Friday, April 25, 2008

Still Passing - The First Night

It's still Passover for a couple more days, but I've survived so far and it's almost out of the way for another year. Luckily for you all, Dear Readers, although it's Finals Week and I really should be writing that Postcolonial Theory paper, I managed to take several pictures (which is strictly prohibited and I did it anyway so I'm going Hell where I'm sure I'll see most of y'all anyway) and I thoroughly documented the entire holiday as best I could.

For the first Seder, as I described in the last post, we go to my grandfather's temple. We have to because this is my grandfather's job. He's a cantor, which means he's the Rabbi's right hand man and he sings all the prayers. As a clergyman it's his job to be at all temple events and services, so if we want to spend the holiday with him we have to go to the temple Seder too. This is not good.

Saba, my grandfather, works at a temple in a part of town inhabited exclusively and densely by very old, Jewish people and the temple serves these individuals. There is not a single youthful member of the congregation and they all live close by in large retirement communities where the old Jewish people pack together in low-income apartment complexes. Since they all live so close together they all gossip and fight and get on one another's nerves to no end. They're quite vicious. If you remember, the TV show Seinfeld did a great job of recreating this world. Jerry's parents lived in Del Boca Vista and periodically he would come down to Florida to visit and end up embroiled in some old people drama. The show used to crack me up because it was EXACTLY in every way like where my grandparents live and work. Exactly, and my grandfather is constantly in the middle of some old person drama at the temple or in his community. So if you remember Seinfeld you'll get a good idea of what I'm dealing with during the Jewish holidays.

It took us about twenty minutes just to get inside the temple rec room and to our table because the sea of the elderly in front of us could only move at an arthritic shuffle. All you could hear was the rattle of walkers, the occasional bang of a cane against an oxygen tank, some wheezing and a great deal of initial complaining (much more would come later, so this was just a warm up round of bitching). These people were so slow that if they were the group making the original Exodus out of Egypt it would have taken about 400 years instead of 40. They can only move at about .5 miles per hour. Anything over that and people start breaking hips and having chest pains.

Since I got stuck behind this sluggish group I had plenty of time to survey my surroundings. To say the temple decor is outdated is too mild. I'm actually not even sure if the decor was ever up to date. It looks like a mishmash of crap donated by people, which I'm positive is how the walls turned out Pepto-Bismol pink. A few years ago when we had the big hurricane there was a lot of damage and I was sure they'd get the insurance money and fix the place up, but they were too cheap, so they hired someone to patch the ceiling and replace the water-damaged parts of the drywall and then they all congratulated themselves on making a profit on the insurance company and then complained that they had to pay the repair man anything at all. So the walls are still Pepto-pink except in the parts that had to be replaced. Those are white. The effect is rather like a pack of Necco wafers - pink and white blocks. I guess they don't care because half of them can't see anyway.

Another odd thing I noticed is that just about every part of the temple's structure was donated by someone and old Jewish people can't stand to donate something and not get resounding credit for it. Apparently they missed that part in the Bible where it says you shouldn't advertise your charitable contributions. Maybe that's in the New Testament. Maybe Jesus went into a temple 2000 years ago and looked at it like I did and said "Man, we need to make a rule about this."

They really do need to make a rule about advertising your generosity in my grandparents' temple. It's to the point of utter absurdity. Every little thing has a brass plaque on it that says who donated it. "Windowsill courtesy of Saul and Rhoda Tiskowitz." "Windowpanes made possible by the generosity of Saidel Mermelstein." "Next 15 square feet of carpeting donated by the Rottenkatz family." "15 square feet of carpet after that purchased with money gifted to us from Hymen Hackberg." It kind of makes me wonder whose money made all the brass plaques possible. They should have extra signs saying "Picture frame donated by Hilda Gold" "Plaque saying that picture frame donated by Hilda Gold donated by Yenta and Isaac Hirschenfeld." Then they could have a plaque for that plaque until, as seems to be their ultimate goal, every wall, floor and ceiling could be covered in brass plaques with people's names on them.

