Monday, March 29, 2010

Adventures in Passover Shopping

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m not a shopper. It’s a small thing, really, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Whether it is food, clothing, or something else, my goal is to go in, get what I need, and get out as quickly as possible so I can get on with whatever it is I really want to be doing that day. Anything that slows me down is agitating.

Unsurprisingly, shopping for Thanksgiving is not my favorite thing in the world. I know the parking lot will be crowded, the store will be packed, and the checkout lines will be slow, but at least I’m confident that, with a bit of patience, eventually I will escape with everything I need. Not so with Passover.

Sure, in the days before Passover the store won’t be as crowded as it is leading up to Thanksgiving, but, depending on its proximity to Easter, it may not be a walk in the park, either. But, for me at least, the true tension has always been in wondering how many stores I will need to visit to get everything I need. Often, the trip involves at least one stop for staples such as chicken broth, another stop for various items the first store didn’t have in stock, and a third stop at one of the shrinking number of delis still in existence that carries chopped liver.

For those of you accustomed to the US Thanksgiving traditions, consider what it would be like if you arrived at the store a day or two before Thanksgiving and found you could get most of the things you wanted, but there were no turkeys or cranberries. On Passover, it’s worse. If you can’t get a brisket, that may feel like not getting a turkey on Thanksgiving, but you can substitute a chicken or something else for the main course.

However, the Passover meal isn’t equivalent to Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a religious holiday during which we remember our time as slaves in Egypt and celebrate our freedom. Some of the foods associated with the holiday, like the foods associated with Thanksgiving in the US, are purely traditional. Brisket and gefilte fish fall into this category.

On the other hand, in Hebrew the holiday is “Pesach,” which means “order.” As such, there are certain things we’re supposed to do in a certain order, such as eating bitter herbs with matzo. We may exercise some discretion in our choice of which bitter herbs to use, but the matzo needs to be there, it must be kosher for Passover, and there needs to be a lamb shank bone on the seder plate.

When I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula, I shopped at a local market. Some years they seemed to have everything I needed, and other years they didn’t, but they were always very helpful. Once, when I asked for brisket, the butcher shook his head, thought a moment, then asked me how many pounds I wanted it to be. He asked me to wait a moment, wheeled a side of beef out of the walk-in refrigerator, went zip-zip-zip with a knife, and plopped a nice brisket on the scale, saying, “Here you go!” In these days of pre-packaged meat, I believe that may be the first, and the last, time I’ve ever had the chance to see a real butcher in action. Similarly, in years when there were no lamb shank bones set aside, they always managed to scrounge something up for me.

Since then, I have moved to Marin County, which is, I’ve been told, the county with the largest percentage of Jews in the state. So you would think the stores here would know a thing or two about Passover. Unfortunately, although they gamely put out a display with some matzo and other niceties, they just don’t seem to have caught on to some of the finer points. Neither Lucky nor Safeway seem to have twigged to the notion that every Spring people come up to the meat counter to ask for a brisket and a lamb shank bone.

As a result, it has become a tradition for me to improvise by having a plan for a non-brisket dinner in my mind just in case, and to seek out the cheapest package of bone-in lamb I can find, so I can cut the meat off and pretend the bone is a shank. Not exactly kosher, but it’s closer to the real deal than the alternative of beets I recently heard is used by vegetarians to symbolize lamb’s blood in its place. And pity the poor man I encountered one year, whose wife sent him to the store in search of schmaltz, absolutely required for her chopped liver recipe, but unheard of in Safeway.

This year, finally, I did something I have never done before. Indeed, it had never before occurred to me. This year, I shopped at a particular store for no reason other than I had heard it was owned by Jews. Yes, I went to Mollie Stone’s, and there I found the answer to my prayers. There was chopped liver in the deli case, piles of brisket in the meat department, kosher-for-Passover horseradish in both the red and white varieties, cases of chicken broth – on sale no less! – you get the picture. Everything all under one roof.

The guy at the meat counter didn’t look at me funny when I shyly asked for a lamb bone. Instead, he said, “Of course!” and immediately handed one over. Free of charge. The guy at the check-out lane glanced over my items, recognized what they were for, and asked if there was something in Hebrew he could say that would be appropriate for others doing their holiday shopping. I recommended “chag sameach,” which he repeated several times and wrote down for future reference.

For the first time during my years of Passover shopping I felt like I’d been in a store that said, “Jews are welcome here!” It’s not like I’ve ever had an experience like my father did at a store in Idaho, where he asked for lox and was told, “Sorry, we’re out, all those Jews got it already.” But there is something so welcoming, that is such a relief, in knowing there is someplace I can go without worrying about whether they will have what I need or if they will look at me like I’m a nut when I ask. It’s a small thing, really, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The First Day of Spring

By Susan Esther Barnes

Two weeks ago my friend Mark, who has been grappling with cancer, announced that for the first time in two years he would be able to work five full shifts in a row.

