Well, spring hasn't exactly sprung, but as of this writing, we're definitely getting the April showers. Never mind that the first actual day of spring -- the equinox -- actually made me yearn for the comparative warmth of witches' teats.
However, the temperature has recently been smack in the middle of the confounding 50s most days (do I wear a winter coat? a spring jacket? a light sweater?), so knowing New York weather, it'll only be 3 weeks until the thermometer reaches 103 and stays there until Labor Day.
Regardless, it is springtime, that magical time of the year when the human race celebrates gefilte fish.
Fine. Maybe not all the human race.
(For those of you who don't know, gefilte fish -- pronounced geh-FILL-tuh -- is a gray loaf of ground fish, usually carp, matzo meal, eggs, and ground vegetables, usually served with horseradish. Like most Jewish food, it tastes much better than it looks. It's more or less akin to a quenelle, though obviously the French are better at naming things to sound edible.)
The point is, I celebrate gefilte fish. I love the stuff. No, really.
Why bring it up now, I'm sure some of you are asking. Why would anyone make a gray fish loaf in the first place, I'm sure a whole bunch of you are asking, as well. While I don't have an answer to the second question, the answer to the first is that it is a staple of Passover, which is once again upon us.
In trying to come up with a focus for this column, beyond "Hey, it's Passover and I'm writing under deadline!", I found myself wrestling with the option of either explaining Passover to those who aren't familiar at all with the holiday ("Top Ten Things You Should Know About the Jewish Holiday of Passover") or assuming my audience would be informed enough that I could assume at least a passing knowledge ("Top Ten Things You Might Not Know About Pesach").
In the end, I'm doing neither. You're welcome. (For those of you who really have no idea of the meaning of Passover, rent Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic, The Ten Commandments. That whole thing about the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt? Yeah, that's what we're celebrating. The burning bush, the Red Sea special effect, the whole thing.)
Which brings me to the list on which I finally settled. Without further ado (or even adon't), I present "Top Ten Things You'd Learn About Pesach If You Ever Went to One of My Family's Seders." Again, you're welcome.
1) The chrain in Spain stayed mainly on the plane.
"Chrain" is Yiddish for "horseradish." "Yiddish" is Yiddish for "Jewish." It's a funny joke the way my dad tells it, actually, but I've just ruined it for you and him.
2) "Seder" is both the name of the service before and after dinner and the Hebrew word for "order."
The actual eating portion of the Pesach dinner is bookended by the Seder service, which follows a prescribed order (hence the name). Among the parts of the Seder are the washing of the hands, the drinking of the wine, the youngest child asking the Four Questions -- which are actually four answers to one question -- the examination of the symbols of Passover, and the telling of the Exodus story.
Random etymology is just something you're bound to learn at a Kraemer Seder.
3) While you may still have to be the one reciting the Four Questions for another couple years, there's a good chance you no longer represent the wicked son.
My brother is all growsed up.
4) When he was family patriarch, my great-grandfather Abe used to read every single aside, footnote, and paragraph of commentary in the entire Haggadah.
The Haggadah, the prayer book that contains the Pesach service, as with practically every other piece of writing the Jews have ever touched, has inspired some debate and even more commentary over the (few thousand) years. Some of this commentary is included in the margins of the Haggadah, especially in the older versions. It can drag down a Seder like you wouldn't believe.
As an example (I swear I'm not making this up), there's a commandment regarding the Passover offering: In the second month, on the fourteenth day, at twilight they shall make it -- they shall eat it with matzo and bitter herbs.
Seems simple, right? Except that the commandment to eat matzo is from the Torah and the one to eat bitter herbs is strictly rabbinical. Read on: Who taught that commandments do not nullify each other? It is Hillel. For it is taught that "they said about Hillel that he would sandwich them (Rashi: The Passover offering, the matzo, and the bitter herb) together and eat them, as it states (Num. 9:11) 'you shall eat it with matzo and bitter herbs.'" Rabbi Yochanan stated: Hillel's contemporaries disagree with Hillel. As it is taught: "One might think that one should sandwich them together and eat them as Hillel ate them, therefore it teaches: 'Eat it with matzo and bitter herbs. ' - [meaning] even each on its own." Rav Ashi demurred (with Rabbi Yochanan's understanding): If so, what does the word "even" mean. Rather, Rav Ashi said: The tanna teaches thus: "One might think that one does not fulfill one's obligation unless one sandwiches them together, as Hillel ate them, therefore the verse states, 'Eat it with matzo and bitter herbs' [meaning] even this one alone and this one alone.
The point is my great-grandfather made sure all of the commentary was read. When you've been sitting at the table and waiting to eat dinner for two-plus hours, this can get nearly unbearable. We still talk about it.
5) When your mother teaches music at Jewish nursery schools, you can pretty much guarantee that your Seder is not exactly like those of your friends.
I've worn "Ten Plagues" masks. I've worn "Four Questions" finger puppets. I have even sung a song called "Pharaoh" to the tune of Harry Belafonte's "Day-O": Plagues are coming and I wan' go home. I'll bet very few of you out there can say that. Frivolity rules!
6) The word "afikomen" comes from the Greek for "dessert."
Again, just something you're bound to learn.
7) When you're enjoined by religious law not to use yeast in your cooking, it takes more than one layer to make a successful cake.
My grandmother makes this three-layer chocolate cake with the layers separated by whipped cream and jam (maybe marmalade). It's fantastic. I'm pretty sure it requires about 30 dozen eggs, of course, and at three layers, it stands about four inches high.
8) If you're not Jewish and asked to read a passage from the Haggadah, you will invariably pronounce "Adonai" incorrectly.
