Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Your Easy-Peasy Guide to Passover

Judaism can seem intimidating with all its rituals and restrictions, but it's really just another set of rules.  Once you have all 613 commandments in mind, the rest is easy going.  You just have to choose which ones you're most comfortable with.  Passover is basically the Jewish holiday where you give up bread for Lent.  While this doesn't sound as difficult as giving up meat on Fridays, that's until you realize that this applies to ALL bread products, which means no sandwiches that aren't made of Matzoh (getting dry crumbs all over everything), no cakes that aren't Kosher, no crackers, no peanuts, and no pasta products as well.  As a gluten addict, this is notoriously hard for me to follow.  Fortunately, potatoes, potato starch and potato chips are allowed on the menu, which otherwise would make the week almost unbearable.

On the night of Passover (which is actually two nights, but for simplicity's sake, we'll focus on the first one), things are already in a tense state since everybody arrives hungry, and there's a bunch of sermons and prayers before we can actually get to the main course.  There are several minor mandatory refreshments along the way, but they're just little teasers until we can get to the main meal.  Think of it as an extra-long saying of grace with breaks in the middle.  The main gist of the grace period is something along the lines of "We were enslaved, God Freed us, we're thankful, let's eat!"  A longer more detailed explanation of the above will be forthcoming.

At our house, we don't bother with going into minutiae about the deeper meaning of Passover, and just go through the highlights, pointing out the high points of the ritual.  Starting out, our eyes are brought attention to the circular plate, highlighting a dish with five holes in them (too bad it's not six, since it would be emblematic of the Jewish star), consisting of a hard-boiled egg, a lamb bone, Karpas leaves, bitter Marror (ugh), and a dose of charoset, a delicious mixture of ground apples, nuts, cinnamon and grape juice into a messy combination that tastes surprisingly good.

This is the kind of seder that goes on for so long that it's required to wash our hands twice during our presentation, not counting before the meal with soap.  The first time, everybody washes their hands by using a container over the sink, once over each hand, and then washed by a customary washcloth nearby, but no prayer is said.  That comes later for reasons which will soon become obvious.

After everybody's hands are good and wrinkly, we go on with our seder by dipping our vegetables in salt water (double-dipping is allowed) and eating it.

Then, the host points at the special triple-layer Matzoh, the middle portion which is taken and broken apart, and Christened the Afikoman.  Specific attention is given to this Afikoman, which will be eaten at the end of the meal.  Kind of a crunchy after-dinner mint.  The host showers great attention upon this seemingly innocuous Matzoh, which doesn't seem that different from the other Matzoh at the table, with specific instructions NOT to touch it or remove it from its valuable hiding place, neatly tucked where everyone can see.  Naturally, when the host of the Seder goes up to wash their hands, THIS time to do their extra-long prayer, that's nigh opportunity for someone to take the Afikoman from its resting spot and hide it elsewhere the host doesn't know about.  This will come in play later.

Then it's time for the Four Questions, which is usually sung by the youngest children in the room.  Since the youngest "child" in the room is over 30 years old, that usually gets regulated to me and my sister, singing in halting off-key stanzas and half-forgotten lines from lack of practice at the last minute, due to having (mostly) memorized the lines in our youth.

The questions ask why this night is different from all other nights:

1. Why do we eat Matzoh?
2. Why do we eat bitter (ugh) Marror?
3. Why do we double-dip?
4. Why do we slouch in our seats?

The answers are as follows:

1. When the Jews fled Egypt, they were in such a hurry that their bread-on-the-run came out flakey and uneven, so we have to eat it and like it.

2. The (ugh) Marror is symbolic of our ancestors' suffering in Egypt. They suffered, so we have to suffer.

3. The salt water is emblemic of the sweet bitter tears we wept while enslaved in Egypt.  Tasty!

4. We reline since it's a time to sit back and relax like ancient kings, lying on their cushions smoking hookah.
Personally, I can't relax on the required soft cushions, and prefer to sit on hard firm chairs pressed against the table.  Anything too relaxing would be too stressful for me, so I'm exempt from this exercise.

