Old Matzah or New? Tastes the same to me…
Posted on March 27, 2013 by Naomi Bilmes
From my blog:
“So I was walking down the sidewalk one day, and a bus hit me in the head.” Such are the stories you hear at a lunch table in Israel. But we’ll come back to that.
In more recent news, I just finished celebrating my first day of Pesach in Israel. And let me tell you, the matzah here is amazing. Israelis actually spend a good portion of the pesach seder laughing about the fact that Americans still haven’t discovered the conspiracy that makes American matzah taste like dusty wood chips. They call it “מבצע ביצה” (Operation Egg) in code.
So many meanings at this time of year!
For the first (and only) seder, I went to the house of one of my Pardes teachers. The seder was absolutely wonderful; it was a night of listening, learning, eating, leaning and drinking – all of which contributed to actually making the holiday a joyful one (who knew yom tov could actually be tov me-od?).
Celebrating Passover with another family in another country let me participate in new traditions while also reviving some of the customs I knew my family would be doing in Connecticut just a few hours later. Here’s a run-down of the new and the old:
- The seder had a theme. Last week, all of the seder guests received an email with a six-page attachment consisting of sources we were to read before the big night – sources all having to do with the theme: “change and transformation.” Admittedly, it was kind of a cheesy theme, but more than half of the sources were poems, so the theme could have been “rainbows and butterflies” for all I cared – I took it as an excuse to read poetry.
- There were about 20 people at the seder (my family’s usually has no more than 10). We also had place cards. I sat next to “Grandpa.”
- Wine Stewards. Instead of pouring wine for the person seated next to you, your wine was poured by one of the four designated wine stewards. When the first two stewards had drunk too much to pour accurately into people’s glasses, the second two stewards took over.
- A LOT of romaine lettuce. According to halakhah, one is required to eat a rather large portion of the bitter herb. Fortunately, romaine lettuce can qualify as said herb. Therefore, when it came time for marror, faces were obscured by huge leafy greens and the sounds of crisp crunching could be heard within the forest. I opted for my at-home-custom of eating a few bites of the horseradish root, feeling my sinuses clear up, gasping a bit, and moving on. But all around me, all I heard was crunch crunch crunch.
- The above point brings me to another new aspect of this seder: it was the most halakhic seder I have ever been to. After saying the blessing over matzah, the seder came to a halt so everyone could down the required amount – almost a whole piece. After each cup of wine, we were given extra time to drink the whole thing. We rushed through dessert so we could eat the afikomen right before halakhic midnight, and we made sure to eat nothing else after it.
As someone whose stomach can’t tolerate normal amounts of normal food on a regular basis, I decided God would understand if I was mekel (lenient) about the requirements regarding non-normal amounts of non-normal food. I think he gave me the nod. But let me just say that I am quite impressed with everyone (at my seder and elsewhere in the world) who fulfills the requirements to the max. That is a lot of matzah.
- Chocolate! Unfortunately, this custom was only for the kids, and despite my spritely looks, I did not qualify for the treats. Every time one of the four kids under bar mitzvah age asked or answered a good question, he was rewarded with a small chocolate bar (I say “he” because there were four boys, not because I am trying imply that only boys are worthy enough to receive chocolate). This positive reinforcement system had a few purposes: 1. To encourage the kids to ask questions, which is one of the main goals of the seder, 2. To encourage the kids to stay at the table, 3. So the curious parents could experiment with the concept of a “sugar high,” determining which combination of milk chocolate, chocolate-coated wafers, and white chocolate (not to mention grape juice) could produce a child who would ricochet off the walls of his own volition at speeds of over 30 kilometers per hour.
Another interesting part of this tradition was that the chocolate was dairy. Assur! the yeshivah boy in you shouts. It’s a meat meal! Not so fast, Yankel. The dairy chocolate was long-gone by the time the turkey was served, and matzah (bread) had been eaten in between the dairy and the meat, so kashrus was still upheld. Yes, Yankel, I said kashrus, (not kashrut) just for you.
