Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Stranger in a Strange Land

Baptists aren't much for formalities.

Sure, they have their own idiosyncrasies: the shouting from the pulpit; the waving of hands by inspired parishioners; the gyrations and proclamations of fresh water revivals (one of the most surreal events I've ever observed).

But for most Baptists, communion is nothing more than this weird voodoo ritual you sometimes hear your friends talk about. For the Baptists, there's no wine, no bread, no anything.

You go to church. You listen to a lot of shouting. You sing hymnals. You fear for your soul. You fear for your neighbor's soul. You watch as people accept "Jesus Christ" as their "Lord and Savior."

And then you go home.

I'll never forgot the first time I attended a church that did communion.

I was 10 or so, visiting relatives in another state. The sermon kept going on and on and on. And because there was little-to-no yelling, I was having a hard time paying attention: I was fidgety, and hungry, and welcomed the break when a basket full of crackers was placed on my lap.

I was confused — but hungry, as I said — so I took one.

The look of horror on my mother's face was priceless. I dropped the cracker back into the basket, lowered my head, and passed it along.

I realized then that I didn't quite belong.
Later, in college, I developed a sort of fascination for literature that placed religiosity at its epicenter (whether disparaging or otherwise). Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter typified this for me.

I loved that book in large part because it demystified some aspects of Catholicism. I was at once fascinated and disgusted by what I read, consequently. I found the ceremonies to be poetic and yet... bittersweet. I yearned to experience mass first-hand — if only as an observer. Or as a writer.

But I could never shake my previous experience with communion. I remained terrified of the very rituals that fascinated me.
So imagine, if you will, my response to learning I'd been invited to a Jewish Seder at a complete stranger's house.

I. Was. Horrified.

I mean, I wanted to go. But I also worried it'd be my experience with communion, multiplied by a [insert Yiddish word here that means "a lot"]. After all, at least I'm vaguely aware of the various ceremonies that exist for other brands of Christianity.

But Judaism?

Seemed it was a disaster waiting to happen.

You should know that, upon first hearing of the invitation, my honest-to-God reaction was this:

"Satyr? You mean like the creature in Greek mythology?"

Pretty sad, huh?

I spent some time Tuesday morning reading up on the topic, in hopes of preparing myself for the occasion. I didn't know what to wear. What to bring. Or — most importantly — what to expect.

Trying to edify myself really just made my anxiety worse. Here's what I found out:
  • I was to expect the obligatory drinking of FOUR GLASSES OF WINE (nothing like getting drunk at your boyfriend's bosses home to make a GREAT first impression)
  • Veal and beef brisket are two of the most common dishes. I seldom eat meat and — when I do — I limit myself to white chicken breast.
  • There would be singing in Hebrew
  • And about a million other blessings and rituals that were completely foreign to me
So I spoke to Washington, who said he thought the dinner might be a bit less formal than what we were reading. We also read that when the host says to not bring anything, showing up with food is an absolute no-no (particularly if you're non-Jewish, as the kosher rules are pretty strict during Passover). It said flowers were a nice alternative, and so I set about to find a handsome potted plant to take.

Want to take a guess as to the only decent living botanical thing I could find yesterday afternoon?




Yes. That's right. Easter lilies. I didn't quite have the chutzpah to pull that off, so we went with some cut tulips instead. But when you consider that Passover is about life. That it's about the freeing of the Israelites after their enslavement by the Pharaoh... it didn't seem right to present the hosts with flowers that'd been slashed from their roots.

I took that to be a pretty bad sign.

But I was immediately at ease when we walked in the front door. We weren't the only non-Jewish folks there, and the hosts were extremely inviting. I was beginning to think this was going to an informal Seder after all.

Jump ahead to a few minutes later, when we retired to the dining room.

Not only were there wine goblets at every seat, but there was a large silver tray at one end of the table, upon which there was an egg; some sort of root; parsley; a large wine glass; a bone; and an orange — a setup that was in keeping with what I'd read.

And as if that weren't enough, a copy of the Haggadah was on top of every plate.

I tried to swallow my anxiety as flashbacks from communion flooded my consciousness:

The stares from everyone around me. The sound of my mother hissing "noooo!" under her breath. The way my hands shook as I passed the crackers along to the stranger seated next to me...

Whether or not the hosts picked up on my fear, I don't know. But I will say they did an amazing job explaining everything to us without condescending our ignorance. They were quite gracious, in fact, and their kids (all grown) were so energetic, humorous and talkative, that there was seldom a moment of silence. I was grateful to them for being there.