Then we move on the the Four Sons, the Wise son, the Bad son, the simple son, and the silent son.  The ensuing dialogue goes somewhat like this:

Wise son: What exactly is the hidden symbolism, meaning and motivation behind all these annual rituals?
Host: They're the basic laws of Passover.  After the Afikoman (which I hope none of you bothered to move from its secure hiding place) has been eaten, we can't eat anything else.
Wise son: Hopefully, by that point, we won't have anything left to eat.
Bad son: Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I'm hungry.  Let's hurry and get through this already.  Why are you bothering to take your time with this boring prayer anyways?
Host: This is a sacred tradition handed down hundreds of years, and I'm going to make sure you learn to appreciate it.
Bad son: How about I convert to another religion that lets me eat sooner?
Host: Tough.  Pretty much every religion has some form of fasting, in one way or another.
Simple son: Uh... what IS this Seder for?
Host: Lemme check my notes.  (Reads passage) "With a mighty hand did the Eternal bring us forth from Egypt, from the house of bondage."
Simple son: Kinky!
Host: No, not that kind of bondage.
Silent son: .....
Host: Can't think of anything to ask?  Good.  No problem there.  Let's move on.
Silent son: .....

I should also point out that there's a lot of wine pouring and lifting while announcing prayers, some where we're allowed to drink, others where we're not.  I'm not going to go through every single one of them, but there's a certain ritual that deserves attention.  After recounting the history of Jew's slavery in Egypt (as overacted by Charles Heston in The 10 Commandments) where the Angel of Death Passed Over the blacklisted houses of lamb's blood, thus sparing those who weren't visited by the universal hitman and giving meaning to the bloody name of the holiday.

To commemorate the 10 plagues that eventually convinced the Pharaoh to (temporarily) let us go, we dip our pinky into our glass of wine 10 times for each individual plague.

Flies / Wild Animals
Cattle sickness
Slaying of the firstborn

After which, we dip our pinkies another three times for the acronym of the plagues, Detsach, Adash, Beachab (DAB for short)

Incidentally, there's some unsubstantiated theories that the plagues came naturally after the other.  It would've started from an impurity in the water, causing the fish to die out, which would cause a mass migration of frogs leaving.  The lack of frogs meant that gnats and flies would become uncontrollable without a natural enemy to wean them off.  This likely would lead to an infection of livestock and blisters forming on people.  Likewise, this would lead to a spread of locusts, and sudden child death syndrome.

Where this theory falls apart is the connection to hail and darkness, and would have to be chalked up to coincidence falling upon already hard times, or more likely, events happening chronologically earlier or later.

After this comes a Jewish song containing 15 stanzas (usually feels like more) consisting of the numerous things God did to help us get out of Egypt, (The 10 plagues, the sudden exodus across the desert, crossing the Red Sea, giving us Jewish holidays) and containing the most annoying chorus; Dai-dai-Dayenu, Dai-dai-Dayenu, Dai-dai-Dayenu, DaiDayenu (literally, it would've been enough) repeated ad nauseam until I've had more than enough.

Once I've gotten over this linguistic horror, there's still the next obstacle to face - consuming the dreaded (ugh) Marror.  As you may have noticed by now, I'm not exactly thrilled with the prospect of eating the symbolic representation of the bitterness of our ancestor's slavery in Egypt.  I'm not much of a connoisseur when it comes to spicy foods, and generally balk at anything stronger than pepper.  My Dad however, loves eating spicy stuff, and will often try to increase my limited palate by shoving new experimental foods on my plate for his amusement, since these experiments rarely ever go well without my pouring copious amounts of water on my tongue to lessen the sudden pain.  Needless to say, its no great secret to say that Dad revels in the suffering of others.

