Seek, and ye shall find

Passover is the Jewish day of remembrance. I forgot. But I rebounded with a sober yoga vegan Seder.

By Sheerly Avni
Published April 2, 2002 8:33PM (EST)

So, I forgot about Passover.

My New York father called me (from Florida, of course) on the day of the first Seder to remind me that I'd better do something quick. "The whole purpose of this day is to remember slavery and our deliverance and the law and people becoming a people and the promise of return to our Holy Land, and you couldn't even remember the date?"

I won't even tell you what my mother said.

It was too late to get myself invited anywhere, and my Jewish friends were all out of town being good Jews with their families, so with less than eight hours before sundown, I posted an ad on the Craigslist Missed Connections page (the kind of place where urban kids usually go to reconnect with that cute guy they saw checking out the cold cuts at Safeway) begging for help:

"Missed Connection with Manischewitz

Here's the deal -- I forgot about Passover. Called up all my Jewish friends and they're not around because they did what good Jews do -- went home to make their parents happy.

Anyone got room for another at the table? I'm 31, fun, I can teach you all the Sephardic tunes to the songs and my mother has already left three messages on my machine saying, 'Did you find a place yet?'

Deliver me from this Woody Allen outtake and tell me there's room for me at your table!!!

Peace -- to all of us."

In less than an hour, I was inundated with responses.

The first came from a Catholic guy who works at Stormy Leather, a bondage store. He wrote that as a Catholic, he was no stranger to guilt, and he promised to forward my plea to his Jewish friends.

Next came the woman whose Long Island accent I could practically hear in the e-mail. "You sound like a very nice Jewish boy, and it makes me cry to think of your poor mother knowing you are alone on this day." I wrote back to inform her that I'm actually a nice Jewish girl. Sadly, I have not heard from her since.

Then, there was an invitation to a $49 per head Singles Seder for young men and women looking to meet others like themselves. This is where good Jews go when they're not with their families. This is where -- according to my mother, father and entire extended family -- I should be. I think I'd rather die.

A young woman whose e-mail address reads "bigal" invited me to join her and her boyfriend at a yoga studio Seder.

Several memos directed me to the Hillel at San Francisco State. I decided to go. But by then it was nearly sundown, and I was already 40 minutes late. On the way, my cab driver, who told me he is Jordanian, informed me that with the exception of President Bush, "the top 100 people in this country are Jewish, which is why they support Israel."

I suppose this would explain untold mysteries about Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey. I don't tell him I am half-Israeli, but he saw me gasp when we got to Hillel and there was a news truck parked out front. It turned out they are doing a routine holiday segment.

But given that this is the holiday that brings us all closer to Jerusalem, my Israeli half was ready to hit the ground and crawl under the cab. I almost headed home. There's always the second Seder, I thought; I can be a good Jew tomorrow.

But then I heard music coming from the house the van was parked in front of. No body parts or flying glass, just laughter.

I opened the screen door and saw 40 people crammed into the living room, interrupting each other, taking babies out of the room, pouring paper shot glasses of Manischewitz.

I was just in time to mark the bitterness of slavery. I grabbed a seat next to an impossibly beautiful black man in a yarmulke. Immediately, someone shoves a matzo slathered with horseradish in my face -- the closest thing to a madeleine a Jew can get. As my eyes bulged and my face turned red, the Israeli to my right clapped me on the back and every Seder I've attended flashed in front of my eyes:

The hardcore Orthodox ceremonies at the Needlers' house in Connecticut, candlelit because electricity wasn't permitted, where we kids sat for hours and hours at the end of the table, getting soused on Manischewitz when our parents weren't looking, while the eldest son and father held forth, going over all the questions they'd done before.

A family Seder in France when I was 13, where I met my extended family for the first time -- 50 screaming Arab Jews who looked more like Arafat than his own reflection, shouting at the top of their lungs. I couldn't sing any of the songs because they weren't the tunes I was used to and I didn't speak French yet.