But that didn't help me feel any less silly when I attempted to find a page in the Haggadah, and it took me a good 30 seconds to realize the numbers were in reverse. I imagined other guests were watching, amused, as I searched frantically for the proper page, all but missing the first blessing.

There were times, too, that we were asked to join in on the songs. Hebrew songs.

So you'd hear 3/4 the table singing for about 80% of the time. And then all of the table would join in for the chorus (this was made possible only because the chorus was the repetition of the word Dayeinu broken down into its various syllables, together meaning: "It would have been enough for us").

In addition to the Haggadah, the family had compiled a packet of supplements over the years. Once I realized we'd all be reading from these materials (in-between passages from the Haggadah — which were always read by the host family) I started to pay extra-special attention to the pronunciation of words.

OK, I thought. When you see that little mark under a letter, that's when you make the "ackh" sound, like you're spitting. Oh! And don't forget, with Biblical names and places, the emphasis is generally on the first syllable.

And so on until it was my turn to read. Thank goodness I didn't foul it up too much.

I was pretty impressed by these supplements. They consisted mostly of speeches from Rabbis as well as essays and poetry written by Holocaust survivors. I was amazed, too, by how so many of the materials mentioned the Palestinians, alluding to their shared strife; recognizing their right to sovereignty; and ending with prayers for peace.

These materials were, for lack of a better word, "touching."

I actually thought things were going surprisingly well until — bet you didn't see this coming — I spilled my grape juice while leaning in for some maror (bitter herb) to add to the matzo (bread) during one of the sacred stages.

For one brief, excruciating moment I got the feeling I'd done something ominous and horrible. In a lapse of paranoia, I was fairly certain everyone at the dinner table scooted two clicks away from me, jaws dropping as if to recognize the presence of evil at their sacred feast.

"Oh, it's OK," said Washington's boss. "What's Seder without spilled wine? Happens all the time."

We all know she was just trying to be nice (which I appreciated), but I also know that wine plays a central role the celebration. Spilling it can't be a good sign. In which case, I'm still trying to determine if there's some folklore out there that interprets spilled wine at Pesah as something horrendous. Because it can't mean anything good.
I should add, too, that all of the noise, fighting, and 3 a.m. visits by our city's finest at my apartment building has pretty much messed up my sleep schedule. So I popped some No Doz an hour or so before Seder in hopes of gaining some energy.

And that it did. But not without the usual, unfortunate side effect.

That is to say, at some point after the second ritual washing of the hands (Urchatz), I scanned ahead (backwards) in the Haggadah in hopes of finding a ritual emptying of the bladder listed on the itinerary.

But no such luck.

When, later, we split up in search of the afikoman (whoever finds it wins a prize!), I thought the best place to look would've been the bathroom.

But, alas, I could find neither the bathroom nor the coveted dessert bread.

And even though I didn't win the top prize or get to use the restroom. And even though I spilled the "wine" and had to snub my nose at the main entree.

This was still, without question, one of the most intriguing, enlightening dinners I've ever experienced.


Winter said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

But I think the spilled wine means you'll lose all your hair within the next year..

Just kidding..

I find comfort in the rituals you
were nervous about taking part in. It's a way to easy my soul back into a belief I don't pay much attention to, but should.

It's good you keep an open mind.

The 15th is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Just in case you want to do anything else jewish.


Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure the host probably meant it. Spilled wine happens in life, right?

I went to Yom Kippur services about 12 years ago. That was an adventure. I can only imagine what a Seder must have been like.

I guess that is why Catholics and Baptists are so polar opposite. I can't imagine mass without all the pomp and circumstance. Thank God (sorry, had to) that it isn't in latin anymore.

disgruntled world citizen said...

Seders are wonderful. I just got home from vacation... what an interesting time I had. I'll come back and re-read this entry a bit later.

Academic Advisor said...

I, too, suffer from an almost paralyzing fear of doing the wrong thing in situations I'm unfamiliar with, but like you, I enjoy new experiences. This is a difficult and challenging paradox, but it is often made much easier by people who are willing to act as guide, teaching without condescension, and ignoring the occasional goof up. It sounds like your hosts had the right spirit. They should be lauded.

BTW, I grew up Baptist too, and we did take communion, just not every Sunday, and it was only for those who had already been baptised. Often these rituals have rules that are obvious enough to those in the know, but practically impenetrable to the unintiated. They are intended as such. Rather than making you feel like a criminal, your mother should have taken a page from Washington's boss's book and explained what was going on.