Friday, March 23, 2007

Once Upon a Time in Paris

Dedicated to Avshalom and Miriam and their wonderful children (see story below).

Paris in springtime.

It was an immigrant neighborhood, a potpourri of Vietnamese, Turks, North African Arabs and Jews. I was living alone, trying to write a book, and I realized that Passover was coming when the Jewish merchants put out their matza stocks.

I felt a pang of nostalgia, for although I was far from tradition, one side of Passover always lured me — the simple ritual of the family getting together to eat, tell stories, and conduct the difficult business of being patient with each other. Where I come from, there is something called a community Seder. I set out to find one.

Every Jewish shopkeeper I asked referred me to the next guy. Finally, at the last store on the block they told me to go around the corner to a travel agent. This particular agent was about to close shop (it was only a few hours before the start of the holiday, I soon discovered), for his steel shutters were already half-closed. I ducked inside to find a burly sixty-something man in a gray "old man" hat. He was speaking Arabic to another man, himself hatless but wearing a skullcap.

"Bonjour," I said. "They told me to ask here about a public Seder?"

The man in the hat looked at me coldly for a moment. No greeting, no welcome. He uttered gruffly: "Are you Jewish?"

I was a little taken back by the question. Maybe he was joking. I smiled. "Why would I be looking for a seder if I weren't Jewish?"

"Well, can you prove it?"

Now I was getting annoyed. What is this? "What do you mean?” I asked jokingly, “You want me to drop my pants?"

He didn't think that was very funny. "Do you speak Hebrew?" he asked.

The only phrase of Hebrew I could remember from my high school trip to Israel was "Ani lo rotseh zvuvim"--I don't want flies--and after my last joke I didn't think that would go over too well. So I said the only other Hebrew word I remembered: "Lo" (No).

"Well, can you read Hebrew?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer opened a prayer book and held it before me. Fortunately, I still knew the alphabet and stammered a few words.

Satisfied, but still gruff, he said, “You’ve fallen well... someone came in here twenty minutes ago looking for an extra person at his Seder.” Great!

"You come to the synagogue up the street tonight at seven and I'll introduce you to him." Oh, the synagogue. There's always a catch.

The synagogue seemed pretty normal. The women, as I'd seen in other traditional shuls, got the luxury balcony seats. I looked around for the gray-hatted travel agent and it looked as though he had a lot of twin brothers. As usual, the service totally baffled me; I just stood when everyone else stood and sat when they sat.

When the service was over I asked someone in the lobby if he knew who was the travel agent who sets people up for Seders. He told me not to worry, that he'd be out, but, by the way, he was having a Seder with his invalid mother and would love an extra guest. His lonely look nearly moved me to join him but just then the travel agent came up and introduced me to a thin man of dark features, about my height, named Avshalom.

Avshalom is the Biblical name of King David's 3rd son who, coveting the throne, led a coup against his father which resulted in a massive battle and the rebel's untimely death. My host later explained to me that his mother, when searching for a Jewish name for her son, didn't read past the part that describes Avshalom as "tall and good looking."

"When I grew up and realized who Avshalom was, I thought about changing it, but my rabbi told me not to. He said that a lot of spiritual things happen when a name is given and you don't want to change it if you don't have to."

The Passover seder was something to write home about. First of all, Avshalom’s wife Miriam made her own matzas. WOW! Round and big as a pizza. Warm and delicious. They didn’t have much trouble persuading me to eat a whole one in four minutes. It seems that the traditional seder requires that each person eat a lot of matza at a time, in order to reach the threshold of what’s called “eating”. We also had to lean on our left elbows while eating it.

Now, Avshalom and Miriam weren’t themselves experts. They had recently began keeping kosher and going regularly to synagogue. It seems they were living off of their inspiration of a year spent in Israel. So it took our combined efforts to read and analyze the directions in their Passover Haggada. The eating rules applied to more than just the matza. We had to drink not just four little cups of wine, but four glasses full to the brim, and again leaning on our left elbow. We also ate plain romaine lettuce as the “bitter herb”--not just a taste but enough to taste really bitter! And Avshalom insisted on reading the entire service in Hebrew, even though none of us understood it.

Yes, I'd fallen well. An anthropologist’s dream! There was so much, culturally-speaking, going on in that dark apartment. Sweet children running around. Avshalom had a belt-buckle made out of a house key, so that he wouldn’t have to carry anything on Shabbat.

Well, at the end of that interesting experience, as I prepared to leave, Miriam said, “See you tomorrow?”

Tomorrow? What on earth was she talking about? Then it dawned on me: Second Seder. “Oh...” I said, trying to be tactful. “You mean Second Seder? Well, you know, where I come from, we don’t do Second Seder. But thank you very much!”

