Tag: Judaism

Got Any Dip for These Chips?

The Four Questions.

Do any other three words strike as much fear into the hearts of little Jewish kids around the world as those? Generations of Jews remember having to stand up in front of everyone present (and especially nasty old Aunt Ida who never had a good thing to say) and sing these questions while trying not to make a mistake.

The Four Questions serve as a starting off point for the Seder. You’ll notice that the Four Questions are not in fact followed by the Four Answers. If that were the case, the Seder would be over by about 7:30. No, you have to learn and discuss the story of Passover, as told in the Haggadah, to figure out the right answers.

Still, I wonder whether everyone can actually answer each of the Four Questions. To review, here they are:

  1. On all other nights, we eat bread or matza. (Question 1A: why would anyone eat matza if you didn’t have to?) Tonight, why do we only eat matza?
  2. On all other nights, we eat any kind of herbs. Tonight, why do we eat bitter herbs?
  3. On all other nights, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?
  4. On all other nights, we eat while sitting or reclining. Tonight, why do we eat while reclining?

(I wonder whether this is where Jerry Seinfeld got his comedic inspiration: Hey guys, what’s the deal with bitter herbs….?)

So go back and read that third question again. It’s a particularly strange one–I suspect everyone sings it but doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s it’s really asking.

On all other night, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?

That’s actually two questions built into one: Why do we dip our foods, and what are the two times we do it?

The first time is easy of course. We dip our celery or other green vegetable into the salt water, to combine the images of the Festival of Spring with the tears of the Israelite slaves. But what’s the second dipping?

When I ask this question to kids and adults, they often answer that we dip our fingers into the wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues. Good guess, except that our fingers aren’t food, unless you’re attending the Donner Family Seder.

In fact, when it’s time to make the blessing over maror and eat it, you’re supposed to dip it into a little charoset–to mitigate the bitterness with a little bit of sweetness.

OK, so now we have our two dippings–but it doesn’t answer the larger question: Why? What does dipping foods have to do with Passover? The other questions are pretty obvious and straightforward: matza, bitter herbs, reclining at the table. Is dipping foods some weird Passover custom that we never learned?

In fact, like reclining at the table, dipping your foods (which On All Other Nights might reflect poor table manners) is a sign of luxury. Slaves have to grab whatever is there, eat it fast, and get back to work. But now we’re a free people–we can sit, take our time with our food, dip one kind into another, and really savor the meal.

And now we can see that the Four Questions make a lot more sense. They’re structured in such a way to progress from slavery to freedom.

The first two questions–matza and maror–deal with what the Israelites experienced as slaves, while the last two questions–dipping and reclining–are a demonstration of how free people act.

Now go practice some more so Aunt Ida doesn’t give you the stink eye.

Finger Puppets and Genocide

Long ago, I think some corporate executives within the Organization of Jewish Religion decided that they had a ratings problem.

Christian merch was flying off the shelves and their branding was expanding around the globe. The Jews felt they had something special–after all, it was their legacy product that set the stage for everything that came after. They had secured all the important celebrity endorsements–

“I’m proud to call the Jews My chosen people!”–God

–and had established their headquarters in a desirable Jerusalem neighborhood.

Still, the Christians were killing it. So the marketing executives in the corporate office set out to find out why. They quickly realized what every modern company knows so well–get the kids hooked and the customer stream will follow. Christmas was introduced with their new mascot–Santa Claus–which was also a brilliant piece of cross promotion with Coca Cola and brought in needed revenue. They unveiled the Easter Bunny–a bit controversial since the Bunny character inexplicably laid eggs and didn’t even have a passing connection to the Resurrection of Jesus, but it was an instant success and had a lasting effect on public school calendars for all time.

The report got sent upstairs–Target the kids!

Everyone got to work right away. It wasn’t easy. Many of our Jewish holidays deal with serious, complicated, and violent themes. There’s brutality and sexuality throughout. How do you turn an R-rated subject into something G-rated?

