Tag Archives: Passover

The Chametz Boys

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

When I was 11, I was the only one of my neighborhood friends who went to yeshivah. They all attended public school and then went to the Talmud Torah on Hendrix Street. 

My Talmud Torah friends and I rarely talked about school, religion, or life, but we all loved discussing baseball.   

We loved everything about the sport: playing it, watching it, trading team and player cards, knowing all the statistics better than we knew facts about our own families. I never knew, for example, the birthdate of my cousin Feivel, or where he was born, or exactly how old he was. But I knew everything about Mickey Mantle, including that he came from Oklahoma (an exotic “country” to us) and how extraordinary his baseball achievements were, especially in light of his being stricken with osteomyelitis. 

No one knew or cared then about his personal problems, just that he was voted MVP, won the Triple Crown Award, batted .356, and hit 52 homers in 1956, an extraordinary athlete. Plus, he wore number 7 on his uniform, so that meant he understood the importance of Shabbos. (Just kidding.)

But, seriously, how could you not love such a guy or his teammates, Whitey Ford, Tony Kubek or Bobbie Richardson, baseball warriors all? They played their hearts out with skill and passion, and we loved them for it.

Several days before Passover one year, one of my friends suggested that we all go to Yankee Stadium for a game. We grew thoroughly excited at the idea, and we all agreed to go. But we knew we could only afford to sit in the bleachers, where seats then cost about a dollar. My friends wanted to go on Yom Tov itself, but I convinced them to hold off until Chol Hamoed, the holiday’s Intermediate days, when work was permitted, so that we could all go together, and they agreed. 

I couldn’t wait for the day of the game to arrive.

Game day was a scorcher, 93 degrees in April at the first pitch, but who cared? We were traveling together on the subway from Brooklyn to a major league baseball game in the Bronx to see our beloved Yankees, and for me, a chance to see the great Mick. 

My mother, may she rest in peace, had made me a great Passover sandwich: egg salad on matzah, which she broke in half so I could feel like I was eating two sandwiches. It looked so good at home that I couldn’t wait to open it at the stadium. But when I saw what my friends were eating at the game, I was, frankly, you should pardon the pun, less excited: they’d bought franks at Yankee Stadium, and franks and more franks, and I was quite jealous. 

Still, we were all in the moment, sitting together at Yankee Stadium, the sounds and smells of a live baseball game filling our senses, and I eagerly awaited the appearance of my hero, Mickey Mantle, who would play centerfield and bat fourth, as usual. 

We couldn’t wait for the game to begin.

I stole glances at the hot dogs and buns and sodas my friends were enjoying, and I felt unhappy. But as they munched contentedly on their stadium hot dogs, I excitedly peeled back the tin foil that covered my egg salad matzah sandwich. When I took it out, however, holding half of my matzo sandwich in the palm of my hand in the noonday sun, both ends of my sandwich sloped downward, a soggy matzah mess. 

My friends looked at my wilting matzah sandwich and laughed out loud, elbowing each other and pointing to my sad matzah sandwich. I could only look at their buns and dogs and sigh jealously. They smirked, enjoying their hot food, and I sheepishly grinned, embarrassed at my own matzah and yellow egg-droop-sandwich and warm canteen water. 

In the end, none of it really mattered as all of us got caught up in the excitement of the game and watched the great Mick and his Yankees destroy the opposing team. 

The Cleveland Indians were the ones who really wilted in that game, and although my funny matzah sandwich was the butt of 11-year olds’ jokes for a few hours that day, we all glowed from the brilliance of the Yankees play in general, and the Mick’s in particular.

That was a happy Pesach indeed.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

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Regarding Passover

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

I recently learned from
my religious friend, Chaim,
that “seder” means “order”.
He has no way of knowing
what passed for Passover at my house
when I was too young
to rebel against the tradition of
eating and reading, eating and reading,
while waiting hours to actually dig in,
and wanting to escape the arguments
that boiled over between my parents.
All I wanted then was to quickly
devour my meal and head for the TV,
to avoid our relatives who were
too loud discussing topics alien to me,
and asking me questions about my future
I was in no position to answer.
The whole world seemed chaotic.
Even so, my seven-year-old self
made quick work of the Four Questions.
“May I be excused,” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” my father answered,
while diligently explaining all
the fourteen steps of the traditional meal.
“Children have to be told the Passover story,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “I heard the story last year,” I said.
At that age I had my own problems,
school yard squabbles and the like,
and was stressed about other things long forgotten.
His stare silenced me.
Now, mired in my seventies,
with my own children,
grown and far-flung,
I wish I would have had
a little more respect for the Passover tradition.
It could have provided more order to my life.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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In the Matter of Seders

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In the matter of Seders,
unfortunately, I get impatient.
As the story of the Israelites unfolds,
I keep looking at the sumptuous food
arranged across the table,
and wonder if I can exist
on a diet of matzoh for the week.
What a poor desert wanderer
I would have been, trudging,
searching the sand hills and oases
for the local 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts.
I am chided for suggesting
that certain prayers be skipped
to shorten the time before a full stomach.
The famous Four Questions are three too many
as I restlessly await the first course,
and the reading of the Ten Plagues reminds me,
what’s the weather report for tomorrow?
I am not proud of my lack of decorum,
and beg forgiveness from my ancestors,
who were much stronger than I,
waiting patiently until the Promised Land
of brisket, kugel, and matzoh ball soup.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Search for Chometz

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

He gave me a saucer containing eleven, neatly cut
pieces of bread:  each about a quarter-inch square.  I placed one
on the edge of the washing machine in the first floor
powder room, the kitchen counter, the dining room table,
the leather-topped lamp table in the living room,
and on the corner of each dresser in the upstairs bedrooms.