Best Israeli chocolate ever…
And now for some old-time traditions:
- I was elated to see, on the table piled high with haggadot, a very familiar book: The Feast of Freedom Passover Haggadah. We have been using it at our family seders for my whole life, and there is something about the MOMA quality of the torn-paper artwork that says “Pesach” to me like nothing else. And of course, I whispered to myself the famous passage from Song of Songs at the end of the haggadah, hearing the voice of my Safta Bilmes reading it from across the ocean… “For lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone…”
- Alternative Maggid (telling the story of Passover): When my brothers and I were younger, there was no way we were going to sit for two hours reading about some wandering Aramean who may or may not have been our father. Instead, we wrote skits and puppet shows ahead of time, so when maggid came, we relocated to the living room and pulled out the props. Some favorites include: The Seder Disaster (a puppet show in which elephant sits on the afikomen), and a Burning Bush skit with three characters: Moses, God, and a sheep (I have conveniently forgotten which part I played). Last night, we read a good portion of the maggid and had lots of intriguing discussions, but we stopped about halfway through for some alternative re-tellings, one of which was a short play that reminded me heavily of what used to occur at 35 Bishop Road.
- The aroma. This might seem a bit odd, but as soon as I sat down near the seder plate, I smelled that wonderful mix of pungent horseradish, cinnamon-y charoset, and dependable matzah that rises every year from our seder table back home. I had made a small batch of my mom’s charoset and brought it with me, but its aroma was not overpowering: it simply blended pleasantly with the two other charosets already on the table. As I bit into the korech, I marveled at how thousands of miles can disappear with just one bite.
The combination of old and new classified this seder as one of the best I have ever been to. But another element added to the wonder: the caliber of the discussion during the maggid. I always dread maggid a little bit, anticipating boredom. Haven’t we read this all before? I’m going to end up counting pages again… But this year, I was riveted the whole time, impressed and surprised by what everyone brought to a story I thought had already been told. Here are a few of the ideas that I will keep thinking about well beyond the seder:
- About the line: “Let all who are hungry come and eat”: Why are we saying this now? We have already invited our guests. We have already prepared the right amount of food. We have set the right number of seats at our table. The door is closed, and will not be open until we let Eliyahu in after the meal is served. If a poor person stumbled into the dining room just now, all parties involved would be uncomfortable – and the poor person would be doubled over with hunger for at least another few hours. This statement seems, in truth, a puzzlement – and yet it is one that I never noticed before.
- About the line: “My father was a wandering Aramean.” One of the guests posed us with an informal assignment: “If you had to fill in the blank, I am a wandering ____________, what would the word be?” I honestly could not think of a satisfactory answer (good thing we weren’t required to share). A few possibilities came to mind: woman, Jew, feminist… but all of them only describe a part of my personality. I can’t shove it all into one word. I think what best describes me might be the word “wanderer,” but saying I’m a wandering wanderer just gets a little repetitive.
- Someone noticed that the Israelites were suffering for a long time before God helped them. What was the turning point? When did things finally start to turn around? Here’s the key: the word “ויצעקו” – “and they cried out.” However, in the Hebrew language, there a few guttural letters, and one can often be substituted for another. For example, the ע (ayin) in the word above can replaced with a ח (chet), leaving us with the word “ויצחקו” – “and they laughed.” This wordplay illustrates two ways of dealing with struggle: 1. We can cry out and ask for help, 2. We can laugh about it. This insight struck me as profoundly,well, insightful. It reminded me of me.
There were at least two times in the past few months when I have been struggling silently – for a few hours, days, or even weeks. The struggle roiled on inside of me, eating me up, until I cried out for help – calling my mom in tears or finally breaking down when I phoned my best friend at midnight. But at other times, when I’m pissed off or upset, I blog about it – and the result is usually a humorous piece full of wit or sarcasm. So I take both routes – I cry out about my pain and I laugh at it. Doing one without the other seems unhealthy: the first could lead to a constant pity-me mindset, while the second could lead to a fortress-around-my-emotions attitude. However, crying out and then laughing (or vice versa) are both part of the vital process of healing.
So those are my Passover highlights so far. And now, if I remember correctly, you wanted to hear about the guy who got hit in the head with a bus. Well, I was at a friend’s place for lunch today, and somehow the story of this vehicle-person accident came up. There are many odd things about this story, and in case you have any questions, here are the answers:
- Yes, cars and buses often drive and park on the sidewalks in Israel.
- Yes, my friend filed a police report.
- Yes, he got on the offending bus immediately after the collision because the driver offered to take him to the hospital.
- No, he did not have a concussion.
- Yes, he spent more time filing the police report than he did at the hospital.
- Yes, the police asked him what sort of vehicle he was driving.
- Yes, he was a pedestrian.
Don’t you love Israel? One seder, seven days of matzah, and a once-in-a-lifetime pedestrian experience.
And let’s not forget about you-know-who!