Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Diary of the Daughter of an Escaped Hebrew Slave

At 8:40 yesterday, I strode into Skyview Wine and Liquor on Riverdale Avenue charged with a mission -- to outfit Seders #1 and #2 with numerous bottles of sophisticated Kosher for Passover wine, predominantly red, with one bottle of the sweet stuff thrown in for tradition's sake.

At 8:41, I stopped dead in my tracks, completely and utterly overwhelmed. Whereas my friendly Manhattan liquor store had a nicely-contained kosher section from which I grab the same bottle of Noah Merlot at every visit, this entire emporium seemed devoted to the task of getting Jewish people totally tanked and to this end, offered scores of kosher offerings from the four corners of the earth.

I had a moment of sheer vertigo as I stared down racks and rows of merlots, chiantis, cabernets, bordeaux, burgundies, chenin blancs, reislings, chablises, beaujolaises, riojas and other types of wine I had never heard of before...all blessed with rabbinic supervision. Holy @#$%! I thought, glancing wildly around the store for some assistance. So many little knowledge!

Fortunately, a savvy young dude in a suit and kippah appeared by my side -- drawn, no doubt, by my audible hyperventilation -- and offered his assistance. Five minutes and $180 later, I walked out with my case of sophisticated reds, respectable whites and a bottle of barely-alcoholic Kool-Aid disguised as Kedem Concord Grape.

I have no idea what I actually bought, only that it was met with a cocked eyebrow of approval by HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) and by disbelief by 17-year-old Middle Babe when I pulled up in front of our apartment building in our red minivan to unload both the booze and the last-minute Fairway shopping from pre-Passover trip #1000.

"How much did you buy?" she demanded as Alfie the Pomeranian strained at the leash. BOMB, her adorable curly-haired boyfriend, waved in greeting. He wore sandals in celebration of the springlike weather. I know they had tried -- and failed -- to get into a Ranger's game earlier this evening and ended up going for dinner in midtown. Now they were bound, with Alfie, for a Starbucks on Broadway and W115th Street for a quick tea before we launched into b'dikat chametz -- the ritual of hiding -- and seeking -- pieces of bread in one's house in preparation for entering the leavening-free zone of Passover.

About 20 minutes later, the wines all shelved, the food from Fairway squeezed into fridge and the Passover pantry, HOBB and I dispatched 10-year-old Little Babe to hide chunks of an Italian sub (purchased a couple of hours earlier from Hamilton Deli) throughout the apartment. "Only ten," HOBB admonished Little Babe. "And remember where you hid them!"

As Little Babe set out with his bag of bread, chuckling diabolically, Big Babe, our eldest son, a junior at Columbia University, showed up from his dorm across the street at East Campus. He had interrupted his writing of a paper on James Joyce to participate in this beloved ritual. Shortly, Middle Babe and BOMB returned with Alfie from their walk, Little Babe crowed that the bread was hidden and the whole family gathered in front of the dining room table to commence the ritual.

B'dikat chametz literally means "checking for unleavened food," and it is the penultimate ritual prior to the official beginning of Passover. (The final ritual is biyyur chametz, or the burning of the chametz, where one takes the assembled bread from b'dikat chametz and burn it in a bonfire the following morning -- though some people also participate in that legalistic fiction exercise of mekhirat chametz, the selling of one's non-Passover food to a non-Jew, which enables one both not to own nor get rid of one's unleavened food during the holiday. Afterwards, one simply "buys" it back.)

In any case, by the time one tip-toes through one's abode, candle in hand, seeking out hidden crumbs, the house has to be thoroughly cleaned and prepared for the holiday. For people like us -- who merge traditional observance with a decidedly un-OCD attitude towards cleaning -- the preparations for the holiday are actually fun, even if they do entail a certain amount of physical labor, such as the shlepping of Passover pots, dishes and silverware out of their storage places and marathon food shopping.

Though Jewish law mandates perfoming b'dikat chametz immediately following sundown on the night before the Eve of Passover, we decided to wait until the older children could be home as b'dikat chametz is a beloved ritual, solemn yet goofy, performed in darkness and silence. Walking in a line through the unlit night apartment, we search by the light of a lone candle for pieces of bread, refraining from speech yet making all kinds of noises to indicate confusion or revelation or appreciation for an especially witty hiding place.

