(crossposted from Kosher Eucharist)
It’s that time of year again, when Jews all over the world come together to celebrate their liberation from the clutches of the Egyptians, the day the Lord fulfilled his promise and redeemed his people Israel – something which I understand both parties have come to regret. Barely a few days after the parting of the Red Sea, the Lord was slinging around words like “stiff-necked,” and the Israelites were saddled with five whole lengthy scrolls of rules in a cultural milieu where laws usually fit easily onto one medium-sized obelisk. But Pesach is a holiday all about telling and recounting, so I decided that I would honor that tradition by recounting facets of Pesach here in the Holy Land and worldwide as they occur to me, the facets that conspire to make Pesach the beloved festival of freedom it is. Who knows one?!
The Cleaning: There are two major schools of thought when it comes to Passover cleaning: there’s the school that gives the floors a good sweep, locks up the plates, pots and pans, buys some paper plates and plastic forks, and goes and does something meaningful with its life; then there’s the school that throws out any food item or utensil ever suspected of having come into contact with leaven or legume, including ovens, sinks and children, and attacks with Lysol and Q-tips the devious chametz hiding, ready for unwitting consumption, in the cracks between the ceilings and floors. As with most things, I belong to a third school: the school that motivates itself to perform a thorough house cleaning through the use of amphetamines. By the end of thirty-some straight hours of awake, jittery and obsessively thorough housecleaning, your fingertips bleeding from the combined action of the rough side of the sponge and the bleach, you will rest content in the knowledge that you have performed a mitzvah – because you have actually heard the voice of God in your head commending you for it. Obviously, this school is not for everyone; I recommend that the faint-hearted among you use a sponge without a rough side.
The Haggadah: Meaning, literally, “telling,” the Haggadah differs from most Jewish texts in that is widely open to interpretation, since the “Maggid” only demands that the story of the Exodus be told. This is something of a curse. The Official Haggadah Text that has accreted over the years takes only about a paragraph to actually detail the Exodus, filling the rest of the space with stultifying diversionary excerpts from the minutes of various rabbinic powwows, including a theoretically lighthearted story ending with a student rushing in to inform several sages, who had stayed up all night discussing the holiday, that the time had arrived to recite the morning Shema – proof less of said sages’ devotion to Jewish law than of my own contention that sense of humor is inversely proportional to religiosity (the Jewlarious Theorem).
Much worse, however, is that this openness to interpretation leaves the Haggadah susceptible to attempts to ramrod modern political/cultural agendas down its already sufficiently lengthy throat. Admittedly, the entire purpose of the Passover seder is to give Jews worldwide a potent, if symbolic, reminder of the bitter suffering of slavery – but being forced to sit through a heartfelt soliloquy about how transgendered individuals are enslaved even today by traditional Judaism’s refusal to sanctify their choice of tackle is crueler than any taskmaster’s whip.
Some of you out there right now are getting your dander up and preparing to launch into a diatribe regarding the importance of keeping religion relevant in our modern world and denouncing people like me who endeavor to siphon joy out of faith. Please don’t. I have suffered enough from you people’s love of meandering “Reb Shlomo stories,” niggunim and quinoa. As a secular traditionalist, I am firmly of the opinion that religion is to be approached with dignity and solemnity, just frequently enough to give one’s children sufficient cultural grounding to prevent them from becoming neo-Nazis, Scientologists or JVoices writers. Joy should never enter into the equation. Joy is for puppies, stimulant use, Stevie Wonder albums, the births of (planned) first children and, very rarely, sex.
The Food: In demanding greater observance of the separation of synagogue and joy, I actually hew to a venerable Jewish tradition of tempering celebration with suffering. Passover takes a festive family-and-friends holiday and removes bread – along with (at least for non-kitniyot-consuming Ashkenazim, otherwise known as “suckers”) a list of foods that multiplies yearly with such blinding rapidity that one suspects the rabbis of attempt to hasten redemption with a week-long Yom Kippur. Passover food, with an exception I will touch on later, is dreadful. Like many facets of Judaism, it doesn’t have to be dreadful, but the iron first of tradition has made it so. You see, come Pesach, the world’s Jews are gripped by a curiously potent chametz-substitution fever, which results in a glut of leaven-free imitation food products. For some reason, everyone is compelled to buy each and every one of these products to tide them over the week-long holiday, even if they don’t regularly eat their leavened counterparts. This is why you’ll see people who eat a total of three chocolate chip cookies over the course of an entire year loaded down with six boxes of inedible chocolate macaroons. This is why we have nightmarish facsimiles of food we could all stand to spend a week without foisted upon us, like any concoction whose name contains the words “potato flour” and “pizza.” I can only imagine the thought process involved in such purchases: “Well, I haven’t eaten cereal in the morning since high school, but Passover is a whole week long! Shit! I gotta get me some of these K-for-P cornflakes!” People. It’s not fucking Ramadan. It lasts a week. Shut the fuck up, put down the matzah-based formed noodle product, remember that tequila remains kosher for Passover, and eat a fucking salad.
