Thursday, April 05, 2007

Isaac Babel in SoHo, Passover 2007

I lost my new copy of the Collected Works of Isaac Babel on Erev Pesach, this past Monday, the eve of Passover…one of the most ludicrous days I have had in recent memory.

At an hour when every sane Jew is grating horseradish for their first seder, I was rushing through the streets of SoHo, from the subway station at Houston Street down Spring Street to Broadway for my months-overdue annual gynecological appointment.

And now, I was officially four months and 15 minutes late for this important medical visit.

Basically, I had forgotten to change trains at Times Square because I was chattering incessantly about the evils of consumerist culture with someone I knew only nominally and who was nodding at everything I said either because they wanted to validate my brilliant observations or pacify my lunatic tendencies.

And I was chattering incessantly to burn off the nervous energy that came from the aggravating and utterly ridiculous stress I had been sustaining for several hours – a level of stress familiar to every professional woman who is also an observant Jew and who therefore spends the eves of every Jewish holiday (and Shabbat) in a state of multitasking madness – which was augmented by stresses unique to my own work and personal life.

For instance, rushing out of the Urban Bungalow en route to my appointment, I realized I had likely rendered the ratatouille I had cooked while on a conference call totally treif by inadvertently adding an ingredient that only Sephardic Jews would consume on Passover.

When I discovered the offending item in the ratatouille -- contained in a curry sauce from France -- I almost died. This dish and homemade brownies, which I just baked, were part of our contribution to the seder, scheduled to take place within a few hours at our friends’ house.

Passover observance is a serious matter. How could I bring a dish that had a questionable ingredient, yet how was I to make my gynecological appointment if I had to create another ratatouille from scratch…and with no eggplant, to boot???

Locking the apartment door, I placed a frantic call to my husband imploring him to fess up to our host, a rabbi, and ask if the dish – suitable for Sephardic Jews -- could be served at his Ashkenazic seder.

With the ratatouille fiasco being merely the latest in a series of logistical potholes wrecking my day, I lost my legendary sense of direction in the joy of ranting to a virtual stranger on the #1 train. When I realized my mistake at 28th Street, my heart sank and I assumed I had blown the appointment. Then, as the train passed 18th Street, I realized I could alight at Houston Street and grab a cab and just make it in time.

I bolted out of the train on Houston Street, fled up the steps and optimistically scanned the horizon for available cabs. Weirdly, there were no cabs to be had. Or, to be accurate…there were cabs, but I seemed to have morphed into the Invisible Woman and no fewer than three available yellow cabs totally passed me by, picking up passengers standing mere feet beyond me.

I am not kidding. This really did happen. And at that point, I knew that I was under some weird spell or something.

So I had to hoof it over several avenue blocks to the east. By my estimation, the shlep was nearly three-quarters of a mile. Midway along my frantic journey, I stopped to retrieve my Crackberry from my monstrously oversized Target designer mock-croc bag in order to call Downtown Women Ob-Gyn and make sure that my exertions would not be in vain and I would, indeed, be able to keep my appointment with Nancy the Midwife, my trusted well-woman health care provider for more than ten years.

I felt my day utterly change when the honeyed voice of the receptionist assured me that Nancy would be able to see me if I arrived within the next ten minutes or so. Yes! I agreed with renewed vigor. Yes! I will be there within ten minutes, I said, tucking my Crackberry into my coat pocket before sprinting down Spring Street.

The problem was, in order to retrieve my phone device from my bag, I had placed my (not slender) volume of Isaac Babel (of which about five sentences were read on the subway between Penn Station and Houston Street) on the edge of one of those fancy-shmancy trash can containers.

At least that is what I think I did, because when I arrived at the gyno’s office ten minutes later, the book was missing and I had not stopped anywhere else en route from the subway to the office.

And after I had checked every inch of the gyno’s office suite and even ran down the three flights of stairs to make sure I hadn’t left the book at the hostile security guard’s desk in the lobby (okay, isn’t it time to question the efficacy of having people sign in and out of buildings under no terrorist threat whatsoever??) I had to burst out laughing at the somehow fitting coda to this day of mishaps and bureaucratic nightmares.

The friendly receptionist at Downtown Women offered me a piece of peppermint gum. Shortly, I was given a cup to pee into and a gown to change into and I sat on the examination table happily, waiting for Nancy, reading Us Weekly.

The actual physical exam took less than 10 minutes. But the torrent of words that rushed out of me -- a rant about my day, my life, my stress, my angst – dominated my visit.

Nancy suggested many things. One of them was changing my life. Dramatically. Immediately. I had to agree that she was onto something.

When I sashayed out of Downtown Women Ob-Gyn, I was a changed woman. The spell I was under seemed to have lifted. I ran through the turnstiles at the Prince Street station and directly onto a waiting uptown R train. At Times Square, an uptown #2 train was lingering on the platform when I ran down the stairs. And when I dashed up the stairs at 96th Street, a cab had not only magically materialized before my eyes, but the cabbie gave me a friendly smile when I plopped down in the backseat.

Oh, snap! The spell had broken.

And in case you’re wondering, I made it home in time to change for the seder at my friend’s house, and our host had called to say that I hadn’t rendered the ratatouille unkosher after all, and to please bring it along.

So, HOBB packed up the ratatouille and took it to go…together with my walnut-rich brownies, which turned out pretty damn good despite having been invented out of thin air... and the hostess gift I had selected at the JCC giftshop earlier in the day -- a hand-painted Miriam’s tambourine and gummy frogs that lit up when clunked on the head.

HOBB was less psychotic than I thought he would be in the face of my gynecologist’s appointment on the eve of Passover and my culinary near-disaster. We arrived at our host’s home nearly on time – certainly not egregiously late – and were met by Big Babe who had cut out of one of his Columbia classes early in order to make the seder.

The seder was fabulous, filled with great people and delicious food and exotic wine and traditional and wacky elements alike. As we moved to take our places around the beautifully adorned seder table, I felt a gulf open as wide as the Red Sea between me and my insane day.

It was magical to sit around the seder table and feel myself a descendent of those Hebrew slaves who had the audacity to envision an alternative to Egypt. And though I always find great meaning in the interactive theatre of the Passover seder, this particular night was truly different from all other nights.

And somewhere in SoHo, perched on the top of that fancy-shmancy garbage can, Isaac Babel is busily taking notes, composing a tale about a Jewish woman far from his native Odessa, enslaved by invisible forces, in search of her own liberation.

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