Thursday, April 16, 2009

Passover Sojourn

The two major holidays in our house are Thanksgiving and Passover or Pesach, which is sort of a Jewish Thanksgiving. Passover was a bigger holiday to us than Rosh HaShana (New Year) or Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), because it involved the gathering of the whole clan: seven kids, four parents, at least four grandparents, several bachelor uncles, and a few miscellaneous guests. And because it involves a large meal: a feast beats a fast. Although the holiday is seven days long, we share a meal and a service, known as a Seder, on just the first two nights.

"Let All Who Are Hungry Come and Eat"
We took the Passover's "Open Door" policy seriously, and always included people who didn't have another Seder to attend. Sometimes it was Notre Dame students or faculty, sometimes it was a fellow congregant, sometimes it was just a friend or coworker who was curious. As you can see, we dressed for the occasion. The menfolk came to the table in suits and ties. The womenfolk waited until the last minute to dress, then manned the kitchen in aprons. It was a meal worth dressing for: Grandma Sophie had been a respected professional caterer for many years, and both her daughters inherited her considerable kitchen skills.

When my grandparents were alive, the Seder was a long, drawn-out, formal and rather serious affair, and children who got giggly after a few big sips of wine were chastened. It was useless. There were two big crack-ups: a psalm that mentioned breasts, and a line about mountains skipping like young lambs. I don't know why, but that did us in, year after year.

God said, "Skedaddle!"
The purpose of the Seder is to retell the story of being liberated from slavery: the Ten Plagues brought upon Pharoah and the Egyptians, the "drowning of our oppressors," and the 40 years of wandering in the desert without a GPS. We are obliged not just to remember and retell this in every generation, but also to have compassion for anyone who is still oppressed, and to speak out against oppression. Everyone is encouraged to ask questions and discuss current issues that relate to freedom, slavery and tolerance. (If we don't know the answer, someone will make a point of asking the rabbi, and then share the information.) No two Seders are alike and that is part of the fun of attending. Over the years, ours have shrunk from 2-3 hour affairs to less than an hour. That's okay, we still hit the highlights.

The food of Passover commemorates our flight from slavery: before bread even had time to rise, we were on the road, so we eat no "leavened" foods. There is a Seder Plate with items that are used during the service, each with its own symbolism. It has sort of evolved into a Cholesterol and Constipation Festival, so we have learned to include lots of fresh fruit.

We no longer celebrate with my cousins and their children. It's just my immediate family, and sometimes some friends or another congregant who doesn't have family nearby. As he did at Thanksgiving, my ever kind and generous Bro 2 flew here last Thursday, and drove Miss Molly & I to the homeland and back. I'm still having back issues, and even being a passenger was a challenge.

This year, it was impossible to get together on Wednesday and Thursday, so we planned to bend the rules and have our Seders on Friday and Saturday. But my parents attended Seders with friends on Wed. and Thurs., so by Friday, they were all Sedered out and no one was inclined to protest. Instead, we enjoyed some quality family time and good home cooking, which is what this -- and almost every other holiday -- is really all about.

Top to bottom (1) Uncle Jimmy, Dad and Sis, Grandma Flo and Grandpa Harry, Grandpa Harold. Both grandfathers shared top billing at the head of the table. (2) Grandpa Harold and Grandma Sophie. (3) The kids' table. Cousin 1 and I are wearing pink & green paisley dresses that my mother sewed. (4) Of course, Bro 1 was at the “head” of the kids table. (5) As the youngest, Sis (standing) was stuck reading the Four Questions for many years. Jacques (far right) was a French student Bro 1 met while at Purdue, a nd one of our most memorable Seder guests. Learning Jacques was Jewish and would be on campus for Passover, Bro 1 invited him to our Seder. Jacques had a velvet suit (shades of Austin Powers) and we thought he was quite handsome and groovy... except he smelled like a goat. Wow, did he stink. Vive La France!

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