Avshalom looked surprised. “Oh, but we must have you! You came to the first Seder, got to come to the second!”

I thought for a moment and figured, I guess once in my life I can go to a second Seder. They were very nice, after all.

Well, the second time around, you’d expect something different, but it was identical to the first. The only difference was that by now we were experts and we breezed through the Haggadah, which gave us some time to talk. They told me about themselves, about their year in Israel, about Miriam’s conversion to Judaism. I told them about my search for Bohemia, my growing restlessness in Paris, and my plans to continue eastward, to India.

To be continued....

+ + + +

Now, I don’t recommend reading the Haggadah in Hebrew if you don’t understand Hebrew. Passover should be fun and meaningful. Here are some ideas on how to have a memorable Seder for everyone....

1. Plan ahead

At least a week before Passover, start thinking about how you want to do it so that everyone “gets into” the story. Having everyone participate is a really good idea that everyone does, but just taking turns reading from the Haggadah can be a little tedious.

Shop this coming week. There is already a mad rush in the supermarkets – think how bad it’s going to be next weekend. They might even run out of horseradish.

2. Questions, questions, questions

The main goal of the Seder is to get everyone into the story. “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” doesn’t really do it here. How do you get someone involved? Nothing works as well as a good question.

Idea 1:
There is a time-tested tradition to use rewards (nuts or sweets) to encourage everyone to ask questions. We give everyone a small dish and there is one or two large bowl of nuts on the table – every question gets a nut.

This year, however, I’m going to ask everyone who comes to our Seder (children and adults) to think of their questions a few days beforehand and promise that there will be a great reward for asking questions.

This website has 9 great ideas for making Seder fun and engaging for any age. I especially like #2, 5 and 6.

Idea 2:
Another way to engage a mind (especially in the video age) is through dramatic action. When we get to the part about the 10 plagues, I pull out of a bag a prop to illustrate each plague. Blood is done with red food coloring. I hold up a glass of red water and ask everyone to imagine that every drop of water in their faucets had turned to blood, how terrible that would be. For frogs, I pull out a handful of plastic frogs and throw them on the table: “Imagine frogs everywhere! In your house, in your bed, in your oven!” For lice, I throw salt and declare, “Imagine these tiny creepy crawlies everywhere, all over your body and your furniture...” And so on.

You can actually buy a ready-made “box of plagues” at some Jewish bookstores (or online). If you want to make your own, here are some suggestions:

Blood – food coloring in water
Frogs – handful of toy frogs
Lice – salt
Pestilence - toy domesticated animals that the kids help me stand up and then knock down.
Boils – slimy ears, nose and hands
Beasts – lion and tiger masks that a few people can put on and growl
Hail – ping-pong balls
Locusts – handful of toy grasshoppers
Darkness - sleeping masks for everyone
Firstborn – baby doll whose head can be removed (my wife objects to this one, but how is it worse than any of the other ones? The point is to get your audience to relive the shock and pain of sudden death in every Egyptian household.

• If you would like to hear my Passover talk from last week in California, let me know and I’ll send you the link to the mp3 audio.

• If you are interested in using my user-friendly Haggadah, let me know and I’ll send it to you in .doc format.

• If you find yourself away from home and are looking for a seder to join (or if you are hosting a Seder and would like a guest) write me and I’ll try to be the matchmaker – but fans of long, dry Seders need not apply!

Shabbat Shalom.

My upcoming speaking schedule:
April 20-21 – Shabbat in Los Angeles with Rebbetzin Jungreis
May 4-5 – Shabbat in San Francisco
May 6-7 – various San Francisco locations
May 14 – New York and New Jersey
July 3-10 (tentative) - Text and Context trip to Israel (featuring archaeology around Jerusalem)

(For details, send an email.)

Who will say Di Fir Kashes this year? (that’s Yiddish for the 4 Questions)

Yiddish review
anee — poor person
koptsen — panhandler
ballaboss — homeowner; layman
nu — various meanings (see archives)
mishpocha — family
mameh — mother
tateh — father
mazal – (MAH-z’l) luck or fortune, as in, “It was good mazal that....”
beshert – (b’shairt) - meant to be, as in “It was beshert that...”
mine eltern – my parents
mine lair-er – my teacher
hamantashen – Haman-pockets
zeigezunt – all the best (said upon parting)
kesher - connection
Ikh volt veln a kave, zayt azoy gut. - I'd like a coffee, please.
...kave mit shmant. – ...a coffee with cream.
...kave mit milkh. – ...a coffee with milk.
...kave mit tsuker. - ...a coffee with sugar.

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