The camping trip where we made do with a hard-boiled egg, some matzo, chicken broth soup, apples and walnuts, and little disposable bottles of kosher grape juice by the fire, served with rice and beans.

And finally, the one where the man leading the Seder said, "When we say 'Next year in Jerusalem,' I see Jerusalem as God's city, a city of peace. We are not there yet, are we?"

The Hillel Seder is "led" by a tall, good-looking, dark-haired, dimpled, blue-eyed man in his 20s named Adam, the kind of "nice Jewish boy" the poor prospective mother-in-law in my in-box today thought I might be. As he moved on to the next prayer, papers rustled. We all thought we'd lost our places.

A thick Hebrew accent suddenly called out, "Hey, I think you just skipped the meal!"

We adjourned to the kitchen, grabbing paper plates, forks, more paper shot glasses of Manischewitz. In the kitchen, people started talking about the news truck outside; we picked up paper cups of matzo ball soup and reheated them in the microwave, flagrantly turning electricity off and on in defiance of Holy Law, right under the sign that read "Please keep this kitchen kosher for Passover."

While we waited, a few of us started talking about the NBC news truck. Why is it here? Just to mark the holiday? Hoping for an attack? Then a blond man with a familiar accent said, "Oh, you didn't know? There's a bomb in that truck. They are trying to defuse it right now."

We all stopped. "What?"

"Yes, in the news truck. It is a bomb. They are working on it."

Adam turned to him, dimples fading. "Are you serious?"

"No," said the stranger, and wandered away.

There was silence in the kitchen. I followed him out to the living room, where he was harangued by a short, slightly better-looking version of Rushmore's Max Fischer.

"Are you out of your mind?" the Max Fischer look-alike said. "Do you think this is funny, telling a joke like that in a roomful of Jews? After the bombing this morning and 20 people dead? That's not funny. That's not clever! That is totally inappropriate."

Totally inappropriate. And totally my kind of guy. I interrupted. "Are you Israeli?" I asked the stranger.

Russian, he told me. "Yes, I'm Jewish. My grandfather was a Cossack and he raped my grandmother; they've been happily together ever since."

"Are you serious?"

"No," he said. He and Max Fischer are grad students in comparative literature. I guess that explains it.

After the meal, the room emptied out. There were only about 20 of us left to finish, and we went around the room, each reading a passage. When it came time for songs, we couldn't hit a common melody. There were North African tunes, Israeli tunes, Ashkenazi tunes, all competing for airtime. Non-Jewish wives and husbands stared blankly at the page, while their mates patted their hands reassuringly. The people from NBC hadn't taken down their boom lights yet, and we wrapped up the Seder under blinding white light.

I didn't know a single person in the room and will probably never see them again, but for the first time since last Passover, I was surrounded by Jews. My peeps.

I left feeling good, but wished I'd gotten Adam's number.

When I woke up the next morning, the paper was full of black news about Israel. Plans to wage a full-scale assault on the territories. I called to make sure that none of the casualties were my cousins or uncles or aunts. They are so used to the bombings by now that I think they were amused by my concern.

So, at that point, a peacenik yoga Seder sounded pretty good. I called up the Integral Yoga Institute and got myself added to the list. Vegan, they said, with no wine. But mitzvah is as mitzvah does, right?

I was, of course, late. A slim, beautiful Asian woman in her early 20s, with long braids pouring down her shoulders and that grace and posture that yoga practicers all seem to have, ushered me in the back door, told me they'd just started, asked me to take off my shoes. I heard chanting, and it didn't sound like a kaddish. It occurred to me that maybe they'd be, like, doing yoga. I instantly thought, How are these New Age peace of mind people going to deal with the "Smite thine enemies! Smite! Smite! Smite!" parts of the Haggada anyway?

I made my way to the room. About 20 men and woman were sitting cross-legged on the floor, among them a glowing middle-aged woman dressed in white, with a long cream silk scarf draped around her neck. Jalaja, a teacher at the institute (whose last name happens to be Korngold), was truly lovely. Blue eyes, short silver hair, sparkly blue toenail polish.