As much as old Jewish people love to have plaques with their names on them, they also like to be honored. At my grandparents' temple they are constantly coming up with very arbitrary and meaningless awards and honors to bestow upon people to make them feel hugely important. But inevitably when one person gets an award and gets to feel hugely important a whole nother faction gets jealous and pissed off that they didn't get an award. Much infighting follows. People threaten to remove the windowsills they donated which would leave the temple tragically sill-less and then a committee must be formed immediately to come up with some new meaningless awards and honors lest the donations be rescinded. It's an endless cycle. My grandfather has been honored at least eleven times since 2001. Because of this desperate need for honor and recognition, we have to begin the Seder dinner at the temple with a good thirty five minutes of thanking, honoring and awarding. It takes so long that inevitably someone will go into diabetic shock from not eating and the ambulance will be called before the gefilte fish even comes out of the kitchen.

After that we have to endure a service. Another big giant deal to old Jewish people during the holidays is getting the opportunity to come up on stage, get the Torah out of its case and stand up in front of the congregation holding it. The Torah is two large scrolls wound around two inch wide wooden rods and encased in silver. It's a good thirty pounds at least, which is just an estimate on my part, and is way too heavy for frail old Jewish man to hold. Don't try telling them that though. They pay good money to hold the Torah up there. They get these bloody bidding wars going, each trying to top the others in donations just to get to carry the Torah. Then eventually someone will win and they will get to partake in the service, carefully removing the Torah from it's case, heaving it up on their bent shoulders before fainting dead away on stage sending the Torah flying to the floor and probably breaking at least three major bones. So then we have to call the ambulance again. Every year this happens and still they never learn that they are too old and too weak to carry thirty pound parchment scrolls rolled in wood and encased in metal.

After that things begin to settle down and we start the Seder. By this time we're all starving enough to actually eat the food, which I like to describe as jail food, if the jail were Conservadox and had only a very small food budget.

Our family sits at the head table with the Rabbi's family. The rabbi and his wife are about 75 years old and they have a retarded daughter who is exactly, to the day, my age, but as she is retarded and spends her entire existence surrounded by old people, she too looks, dresses and acts exactly like she is 75. Her name is Heather. I'm not exactly sure with what Heather is afflicted. Sometimes she seems autistic. Other times she seems like Forrest Gump, but I don't know what he was supposed to have either. No one has ever said if Heather's condition has a name or if anyone ever diagnosed her. I can only describe her as a strange combination of a kindergartener and a geriatric. She is socially awkward and robotic like some autistic people, but she seems more calm and doesn't do any of the repetitive actions sometimes associated with that condition. At times she seems so sedate that I wonder if they drug her, but Heather is very friendly and seems to really like interaction although she isn't good at it and doesn't understand a lot of things. She really, really likes me. I really like her too. She is the most refreshing part of the evening and I look forward to seeing her each year because she is innocent and not jaded, mean or complaining like the old people. I feel really badly for her, although I'm not sure she knows the difference, because she is constantly around old people and they have turned her into an old person in the body of a young, mentally challenged girl. I often wonder if she were in a more lively environment if her condition, whatever it is, might improve some. I also wish someone could give her a makeover and fix her up because she'd be cute. They let her grow a beard, dress her like she's 90 and cut her hair off and style it in one of those round, sprayed to death helmets old ladies love. I'd love to take her and put a hipper outfit on her, paint her nails and give her some lipgloss. I bet it would make a world of difference. I've always felt a connection to Heather because we have the same birthday.

Heather can't seem to grasp that two people can have the same birthday, as she and I do, so whenever she sees me she remembers that she and I do have the same birthday and then goes on and on questioning me to make sure it's true. Then she goes through a random list of questions for me, which I answer happily. None of the questions are really related to one another. They go something like this:

"Do you use nail polish? Do you work retail? Can you use computer software? Do you enjoy television programs? Where is the train station? Are you able to count money? What is your favorite color? How much did your shoes cost? Would you like a cold beverage?"

She reminds me of a cassette tape from the 1960s designed to teach people how to speak a very formal, stilted English. I don't know what to make of it, so I just answer her. Then she, without fail, asks me about soda. Soda is her favorite thing in the entire world. Heather loves soda, and she can talk for hours about it.

