Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pocket Review of Passover, or "A Gentile at the Table"

Passover (Hebrew, Yiddish: פֶּסַח, He-Pesach.ogg Pesach , Tiberian: pɛsaħ, Israeli: Pesah,Pesakh, Yiddish: Peysekh, Paysokh) is a Jewish and Samaritan holy day and festival commemorating the Hebrews escape from enslavement in Egypt, and is the seven day Feast of the Unleavened Bread (it lasts eight days in the diaspora).[1]
My young man is Jewish. Well, at least his adoptive parents are. Really, he's Jew...ISH. Before I ever met them, his parents invited me to the Passover dinner they host at their home every year. After some discussion, Charles (aforementioned young man) and I decided maybe it would be better if I met them in a more intimate setting, versus being overwhelmed with his entire extended family at one go. As a result, I first met his parents (and sister) several weeks ago, when I attended a Shabbos dinner (Shabbos being the seventh day of the Jewish week and a day of rest in Judaesim) at their Manhattan apartment.
I was nervous for several reasons; the predominant ones being that I haven't met a boyfriend's parents in over ten years, and (mostly) that I was unsure of how they would receive my gentile self. I told my guy that if they didn't dig me, he was welcome to tell them that I am merely his "goy toy." Happily, that was unnecessary, as we had a very nice time. His parents are fun, interesting, and well-traveled. His father, Michael, is a judge, (which prompted me to tell Charles that I would be addressing his dad as "Your honor," but in a Brooklyn accent throughout the meal, saying things like, "Yo, ya honuh, can I holla at that challah?"), and his mother, Jacqueline, is a research chemist turned lawyer who works for the office of the Attorney General. They are also (to my relief) quite liberal. Apparently, I got the Kosher for Passover seal of approval, because when I asked Charles what they thought of me a few days later, he patted my cheek, and said, "They're feelin' the kid. They're feelin' the kid."