He waited downstairs.  When I came back to the kitchen,
he unwrapped a cloth covering a wooden spoon,
the white-feathered wing of a chicken, and a Shabbos candle.
The search for the chometz was about to begin.

I led the way to each piece of bread by candlelight, my hand
cupped in front of the flickering flame as we walked up
the darkened wooden stairway.  Melting wax dripped
onto my hand as I watched our shadows high on the wall.

Dad gently nudged each morsel of bread onto the spoon,
then brushed twice with short sweeping strokes
of a chicken wing.  He cradled the spoon on his forearm
as if it were a fragile doll and wrapped it within
the cloth before leaving each room.

Dad followed me down the stairs and back into the kitchen.
He whispered a prayer and blew long and slow
across the candle flame.

All things are done with prayer,  he said.  The candle tried
desperately to hold to its light. Like hoarded silver,
he wrapped the wooden spoon and bound it tightly with twine.

It is done.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall.

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To My Children Who Know Nothing About Passover

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

Your grandpa passed away some twenty years ago
and so have his Passover Seders.  Every year, he used
two chairs.  As I write this, I am there.  Time stops
like a turtle on its back, legs flaying wildly in the air.

The house is scrubbed, the windows cleaned.  Two sets
of pots and pans, dishes and dinnerware are retrieved
from boxes and paper bags stored in the cellar.
The dining room table is set, wine glasses filled red.
Your grandmother places the Seder Plate on the table
while Grandpa says a blessing and washes his hands
at the kitchen sink.  Grandpa holds the Seder Plate
for all to see and explains each item.

“…because we were slaves in Egypt…,” he would say.
He breaks the middle matzah in its covered plate, wraps
half in a napkin and places it under the tablecloth by his chair.
As we turn our attention to the Haggadah, he moves
the wrapped matzah under the pillow on his second chair.

At the table sits Grandpa’s sister, Aunt Rose, always first
to disapprove of something said or done but with a grand smile
and poised in exemplary posture. There’s cousin Lilly, gray haired,
too thin, always wary of an un-approving look from her pal, Aunt Rose.

There is usually a guest (a boarder or family friend), my brother,
home from the Navy;  my sister and her husband (a cross  between
Kojack and Yul Brynner) and their three pre-teen daughters. Sitting
closest to the kitchen is my mother, always with a pleasant smile.

Our dog watches from the edge of the kitchen as we begin
the Four Questions.  My sister recites in Yiddish, her daughters
recite in Hebrew.  I ask permission as an Ashkenaz and after
a nod I sing each question as smooth and faultless as I can.

We listen to the tale of the Four Sons (the wise, the wicked, the simple,
and the one who doesn’t know enough to ask).  I am satisfied in not
knowing which role I am cast.  The Haggadah reminds us Moses was given
up at the river’s edge to save his life and he came to live as a palace prince.

We tip our wine glasses ten times as we recall each plague cast upon the land
and our escape through the Red Sea.  We eat scallions dipped in saltwater
(to remind us of spring and life’s sorrows); a hardboiled egg in saltwater
(I always plead more); home-made gefilte fish with horseradish, grated
the night before; matzah ball soup; brisket, crowned with onion
and an obedient audience of  browned potatoes; and four glasses
of  sweet, red wine, each with a blessing before and after the meal.

I open the front door to welcome Elijah. The red goblet at the center
of the table is filled just for him.  As I stand in the cold night air, I scan
the sky for a winged angel on horseback with a long black sword dripping
with blood and edged in flame.

Back inside we remind the young to barter with Grandpa for
the afikoman they stole.  (It  must be redeemed to complete
the meal.) We end a long evening with bellies too full and we
open our books to find Chad Gadya.

In these days, Grandpa is just a word and Passover is something
you may have once heard.  Both flow  warm in my blood
and give strength to bone.  If I were a sunflower, I’d bow
my head low.  For too soon, there will be no one left to remember.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall 

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Where I’ll Celebrate Passover Next Year

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

I resisted the idea of visiting Israel for most of my adult life. I was afraid I would feel nothing holy, nothing spiritual, nothing to connect me to the land of our forefathers. The Pesach cry “Next Year in Jerusalem!” never resonated with me. Why in Jerusalem? Why not in Berlin or Los Angeles, Moscow or Nairobi? How could spending Passover in Jerusalem make a difference in my life, enhance my Jewish identity, or connect me to world Jewry?

