Thursday, April 24, 2008

Aunt Donna knows Thirteen

April 21

It's much easier for me to be Jewish in Denver than in New York, because for me (and I think most people), religion is a family affair, and Denver is my ancestral homeland.
It was settled, for my family, by one of my maternal great grandfathers, Jackson Melman, who moved there in around 1909 from Columbus, Ohio, with my great grandmother Dora (the one who I believe gave me my dislike for raw tomatoes), and four of his seven children, including my grandmother Rose, whose husband, Harry Cohn, was born in Glenwood Springs, making me a third generation Colorado Jew.
Rose was the youngest child in the family. Her brother Ike stayed in Denver, too, while her sisters Millie and Anne eventually settled in southern California.
My father's parents moved to Denver (from Baltimore, although he and his sister Florine were born in Raleigh) to be with Florine when she married Phil Boxer, a Kansas City Jew who for some reason ended up in Denver and ran a restaurant with his brother called Boxers (long sold and gone; Phil became a humanities professor and his brother Martin opened a chain of shops called The Antique Trader). Dad joined his folks after he got out of the Navy.
Then there are in-laws and additions from other branches of the family who have found their way to Denver. It makes for quite a comforting web of family fabric, and so Colorado’s capital is a very nice place for me to spend Passover, which is exactly what I did this year.
The ritual dinner, or Seder, is the cornerstone of Passover observance and much is often made of the fact that Jews all over the world follow the same rituals that have been handed down for centuries. That, of course, isn't the case at all. As someone who is rarely in the same city as his own family for Passover, I have been to many seders all over the world. All have familiar elements (strangely, gefilte fish followed by matzo ball soup seem to be universal, at least among Ashkenazic Jews, or the ones from Eastern Europe), but each is embellished by family tradition.
Indeed, my immediate family generally spends the two seders with quite different relative-and-friend configurations on the two nights on which seders are generally held, and the rituals can vary wildly from one night to the next (this year a relatively traditional seder mostly in English was followed by a humanist one sent from Florida by my sister-in-law Helen’s grandmother).
But those little family things are why I want to go to Denver for Passover more often, especially for our after dinner customs.
Several songs are normally sung after dinner during a seder, although not among families who feel that the pre-dinner rituals are enough and simply end the evening with coffee and dessert, or among those who don't like to sing.
Our first-night seder has for quite awhile now been held at the home of my cousin Richard Kornfeld, the youngest son of my mother's older sister, my Aunt Donna. He is continuing the tradition of his father, my Uncle Eddie, who passed away about ten years ago. Our two favorite after-dinner customs are the singing of Had Gadya, and the singing in Hebrew, followed by the reading in English, of Who Knows One?
Had Gadya is a parable about a kid (a baby goat, that is) that is eaten by a cat (presumably a big, ferocious cat), that is bitten by a dog, that is beaten by a stick that is burned in fire that is put out by water that is drunk by an ox that is slaughtered by a butcher who is killed by the Angel of Death who is in turn done in by the Almighty. I guess it reflects the ephemeral nature of things, but one of the great customs of Passover seders is that the meanings behind such things are supposed to be discussed (except in families who don't want to discuss such things — because they find seders tedious and just want to get on with them, or because they enjoy the traditional flow of the seder, or because they are not curious about such things, or for other reasons I cannot fathom).
Anyway, in our version we replace the nouns with the sounds they make, highlighted by beating twice on the table instead of saying "stick." That is our custom.
Who Knows One is an accounting of how many of certain important things in Judaism there are.
In case someone is googling this and wants them enumerated, I'll list them here; everyone else, please skip down to the next paragraph. Jews are monotheists, so you’re just going to have to guess what there is one of. There are two tablets on which the commandments were written, three patriarchs, four matriarchs, five books in the Torah (the first part of the Bible), six books in the Mishnah (the first part of the Talmud), seven days of the week, eight days to circumcision, nine months to childbirth, 10 commandments, eleven stars in Joseph's dream (which predicted his dominion over his brothers), 12 tribes of Israel and 13 attributes of God.
It's performed very much like the Twelve Days of Christmans, starting with One, then Two, but repeating One and so on, except that the table asks "Who Knows One?" and someone says: "I know One," and reads what it is. But the custom in my family is that you must say it in one breath. That's no big deal if you just have to say "four matriarchs, three patriarchs, two tables of the covenant, one God in heaven and on earth," but 13 is trickier, and for as long as I can remember, that task has fallen to Aunt Donna.
Aunt Donna has never smoked and has lived a clean life, so she can do all 13. And remember, this is in Denver, so she does it at 5,280 feet.
I find what one eats at Passover seders to be mostly irrelevant, except for the gefilte fish and matzo ball soup, which are essential, plus the ritual foods such as egg and saltwater, greens (most often parsley) dipped in saltwater, horseradish and charoset (a mixture usually of apples, nuts, wine and spices meant to resemble mortar between bricks). Oh, and matzo, of course.
My brother Todd and I used to anticipate each year that Aunt Donna would declare that this year the horseradish was the spiciest ever, except for last year, which was really the spiciest. She doesn't seem to do that anymore, but she definitely did it from around 1973 to 1985, at least.
This year on the second night, though, the horseradish really was the spiciest. Cousin Joe Levi had to bang on the table after trying it (and Had Gadya wouldn't be for another hour, at least), and I thought my ears were going to bleed.


Markus said...

The Had Gadya is another of those examples where Ashkenazi and German traditions are a lot alike, except not relly. There is an old German children's song about a farm hand who is sent to harvest oats but never comes back. A long succession of creatures and things (dog, stick, fire, water ox, butcher) is sent out, with increasing threats of violence (to the previously sent our creature or thing, not the original farm hand). In good German order, all this is to no avail until the lord (or Lord - it's "Herr" in German and could go either way) himself goes out and everyone falls into line. I'm not sure what it all means, but it sounds to me like the Had Gadya is about unfolding violent chaos that is righted in the end whereas the German version's chaos consist of people not following orders (the fire refuses to burn the stick, etc.), a circumstance set right only by the arrival of an authority figure who may or may not be divine in nature. But that's just my $0.02.

Bret Thorn said...

It's funny (strange, not ha-ha) that I never really thought about what Had Gadya meant until this year, when an attempt at explaining it was made in the hagaddah used during our second seder — that one nation consumes another but in the end we hope justice prevails. That explanation rings kind of hollow to me. Then again, “Life sucks, but we hope someday it won’t” is kind of a common Jewish mantra.
To be honest, I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. Humility before God is my best guess — no matter how great you think you are, something’s out there that can come along and kick your ass.
It is strangely fun to smack the table when reciting it, though.