Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dispatches from a Wandering Jew

My dear friend Maris has a tattoo (spelled correctly in Gaelic, I hope) that reads, "Not all who wander are lost." While she's not Jewish, her ink certainly resonates with many Jews who live a little retro and decided not to leave that 40 years in the desert to the annals of history.

I've lived away from my immediate family for the past seven years and though I've spent a few of those Pesach seders in my hometown, many more have been enjoyed in the homes of families and friends who opened their doors to a wanderer like me. It's only fitting as the seders of my childhood routinely included newcomers, single parents and people I'm convinced my father picked up off the street. Aside from truly excellent matzah ball soup and the special Lenox china, our festive meals had few diehard customs.

However, in these years of being a Pesach guest, I've had the opportunity to experience a wide array of other families' traditions. There was the ex-boyfriend whose seder I missed, not least because he and his brother insisted their grandmother's matzah ball soup recipe included regular noodles. I even bought a box of ridiculously expensive kosher for Passover noodles to use instead but the shit hit the fan on that seder regardless.

What about the Israeli-dominated seder where half the guests were expected to read their parts in perfectly-accented Hebrew? Or the times I was the only non-family member sitting around the table, looking puzzled when reminiscing overcame the conversation? My more favorite seder was the one that began with me picking up a really cute guy at the Whole Foods checkout when we were both buying seder flowers.

Of course, nothing takes the Mrs. Manischewitz cake like the year I went to my ultra-Orthodox cousins' house for my first seder in Baltimore. First off, it didn't start until 9 p.m. which was completely foreign to me who had heretofore only been to seders that ended by around 9:30-10. Then there was the revelation that the entire family would conduct the seder and speak only in modern Hebrew or English rather than their regular custom of Yiddish. Nice break for me.

Incredibly hungry and shocked that we still hadn't eaten around 11:45, I relished the moment we got the OK to eat the handmade shmura matzah. [For the non-Jews, shmura matzah is "watched" throughout the manufacturing process to ensure it comes into contact with no liquid until absolutely necessary and for no more than 18 minutes when it is necessary. It's handmade and has an even more cardboard like taste than the square matzah you usually encounter. Oh, and it costs 4-5 times as much.] Then I realized that no one is permitted to speak or ingest liquids until they choke down his/her entire portion. Awkward.

This seder was also my first encounter with the "non-gebrokts," which is an Ashkenazi Hasidic custom that forbids the combination of any matzah or matzah derivative with any liquid substance. Meaning, no matzah ball soup, one of my favorite Pesach foods.

The fun continued literally until 3:30 a.m. when I discretely stepped away from the table in the middle of Hallel (yes, it comes toward the end). It was yet another part of the seder my family conveniently skipped back home. We usually just went from talking to eating to singing an off-key rendition of Chad Gad-Ya. Looking back, I chalk up the whole evening to a cultural experience, not unlike the time I attended a Kwanzaa celebration or went to a Vietnamese/Chinese wedding.

Much as I have loved all this guest-ing, I do miss my college days where I hosted an annual seder for all my friends. Whether I had all the space of my off-campus home kitchen or had to borrow an illegal dorm refrigerator, I welcomed at least 10-12 people to enjoy my spiced charoset or my dense-on-the-inside-but-fluffy-on-the-outside matzah balls.

Hopefully the coming years will bring me an opportunity to cook and host more seders of my own. As for this year, I will be the guest one night at an Iranian family's home and the second night I will be one of 60 celebrating at a synagogue seder complete with assigned discussion questions and organized food shlepping. If nothing else, it will all make a great post for Pesach next year.

Happy Passover - Chag Kasher V'Sameakh to all!


JudiGM said...

Not to worry - matzah ball soup, homemade horseradish, and reworked gefilte fish are awaiting you in Arizona. Happy Passover.

muse said...

We married young, so I never had those sorts of adventures.
We've mostly hosted the sdarim, one a year, being Israel.

Maya said...

Sounds fun! Happy Pesach! I would love to get invited to an Iranian seder. On the other hand, that will basically never happen in Israel because EVERYONE goes home to their families for seder and my husband's entire family is very, very polish. Meaning that parsley in the matzo balls was a little adventurous for them. :) I did a seder once in college too, but it was even more fun to do our seder at home this year. I look forward to hearing about yours!

Paul Kipnes said...

Gotta love it. I can see a whole series of blogposts on Seder Adventures.