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in preparation of passover

In Preparation for Passover

We hosted our first Seder as newlyweds in Cincinnati with other transplant friends, and later in our walk-up on Hancock Street in Boston when our kids were little. On Hancock Street, we’d gather snugly around a dining-room table (which now serves as a kitchen table in our current home). I recall those evenings as harbingers of spring, sunlight angling through sooty, city windows, shining on the yellow daffodils I’d purchased at the grocery store. My little girl in a white short-sleeved dress and patent leather shoes – I hadn’t fully committed to Judaism and the décor was some version of Easter.

If there is any one tradition or holiday that sold me on the Jewish religion, it was Passover. I have the fondest memories of being dazzled by the Oelbaum’s Seder as a young girl. Again, John and I were invited to the Meisel’s Seders in Cincinnati where I aspired to ever having a family that would interact with such passion.

By 2004,  I’d converted, the kids were on their way to becoming bar and bat mitzvah, and we moved to Chestnut Street. While John and the kids may have been excited about other characteristics of our new home, like a big TV in the family room, or a bedroom of their own, I fell in love with the dining room and a long table that would become an altar every Friday night. I had visions of progeny around that table every Passover.

Preparing for Passover is the beginning of the spiritual journey.

I reflect on all the Jewish women making pesach in their homes as I do in my mine – cleaning, weeding out, preparing for renewal. I also think of all of the women over the past three thousand years who’ve prepared in similar ways right at this point in the calendar. Our conveniences and techniques are different, but we are connected by the desire to sanctify our homes, transforming our dining rooms into holy places.

I also recognize non-Jews who strive for the same harmony in their homes, a holiness stemming from love of family and raising children. As mothers and hostesses, keepers of an unspoken, domestic religion, we all share a generosity of spirit and sustenance.

On the morning of the Seder, with the air rich with hyacinth, I billow a crisply starched, white tablecloth over the dining room table, and honor my matrilineage. The linen napkins were passed down from my maternal grandmother, my namesake, Jeanne Wilmarth Hallenbeck, a women who passed away when I was two but who I’ve heard scores of stories about from my mother. I have a black and white photograph portrait of her framed on a small pantry counter just outside the dining room. She is holding a bouquet,  the maid of honor at her sister’s wedding. I imagine her very social era of luncheons, teas, and dinners when it was common to have several sets of placemats, dinner napkins, and luncheon napkins all with embroidered monograms. Receiving them myself as a young bride, I was afraid to use them for fear of staining. Now, they are a tactile way to remember. Like a black and white Mona Lisa, she radiates an approving smile from her photographed face.

The silver candelabras are from my mother and were wedding gifts from her grandparents. Before everyone sits, I will light their six candles before blessing the festival lights:

Baruhk ata Adonai, Eloheinu melecholam. Asher kidshanu bar mitzvah tov, vitzi vanu l”hadlik ner shel Yom Tov.

May it be Your will, God of our ancestors, that You grant my family and all Israel a good and long life. Remember us with blessings and kindness; fill our homes with your Divine Presence. Give me the opportunity to raise my children and grandchildren to be truly wise, lovers of God, people of truth, who illuminate the world with Torah, good deeds and the work of the Creator. Please hear my prayer at this time. Regard me as a worthy descendant of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, our mothers, and let my candles burn and never be extinguished. Let the light of your face shine upon us. Amen.

“Regard me as a worthy descendant” – those words echo in my mind as I open my silverware drawer. For a large crowd, I need both my wedding silver, given lovingly by many older relatives, as well as my mother’s silver, which had been passed down from her grandmother. As I squeeze together enough place settings, I smile at how large our Seder has become.

I open the cabinet holding the special crystal wine goblets. They are Victorian in shape, etched with spring-like floral patterns – they are from John’s great aunts, Lillian, Bella, and Sophie, and his grandmother Rose. These women posed a funny foursome. Lillian, Bella, and Sophie were conservative Jews and very religious. They were old spinsters, living together in Philadelphia and later in Miami Beach, keeping kosher homes. By the time John and I married, Sophie was the only one of the four alive. We visited her in Miami often, and when she heard we were keeping a Jewish home and hosting Passover, she was so delighted she gave us her Seder plate, which she had purchased with her sisters on a trip to Israel.

