Shithouse rat

I'm a bipolar writer in the Naked City. I'm not playing with a full deck. I don't have all my dots on the dice. My cheese is sliding off my cracker. I don't have both oars in the water. I'm a bubble off plum. In other words, I'm crazier than a shithouse rat. These are my stories. Comments--short or long, nasty or nice--always welcome!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The last Seder

Originally uploaded by Paul Watson.
Despite the fact that I haven't attended a Seder for lo these many years, Passover remains my favorite Jewish holiday. Though my mother was Jewish and my father was Christian, neither of them were really too hip on celebrating their respective heritages, so most of what I learned about Passover and Jewish tradition came from my mother's sister, aunt Frannie. I went to live with aunt Frannie and uncle Mo when I was fifteen, after my parents died. Since they were Orthodox Jews, over the next four years and until I went away to college, I learned everything I ever wanted to know about Judaism but was afraid to ask — and then some.

Orthodox Judaism is steeped in ritual, much of which may seem odd at best and absurd at worst to outsiders, but each nuance makes sense within the tradition. For instance, the Sabbath is a very sacred day of the week, and no labor may be done on this day, which starts at sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday. Since, in the olden days, starting any kind of fire for cooking or other purposes was considered labor, it is forbidden for a devout Jew to turn lights on and off or press an elevator button, since that is seen as igniting an electrical version of a "spark." This meant, paradoxically, that on the "day of rest," rather than taking the elevator up and down to shul, you had to shlep up and down the stairs.

As technology advanced, so did ways to kind of get around some of these modern dilemmas. Now my aunt's building has one "Shabbos elevator" that stops at every floor on Saturday, so one needn't press the elevator button to get upstairs. My aunt had a timer that turned the living room lights on at dusk and off at around 11 pm. To heat up food for the Friday night meal, my aunt put a metal tray on top of two burners that she put on a low flame before Shabbos (Sabbath).

Passover is one of the most sacred of Jewish holidays, but when I was younger all I knew is that it was a lot of fun. The meal was long and drawn out, and we all read from the Haggadah, which provided text in Hebrew and English so I could understand what all the chanting and singing — and the story of Passover — was all about. The tale it told was of the Exodus of the Jews from their Egyptian captors, and how G-d parted the Red Sea to let them escape. Since they had little time to prepare for this event, the bread they brought for the journey had no time to leaven, and thus matzoh is eaten for the entire holiday, which extends over eight days.

There is a Yiddish saying, "It's hard to be a Jew." Aside from the fact that Jews have been persecuted since time immemorial, the rituals involved in Passover alone give new meaning to the word "difficult." All traces of leavened bread must be removed from the home prior to Passover, which involves a very thorough version of spring-cleaning. Every crumb must be excised, and only food which is Kosher for Passover (and very expensive to boot) must be used.

Since Orthodox Jews never mix milk with meat, all homes have two sets of dishes throughout the year — one for meat and one for dairy. In addition, every Passover the regular dishes are put away and the Passover milk and meat dishes are brought down from the top of the cabinets for use during the holiday.

Before I went to live with my aunts, I was blissfully unaware of the momentous effort that was involved in Passover preparation — and what I've mentioned above is the mere tip of the iceberg. But what I do remember is seeing all my beloved aunts and uncles and cousins around the table.

Passover is also memorable for me because it marks my very first "buzz." During the Seder, three cups of sweet kosher wine are poured at various intervals during the ceremony — and one extra cup is left untouched for the Prophet Elijah. One year, when I was about twelve, rather than just taking a sip or two each time the wine was refilled, I drank my fill of all three and "passed over" from sobriety into a woozy state that I will never quite forget. But Elijah's cup was still off-limits.

Though many people see Chanukkah as a big holiday equivalent to Christmas, the truth is that it is a relatively minor affair, especially compared to Passover. Furthermore, the fact that Passover and Easter coincide so closely is very significant, for the Last Supper was actually a Passover seder. The Communion wafer and the wine so significant to Christianity are, in effect, the matzoh and wine that was shared at the final Passover meal before Jesus was sacrificed. I daresay that there are many Jews and perhaps Christians who may not make this connection, but I think it is an important one.

So this year, though I sent (my boyfriend) BG's mom a flowering bonsai for Easter, I will make a valiant effort to stay away from the giant chocolate Easter bunnies. Instead, I'll buy my favorite Passover treat — chocolate covered matzohs — and reflect on the importance of this holiday season to so many millions of Christians and Jews. In this delicious way, I'll try to keep alive the memory of both my parents and how closely connected Jews and Christians really are. The ties that bind our common heritage are good to remember this time of year — and hopefully during the rest of the year as well.


At 9:34 AM, Anonymous paula said...

That was wonderful! Thanks for the peek into another culture.

At 11:35 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


Thanks so's the first thing I've written for awhile, so I must be feeling better. I miss your blog--are you taking a sabbatical from cyberspace?

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Paul Watson said...

Fascinating, especially the Last Supper connection. And I am glad you liked the photo.

At 12:54 PM, Blogger elvira black said...

Thank you Paul--I love the photo and thought it fit perfectly. So glad you shared it!

At 5:51 AM, Blogger Justine said...

Pasover is such a powerful image. What a wonderful traditional / religion.

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Nikky Egland said...

That was very interesting! I love learning about other religions, and this provided a personal and intriguing view of Judaism! Thanks!