"Do you like soda? I like soda. I like Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Diet Sprite, A&W rootbeet, Barq's rootbeer, 7UP, diet 7Up, Gingerale, Orange Crush, Sunkist, Diet Sunkist, Mountain Dew, Cream Soda, Black Cherry soda, Grape Soda, Dr. Pepper..."

Her mother stops her because she'll go on and on and on and get too excited and have to be taken home. Heather's other obsession is shaking hands with people but she can't figure out how much pressure to use so she accidentally squeezes too hard and let me tell you, Heather is no waif. She's a big girl and has quite a grip. She broke the wrists of two old ladies with osteoporosis, so now they don't let her shake hands but you have to really watch her because she'll try. I made the mistake of letting her and I couldn't type for three days.

After Heather's mother distracts her, in the middle of the Seder, which I assure you is long enough on its own without any distractions, the old people always decided to have an impromptu talent show. God freaking help me. Heather's mother always puts her up on stage, hands her the microphone and lets her go to town. This is really not a good idea. There is something very troubling and sad about the whole thing and it creates one of those moments where you feel kind of nervous and try to look away but then you feel the uncontrollable compulsion to laugh but you can't do that because laughing at a retarded girl singing and dancing is the epitome of asshole-ness especially when it's during the soup course and you have already described the soup as salty piss water with toilet paper in it on your blog. It also doesn't help when your three teenage cousins are busting up and poking you under the table. Because I don't want to laugh because she's funny. I want to laugh because I'm nervous and the situation is painfully awkward. I feel like her mother exploits her in some way by putting her up in front of everyone and making her perform, but what the hell do I know? Maybe she enjoys it. I applaud enthusiastically.

Poor Heather with her old lady, sprayed up beehive hairdo, her full beard, off tempo clapping and warbling falsetto is endearing up there. I love her to death. I don't feel the same affection for all the old people who decide then that if the Rabbi's retarded daughter can get up on stage and sing in the middle of Seder, that certainly they too can sing. Oh readers. It becomes an hour long Elderly Idol. The old people hobble up on stage, yank the microphone from whomever had it before them and start belting out Yiddish folk songs with no music. They mostly sound like goats. They often pause halfway through their songs to tap the microphone and wonder if it's on because they're deaf and can't hear themselves. Sometimes they'll sing a song wrong and the old people in the audience will start shouting about how they messed up and then someone will start a screaming match and someone will threaten to have them removed from a committee or their condo association board.

Finally they will run out of breath and my grandfather will get the Seder back on track before we have to call 911 again because someone might be having a stroke. By the time it ends it's 1 in the morning and we're all starving and wondering what we did to deserve this and if maybe slavery in Egypt wasn't as bad. The second night isn't so bad because that we get to do at my grandparents' house. Night Two though has its challenges and those I will recount tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I love you! I am sitting at my desk weeping. May your holidays be good.

Anonymous said...

aw... I love her too. She made me smile and laugh silently in my cubicle. What a talent, this girl should be on Broadway.


Wide Lawns said...

They were good Jean and I hope yours were too if you are celebrating now.

onthegomom said...

Oh for the love of everything holy, I about died laughing. You are HE-LARIOUS!!!!!!!


Anonymous said...

Oh, my goodness! I'm laughing so hard I nearly fell off my chair! I'm not Jewish, so I don't have any first hand knowledge of a Passover Seder, but your descriptions are are priceless! I felt as if I were there with you, eating the soup, feathery/leathery chicken, dry cake, etc and enduring "Elderly Idol". (more giggling)

You are very sweet to honor your grandparents by continuing to attend these Seders. I'm sure they love you very much. :-)

Robin in Ohio

Anonymous said...

Funny, your description of the plaques and even funnier to think of having plaques for plaques, on top of more plaques......... LOL

Can't wait until your 2nd installment!

Anonymous said...

When I lived in New Jersey, I didn't realize how thankful I should have been that all of the old people moved to Florida. Thank you for keeping them there.

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