I set the table with white, gold-rimmed dishes John’s father presented to us in honor of our new home. It seemed as if it had been crated for years. They are from Czechlosavakia had been received by his mother, Rose, as a wedding present from her groom’s family in Europe. I picture her an excited, beaming bride, receiving such an extravagant gift on her embarkation to adult life. Arthur’s eyes tear at the sight of what was once familiar. It’s like having his mother there with us. I know how he feels.

Our Seder table is a living, expanding, combination of the old and the new. There is a silver Kiddush cup I bought John in honor of our new home, and the silver pitchers I bought for the hand washing not long after. There are the colorful Afikomen covers the kids made in Sunday school. Even in their crudeness, I use them as a reminder of how far we have come, both spiritually and physically as a family.

John leads the Seder thoughtfully and deliberately, working from a new Haggadah edited by Jonothan Safran Foer, a writer I very much admire. We upgraded just last year from a more juvenile, story-book version, which had been an upgrade from the days when we photocopied one very traditional version and felt bound by its structure, and cheapened by the flimsy, tearing pages.

When I put the finishing touches on the table, the toys symbolizing the ten plagues, a wine glass for Elijah, a water glass for Miriam, salt water for dipping, I am filled with gratitude. How blessed I am to have a family and friends who want to gather and create a magical evening filled with stories and questions and debate and song. How blessed I am to have children to pass these napkins down to, these dishes, this silver.

The Passover Seder is a telling – the passing down of a story, a story of a people once enslaved and now free, a celebration of our ability to move and act in the world, a story not only of a people, but now my people. Tonight our connection to our ancestors won’t just be spoken, but demonstrated at this table, my altar is a tribute to our mothers past.

John has grown into his role as masterful leader of the Seder. He sends out questions to our guests ahead of time, a custom adopted from Nancy Meisel in Cincinnati. The question is the prompt for meaningful conversation after we’ve had our four glasses of wine, after we’ve told the story four ways and four times, and after we’ve shared the symbolic food on the Seder plate.

Every year John works hard to come up with a perfect, though-provoking question.

Questions in the past have ranged from the basic: if you were leaving Israel, what would you take (akin to if your house was burning and you had to leave in a hurry, what would you take with you?) What are your basics? What are you a slave to? Who is your Pharoah? What is your Egypt? What song exemplifies freedom to you? (That was actually a huge hit and really fun) There is always a lively family group chat in the weeks preceding – with the kids wondering what the question will be this year?

One Passover tradition is to welcome newcomers or strangers, people who don’t have another place to go. Sometimes I worry our first-time guests won’t know what they are stepping into. They may be surprised or intimidated by the question, what do they think when they receive John’s email? Our regulars are a little crazy. There is my young nephew who spews wisdom beyond his years like a prophet, the personification of Elijah himself. We sing and Charlie accompanies on the piano, there is laughter and heated debate. It starts early and goes really late and there is a lot to eat.

This year we will be hosting twenty-one. That old dining-room table / now kitchen table will serve as the extension to our dining room table. Our Seder will be on Friday, April 6, not on the traditional night, but on the Shabbat at the end of the 8-day holiday so we can get everybody home. April 6 is the Sabbath and my mother’s birthday. She would have been 75. I will light a candle for her and one for John’s mother, Mary, her yartzeit being just 5 days later. Their light will shine even more so at our table.

thinking

Thinking about Adam, Eve, and the Garden

As I’ve traveled from place to place over the past seven months talking about EDEN, it has been revelatory that many readers do not connect my novel with the metaphor of the Garden of Eden. I would have thought the book’s title would be the first giveaway. This is less a commentary about people’s comfort with biblical references, than a testament to the fact that Eden has become a common term in our society’s vernacular. It stands on its own, independent from the Bible as a synonym for paradise.

In late October, I attended the Boston Book Festival as both a presenter and an interested member of the audience. My husband and I attended a fascinating discussion with Stephen Greenblatt, author of the recent book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In his wonderful and scholarly book, Greenblatt examines the story through history’s eyes: from the point of view of scholars, and artists, and poets and questions what it is about the story of the Garden of Eden that proves it to be “so durable, so widespread, and so insistently, [and] hauntingly real.” From examinations of Durer’s art to Milton’s most famous work, it is a sensational book, which I recommend highly.