At 10:31 PM, Blogger artdetective said...

Chocolate covered matzoh sounds pretty good to a slimmed-down Twix? Or is that sacrilegious to say?

Very interesting about the separate dishes. I'm pretty waspy but I did know that about the meat and dairy. For a little while I lived in Highland Park, NJ, and you could get the best vegetarian pizza there.

At 7:50 AM, Anonymous brink craven said...

you "passed over" into a woozy state, huh? thats hilarious.

a very heart warming and informative article, E. I thoroughly enjoyed it. thanks.
Im glad to hear youre finding your groove again.....

At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Norman Kabak said...

Very much enjoyed your article and sorry to learn you were not well. I wish you a full and speedy recovery. You may get some frosty comment regarding an inaccuracy about your "Buzz". Actually, there are 4 cups of wine and one more for Elijah. For some time, there was a recent tradition to have an empty setting at the Seder table in memory of the Jews who could not leave the USSR. Now of course those Jews who wanted to leave have done so and so time marches and the tradition has changed. Now we set a place for those in Darfur.

N Kabak

At 1:13 AM, Blogger !ce said...

I hate holidays. I think we should have a socialist country where everybody is publicly athiest and they can save their religious practices for their private times. That way, businesses won't have to close, religious holidays won't be tainted by consumerism, and people can buy groceries on Alannah Myles's birthday or sell CD's on the day after tax day. There is a Linda Ronstadt songs in there somewhere, but I stand behind my point.

I have updated the main page on my blog and the "truth: others" page. I'm interested to know what you think.

At 1:18 AM, Blogger Walker said...

THis was great. I learned so much about how customs adapt to new ways of living.
There are things from my families customs that I have forgotton but with Easter next week(I'm Orthodox) some of these traditions will surface.
The connection between with the last supper was new to me but have always suspected that there is much about the major religions and their place of origin.
They are closer related than many would like to beleive

At 7:02 PM, Blogger jessie said...

what a wonderful inside look into your religion! and it's nice to see you're enjoying the holidays as well!

At 8:25 PM, Blogger !ce said...

Come on, Elvira. There are now two posts waiting for your comments. You're getting way behind.

At 11:43 PM, Blogger dan said...

I'm not even remotely Jewish, but the Passover story is one that always gets to me. :)

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Justine said...

Way WAY behind!

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

I love Passover.

At 1:02 AM, Blogger digibrill said...

Hope you're all right. Post soon! (Hope you had a great passover/easter holiday!)

At 4:08 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

WOW! Thanks you guys for all the kind comments. It was fun to reminisce, but also a bit sad because I haven't been to a seder in such a very long time and I miss it. Maybe next year...

I've been behind on my posting and responses to comments (and visiting you all) --partly because I'm prepping for the big coop sale (actually got L's boxes--all 72 of them--into a storage faccility FINALLY). The other reason is I just haven't had as much energy as I had before. But again, I really appreciate the comments you guys left!

At 4:10 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


Chocolate covered matzoh is just about as close to heaven on earth as I can get--but not too healthy esp if you devour the whole box (lol) so I resisted tempation and didn't buy any. But if you can afford it and find it in your grocery--and can throw caution to the wind--I highly recommend it.

At 4:17 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


Thanks so much--I'm glad you enjoyed the post! The tradition of setting an extra plate is beautiful and moving--I hadn't heard about that.

I also posted this piece on Blogcritics, and mentioned you in two of the comments, along with a link to your site. If you're interested in checking it out, here's the link:

Thanks for the correction on the four cups--it's no wonder I was so wasted!

At 4:18 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


Bah, humbug!

I'll check out your updates--I've been a bit behind, but I'm trying to catch up now.

At 4:22 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


Thanks! I suspect a lot of Jews who aren't familiar with Christianity (or at least less secular ones) wouldn't know about the Last Supper being a seder, but I always thought it was more common knowlege for Christians since it says in the Gospels that the Passover was going on during that time. But I'm a little rusty on my New Testament, so maybe the connect isn't all that clear. Happy Easter to you!

At 8:15 AM, Blogger !ce said...

Am I the only one here with a distate for holidays? Okay, an extreme distate. A disdain.

By the way, I have responded to your comments on my blog.

At 5:41 AM, Blogger jane said...

What a wonderful way to honor your mom & dad. Thank you for educating us about Passover. I'm glad you're posting!

At 8:47 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


I'm sure some people have a disdain for holidays, but millions of others find them meaningful.


Many thanks--I'm not up to full speed, but I'm trying to post when I can.

At 5:43 AM, Anonymous Fresh flowers delivered said...

Passover is the most important holiday in Orthodox Christianity as well. I happened to be in Russia during a Passover and I was impressed of their traditions there. For instance there is this belief that if you go dressed up in a traditional costume to the church your year will be better, and they even take food to the church so the priest can bless it for the same reason.

At 12:20 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Hey Fresh Flowers:

Thanks for the comment--very interesting indeed!

At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Michael.B said...

Did you know that during the Passover week, only unleavened bread or matzoh is permissible. The bar against leavened (chametz in Hebrew) foods applies only to these five types of grain: barley, wheat, rye, oats, and spelt. Although wine is fermented, it is permitted, since it is not derived from any of these five types of grains. Food items made from these grains may be eaten only if they are cooked before the leavening process begins, a matter of time deemed to be some eighteen minutes from the time they are mixed with water.



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