Seder or Chaos

Seder or Chaos?Once again I am thrilled to be in NYC. I probably would be here more often, if it wasn’t for the torture of the plane ride, or the tremendous cost of the torture. I suppose one solution is to somehow be shorter, or rich, another would be to find a flight that was not elbow to elbow full. Still working on that. 

Of course coming to NYC requires planning as well, something that takes forward thinking, discipline and resolve. None of which are my strong suits. Thankfully I have children and a wife to assist me. Children to go visit for dozens of reasons, and a wife to organize the method of travel and the type of housing. I am forever grateful. 

I love NYC, but on my own I would have accidentally arrived through some magical means, and I would have had to spend the nights riding the subways. I should have been able to afford a nice room, but I also would have left my wallet in another state, in another pair of pants. I know me.

My youngest daughter had a performance that week, and my wife made the plans. It was all good. The one problem was that almost the entire trip was during Passover Week. 

NYC trips are filled with Italian dinners, great pizza, Reuben sandwiches, greater pizza, fresh bagels, even greater pizza. This week is marked by eating the bread of affliction. 

For clarity sake, Passover Week is a Jewish holiday to remember being slaves in Egypt, and then being freed by the power and action of the Lord. Refraining to eat a normal diet causes us to remember that the people had to leave so quickly that they couldn’t wait to have bread with rising yeast, hence, the bread of affliction, or more commonly known as matzoh.

Now several thousands of years have passed and naturally the holiday has changed somewhat. The no-yeast rule is still in effect but also the avoidance of anything that “puffs” up in cooking. So rice, flour, legumes, corn, and corn syrup are on the no list. Individually you might easily avoid these things for a week. But corn syrup? Corn syrup is the secret ingredient in everything tasty. 

NYC for a week with nothing tasty. 

Generally we celebrate Christian holidays anywhere we want, cruise ships, vacations, etc. Jewish holidays have always been closer to home. Easier to plan for food. I never realized that difference before. 

Fortunately, my lovely wife stepped up to the challenge and reserved the first Passover Night at a Brooklyn synagogue with a community Seder. I also stepped up and researched a few restaurants that advertised a Passover Week menu. We shouldn’t starve or have to prepare our own food in the hotel room. 

My first Seder was years and years ago, I was struck by the ceremony, awed by the re-telling of His plan, and after a few years I learned to eat a little something before going to any Seder. They can be very long… I think this might be intentional, to cause people to be so hungry that everything seems tasty. 

My father-in-law generally led the early Seders and we could gauge how hungry he was by the pages that he skipped reading in the Haggadah. By the way, Haggadah is Hebrew for “the telling”.

For the last few years I have led the family Seders and even a church community Seder. My Hebrew has gotten a little better and I haven’t shortened the service by much. I like the pillow under my left arm as I relax at dinner like a free man. 

So now we are in Brooklyn, at a community Seder in the basement of a local synagogue. Pretty cool, taking a subway from Manhattan, wandering around Brooklyn Heights. Classic!

Maybe I had higher expectations, maybe that was wrong. I think I wanted to see a familiar Seder plate, an icon that would anchor my experience. I dunno…

Once we entered the basement we could see the actual dinner in aluminum pans in the center of the room, surrounded by rectangular tables seating eight people. This was expected. 

Each table had a collection of at least eight bottles of wine, seltzer, water, grape juice, cola, diet cola, cider… All collected at one end of the table, as if at the check out stand at Safeway.

The rest of the table had the eight paper plates, various cups, napkins, etc., but there was no Seder plate. Instead there were several styrofoam bowls of undeclared food, or possible food. They were all the same color which didn’t help. Another plate had a chunk of romaine lettuce, and some parsley. Oh yeah, and a bowl of 8 hard boiled eggs. 

The only thing recognizable was several bowls of salt water with a sprig of parsley floating on top. Greens dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears of slavery. The word Seder means order, because there was an order to follow, a Haggadah to tell us what to do, when to drink the wine, what food should be eaten, and prayers to be said. And of course the stories and songs. 

I really missed the Seder plate with the divided sections for the ceremonial food, I missed the Matzoh holder with the three matzoh, and the special middle matzoh. Was I becoming too orthodox? Is it possible to be a Hassidic Christian? 

This Seder table was a riot of confusion, and all of the tables were exactly the same. We were seated with a couple who had a three year old girl, so it was just the six of us, meaning that we had two empty place settings that would become important in the events that followed. 

Then I saw the Haggadah. It was thick, many pages, it had an actual spine, we could be reading for hours before eating. It was professionally printed in full color, not folded and stapled in a back office. We were doomed.

Sitting in the folding chair, viewing the table with the mystery bowls, holding the thick Haggadah in my hands, it was somewhat of an unworldly moment. Of course the Haggadah was printed in the traditional way, back to front. Except that in Hebrew the back is the front, except that this was in English, least most of it. There were parts that had Hebrew and transliterated English side by side, except when it didn’t. It was all very confusing.

One of the things that was new was on the first pages of the Haggadah. It was fifteen words that described the fifteen different steps of the Seder. I didn’t know there were fifteen, I did know many of the words, and I was pretty sure of the order, but I hadn’t realized there were fifteen. This is good, I like knowing new things, this might even be helpful.

It wasn’t.

