Monday, March 29, 2010

Passover Overpass

Okay, maybe I just like the wordplay. But Passover does sort of arch over me, even as I'm supposedly observing it at a seder. The Exodus story...the seder plate...the Four Questions...the four children...the ten plagues...the themes of freedom, thankfulness, community...Dayenu! They arc past, like familiar constellations. It's a complicated holiday.

We always go over to my wife's ex's house for first-night seder: we've been going there for nearly a decade. My son's height-marks in pencil are on a white wall along with those of Chuck's kids and others in the extended family. I think there are fifteen of us, and the personalities and faces are as familiar as characters in an often-performed play. (We also get together for Rosh Hoshanah.)

The blue home-made haggadahs have the faces of Ruby Keeler and Al Jolson on the cover. I can't remember the reason, except that Jolson was Jewish and they both sing. By now it wouldn't look right with anything or anyone else. And inside, the text is indeed frequently interrupted by songs. Mostly they are spirituals extolling freedom, or traditional Hebrew songs. We also interrupt the text for food: first salads; then matzo ball soup; then the main meal (brisket, kugel, beans and shrooms); then desserts. Though one could happily make a meal on the matzo and charoset alone.

Complicated, as I say. Maybe my most culturally rich holiday, if you consider the layers of history, the food, the music, the going around the table reading, the laughter, the symbolism (this stands for slavery, that stands for springtime, each drop of wine stands for a plague).

It's one of those seasonal rituals that you might not do if you didn't make the commitment by dint of habit. And one year, it might have a pro forma feel. But another year, the word freedom
refreshes its meaning. Or you ask yourself what it means if one person's freedom to choose means another person's freedom is abridged. Or you think about how it is that one group of human beings presumes to enslave another group in the first place—all too easily—or how those slavers may have been brought up to cross that line. And the songs sing you.

And then it goes back to being the Passover overpass: idle thoughts of working in a matzo factory; speculating (correctly) that Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler had a rocky marriage, probably what with Al's oversized ego; and one more dish of ice cream 'fore I the valley below.

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