Because Charles was unable to get the first night of Pesach off from work, I ended up attending a Thursday night seder with him and his family at the home of some old friends, instead. When he first extended this invitation to me, some low-grade anxiety took over, and my mind unwillingly conjured an image of the worst possible seder ever, myself cast in the role of most obnoxious Passover guest in history.
In my mind's eye, I saw myself in a skimpy black dress, patent leather boots, and lots of make-up, angel food cake in one hand, and a spiral ham in the other with a giant, emblingened (another word I made up, meaning to be encrusted with Bling) crucifix swinging from my neck. I would bray things like, "Is this seat taken? It's not, right? Whaddaya mean it's for Elijah?" through a wad of gum. Or, "Stop talking funny, and let's eat! Jesus, I'm starving over here!" or, "What are you doing with that knife? I'm circumcised, alright?"
On Thursday, I met Charles at work in Union Square, and as it was a lovely afternoon, and we had lots of time, we decided to stroll up to midtown, where the dinner was taking place. On the way, we passed a bakery that (according to him) has the best red velvet cupcakes in the city. While standing on the sidewalk with our noses pressed to the glass, we debated going in, but decided against it. Charles said, "We probably shouldn't eat cupcakes before a seder. They'll smell the leavening on us, and all eyes will go to you, gentile." I replied, "Hey. You still have plenty of time to push me into traffic, and grab a nice Jewish girl that you can pass off as Brooke Woodenberg, but do not underestimate my shiksappeal." He noted that the bakery closed at ten, and suggested we try to duck out of dinner in time to head back there for dessert.
We were the first to arrive at the rambling apartment of our hosts, and were immediately greeted by three hopping, barking dogs, ranging in size from large to extra small. The hostess, Joni, crossed the kitchen with her hand extended to me, saying, "We have lots of dogs!" I responded, "Oh, I love animals, obviously," and gestured at Charles, who is currently sporting a beard of Paul Bunyan proportions. So magnificent is his facial hair, that, mid-seder he was introduced as, "All the way from ancient Egypt, ladies and gentlemen, the hero of our story, Moses!"
Charles's old school friend, whose name I will never spell correctly, and therefore will refer to as Jeff Jr., led the seder. He is smart and extremely charismatic and did an excellent job of guiding us through each step of the meal. He and his family have a more modern take on Pesach, as they quote Leonard Cohen, and sing the Jeff Buckley version of "Hallelujah," one of my most favorite songs, ever. There was lots of humor and love involved in addition to the Hebrew prayers that are said and sung. Jeff Jr. said that it was his hope that everyone present could use this time of togetherness to air their tensions with one another as a family, and come to one another with an open palm instead of a closed fist. I thought this a lovely sentiment, though I was momentarily concerned that the evening could turn into an episode of Jerry Springer: bubbes pitted against kinder, brothers slapping sisters, husbands leaping over the table for the throats of their wives...gefilte fish and bitter herbs flying in their wakes and scarfed down by one of the three dogs or the geriatric cat.
The first hour and a half to two hours of a seder is devoted to distracting the guests from their extreme hunger by offering them wine and decoy food, such as sliced vegetables dipped in salt water, while stories are read. I myself demolished almost an entire plate of kosher dills in this interval, hoping that the sound of my teeth tearing the crisp pickle flesh would drown out the growling triceratops I had stowed in my stomach prior to arriving. Charles's sister, Simone, sat on my right, and after realizing that I had never attended a seder before, took time out from her love affair with Monroe (the newest puppy in the house), to explain the meanings of the stories and questions to me.
Jeff, Sr. also made a point to include me, as he brought a bowl filled with photographs down to my end of the table, and instructed me to choose one. This was to put a face with the segment of the meal in which examples are given of the wise child, the simple child, the wicked child, and the child who doesn't know how to ask. Since I chose my picture, I was able to categorize my child and explain why I did so. The photo was of Jeff Jr. and his great grandmother. He is smiling and happy and standing beside her on a porch. I proclaimed him to represent the wise child, as he looks loving and respectful, and his bond with his elder is apparent. Michael, Charles's dad, complimented me, saying my comment was astute (a statement with which I didn't necessarily agree, as I was faint with hunger, and not at my best; but I was glad he noticed that I was making an effort to participate).
Michael ("Ya Honuh") is a lovely man who is all the dearer to me because he is blind in his left eye, and therefore has no depth perception. This consistently makes him the only person at the table who is klutzier than I am. I also admire his unfailingly positive attitude, and his love of music (Charles inherited both of these qualities, though he loves hip hop and his dad loves opera.) Another quality Charles shares with his dad is an appreciation of cornball humor. E.G.: there is a segment in every seder when a large round of matzoh is broken into one small piece and one large piece, and passed around the table symbolizing how the Jews fled Egypt so quickly that they didn't have time to leaven the bread. Matzoh is dry, bumpy, and let's face it, a bit cardboardy. As we prepared to bite into our pieces of matzoh, Michael told the following:
"Two friends are at a seder, and one of the friends is blind. The sighted man passes a piece of matzoh to his friend, and after feeling it for a moment, the blind man says, "Who wrote this crap?"
Michael and Jacqueline gave us a ride back to my Brooklyn abode, and as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge, Jacqueline asked me what she referred to as the "litmus question" - "You didn't vote for George W. Bush, did you?" I replied, "God, no. I had to stop listening to the news, because the sound of his voice made me want to puke blood." We had an interesting chat about politics and the election while Charles alternately dozed and gazed at the full, buttery moon with me. It was a lovely evening, made even lovelier when Charles surprised me by pulling a bag of red velvet cupcakes from the trunk of his mom's car (that he had secretly purchased while "walking his sister out" after dinner).
I am not religious, preferring mainly to stick with the golden rule, though I do believe in the divine. It's just that the how and the why and all of the ritual associated with most organized religions is not necessary to me. I was happy to discover that Charles feels the same. That said, it was truly wonderful to be able to observe first hand the deep and historic rituals associated with someone else's faith, and to be made to feel so welcome in the course of it.
My own surrogate parents, Kay and Barbara, faithfully attend a Methodist church in my hometown of Birmingham, in spite of the fact that they often disagree with the messages issuing from the pulpit. When I asked Kay about this, she replied, "Going there for that hour or so every week prompts me to think on what it is I DO believe." Passover provided the same for me. And, I would definitely have sex with those red velvet cupcakes.


  1. You are an amazing person and I happy to say you are family, even if just a distant relative. I like to celebrate what a beautiful person you have become in this life. Thank you for sharing this with me. I really wish we could have met up in New York.
    Be happy! love yo 2nd Cuz

  2. David Sedaris, move over! There is a new voice in town, and she will make you pee!!

    Brooke, thanks so much for making me laugh so hard so early in the morning - you rock!!

    love ":^) melo

  3. Please tell me in your nightmare scenario you were channeling Marisa Tomei from "My Cousin Vinnie"--because when I read it you were! Heh heh heh

    As always, my dear, a marvelous mixture of lovely sentiment and hilarious observation, in a pithy, witty, style.

  4. You have left me craving more, so, please hurry up an' blog some.