The rabbi asked us to pickup the Haggadah and we were to go to the page with the fifteen words. The rabbi was the Seder leader, he was flown in from Milwaukee for just this occasion. A faraway expert from Milwaukee. Then he talked about the importance of memorizing the fifteen words/steps.

The Haggadah also had a mnemonic tool that required memorizing some additional Hebrew words in order to memorize the actual fifteen Hebrew words. He thought that was ridiculous and I had renewed hope in our Seder leader. His idea was to have each table shout a word, one after another. We had fifteen tables and there were fifteen words. Piece of cake.

Well, not cake, because that would take flour. 

The problem was that each table was randomly assigned a word. Somewhere on the table was a piece of paper with our word. We had Barech, the blessing at the end of the meal. I suppose the rabbi had this vision of a verbal wave, as each table shouted the order of the Seder. It was a nice thought but complicated by the random order of the words on the tables, if you could find the word.

The rabbi stood in the middle of the room, pointing in a half squat, asking “Where is…, Kadesh!”, and then, “Where is Urchatz?” He spun several times before several weak mutterings of “Urchatz”. The Karpas table at first could not find their word so it got very quiet while the rabbi spun and pointed. It wasn’t going to be a classic wave, even if it had worked, at best it would be a verbal ‘whack a mole’ as each table shouted, while the rabbi spun.

This is when he admitted that he had tried this several times at other Seders, and it had always failed. But what the heck let’s try it again.

“Noo!”, I screamed in my head. It’s not working, it’s a bad idea made worse by the spinning and pointing. Repeating a bad idea is not wise. But then, I thought, what does it matter? Our table was the fourteenth word and we would never get there. The rabbi tried several times to get to Karpas, but Urchatz was always asleep. But the spinning and pointing was mesmerizing.

Suddenly, I realized that the rabbi was leading a preview of the Haggadah, going briefly to each step in order to let us know what the steps are. That’s why he was spinning and pointing so much. Well, okay then, lead on.

Suddenly, we were up to page 44 and I realized that we weren’t going back. It wasn’t a preview, we just missed the maror, the matzoh sandwich, the wine blessings, the hand washing, etc. So we hurriedly tossed parsley and romaine lettuce around, we dipped, we found horseradish and some haroset, and we poured wine, we opened the packaged saniwipe for the handwashing (that was new and a little disturbing). We only caught up because the rabbi was still periodically pointing and spinning to various tables, and “Urchatz” was still asleep.

Then we were at the serving of the meal, with table one going first. We were table fourteen. This is when our empty places started to attract scavengers. A dozen or so people had come late, so the hosts set up tables, but they didn’t have all the table stuff. Our empty place sittings were calling to them. Hey, it makes sense, take the Haggadahs, we weren’t using them. Take the plates, bowls, napkins and forks. We offered them gladly, it gives us more room.

But then they came for the food and drink, the bowl of babaganoosh, the bottle of seltzer, the jug of grape juice. This action had a certain post-apocalyptic quality. I mean they weren’t starving, but they wanted their fair share. I noticed they didn’t want the romaine lettuce or the horseradish, but the haroset disappeared. I managed one small cup of seltzer before it left. Periodically I looked at the table to my left, and I envied their virgin bottle of seltzer. It does appear that we were the only table with empty seats. 

Finally our table was called. The conversation with the young couple was almost completely one-sided, at the normal time when sharing would take place, there was just silence, so getting our number called meant that we could fill our mouths with food, not words.

I must say the food was pretty good, not the gefilte fish, that was like cat throw-up. But gefilte fish is always like that, so no harm. It was a very good meal, the only dark cloud was the additional steps in the Haggadah after the meal. Strange Seder songs, sung to the tune of “Tonight” from West Side story, or another to “old Macdonald had a farm”. Never did find the Afikomen. And of course the chaos that was still in the spinning and pointing. We never did get to Barech. Maggid had left the service early, so there was a silent hole in the chant.

I mentioned the lack of corn syrup, the real effect of that is in dessert. It is a real challenge to find a way to make something tasty without flour, and without corn syrup. The hosts of the Seder delivered to our table several plates of tasty things. At least I think they were tasty, I don’t know because a young girl suddenly showed at our table. At first she just stood there, then she spied something on our tasty plate. She made her move, a chubby little arm stretched and stretched, until it was obvious that she would have to lunge. And she did, the bottle of the grape juice went flying, but she had the tasty thing tightly in her hand. Then she left.

Several times she came back, we finally moved the tasty plate out of lunge reach. She still came back to observe, perhaps to plan a sneak attack. 

The Seder was soon over and we prepared to leave. I saw the virgin seltzer bottle at the empty table to my left and suddenly it was in my pocket. Why not?

We were visitors from the other coast, it was different and we laughed at the difference. I made fun of the Seder and wrote about it. It could be seen as disrespectful, I didn’t mean it to be. We talked about the Seder on the subway back to Manhattan. It was funny, it was hilarious. It was the best family Seder I had ever been to. Okay, so maybe some of the important serious things hadn’t been spotlighted. Maybe there was a little chaos. There will be other Seders. This one was unique, special, and the best time I had ever spent in Brooklyn.

PS… Just a word about food in New York during Passover Week. It was great, plenty of places to eat, great food. I even had a combo pastrami/corned beef Reuben on matzoh. Wonderful, not particularly Kosher with the cheese, but tasty.