I spent my first Passover in Israel this year and returned with a twisted knot of emotions that will take some time to unravel. My greatest joy was in the daily gifts to my senses: the sweet smell of jasmine, the inviting warmth of the limestone architecture, the abundant sunshine, and the rich tastes of hummus and falafel. Each day the land and the people drew me in, but not without moments when my buttons were pushed and I drew back. I felt a bit like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, the gazelle-unicorn whose two heads try to go in opposite directions whenever it moves.

The greatest challenge was trying to make sense of the ultra-orthdox Jews whose demeanor and conduct sent a loud message that said “keep away — you are not one of us.” Driving through the Mea She’arim area and provoking the rage of its residents was probably a bad idea, but even worse was the feeling we had while walking around Jerusalem of being invisible in the eyes of those who are a part of our history but who reject us as Jews. Why wouldn’t they look at us? And why were they always in such a hurry, rushing along the streets in their big hats and black suits as if late for a pressing business appointment?

We did not travel with a group or attend any religious services so we had no interaction with more modern Jews. Stepping into one of Jerusalem’s major hotels to use the facilities, we saw huge signs for upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs. One elaborate display welcomed Gaby Schwartz and her bat mitzvah guests. I became obsessed with Gaby Schwartz and how she felt about having her bat mitzvah at a fancy hotel in Jerusalem. Did Gaby miss her friends who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem to celebrate with her? Why leave your local Jewish community for such an important rite of passage? What did it mean to Gaby’s parents to celebrate the twin occasions of Pesach and their daughter’s bat mitzvah in Jerusalem?

The cultural and earthly pleasures of Israel will pull me back one day, but I look forward to spending next Passover in Berlin. The phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” isn’t just about our physical presence on the land; it also reflects our aspirations for unity among the world’s Jews, for world peace and spiritual fulfillment. But are these the best words to end a seder for the many Jews like me who struggle to find their connection with Judaism and who tire of being associated with Israeli policies with which we disagree?

Building Jewish community in the place where I live, a place where Jewish life came close to extinction, has meaning for me. Berlin has a growing Jewish population, and although it is quite fragmented and rife with conflicts, it is also rich and vibrant, a reflection of our resilience. In Israel I was just a tourist, but in Berlin I am part of a Jewish community where my presence has significance for building a better future.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine, Tikkun Daily, Jewesses with Attitude, and AVIVA-Berlin.

 

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Passover Reminiscence

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

We bought spring clothes for Passover and fall clothes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the high holidays.  The weather seemed always too cold for the new Passover clothes and too hot for the new fall clothes.  It took a long time and a lot of explanation for me to understand that the dates of the holidays didn’t change but the relationship between the Gregorian calendar and the Hebrew calendar did.

Holidays punctuated the sameness of days, the continuing emphasis on getting things done, going to school, shopping, playing; in general, our daily routine.  Preparation for the holiday of Passover was frenzied.

I don’t know how our grandmothers and mothers did it.   No dishwashers, no prepared foods, certainly no outside help – and yet, somehow it got done.  I hope it wasn’t the holiday that contributed to a shortened life span for that generation of women.   Yet, the expectation of repetition of the preparations, and the ceremony of the seder, were comforting in their continuity.  Before so many contemporary creative Haggadahs  with their inventive writings and improvisations were popular, we used the old Maxwell House Haggadah, a text familiar to me since early childhood.  Maybe the company’s distribution of these brand name Haggadahs was to give the subtle suggestion that Maxwell House coffee was kosher.  When my grandfather was alive, my parents, little brother and I went to their house on Wharton Street for the ritual meal.  I can still see my grandfather, imposing in a white kimono-like caftan, leaning on pillows as prescribed in the Haggadah, intoning the familiar story of the exodus.  My brother was too young to participate in the ceremony, but I, a Hebrew school student, asked the centuries- old Four Questions.

We learned to say them in Hebrew School in two languages, Hebrew and Yiddish, and I dutifully asked them in both languages, intoning the singsong liturgy learned in Hebrew School.  I remember being given sips of the sweet Passover wine, feeling indoctrinated in a world of grownups.  I also felt very important, with all attention focused on me; also, nervous, fearful I would make a mistake.  I didn’t realize that family indulgence was part of the game and all would smile gently if I slipped up.  Passover was  celebrated for its full eight days with ritual foods.  On the eighth day I was sent to the nearest bakery to buy the first bread.  My mother always grumbled that the bakery opened too soon which elicited a discussion of whether the holiday was over before lunch or before dinner, an argument still unresolved.  When we children came home for lunch in elementary school and junior high, Passover foods awaited us.

We all had two Seders on two successive nights and spent the next part of the holiday eating fried matzoh, gefilte fish and the special holiday dishes which, for some unexplained reason, certainly not sacred, we never prepared the rest of the year.  Nuts were a part of the Passover table, walnuts and almonds and particularly filberts.  These were the perfect shape for marbles, and we could be seen, in our new Passover clothes,  kneeling on the sidewalk using those  nuts for a game of marbles

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the authorFor more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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