When all the bread is discovered, we bundle the pieces, the candle, the feather we used to sweep the surface clean and usually a handkerchief into a package to be sent for burning the next morning. We utter a prayer in Aramaic that renders us free of responsibility for all further, unknown leavened products lurking in our abode. We have only 12 hours left at the point within which to eat such foods -- outside of the house, of course -- before the observance of the eight-day Passover holiday begins.

It is now morning, the Eve of Passover, and I am writing these words as Little and Middle Babe are sleeping. HOBB and Big Babe went to an early synagogue service -- siyyum bechorim --- the feast of the firstborns, which caps a ritual for first-born Jewish males who might normally be required to fast in homage to Pharoah's decree to kill their ancient counterparts and the final, horrific Plague -- death of the first-born sons -- from which all Hebrews were exempt due to the painting of their thresholds with blood to avert the Angel of Death.

All is quiet and ready for Passover, save for the cooking of the first seder meal, which I will undertake around 3 pm. On the phone last night, my sister-in-law, who is sailing off to a hotel for the entire holiday with my parents (for the past fifteen years or so, my mother has refused to make Passover at home), asked me if I finished cooking yet. As I was on my way to Fairway to track down meat, fruit and walnuts, I had to laugh. I have never cooked anything more than a few hours in advance over the course of my entire adulthood and hope I never do. The secret ingredient in my cooking is adrenaline.

But truly, the secret ingredient in my Seder meals is love of the holiday. As HOBB and I cleaned and shlepped and shopped and planned -- often deep into the night -- a deep joy and relaxation spread over me. While I love all Jewish holidays I am especially fond of this one, which mandates that we meet up with our ancestors, the escaping Hebrew slaves, and cross the Red Sea together, sharing with them that moment of nation-making and freedom.

Dipping into the moxie of our great-great-great-grandparents every year for the duration of our history as a people is a key element of the so-called Secrets of Jewish Survival. Sitting around the Seder table, we recall their refusal to accept slavery as their lot. In the most privileged and most dismal of circumstances, Jews have observed Passover, told tales from the Hagaddah, sang songs from the Seder, tasted bitter herbs, hid the afikomen, banished leavened products from their households. The result is an awesome, millenia-long chain of observance, indestructible.

And though there has been a growing tradition of retreating to special Passover hotels and resorts -- in the Catskills, in Arizona, in Mexico, in Israel, in California, in Florida, aboard cruises and ever more exotic locales -- for staggering sums of money (about 10 K for a family of 5 for the entire holiday), I staunchly defend the endangered practice of making Passover at home, centering it within the place we conduct our normal lives.

Passover is an opportunity to enter into a realm of complete otherness and dwell there for eight days, connecting with one's past and future, emerging transformed.

So it was that last night on Morningside Heights, a family of five plus a visiting boyfriend and the resident Pomeranian, stopped the rhythm of their 21st century lives and entered into the ancient ritual of b'dikat chametz, checking for unleavened bread products, forbidden during Passover. With exaggerated hand-motions and lots of silly sounds, they proceeded through the darkened rooms of their Columbia apartment, seeking out the 10 pieces of bread that their youngest member had planted, awaiting discovery.

Between last night and 3 pm today, there is still the business of the professional world to attend to...classes to be taught, press releases to be sent to the media, students to meet with, ads to be written, calls to be made and returned. Yet, in about six hours, the parents of this family will haul out their pots and pans and embark upon the cooking of the first Seder meal, remembering to set out bowls of salt water to recall the tears of the slaves, sprigs of parsley to designate springtime, the delicious walnut, wine and apple dish called haroset which pays homage to the bricks built by the slaves, the burnt turkey neck to recall the sacrificial shankbone, slivers of horseradish root to recall the bitterness of affliction....and, of course, matza, the uber-unleavened product.

The ritual items of the Passover seder will dwell alongside the roast turkey, savory meat, steamed asparagus, herbed potatoes, eggplant stew, salads and desserts of the sumptuous feast that is a symbol of our freedom. And when the children and guests fill the table with conversation and the ancient text of the Hagaddah, the celebration will be complete.

Happy Passover!

1 comment:

Wings - john k said...

Thank you for sharing your holiday with all of us. It was enlightening and heart warming.