it is with these things in mind that, with a song in his heart, this former slave gladly eats dry matzo for eight days each and every spring.

Hametz for Sale

Matzos

I have sold my hametz.

This is a first for me, which makes me laugh because, at my age, you don’t get a lot of firsts anymore.

For those unfamiliar with hametz, it is bread and other leavened products that Jewish law prohibits one from eating or even owning during the eight-day festival of Passover, now less than two weeks away.  For believers, this is a serious matter, as the Book of Exodus tells us that eating hametz during Passover will cause one to be cut off from the Jewish community.  While many in the modern world may scoff, this actually makes sense to me, as there is something unifying in knowing that fellow Jews all around this planet are going hametz-free.  It makes me feel a part of something greater, something really big, and this makes me feel good.  It fosters a sense of “belonging.”  Either you’re a part of it or you’re not.

The laws, customs and traditions surrounding hametz are quite involved.  I’m sure that it would take years of study to understand them fully, particularly as they apply to the complexities of our American culture.

Some things are clear.  For example, bread (bagels, tortillas and all that), most baked goods (cakes, pies, cookies, etc.), pasta and most cereal are hametz and forbidden during Passover.  Nearly anything that contains wheat or other grains is off limits because a tiny amount of water could begin the leavening process.

If that weren’t enough, Ashkenazic Jews (most American Jews) have a tradition of not eating kitniyot during Passover.  This custom is so strong and long-lived that it approaches the force of religious law.  What is kitniyot?  Essentially, it is rice, corn, beans, peas, peanuts and all their derivatives.  This is why Passover is hell on vegans.

Go to your cupboard and pick up the first can of food you see.  If you check the ingredients, chances are that corn syrup or another corn product is in there somewhere.  This is the reason that nearly anything that comes in a can or a box is, if not outright hametz, then likely at least kitniyot.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Fresh vegetables and fruit, some dairy products, meat, fish, eggs.  And lots of matzo, the crisp, unleavened Passover flatbread that is something like a very dry, very plain, giant tasteless cracker.

Well before Passover, we are supposed to start getting rid of all hametz in our possession.  I think of it as a form of spring cleaning.  Check out all your kitchen cabinets, shelves and drawers for all those misguided purchases from six months ago that you’re never going to eat.  If they’re still good, give them to the poor or to another person who will appreciate them.  If they’re expired, in the trash they go.

Then there is the matter of crumbs.  As anyone who has ever deep cleaned a house knows, they get into everything over the course of a year.  Most of us have a tendency to migrate food out of the kitchen:  We eat in the living room in front of the TV, we bring snacks into the family room and even into our bedrooms.  Chances are, bits of crumbs are to be found nearly everywhere.  After we’ve thoroughly vacuumed, swept and mopped, there is a lovely tradition that, right before Passover, we light a candle and walk around the house with it.  We use the candle to illuminate every corner where crumbs may be hiding.  We carry with us a feather and a wooden spoon for sweeping up even the tiniest bits of hametz crumbs, which we then throw away.

It has been decades now since I went about the house with the spoon, feather and candle.  I remember doing this as a child, although without the candle, as my parents rightly failed to trust that their klutzy son wouldn’t accidentally burn down their home.

Plan A for getting rid of hametz has always been to try to stop buying any and to eat up what you have on hand before Passover.  Around the time of the holiday of Purim, in March, observant Jews start thinking about this.  How can I use those cans of beans that have been sitting around since December?  Hmm, stew it is.

But what do you do with what’s left over?  As Passover approaches, there’s always some hametz remaining that you forgot about or didn’t manage to eat.  You still have half a sack of flour, some boxes of cookies, vinegar, cornstarch, pretzels and a sleeve of saltine crackers.  Then there’s that jar of olives and some soy sauce sitting in the back of your refrigerator.  You go to Plan B:  Give it away, throw it away or sell it.

Sell the odds and ends left over in your kitchen cabinets?  You read that right.  You can sign a document that gives a rabbi permission to sell your remaining hametz to a non-Jew.  This is a legal contract that specifies that the buyer agrees to sell the hametz back to you immediately upon the close of the festival of Passover.  This is a wonderful device, as it allows one to be “clean” of hametz for the duration of the holiday and still have those food items back for use after Passover.  While some view this as nothing short of fraud and artifice, the true beauty of it lies in the fact that even one who makes every effort to get rid of all hametz and needs nothing back after the holiday will unknowingly possess some impermissible crumbs somewhere.  Selling the hametz relieves the observant of worry that they are holding onto something that they shouldn’t be.

Modern technology has proved to be a help in the quest to get rid of one’s hametz.  It is now easy to sell your hametz online.  Sites such as www.chabad.org allow you to key in information regarding the possible location of hametz (your home and place of employment) and to give a rabbi permission to sell it for you (and guarantee its return to you at the end of Passover).  Some sites even send you a receipt with a confirmation number.  Generally, the service is free, with a donation to the organization in an amount of one’s choice encouraged.

I wish the internet had been around when I was a child.  Back then, you had to sell your hametz the old-fashioned way, by signing a card that contained a brief contractual statement.  Of course, a child, lacking legal responsibility, cannot do this.  My parents, unfortunately, thought the whole thing was a load of hooey.  As they sent me to an Orthodox religious school, this distressed me.