The story of Adam and Eve certainly shaped society’s concept of marriage: A man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh…. an ideal concept at that. The story goes on to provide imagery for what is good and what is evil. It gives us the first documentation of  sin. It provides fodder for the characterization of women as manipulative and conniving, and for men as laborers and providers. I would challenge someone to come up with a story that is as impactful as this one on how society defines our most fundamental relationships.

Its structure is ingrained in us, an archetype. There is a man and a woman. They are placed in a paradise. There is temptation. They want more. There is a decline and an expulsion. They go on.

I recently read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, one of those books that is referred to time and again by writing teachers, while Greenblatt sat on my bedside table, and grinned at the reference to Sid and Charity’s Vermont utopia as ‘Eden’ – and of course this ‘Eden’ doesn’t last. The grand home in my novel is also named “Eden,” but in a tongue-in-cheek manner meant to foreshadow pitfalls on the horizon. I can’t help shaking my head when coming across locales dubbed “Eden” – Bar Harbour, Maine was originally named Eden, for example. Many people seem to want to memorialize paradise, possibly forgetting the second half of the story.

Instead of place, I like to think of Eden as the state of innocence one experiences in childhood; an innocence that inevitably disappears once the complications of adolescence and adulthood take hold. The Adam and Eve creation story is compelling for all it evokes around the relationships between man and woman, but its early setting, that moment of perfection is what strikes me. It is a moment with a special place in the recesses of our collective memory.

purification

Purification: Gratitude in Simplicity and Newness

purification

The essential oil I’ve been rubbing on the souls of my feet the past few mornings is called “Purification.” It sits by my yoga mat and because I ran out of my favorite lavender oil, I have been using it instead as a sensory boost. After all, purification is a lofty ideal. When I later learned, however, that the blend was intended to battle bad smells, I laughed.

Approaching the Jewish High Holy days, I’d had a different kind of purification in mind: atonement, making amends, an overall spiritual cleanse. It’s the time of year when things start up again, school is back in session, vacation is over, and, no matter one’s age, the opportunity to start fresh hangs in the crisp fall air.

In my musing about purification, I realized I have the most elemental cleansing agents at my front door: fire and salt water. I do not have to buy these things in a pricey glass bottle. They are not in short supply. However, coming into contact with fire, one is more often faced with destruction than purification. My brother and sister-in-law recently suffered a bad fire in their home. In dealing with their loss during the aftermath, fire was definitely cast as the enemy. Despite the upheaval the fire caused, it also stripped away all their accoutrements, taking them back to the basics. Shamans and healers have often used fire in renewal and purification ceremonies. Fire results in rapid transformation and releasing drama. Fire simplifies.

Don’t worry, I wasn’t so insensitive as to mention the silver lining of a house fire while my displaced relatives camped out with us.

Our home is surrounded by seawater, also a well-known cleansing agent since the beginning of time. John had a great aunt in Miami who used to trudge her dishes down to the sea whenever her kosher kitchen was compromised. And in my quirky old-wives tale mentality, I’ve always praised seawater as a cure-all. When my kids battled poison ivy or warts or a bad complexion – forget the dermatologist, jumping in the ocean was my prescription. Yet when my other set of in-laws called this morning to say their home in Florida was being ravaged by rain and tidal surges caused by Hurricane Irma, the whole purification angle didn’t seem the right place to venture.

My sister-in-law warned I should be on the lookout for locusts. At least we’re still laughing. Did I mention that the house fire was caused by a burning bush? There are signs all around us.

In EDEN, the Meister family rebuilds after the 1938 Hurricane, in the spirit of renewal and getting back to basics. But nobody can build a fortress against human nature. Vulnerability is at the core of what it is to be human.

Later this month, I’ll be in services with my family. I’ll be asked to take personal inventory, to recall how “I’ve missed the mark in the past year”, all in a quest for something akin to purification. There will be no salve to aid in the work the liturgy asks of me. My mind will undoubtedly wander, until I start dwelling on the people who aren’t with me anymore. Every autumn I’m asked to walk through the metaphorical fire, where I’ll well up with actual salt-water tears. Opportunities for purification abound, however, they never come in a bottle.