April 7 2009 07:01 PM

A Gentile's guide to Passover


Did you know your Jewish friends have their own Easter? It's the holiday of Passover or Pesach (pronounced as if you had a sliver of popcorn kernel suctioned to the back of your tongue), the celebration of God's deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to a slightly better life in another part of the desert. We observe Passover this week, but it moves around every year since we also have our own calendar—the primary reason we're often late for appointments.

Passover occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, named for the Jewish preference for Japanese cars. If you want to impress a Jew without consulting our calendar—which is available only in cumbersome giant-scroll form—just approach the nearest Jew around the second week of March and say, “Hey, isn't Passover coming up?” The response will probably be something like, “Jesus Christ, you're right. I better call my aunt.” You may even get invited to attend a Passover dinner, or Seder, an invitation that you must not refuse. In Jewish tradition, refusal to accept an invitation to a Seder is a grave insult equivalent to stepping on the back of the sandal of the person walking in front of you. What's it all about?Many Gentiles (a Jewish word for non-Jews, meaning “the foreskinned”) assume that like Valentine's Day, Arbor Day and Christmas, there is probably no good reason for Passover to exist. Although this is indeed true, and the practice of Passover was almost entirely abandoned in the 19th century when Jews collectively called “bullshit” on our ancestors, the 1930s saw a major resurgence in observance of the Passover ritual, primarily as a result of a desire to annoy Hitler.

In fact, most modern Seders append the traditional reading of the Exodus story with an acknowledgement of the Holocaust's tragic echoing of slavery in ancient Egypt, a parallel that Rabbi Bibimbaum calls “The Spooky Bummer.”

Much of what transpires at a typical Seder has remained unchanged for the last 2,000 years, with the exception that it's considered polite in modern times to leave your donkey outside. Another exception is that in the ancient world, the traditional washing of the hands was accompanied by a manicure.

If you remember only one thing about Passover, it should be the Exodus tale. It is this story of God's liberation of the Jewish people—centuries prior to His extended vacation—that gives meaning to the rituals performed at the Seder.

And if, God forbid, you can't remember the Exodus, just remember that Jewish Easter is actually a lot like Christian Easter: For example, you have baskets of colorfully decorated eggs symbolizing the regeneration of life and alleged rebirth of Christ; we have one plain hardboiled egg, symbolizing the need for a little salt. What happens at a Seder? Do Jews really drink the blood of Christian babies?I'm so touched that you asked! Asking questions at Passover is traditionally reserved for the youngest child, who asks four of them because that's all we've been able to come up with. So when you ask us about Passover, it makes you seem cute.

The answer to your second question is “No!” We don't drink the blood of Christian babies. This is a vicious lie that was started by my Great-Uncle Morty, who thought it would be a “hilarious” rumor to spread among his non-Jewish coworkers at the funeral home.

What we do drink is wine. Each person is responsible for downing four full glasses of wine at the Seder. It is common for some families to serve their children grape juice instead of wine, but Rabbi Maimonedes considered this an abomination and admonished Jews to “Get your children blasted. Then they'll believe anything.” In Jewish tradition, the drinking of wine symbolizes drinking the blood of Christian babies.

You will encounter several other symbolic items at the Seder. These cryptic foods are placed on a decorative plate at the center of the table and will be variously pointed to, talked about or half-heartedly nibbled at during the ponderous ceremony before and after the dinner portion of the evening. Here are a few of the classics:

Karpas. This is a piece of parsley dipped in salt water. Parsley represents spring, and salt water represents tears shed by slaves in Egypt. Most modern Seders favor an Italian flat leaf lightly infused with a blend of distilled water and coarse Kosher sea salt. But it's still gross.

Maror. This is a pale, raw wasabi. Many scholars believe that we eat the maror to celebrate the month of Nisan.

Matzo. This is a big cracker that has the taste of drywall. God did not give the Jews a whole lot of time to pack when they fled Egypt, so we had to bake our bread without leavening. Thus, yeast is forbidden at the Seder table, and any woman suffering from a yeast infection must remain outside and watch the donkeys. Traditionally, a piece of matzo is hidden in the house and the child who finds it is rewarded with college tuition.

There is much more to Passover than getting drunk and eating foods that remind us of how shitty life is. It's a time for togetherness, for singing, for a visit from the invisible man, for letting homeless people have the code to the gate and for arguing. I hope someday you have a chance to share in this important tradition of my people. It will help if you just remember this: We may have ratted out your God, but we weren't the ones who nailed him up. As we say at Passover, “Next year in Jerusalem!”    Write to dak@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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