Saturday, April 23 2005
setting: Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland, USA
Today would be the first Seder of Passover, and since it fell on a Saturday, it left me wondering what the proper procedure would be in an Orthodox Jewish household for the preparation of the Passover meal.
In the afternoon we all went to the Brookside Gardens, which features plenty of flowers and small trees on a landscaped terrain easily accessible by pedestrians and folks pushing strollers. It turned out that this is a popular destination for folks with babies, and there's always lots of fuss made whenever one baby encounters another. I'm familiar with this dynamic from walking dogs, but this was the first time I'd actually been in a contingent with a baby (my nephew) and had this experience. I tend to think all babies (well, white babies) look the same, but when you see two babies of similar age encountering one another their differences are thrown into great relief.
The Brookside Gardens are unusually popular with both Jewish Shabbat pedestrians as well of people of East Asian heritage. The presence of the latter might have something to do with the fact that a few of the sub-gardens are Asian in style. But it also might have something to do with Asians generally having a greater appreciation for cultivated gardens than average Americans.
The newest section of the gardens featured a heart-shaped pond and another three-lobed pond and a stone memorial to the 2002 DC-area sniper victims in between. Gretchen's parents had been safely in Italy during the stressful days of that sniper crisis, when people would hide behind their car doors while refueling at gas stations.
Over the years I've gradually come to the realization that the world's religions are each built around the idea of controlling one or more human vices. It stands to reason, then, that the older the religion, the older the vice. Protestants seem to be mostly concerned about sloth, with sex a close secondary contender. Sex is probably the core concern of Christianity generally, and of Roman Catholics in particular. For followers of more recently-developed faiths, Muslims and Mormons, substance abuse is the thing to freak out about.
Judaism is a much older religion than any of those and its principles are a consequence of the problems faced by people as they settled down into man's then-latest invention: cities. This was all well before running water, the fork, the invention of underpants, or, for that matter, the germ theory of disease. The vice obsessed about by Jewish law is an odd one for the modern mind to understand: the eating of impure foods. Is it really that tempting to eat an impure food? (This brings to mind a classic joke.)
Back when cities were first invented, of course, nobody really knew how people got sick, but evidently eating habits were a prime suspect in illness. Jewish food strictures seem to have been designed to keep people in those early cities from getting sick from eating the wrong things or the wrong combinations of things. These laws also included then-revolutionary prohibitions against food contamination. If one stands back and looks at competing bronze-age societies with their various sets of rituals and rules, one can see why Judaism might have quickly supplanted religions with which it came into contact as cities of its adherents survived various plagues and other health catastrophes experienced by the denizens of grubby pork-eating cities.
Of course, concern about contamination is found in all people to some extent and rules proscribing it have been written by plenty of non-Jewish people. I myself have issues with contamination that veer occasionally into the irrational. Over the past few years I've come to regard dogs as "inherently clean" while harboring the suspicion that the visible fingers of babies and young children have only recently emerged from an incompletely-wiped asshole or nascent sexual organ. I've taken to calling playground equipment "E. coli farms" and regarding with disgust any shiny primary-color plastic object designed for children. It's a little crazy, I admit, but it reflects my own basic disgust with human procreation, amplified somewhat by Gretchen's much greater disgust.
So in the social gathering just before tonight's Seder, which happened at the house of a friend-of-the-family, I found myself incapable of eating finger foods after I'd seen them being handled by the various toddlers. Someone had decided to set them out on a low coffee table where they could be easily grabbed by short-statured protohumanoids. Adding to my discomfort was the fact that among these foods were various seder icons including matzah, horseradish, and a bowl of boiled eggs - the most revolting form of a food for which I have a strong visceral aversion. Even if the toddlers' hands were spotless as they marched towards the coffee table, the moment those hands touched the boiled eggs they were (to may way way of thinking) contaminated, and that contamination was soon spread to everything else. Unfortunately this included the toasted balls of delicious New Zealand gefilte fish that I'd previously been eating with gusto.
The putting out of food before the ritual was, by the way, a complete novelty. Normally a seder is a drawn-out process of tantric eating conducted by a room full of people with low blood sugar. In particular, the serving of matzah is supposed to wait until a very special moment in the seder when the fact that it can finally be eaten is like discovering a pool of clear fresh water while crawling across the desert. But this seder was obviously going to be an unusually relaxed event, even though nearly 30 people would be in attendance.
It all would have gone swimmingly had it not been for the children. Had no one thought of the children? My little nephew was perfectly behaved, expertly distracted from any possible mishap by his doting mother. But there were some other children, ones old enough to know better, who began screaming at some point and then just didn't shut up. It all culminated with something close to a riot over a set of Egyptian plague finger puppets.
For some reason Gretchen became nauseated early in the meal and had to retreat to the living room. The chief suspect for her problem was a glass of sickeningly-sweet Manischewitz wine.
Later I noticed that one of these toddlers had the suspicious fragrance of a cat litter box - indicating the presence of a soiled diaper. The odor permeated the living room, but somehow everyone kept going as if nothing was amiss, eating their dessert or drinking their wine. As for me, I'd completely lost my appetite.
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