Saturday, April 19, 2008

I polished a cup today

Passover begins this weekend.

Last week, I mentioned this to some folks, and one of them asked, "What's Passover?"  Y'know, sometimes I forget that Jews are only something like 3% of the population.  I live in a nice, big diverse American metropolis, where you're likely to run into folks of all sorts of races, ethnicities and religions -- but it's reasonable that people not from around here might not have had the sort of experience with Jewish people that gives one a passing familiarity with our religious holidays. 

(I am reminded of the day I met my college roommate, and she saw me unpacking some random piece of judaica and said, "Oh!  You're Jewish!  I knew a Jew once!")

So, yeah, group of people, and one asked what Passover was. 

I hate questions like this.  I once tried explaining "Thanksgiving" to people in Australia, and got totally tripped up on the idea that we were "giving thanks" but that it was a secular, not religious holiday.  "Giving thanks to whom?" they asked.  Yeah, that was a stumper.

At least I was on somewhat more solid ground with Passover.  (For one thing, I can easily pin down exactly whom we're thanking on this one.)  I went with "It commemorates the exodus from Egypt," hoping fervently that most Christian folks would be on top of the Old Testament enough to know that one.  (He nodded, so either he understood or chose to fake it and not pursue the inquiry further.)

Didn't really think about his question again until tonight.  Am going to my sister's tomorrow to celebrate Passover with my family.  Passover involves drinking a bit of wine (for ceremonial reasons -- Purim is the holiday when you're supposed to get wasted), and I have my own silver wine cup for this purpose.  I hunted it down for tomorrow, and realized that it needed a bit of a polish.  After all, I haven't used it since last Passover.  Took out the silver polish from under the sink (convenient that this stuff doesn't have an expiration date) and got to work on it.

I polish my wine cup every year.  Lack of use'll do that.  But the very act of polishing it, every year, before Passover, has itself become part of the ritual of Passover.

See, here's the thing about Passover -- which I didn't explain to the dude who asked.  Passover is celebrated in the home.  You don't go to temple for a service on Passover -- you do it yourself, with your family, in the dining room.  (Kids at the folding card table at the end -- just like Thanksgiving.)  The key to celebrating Passover is a Seder -- it's a dinner, a very long dinner, with a very specific order of things.  (In fact, the word "seder" means "order."  One of the few things I actually remember from Hebrew School.)  You pass out booklets, so that everyone around the table can follow along.  And during the meal, you re-tell the story of the exodus.  And there's things to eat and drink that are all part of telling the story and helping to bring it to life.  Matzah (as anyone who has been to Hebrew School will tell you) is the unleavened bread we eat to remember that when the Israelites high-tailed it out of Egypt, they were moving so fast they didn't have time to wait for their bread to rise.  That sort of thing. 

... You know, you hear Jews use the phrase "Never Again" when talking about the Holocaust, but the spirit of "Never Again" has been part of Judaism at least as long as Passover has been around.  Here's Passover in a nutshell:  We were slaves; now we're free; G-d is responsible for that; don't you forget it.  Don't you forget ANY of it -- don't forget that slavery is awful; don't forget that we should cherish and advance the cause of freedom; don't forget that we should thank G-d for the good things.  THAT's what Passover is about.  Every year, we have this ritualized meal where we tell the story again (even though we all know it), and take the time to run through all the steps, because these are important enough lessons to be reinforced annually.

And it isn't in temple.  It isn't going and listening to someone tell you the story.  It's in your home.  It's the older generation telling the younger generation.  It's the younger generation asking questions (and even that part is ritualized).  It's everyone taking turns reading a paragraph or two.  It's everyone tasting the matzah.  It's everyone playing a part.  It is about handing these lessons down from generation to generation -- it's about saying "we" were slaves and now "we" are free (rather than saying "they" were) because it's about tying ourselves to the history of judaism.  It's not just about doing the seder, it's about being part of the history of jewish people doing the seder year after year, and keeping that tradition going.

And in a framework like that, it's pretty easy to see where my annual polishing of the wine cup is another part of the ritual.  When I was a kid, I had a tiny little silver baby cup.  Seriously tiny.  Like, maybe an inch tall.  And I used it at Passover long after I had outgrown it.  At one point -- I forget how old I was, maybe 18 or 20 -- my parents asked what I wanted for my birthday, and I thought maybe it was time to have a "grown-up" wine cup.  They got me a very pretty one, with a decoration sort of embossed around the rim, on which tarnish was intended to collect to make a pretty pattern in black on the silver.

It's taking years.  Every year, as I polish the rest of the cup, I see the progress of the pattern collecting on the top.  And I remember when it was almost completely free of tarnish-pattern.  And I remember my little baby cup that predated it.  And while I'm polishing it, I think about all the seders I've attended -- where those cups have been, who I've heard read around the table.  I remember my grandfather reading the story in Hebrew.  I remember my grandmother offering "fish or liver" (always take the fish).  I remember leaving the table to play with my cousins.  I remember an adult friend of the family who was there at every seder, and was the first African-American I ever knew.  I remember seders with my aunts and uncles, when they were the geographically closest relatives when I was away at Law School.  I remember when a Mormon friend asked for our help so she could put on a Christian Seder.  I remember when I had to hold that little silver cup with two hands, and my father would pour a few drops of wine in it.  I remember when I couldn't get more than one finger through the handle.  I remember the year when we finally discovered a Kosher for Passover white zinfandel.  I remember when I had my Bat Mitzvah, and girls were given the gift of candlesticks while boys were given wine cups, and I'd thought that was totally unfair.  I remember the passage in the book that always makes us laugh 'cause mom can't read it too well when she's tipsy.  I remember paring the service down the first time wehad non-jewish relatives attend, and we didn't want to make them feel uncomfortable.  I remember modifications we've made over the years to the traditional Passover seder -- to acknowledge the plight of Jews in the U.S.S.R. who were not permitted to celebrate freely; to advance gender equality; and to reaffirm our responsibility to assist any people who are oppressed. 

So, yes, I started remembering all of these things wile I was polishing my wine cup.  And that's when Passover started this year.


mbranch225 said...

Hello There, Longtime reader - never a commenter.  

Thank you for this entry.   I am not Jewish but it blew me away that you actually got asked "What is Passover?".  I am a 40 year old woman with 2 kids - boys - 14 and 6.   We are Methodist but every year we celebrate Passover - observe it - do the dinner - so we (and our children) understand and learn about the Jewish faith.  It is a very important time to remember, even you are not Jewish.  To clarify, our church does a dinner.  Sometimes we do it in someone's home (we have a small membership), one year we had sort of a "Progressive" style dinner where we went to different homes for different parts of the meal and people at that home did the readings, stories, etc. This year we did the Seder meal with 3-4 other churches at a local church.

I guess I just wanted you to know that there are still people that are teaching ourselves and our children about not just the New Testament, but the Old Testament as well.  Our society is really going down the toilet - I am just blown away daily of things happening on this planet.  Thanks for your blog.  I enjoy reading it.

helmswondermom said...

This was a wonderful entry.  I have long understood Passover, although I'm not Jewish, but I do really appreciate the way you have explained, not only Passover, but "your" Passover.  Beautifully written!