When my mother was growing up, any hametz that was to be saved until after Passover was placed into a single cabinet that was tied shut with a string or rope so that it was not accidentally accessed during Passover.  My father grew up in a non-religious household where none of this was an issue.

When I was a child, however, as Passover approached I would attempt to begin discarding cans and boxes of hametz that I knew we wouldn’t use before the holiday.  I remember tossing cans of corn syrup laden Hershey’s chocolate syrup in the trash, only to have them later picked out by my parents, who sternly rebuked me for wasting food that they had paid for.  I knew the cause was hopeless.  The best I could do was to be very careful so that I did not accidentally eat any hametz during Passover.  As long as I was living in my parents’ home, there was no way I could get rid of or sell items that were not Kosher for Passover.

We couldn’t go out to eat during Passover, so my mother had to cook every day.  Although I didn’t appreciate it then, this was surely a strain on her, as she worked a demanding job.  While she cooked Kosher for Passover food (my father, who did not keep kosher, would sneak out to McDonald’s for a hamburger when he couldn’t take it anymore), I had to be careful about my snacks and what I packed for my lunch to take to school.  No peanut butter and jelly this week.  Hard boiled eggs and matzo it is.  Throw an apple or a banana in that brown bag,

The problem was that I was a slob.  My bedroom was always a horrible mess, with detritus flung about wide and deep.  Once I approached my teenage years, the time of searching for crumbs with a feather and a wooden spoon had long passed.

One time, my parents left a brown paper bag full of peanuts amidst the piles on my bedroom floor so that I would find some hametz to get rid of when I performed my search.  By the time I was ten or eleven, however, I didn’t bother with such things anymore.  The bag sat there, unnoticed, for days.

To my horror, I finally came across it when Passover was nearly over.

Toxic Birthday

manure

Visiting my parents has increasingly turned into a toxic experience.  It destroys my peace of mind, brings back dozens of bad memories and is even dangerous to my marriage.  All this goes double when my sister is in attendance.

The photo above doesn’t even begin to express my feelings on the matter.

Last weekend, we headed south to California’s Central Valley to celebrate my mother’s 81st birthday.  On Saturday, my sister and her two adult children came for the day.  I particular looked forward to visiting with my niece, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years even though she lives only two hours away.  When I first arrived in California in 1995, she was five years old.  It’s hard to believe that she’s now in her twenties, an accomplished artist and hardworking Starbucks barista who is struggling to finish college.  Her parents divorced just as she was preparing to start high school, which turned her life upside down.  She has always had a tight bond with her brother, and the two spent years living with their father and his second family.  Recently, however, my nephew, a Silicon Valley engineer, moved out of the parental home in the face of constant arguing and bickering over visits by his mother and his grandparents.  This has been particularly hard on my niece, who has an extreme (probably unhealthy) emotional attachment to her brother.

The issue of where to go out for dinner should have been settled by the birthday girl.  My mother, however, seemed to be completely shut out of this decision making process.  My sister started carrying on about how Outback Steakhouse, which she knew is a favorite of my parents and my wife, is the most unhealthful choice possible and out of the question.  My niece ended up deciding on dinner because she counts every calorie and is therefore somewhat limited.  I thought every place served salad and fish, but what do I know.  As to the vegan in the family, well, let’s just say that I know enough to bring my own food when I visit my parents.

We ended up at Red Lobster, my niece’s choice and my father’s favorite.  My parents dine there once a week anyway.  I was able to get by with steamed broccoli, a baked potato and a salad without dressing or croutons.  My mother ordered her favorite fried filet of sole, even though she keeps kosher and I have reminded her on several occasions that RL fries with lard.  I kept my mouth shut and let her enjoy.  After all, she’s 81.  Perhaps I’m biased, but it seems to me that, once you get to that age, you should be able to do whatever the heck you want without anyone hassling you.

On the phone with my mother the week before, I had asked her for ideas for a birthday present.  My father’s birthday is always easy:  The man likes beer.  But my mother doesn’t drink, likes to make her own clothes and doesn’t appreciate wasting money on frills and nonsense.  So I was surprised when she asked for chocolate.  Milk chocolate, she informed me, she doesn’t like.  (This was news to me, as it was her secret vice throughout my childhood.)  “Dark chocolate,” she told me, “but not the bitter kind that you eat.”  My mother is aware that, although I am a Type 2 diabetic, I have a proclivity for indulging in low sugar, nondairy chocolate that is mostly pure cocoa.  It is very bitter indeed, and I enjoy it a little too much.

The very fact that my mother would ask for sweets is amazing to me.  In years gone by, she would claim to have no interest in candy or other junk food, although we all knew that this was far from the case.