The word "Adonai," one of the Hebrew words for God, is pronounced "AH-doe-nigh" or "AH-doe-noy." My family regularly has non-Jewish friends over for the Seder ("You've never been to a Seder? Want to come to ours? It's fun -- we have finger puppets.") No one ever gets it right.
9) While practically no one has regularly spoken Aramaic in about 2,000 years, my dad and uncle can still race each other to get to the end of Chad Gadyo.
The song, "Chad Gadyo" is sung at the end of the meal and recognized by some as one of the earliest "cumulative" songs still in existence. Verses expand, similarly to "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly": Then came a fire, that burnt the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the little goat, that my father bought for two zuzim (coins). In Aramaic, a little goat (or kid) is "chad gadyo" and zuzim and abba (Hebrew) are "zuzei" and "abbo," respectively.
My dad and uncle, as much as they remember from childhood, race each other to finish first with the longest verse they can. They tend to fall apart around Ve-ata maya, ve-chavah le-nura, de-saraf le-chutra, de-hikkah le-chalba, de-nashach le-shunra, de-achlah le-gadya.... After four cups of wine during the Seder plus more wine with the meal, the rest of us find this hysterical.
As an aside, "chad gadyo" is also Yiddish slang for jail. You will likely never find a use for this fact.
10) The two most beautiful words in the Hebrew language are "Shulchan Orech."
Loosely translated, they mean "serve the meal." See #4.
Well, there you have it. I imagine some of those things are not wholly unique to my family's Seder, but I can practically guarantee that, like clockwork, each entry on that list has come up at our house every single year. So study up and come on over; you're all invited. And bring wine; we may break out the Bag o' Plagues this year, and you're gonna need it.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
ABOUT ADAM KRAEMER
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
4.10.09 @ 12:38a
This was going to be an awesome column, before you jewed it all up. What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you have an ancestor hanging over your shoulder watching every thing you do?
Live free, brother, live free...
4.10.09 @ 1:34a
I'm speechless, Dan.
Edit (ten minutes later):
Okay. I've stared at that comment for a while now, trying to figure it out.
First I thought, "Dan can be a pretty funny guy. Maybe he's joking." But, no. It's not really funny. In fact, I'm not sure how someone can write a column about Passover without "jewing it up." I suppose technically, it could be a description of the Last Supper. That might do it.
So then I tried looking at it from the point of view of someone who couldn't care less about religion. But no, it's a pretty short list and it's kinda humorous. Even just reading the parts in boldface has a few interesting tidbits and some levity.
So then I tried looking at it from the point of view of anyone else who reads the column and might have, before this, been inclined to post a comment. I really don't see them going out of their way to express their bigotry so openly the way Dan did. I mean, I guess we invite free speech here and whatnot, but usually normal people reserve demonstrating their prejudices for a less, well, public forum. You know, sitting around the grill on a Sunday afternoon with the in-laws complaining about that kike Goldberg with the big nose in accounting. That sort of thing.
Which led me to think about it from the point of view of any businesses or other Web sites who might want to partner with Intrepid Media. I have to assume that Dan's response is exactly what they're looking for when they log on. It's pithy, to the point, edgy, and manages to insult both the author and an entire culture simultaneously. The offers are bound to start pouring in.
So thanks, Dan. Excellent job reaffirming to me and everyone else who sees this page that everything I always said about you is accurate. Happy holidays.
4.10.09 @ 8:23a
as a shiksa, i found this hysterical and informative. i've attended a few seders, but none with finger puppets. frivolity rules, indeed!
4.10.09 @ 9:29a
Nice to see that some things don't change. Dan, you really have it in for Kraemer, don't you??
This was funny for lots of reasons not lost on one who has actually sat through one of your family's Seders. Gefilte fish is actually pretty good. I have to agree! Now all you need is a gray sock and you can make a puppet representing a food item! Mazel Tov!
4.10.09 @ 9:55a
I'm writing only to share -- I attended my first passover Seder on Wednesday. Manischewitz wine = not bad. The religious meaning, well, I've never cared about that with respect to any religion. But it seemed pretty festive.
I won't comment on Dan's comment.
4.10.09 @ 10:32a
Andrea - that's excellent. I may bring a gray sock with me back to Philly tonight (my mom's making Seder, even though it's a night or two late). I'll put it on when the rest of the puppets come out. That's fantastic.
4.10.09 @ 2:14p
The "Chad Gadyo" section was actually very helpful. Growing up Reform, we sang the song in English and I had no idea what the "one little goat" had to do with anything. We didn't have finger puppets, but we did sing all relevant (and less-than-relevant) songs to show tunes. Good times.
4.10.09 @ 5:06p
Shalom aleichem, dude. While you're languishing with hunger, I'll be crucifying my Lord.
4.10.09 @ 8:24p
I've decided to worship a head of lettuce this holiday, so I'll be eating my lord in a nice Ceasar dressing with croutons.
4.13.09 @ 10:27a
Russ - technically it's not hunger except for the hours before the meal (there's a lot of food). But I yearn for bread.
4.21.09 @ 8:35a
Having been to many Passover seders with the family of my favourite step-father, who was Jewish, (duh!!!), I can safely say I'd love to go to one of your family's. During my Young Democrats days, when nearly all my close friends were Jewish, I also developed a taste for gefilte fish. Wine aficionadas will hate me for this, but I always really enjoyed the Manischewitz.
dr. jay gross
6.15.09 @ 10:55a
Tradition!! This year I enjoyed(?) a seder prepared by a Lutheran church....but they got all the German wrong. If it were up to them Moses would still be wandering in the desert. The food was good, though - I never had kielbasa and sourkraut as a main dish at a seder, but everyone has their own idea what should be served. I'm certain the 'four questions' were from Berlin.