Considering that the mildest sampling of (ugh) Marror was enough to send me into convulsions, and there were servings of stronger stuff being passed around, I wisely declined the offer.

This serving of (ugh) Marror on Matzoh is lessened by the next serving, which consists of eating the charoset (Ka-ro-say) and Marror together.  This is slightly more bearable, since the sweet stuff is mixed in with the bitter stuff.  There's a lot of rules governing which foods are acceptable to eat with which, and with which instrument.  You're not allowed to have milk with meat, which makes it sacrilegious every time you eat a cheeseburger.  By that same token, it's frowned upon to have charoset with Liver, otherwise you could have charoset of the Liver.

After all this buildup, we finally get to the main purpose of what we've been sitting around for - Dinner.  Some people are more fortunate than others.  My sister is still reeling from the shock of going to a Seder that didn't start their meal until 3:00 in the morning, at which point everybody was gnawing the furniture from hunger.  (The meal didn't end until 7:00 that same morning.  Good thing they didn't have work that same day.)  Assuming that you're attending a more sensible less Ultra-Orthodox Passover, you should be able to start eating a good half-hour after everybody's started.  After which, when everybody's bellies are full and desert has been served, we can go into the tail end of the Seder.

You might've remembered a certain special Matzoh that was set aside to be eaten at the end of the meal.  That time has come, and the host checks out the location where they last left it, where *surprise surprise* the valuable Afikoman isn't in it's secured hiding place guarded by an impenetrable layer of cloth.  Naturally, this leads to questioning the guilty party for bringing this ceremonial ceremony to a halt.  Once the thief makes veiled references to possibly knowing the location of the missing piece to the end of the meal, they ask what the Host is willing to trade in return.  This presents the valuable lesson of bargaining for supply and demand.  The price can range from anywhere to a gift card to a new car, depending on the generosity and desperateness of the host.  Sure, we could simply give the Afikoman back free of charge, but where's the fun in seeing them squirm around, wanting to bring an end to this never-ending meal with full stomachs?

While the digestion of the Afikoman means we can't eat anything else, that doesn't allow for the convenient loophole of drinking more wine.  Nowhere is this more evident than when we welcome the presence of Elijah, which is signified by pouring wine in a glass, opening the door to let the drunken essence in, and shake the table, while marveling at his invisible appearance at sampling our wine.  For some reason, the sanitation of this glass who's been touched in other households is never called in question.

Then there's a whole bunch of songs, but the most memorable and relevant ones are the last two songs, one which is a kind of variation of the 12 Days of Christmas, culminating in 13 Divine Attributes, 12 Tribes, 11 Stars, 10 Commandments, 9 months of pregnancy, 8 days before circumcision, 7 days a week, 6 books of the Mishnah, FIIIIIVE Books of the Law, 4 matrons, 3 Patriachs, 2 Tablets of the Covenant, and One Eternal above Heaven & Earth.

The second song, Chad Gadya is a cumulative story in the style of The House that Jack Built.

Only one kid, one kid, which my father bought for two zuzim, one kid.
And a cat came, and ate the kid.
And a dog came and bit the cat.
And a stick came and beat the dog.
And a fire came and burnt the stick.
And the water came and doused the fire.
And the ox came and drank the water.
And the butcher came and slew the ox.
And the Angel of Death came and killed the butcher.
And the God came and... (somehow) eliminated the Angel of Death who killed the butcher who slew the ox who drank the water that doused the fire that burnt the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid my father bought for two zuzim, one kid.

Brings to mind of The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, the only difference being that she eventually choked on a horse.  If she put her mind to it, she could've gone on to eat bigger and better things.

According to a footnote, this poem is regarded as a parable, descriptive of incidents in the history of the Jewish nation, with some reference to prophecies yet unfulfilled.  More than one interpretation has been given to it, substantially differing from each other.

And that's all there is to Passover.  Easy, right?

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