The Matzah: The humble matzah is the aforementioned exception to the rule of dreadful Passover food. Matzah gets an undeservedly bad rap, often by Jews whose shtetl-weakened digestive system shuts down like an Israeli labor union at the mere sight of unleavened bread (these same Jews also think “bread of affliction” jokes are hilarious), but it tastes good, provides a pleasing tactile experience, and serves as an excellent platform for the consumption of the shit your seder hosts spoon onto your plate (also known as “quinoa”). And matzah is imbued with great symbolic import. As a Jew, matzah serves to evoke the deeply-rooted Jewish collective memory of successive persecutions and liberations, and as a born American, of course, much of my identity has been defined by big-ass crackers.
But like everything else, matzah is not idiot-proof. As the food most identified with the entire Passover experience, its consumption often replaces any other observance of the holiday by clueless American Jews. I once witnessed in Tulane’s cafeteria, which provided matzah during Passover despite being distinctly non-kosher, a Jewish student extolling the virtues of the meal he was eating: matzah which had been covered with tomato sauce, a layer of melted cheese, and a healthy sprinkling of ground beef. Being the sucker for punishment I am, I mildly mentioned that this was somewhat inconsistent, whereupon he informed me “I don’t keep kosher, but I keep kosher for Passover.” Tucking into a ham sandwich, I replied that I also kept kosher, but not kosher for Judaism. (Okay, that last part isn’t strictly true – I’m a vegetarian.)
The Wine: The fruit of the vine is Passover’s saving grace, which is somewhat out of character for me to admit. For several reasons, I’m not an avid consumer of wine: first, unlike vodka, wine is tainted by thousands of years of accumulated pretension and therefore its taste cannot be shamelessly masked with apple juice or coffee liqueur; second, it encourages the continued existence of the sort of people who drink wine, i.e. the sort of people who feel that the word “bouquet” can be used to refer to anything other than “a bunch of flowers,” people who have trained their senses of smell and palates to the point where they actually detect scents and flavors which do not, per se, exist; third, it gives the French the impression they’re doing us some kind of favor, and a Frenchman with an impression, much like Monet, is insufferable indeed. But wine deserves its central portion of the Passover seder, because the requirement to drink four man-sized cups of the stuff is what turns the seder from “rushed, distracted retelling of the Passover story” to “rushed, slurred retelling of the Passover story,” which is a vitally important distinction. If you’re willing to fully commit yourself, by the time you get to Motzi you should be more plastered than charoset on korech.
The Dosim: If you’re unlucky enough to have actualized the traditional Passover wish of “Next year in Jerusalem!”, as I have, you know that the arrival of Passover in Jerusalem means the arrival of the dosim. The Suburban East Coast American Right-Wing Modern Orthodox Jew (dos americanus), a parasitic life form found inhabiting dens worth not less than $750,000 in heavily Jewish towns along America’s Eastern Seaboard, particularly in the New York metro area, and easily distinguished by its prominent white collar, has a curious and complex mating ritual. Twice a year, at Sukkot and Pesach times, especially during Pesach, the dos will migrate from its natural habitat to its historical breeding grounds, otherwise known as the city of Jerusalem. Once there, the dos will seek out other members of its species, congregating in upscale hotels (the Crowne Plaza, the Sheraton), unthreatening kosher l’mehadrin steak houses with menus in English, and the Ben Yehuda and Emek Refaim pedestrian areas. When the male dos sights a potential mate, he will let out the species’ distinct mating call (“I work in investment banking!”) and use his bulging billfold to fend off competing males drawn by his cry. If the female dos finds favor in the mating call and, more crucially, the thickness of the billfold, she will hike up her floor-length denim skirt and present her swollen rump for mating. The social unit (or “troop”) celebrates the successful attraction of a mate by coming together to turn up their long Litvak noses at the perceived crudeness and primitiveness of their Israeli hosts. Observing this time-honored, evolutionarily hard-wired ritual play itself out on the streets of the Holy City makes putting up with all of Jerusalem’s host of other problems almost worth it.
If God had bestowed upon the season of our liberation any single one of these exciting aspects of holiday observance, it would have been enough for us. Or at least for me.