They began with Purim, and took a cold hard look at the holiday. A dubious leading man, Mordechai, schemes to place himself at the pinnacle of power using every Machiavellian trick in the book. He pimps out his nubile underage niece to the non-Jewish middle-aged king to secure a presence in the palace. He skulks around the grounds until he spots an opportunity to turn in would-be traitors to ingratiate himself with the king. He sets up the mighty but ultimately dim-witted Haman to take the fall for attempted genocide. Finally, in the climax of the story, the newly powerful Mordechai leads the Jews on a killing rampage throughout Shushan, wiping out 75,000 non-Jews who had been bent on their destruction.

The solution: Let’s get the kids to dress up and make a ton of noise. We’ll market character costumes and manufacture promotional noise-makers with Jewish stars and Torah logos on them.

Next came Chanukah. This one was tough. It was a rather dry festival commemorating a military victory. To further complicate matters, the victors in the story–the Hasmonean Dynasty–never made much of themselves after this episode. They themselves ended up assimilating and falling victim to the very thing which their recent ancestors had fought against. It was a fairly decent story of underdogs overcoming the odds, but how can you repackage this one for the kids?

The solution: We’ll create a new back story. Snazz it up with special effects–a divine miracle–and introduce a product that everyone has to have. Before this point, no one even knew what a menorah was, but soon enough it became the hot button product of the time, with people lining up around the shuk all night to get the latest release. Throw in a dreidl (with a hint of gambling to appeal to parents), and Chanukah became the must-celebrate holiday of the year for the whole family.

The marketing department even looked at stories from the Torah–in particular the story of Noah and the Flood. The team took a unflinching look at this story–how could they spin the needlessly violent and agonizing death of all humanity, not to mention the horrible suffering of all the animals on earth?

The solution: Focus instead on the very few animals that were actually spared, and portray Noah as a benevolent and avuncular figure who was simply along for the ride. Instead of worrying about the devastating effects of the flood, transform the ark into a cruise ship with lovable animals, bobbing happily along the waves on an extended tour of the ancient Middle East. Using the rainbow as their logo, this story of a happy man with cute pairs of animals became enshrined in children’s hearts forever.

Fast forward to today. This once-brilliant marketing campaign has become a victim of its own success. Every facet of Judaism seems tailored only for kids. The medium has become the message. This became apparent when I recently spied a certain product intended for kids at a Passover seder–Ten Plague Finger Puppets. Some Jewish company thought this was a good idea? OK, frogs are pretty amusing, and in fact, that particular plague was itself intended to be a somewhat comical jab at the Egyptians. But blood? Vermin? The Death of Every First Born Son and Animal??

In our Siddur, it explains that during Passover, except for the first two days, we recite an abbreviated version of Hallel, the series of Psalms and blessings added for every festival. The reason for this, according to Jewish tradition, is because our own joy and celebration must be tempered by our acknowledgment of the deaths of so many Egyptians, during the plagues and then their drowning in the Red Sea. An incredible Jewish concept–we don’t take pleasure in the suffering of our enemies. That’s also the reason why we remove a drop of wine from our glasses during the recitation of the Ten Plagues at the seder. So should we wear our Finger Puppets while we take a drop of wine out of our cups?

Let’s make Judaism an adult religion again. Let’s not infantilize kids and teens and assume they can’t handle any serious subjects. Let’s struggle with reconciling the violent and anachronistic episodes of our tradition with living a life of holiness and community. Let’s come up with ways to explain a modern concept of what God is, what God means, and what God can be, and move away from the white-bearded father and king who lives in the sky that so many people learned about as children without the possibility of any more sophisticated and adult alternative.

I’m fully confident that our ratings will go up and we’ll once again establish brand loyalty.