Still, I thought we could do far better than merely buying a box of chocolates.  To me, that sounds like something you bring to a sick person who is in the hospital.  I had a better idea (or so I thought).  My mother has gotten into baking in the last few years.  She whips up wonderful apple pies, has tried her hand at challahs (although not to her satisfaction) and even baked cookies recently.  I thought I’d capitalize on this interest by finding a baking cookbook.  After all, she recently told me that she’d borrowed some books in this vein from the library and that they didn’t seem to have what she was looking for.  We headed for Barnes & Noble, where I found cake books, cookie books, French baking books, dessert cookbooks and just about everything in between.  (And, by the way, I was amazed at the number of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks I found on the shelves.  Too bad I don’t cook.)  The only problem is that most of the prices ranged from $40 to $90, which we found to be rather steep.  I suppose I am severely out of touch with what these things cost.  So, chocolate it is.  We found four or five different types of dark chocolate, from solid chocolate bars to chocolate-covered blueberries.  This turned out to be a win-win situation.  We actually got my mother what she wanted without blowing our budget.

I was delighted to have an extended conversation with my niece during dinner.  I expressed an interest in her work and was regaled with stories of the life of a barista.  It saddened me somewhat when I realized that, in the course of an hour, we talked more than we have in a decade or more.  If I email my nephew, I know he’ll email me back.  My niece, however, doesn’t operate that way.  She has neither the time nor the patience to bother with email.  It would be nice if I could take advantage of this opportunity to expand the dialogue and develop more of a relationship with my niece.  However, I doubt that this is a reasonable expectation.

Alas, things went downhill from there, as they always do when my family gets together.  My sister, who is an unemployed sonographer, began telling horror stories of her experiences working in hospitals (the one about the woman hiding a bag of Oreos under her sagging left breast was interesting, at least).  And then she began arguing with my mother and the screaming matches began apace.  My mother and my sister have a particularly toxic relationship that has been going on for years.  Sis calls my mother nearly every night to cry on her shoulder about her woes, and the conversation invariably deteriorates into an argument.  The next night, she does it again.  My mother refuses to stop taking my sister’s calls.  Mom says I don’t understand because I don’t have children of my own.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  This is one thing that I have no desire to understand.

My niece became more and more perturbed at the verbal violence that ensued between her mother and grandmother.  She is a sensitive sort and not as steeled to this passive-aggressive crap as the rest of us are.

It is difficult to adequately describe the extent of the vitriol that went on between my sister and my mother without providing examples:

#1

Sis: [complaining about the stuffiness in my parents’ home as we were lighting the candles on Mom’s birthday cake]  I’m dying!  I can’t stand it!  I’m gonna have bronchitis!

Mom: [yelling] So go outside if you can’t stand it!

#2

Sis:  I was really concerned about your memory!  Don’t mock me!

Mom: Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when I get Alzheimer’s.

Sis: You won’t know when you have Alzheimers!  You were reading to me and it sounded like bubrbubrbubbbb!

What else?  Oh, there was my mother’s description of how to choose a cucumber at the supermarket:  “It should be long.  You should squeeze it and it should be hard.  You want a stiff cucumber.”

And there was my sister’s description of her visit to Iceland.  She expressed regret that she was unable to locate the Phallus Museum in Reykjavik that she had heard so much about.  About the only species not represented, she read, was human beings.  She suggested that this should be remedied by her ex-husband offering his for a specimen, since he wasn’t using it anymore anyway.

This was in front of her children, mind you.

Ever the glutton for punishment, I texted my sister today to ask her how her new job was going.  I remembered that she was scheduled to start work at a Bay Area hospital on Wednesday.  There is no new job, she told me.  They checked her references and rescinded their offer.

Her previous job lasted all of two weeks.

It’s never her fault, mind you.  The fact that she is a loudmouth and can’t get along with anyone has nothing to do with it, either.

So I offered to show Sis how to apply for a job with state government, a solid job with great benefits and a good retirement package.  It doesn’t pay enough to meet her needs, she informed me, and anyway she’d be bored out of her skull.  She’d sooner continue being a nomad, running about the country as a traveling sonographer doing six- to eight-week stints in the Midwest.  Besides, she’s running after some guy in Santa Cruz now and doesn’t want him to get away.  If worst comes to worst, she says, she can always stay with my parents for a couple of months.  I reminded her that she didn’t last three days the last time she tried such a thing.  Inevitably, she makes my mother so upset that my father has no choice but to throw her out.

I guess you just can’t help some people and trying is an exercise in futility.

Oh, and now we’re all supposed to meet at my parents for Passover.

Do I want to subject myself to this after recent events?  Heck, no!  It’s always the same.  But here’s where the good old Jewish guilt creeps in.  How many more opportunities will I have to spend Passover with my parents?  What if this is my last chance?

But then I remember that I told my mother how grateful I was that Pastor Mom had gone out of her way to bake vegan hamantashen for me on Purim.  “Pretty soon you’ll have her converted,” was her reply, prior to making disparaging remarks about the fact that Pastor Mom used my sugar-free preserves instead of the traditional poppy seed filling.

Of course, I shared this with my wife, and no surprise that she about blew a gasket.

There is something, dear readers, called self-preservation.  So I think I’ll take a rain check on a family Passover this year.  They’ll just have to sing Khad Gadya without me.

Oh, how I look forward to breaking the news to my mother!  Maybe she’ll stop speaking to me for a few months again and we’ll all have some peace for a change.

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.