They were all sitting in the half-lotus position. I read ahead in the Haggada while they chanted. According to this version, slavery wasn't a bunch of Egyptians beating the shit out of us in Egypt. Slavery is this: "Our belief systems, or a need to project blame, or the parts of ourselves that we have not yet integrated: Maybe an angry part or a jealous part or a hurt child part or a part that feels controlled or controlling."

Jalaja, who led the Seder, explained that the parable of the four children (the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not yet know how to ask) is one we must rethink and reframe in a less judgmental way. "We are all," said Jalaja with the blue toenails, "wise and wicked and simple at times."

If I could have prayed for a flood, I would have. I thought, Jews judge! That's what we do. We judge.

The next half-hour passed excruciatingly slowly. It was getting worse and worse. No one here knew the tunes; they were singing the songs the wrong way. On the Seder plate: a beet instead of a shank bone, Cadbury's Easter eggs instead of a regular hard-boiled one. And I had to listen to them turn my favorite story of death, vengeance and destruction into a feel-good New Age Hallmark card. It was like watching "Blade II" with all the fight scenes edited out, and Oprah Winfrey, instead of Wesley Snipes, in the title role.

Jalaja told us that the plagues were brought on because the Egyptians had lessons they needed to learn. Damn straight, I thought. And the lesson is my God can beat up your God.

One woman turned to her neighbor and whispered, "Well, it really is an evolving religion." I was starving. I wanted my mom's rack of lamb, I wanted her kugel. Plus my legs were killing me.

Finally, after an admonishment to "take a moment and just be," we got to eat our Cadbury egg. (I watched in disbelief as the woman in front of me dutifully dipped it in salt water and, grimacing, swallowed it whole.) It was time to eat. We filed into the kitchen for our vegan meal. No leg of lamb. No kugel. No wine.

It was all wrong. A bearded man ladled me some bean stew, organic greens and potatoes. Then two Jews in front started arguing about what the hand washing really means. Jalaja smiled, turned to me and said, "Was it like this for you growing up? Everyone arguing?" Her smile was warm. Not like a yogi at all, more like ... a rabbi.

I said, "I can't remember." I couldn't remember because they were all so different. And I couldn't even remember why we wash our hands. But I did remember this: One Seder, when it was just me and my mom, rather than doing a big meal, she just cooked up some chicken and told me stories. Stories from Israel, from Russia. Talmudic tales. No prayers, just stories.

The last one she told me while she washed the plates and handed them to me, one by one, to dry. "There were Jews in a village very far away from the nearest synagogue. They had their own ritual. They went to a secret spot in the forest, and they danced a secret dance and they said special prayers ... and they found God."

She handed me the biggest wineglass to dry, the one we'd left out for Elijah. "Their children forgot the prayers. But they knew the spot and they danced the dance ... and they found God.

"Their children forgot the prayers and the spot, but they knew the dance ... and they found God."

She finished the dishes and handed me a macaroon. "Now, their children forgot the prayers, and the spot, and the dance ..."

"What did they do?"

She dug for a chocolate macaroon. "They remembered to tell this story ... and they found God."

"But did they get the story right?"

Mom smiled and said, "Well, they remembered the story, didn't they? Have you listened to anything I've said tonight?"

In line at the Integral Yoga Institute, I chatted with my neighbors: a Jew named Carol from Queens who told me she comes every year, an older woman whose husband just died, who said, "Tonight is exactly what I needed." The lovely Chinese girl with the posture told me she's the one who cooked the meal and it was really hard to know what to prepare.

"I wanted to keep it vegan," she says, "but I didn't want people to go home feeling hungry. I wanted to cook something that would be sustaining."

I tasted the stew. Sweet carrots, onions, potatoes. Asparagus. Tomatoes. Garlic. It was delicious.

The anxious cook pulled her leg into an impossible angle and asked, "What do you think? I mean, it's not too light, right? Do you think it's sustaining?"

Hell yeah, I think, like manna.

Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

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