 

The Blooper Reel: Not-So-Great Moments in Cantorial History

Everyone loves watching the outtakes from a movie–sometimes presented during the credits or as part of the bonus features of the DVD. (Does anyone watch DVDs anymore??) Unfortunately, all of my scenes are live presentations with no chance to redo them.

I’ve had more than a few bloopers in my many years as a cantor. A few memorable ones come to mind:

Early in my career, I was soloing at services for one of the first times, and I was pretty nervous. When we got to the part when we announce the yahrzeits (the anniversary of a death) for the coming week, I not-so-eloquently announced, “The following yahrzeits will be celebrated during the coming week.” No one said anything to me after services, so either they weren’t paying attention, or they took pity on a newbie cantor.

Being inexperienced isn’t just nerve wracking–it can also be dangerous. At one of my first funerals, it was time for me to cut the mourner’s black ribbon with the little razor that the funeral home gives out. In a bit of nervous energy, I not only made a cut in the ribbon, but also succeeded in slicing my finger. But the show must go on–I surreptitiously grabbed a tissue, kept it wrapped around my finger for the entire service, and only bled on my book a little. No one ever noticed. Still, I’m happy that most funeral homes now use the self-tearing ribbons.

One Shabbat morning, it was the week before Rosh Chodesh, the new Jewish month, when it’s traditional to add a prayer announcing the coming new month and exactly when it begins. That would have gone very smoothly had I actually bothered to look at a calendar ahead of time and seen not only what day the month began, but also which month it was. Before I started chanting the page, I had no choice but to do the walk of shame over to the rabbi’s side for a quick whispered conversation. Lesson learned.

Finally, one of my all time favorite and memorable moments in the history of services. During a bar mitzvah many years ago, the family had assigned the honor of reading the Prayer for Peace to a friend who had traveled in from South America.

Do you know what happens to the Prayer for Peace when it is recited with a South American accent? It turns out that the long ē sound in the word “peace” doesn’t quite make it all the way. (Go ahead, I’ll wait till you try that out.)

And so, while the guest proceeded to recite the now unfortunate line, “And may a great peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea,” I stared laser beams into the carpet in front of me.

Does anyone else have any good work-related bloopers to share? Do accountants find it funny when they add two numbers wrong? Do doctors ever say, “So there I was about to cut the left arm…”

I guess it’s just a cantor thing.

You Will Be Assimilated, Part Deux

During this winter holiday period, it seems to me that we Jews are not the only ones at risk of assimilation and losing our distinct rituals. Our non-Jewish friends are experiencing something like this as well. It seems that Christians have almost completely adopted a uniquely Jewish tradition, which threatens their own observance of Christmas.

Not too long ago, it was assumed that all non-Jews would be home during Christmas–opening presents, having a Thanksgiving-like meal together, bickering with family members–you know, the stuff of Hallmark. This left the rest of us with only 2 viable options on how to spend the day: go see a movie and eat at the only restaurants that would be open (i.e. Chinese food). We would sit in an almost completely deserted movie theater–a couple other people scattered throughout in comfortable isolation. Some very quick eye contact, a barely perceptible nod–and you easily established that the Jews were in da house.

Then after the movie we’d head over to the local Chinese place and see the entire membership of the temple. It was a comforting, familiar, and distinctly Jewish tradition.

But now? Fuggedaboutit. In an egregious example of cultural appropriation, the movie theaters and Chinese restaurants have been taken over by the gentiles. You now have to go online and buy movie tickets in advance or risk showing up to a sold-out movie. You need to make a reservation days in advance just to have some beef and broccoli. Isn’t anyone sitting at home eating Christmas dinner and falling into an egg nog-induced coma anymore? Has General Tso waged a war on Christmas? What’s next–will all the non-Jews overwhelm the local pizza place as soon as Passover ends? Is nothing sacred?

I say we make Christmas great again. Everyone stay home, spend time with your families, and figure out which presents you’re keeping and which are getting returned tomorrow.

We Jews would like to have our holiday back.

 

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