Saturday, April 23, 2005


I spoke to Bro d’Elisson – technically speaking, he is also Elisson, but I’m the one with the blog – the other night. His leg was bothering him, painful enough to the point where he was going to have to cancel his trip to Atlanta to join us for Passover.


It’s a hell of a note when your plans are affected by your kid brother’s problems with his aging corpus. Getting old (er) is no picnic – but I still think it beats the Big Dirt Nap all hollow.

Bro had spoken to Aunt Marge and Uncle Phil and was concerned about Phil’s health. Phil has the attitude of a 30-year-old, unfortunately encased in a body that looks 70 but is really quite a bit older than that. And the signs of age are starting to creep in…

But it still beats that Big Dirt Nap – keyn ayin hora.

You may remember meeting Phil and Marge in a post I wrote back in September, when many sane Floridians were fleeing from the wrath of the eighty-seven hurricanes to hit the laughingly-named “Sunshine State” that summer.

Phil - with Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch.

Maybe it’s kismet, karma, or What-Ever, but I always think of Phil and Marge this time of year. Passover time.

Passover – the Hebrew term, Pesach, gives its name to the Paschal lamb, and Pâques, the French word for Easter – is a holiday that has close associations with food. That’s because there are foods that are prohibited during Pesach, including anything made from fermentable wheat, spelt, barley, oats, or rye; and foods that are mandated: matzoh and bitter herbs.

As a result of the complex food-related laws and customs of the holiday, it has evolved its own peculiar dishes. Eastern European Jews will eat gefilte fish (think of it as the offspring of Mr. Fish and Mrs. Meatloaf), beef brisket, chopped liver, tzimmes (a sort of dried fruit and meat stew), spring vegetables such as asparagus, and the famous Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls. Fruit compote and sponge cake for dessert... and all of this washed down with plenty of wine.

The central ritual practice of Pesach is the Seder meal, essentially a Socratic retelling of the Biblical Exodus story. Four mandatory glasses of wine punctuate the meal at specific times, with other glasses consumed at the participant’s (hic) discretion. For those ritual shots of vino – and only those ritual shots of vino - I use the tried-and-true Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine.

Ahh, Manischewitz.

Sure, it’s nasty, and sweet. Sure, it’s a favorite of winos around the civilized world. Sure, it has the finesse of a chimpanzee in a wedding dress and the subtle tact of Ann Coulter on steroids... but it has the absolute lock on the Passover Taste-Memory Association.

And for this I can blame Phil and Marge. You knew I was going to get back to them eventually, didn’t you?

Back in my Runny-Nose Days, we would spend several weeks in Florida every year, visiting the Southern branch of the family. Those vacation trips eventually became a thing of the springtime, which inevitably meant spending part of Passover with Phil and Marge, who would host the Seder meal.

Those were memorable Seders. Already wound up from the excitement of seeing my cousins, I would eagerly await sundown on Seder night – a chance to drink a few sips of the Elusive Fruit o’ th’ Vine, to eat matzoh slathered with charoset (a mixture of grated apples, cinnamon, nuts, and wine intended to represent the mortar with which the Hebrew slaves constructed the Pharaoh’s cities), and to eat gefilte fish with a load of horseradish sufficient to water the eyes and shorten the breath. I loved those Seders.

Not that they were “ritually correct” in any significant way. Yeah, we did the major stuff. We read the Haggadah – well, the first half, anyway. We ate the matzoh and bitter herbs. We dipped the vegetables in salt water. But I’m sure there was a lot we glossed over. I mean, my family’s level of Jewish Observance was such that we would, like as not, order in a pizza for the second Seder – if we had ever bothered to have a second Seder. [N.B. – Outside of Israel, Seder meals are held on both the first and second nights of Passover.]

But we always had fun Chez Phil ’n’ Marge. One night, our cousins’ dog, an evil-tempered piece of shit dachshund yclept Rembrandt, bit a chunk out of my kid brother’s hand. Yes, Rembrandt: the model of the Temperamental Artiste, creating Living Sculpture. It made for an exceptionally exciting Seder, and Bro still carries the scar.

And I still carry the sense-memories. Every year at this time, as the perfume of simmering chicken soup wafts through the house and the pong of freshly-opened Gold’s horseradish attacks the sensitive nasal lining, those memories bubble up from deep inside me, and I remember with love all of those Seder meals long past. All of those grandparents who no longer walk this planet. My mother, SWMBO’s father, both of blessed memory.

And I think of the ones who are still with us, and I treasure them.

No comments: