Passover Play-Back

My favorite Jewish holiday involves remembrance, reveling and a whole lot of wine. As Ina Garten says: What could be better than that?

My first real passover ended with disaster.

I was eight years old, and we dined with my dad's colleagues - Orthodox Jews, who probably hoped to instill some piety in me and my younger sister, since we were (and are) misfortunite product of a barely-practicing Jewish mother and her mixed-marriage (a Quaker!) husband.

The Rosenbergs* had about half a dozen children; the oldest a smattering of twelve and thirteen-year-old girls, with exotic hyphenated names: Ruchel-Ester, Chava-Leah. To my pre-teen self they seemed comically tall and omnipotent; and, in accordance with the Jewish tradition that women fully join the Jewish faith after their Bat Mitzvah at age 12, this was their first seder drinking wine along with the adults.

Most Jewish traditions involve food and wine, but none as elaborately as the Passover seder. Beyond the basic food-based premise for the holiday - Jews abstain from leavening for a week to acknowledge the hasty flee, and quickly baked bread, that our ancestors endured during their escape from slavery in Egypt -  almost everything on the Passover table evokes tradition: charoset, an apple chutney, represents the mortar used to build the pyramids; horseradish is symbolic of the pain of slavery; and salt water is a reminder of the tears shed during Exodus (Jewish mothers don't pull their guilt-trips out of thin air, there's a centuries' long tradition behind it...).

And here comes the big one - during the seder meal, during the hours and hours of prayer and story-telling, everyone must drink four glasses of wine, which symbolize various exodus-related things, two before the meal and two after.

One more time here, so it sinks in: before eating anything, Passover celebrants are required to drink two glasses of wine. (Sonoma should adopt this holiday city-wide; can you think of a more fitting municipal tradition?)

So, you can probably guess the rest. The girls, drunk with excitement and booze - having downed their first two glasses of wine in close succession, on an empty stomach - retreated under the table with a case of the giggles.

Their mother, exhausted from hours of cooking a meal which would make the average American Thanksgiving look like take-out, collapsed into an impromptu cat-nap on the seder plate. We helped to clear the dishes, and excused ourselves.

Once we'd retreated to the safety of our '84 Toyota Celica my dad came clean. "Those girls were tipsy," he relayed to my mom.

It was the best dinner ever.

When I moved to California, I was surprised to find out how little my friends and colleagues knew about Judiasm. It's the first right of a young goyim (non-Jew in Yiddish) growing up in Scarsdale or Washington D.C. to jump on the Bar Mitzvah circuit, but in northern California, the experience is not as common.

I began hosting seders every year, gathering my friends around the tiny kitchen table of my San Francisco apartment for dinners that lasted for hours. The happy (and tipsy) descent into songs, the chanting, the tradition -it's an experience I recommend to everyone, Jewish or not.

Congregation Shir Shalom runs their annual seder on Tuesday night, but the cutoff for reservations was April 15.

At the risk of angering my roommates, I'd like to invite any Patch readers to my personal seder. It's only fitting. Every seder begins by reciting Kol Dichfin:

Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year we are here; next year in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people.

Next year, in Israel!

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Passover begins at sundown tonight and lasts for the next week.

Elora April 18, 2011 at 08:04 PM
As a child, Passover was always one of my favorite holidays. The whole family and extended family would gather at my grandparents' home. The traditions and the songs were almost magical to a young child. But unlike the mother in Alexis's article, my grandmother did not fall asleep. It was more likely to be me, when I was young, trying to stay up to see if Elijah would come to drink the wine, but finally just getting too tired. Later, when I was in college, I would have a seder at the home of my father's cousin, an Auschwitz survivor. The meaning behind the traditional meal for leaving slavery did not elude me at that home. Nevertheless, I still loved the sense of the family together enjoying the rituals for the holiday. I also loved (and waited for) the special nut cake that she made only for Passover. I still love the traditions and symbols of the seder, but in some ways it is the coming together of the family and friends that makes it so special. I really enjoyed this article.
Renee April 18, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Alexis, thanks for sharing your memories of this special holiday.
Dorothy April 19, 2011 at 12:10 AM
I used to spend Passover as a guest of my "best friend" from school. They would go around the table and everyone would read a portion of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. I would be very worried that I would make a mistake reading my portion and I would figure out what I would have to read and practice ahead. But it was a wonderful holiday with different generations of the family together reliving this important story. And the food was great too--like Alexis describes so much food that it makes the average Thanksgiving seem like a simple meal. And I discovered that I like matzoh, the unleavened bread.
Keri Brenner April 19, 2011 at 10:27 PM
Great article, Alexis! Brings back many memories for me too..


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