Monday, April 18, 2011

Happy Passover

There were a couple of Jewish jokes in Stickles. It was only fitting, since MIT had a robust Hillel Society and Stickles' creator was Jewish. But these were not your typical Jewish jokes. They were inspired by the rituals we went through as kids in a Jewish family. Three brothers meant three bar-mitzvahs, in the days when a bar-mitzvah was a simple ceremony as opposed to the gaudy spectacle it has since become. For one thing, my parents had a party for the three sons in the house, whereas today requires the rental of a ballroom in a hotel or country club, at a minimum. There were no limousines, no fancy catered lunch, no socks and tee-shirts as party favors and no throwing of candy after the haftorah reading at the synagogue. And the cantor's rendition of the haftorah was recorded on a vinyl long-playing record as opposed to a CD, for home study. But it was still a celebration of a boy becoming a man, and the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins still came from near and far to witness it. Which meant we didn't have to go to school that week.
My brother came up with this joke. If you're a Jew, you get it, and if not, one of your Jewish friends will explain the words to you.

Passover was an entirely different celebration with an entirely different set of little quirky traditions, at least at our house. Everyone knows about the four cups of wine and the eating of raw horseradish - a delicacy so powerful we referred to it as Jewish Dristan, due to its uncanny ability to clear even the stuffiest sinuses. In Texas, they have hot pepper-eating contests; we had horseradish-eating contests (and no fair eating the wimpy pink stuff that comes in a bottle!).

Passover had other rites that would always amaze any non-Jewish guests we had at our Seders. I will skip the folk dancing, which seems to have been an affectation of liberal New York Jewish emigres and tended to sop up a good chunk of the evening after the Passover meal had been eaten (but before the afikomon hunt). Usually there was a time in the service where the kids, being full from dinner and bored with the after-dinner songs, would start casually dipping their fingers in the wine-goblets and then running their fingers around the rim of the glass. One of my friends asked what the religious significance of the exercise was. I told her it was to make the glass whistle.

As the service wound down to a finale, it was time for the Feats of Strength. There were a couple of songs at the end of the service, one of which had thirteen verses. If the folk dancing had not worn us out, it was our challenge to sing all thirteen verses in one breath. It wasn't until I was ready to go off to MIT that I developed the breath control to get through all thirteen verses, and I had run cross-country track in high school. It became the stuff of a Stickles strip.

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