That day my friend Gail’s mother, who had been ill for a number of years, died.

About the same time, my friend Joanne’s brother, after playing cards with some friends, developed a sudden headache, began to throw up, then was rushed to the hospital with a massive stroke, where he died a short time later.

We sat shiva for Gail’s mother and Joanne’s brother on successive evenings.

Last week, Mark went to the hospital for a treatment to burn out a tumor, and emerged saying he didn’t know it was possible to be in so much pain. The doctors are trying to readjust his medication.

My husband caught a cold and snored so much, I spent much of the week sleeping on the couch downstairs.

On the windowsill in the kitchen the orchid is sporting six soft but strong white flowers, while in the pot beside it the first basil sprouts are peeking out from the damp dirt.

This morning, two 13-year-olds were called to the Torah and became b’not mitzvah. They are now considered to be fully responsible members of our community.

And today is the first day of spring.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Alarm Clock

I had a bit of a head cold this week, but nothing like what my husband John had, with a runny nose and congestion despite the Sudafed. As faithful readers of this blog are aware, John has been known to snore from time to time, but when he's congested his snoring is louder and more persistent than usual. Which means I spent part of each night this week sleeping downstairs on the couch.

Yesterday morning I woke up about the time my alarm clock usually goes off. I was tired and grumpy and didn't want to get up, but I wanted to get upstairs and turn off my alarm clock before it woke John.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I noticed the bedroom door was closed, with Thomas kitty on the outside. Thus, I knew Thomas had woken up John, who had then kicked the cat out of the bedroom. So I opened the door, expecting John to be at least half awake, but there he was, passed out and snoring contentedly.

I hurried over to my alarm clock to turn it off, but found it was silently proclaiming the time to be seven minutes after the alarm was supposed to have gone off. I double-checked it, and all seemed to be in order. I couldn't figure out why it hadn't gone off, but I wasn't about to wake John to find out. Sick folks need their sleep, after all.

Last night after I got home from work, I asked John, "Did my alarm clock go off this morning?"

"Yes!" he replied accusingly, "and it took me forever to figure out how to turn off the darned thing!"

I looked at him a moment, then prompted, "So, why didn't you come wake me up?"

"What?" he said, in his best sickness-induced hoarse and confused voice.

"If my alarm went off, why didn't you come wake me up? You know, that's what the alarm is for."

"Oh," he said, "uh, I meant to. I thought about waking you up. But by the time I figured out how to shut it off...I don't know what happened..."

I suppose I should have been mad, but normally he's so smart, and he's just too cute when he's all sick and fuzzy and confused.

I think maybe I need to get an alarm clock for downstairs.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Shabbat Unplugged

By Susan Esther Barnes

What do you do when you encounter unspeakable beauty?

When words and actions and music and voices
combine with grief and joy and comfort
to create one holy moment after another
when God’s presence fills the spaces inside and in between
the people and the room and the instruments
and you think to yourself
Life can’t possibly be any better than this
and someone says
Maybe this is the world-to-come

What do you do when the best outlet you have
is to pour it into words on paper
but you know for these moments
words on paper are utterly inadequate

What can you do other than soak it in
and feel grateful in the moment
then go home
and try to stop it from slipping away

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sh’ma Discussion on Pluralism

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last week I attended an event at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum celebrating the move of “Sh’ma, A Journal of Jewish Responsibility” to California. The event was billed as “A conversation on the boundaries of pluralistic dialogue and engagement.”

The evening started a little late with a somewhat lengthy introduction, so the actual conversation didn’t start until about a half an hour after the advertised start time, but at least that gave the numerous latecomers a chance to settle in before the juicy bits of the evening occurred.

The format consisted of Susan Berrin, the editor of Sh’ma, reading a list of questions to the panelists, then asking them to begin a conversation about one or more of those questions. The conversation was followed by an audience question and answer session, then a reception.

The panelists were Rabbi Levey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Karen Kushner of the Jewish Welcome Network, Peter Stein of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and Carole Zawatsky of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The conversation covered a fascinating range of topics, including who is or isn’t Jewish (for instance, are “Jews for Jesus” really Jews?), excommunication, the definition of pluralism, and the right (and even the responsibility) of individual organizations to set their own boundaries regarding permissible behavior and who is or isn’t allowed in.

The discussion touched on the tension created when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival showed a controversial film with a controversial speaker, and the San Francisco Jewish Federation recently adopted guidelines to withhold funding from organizations which host events or speakers which advocate for the destruction of Israel or divestment from, or boycotts of it.

A poignant moment occurred when one woman in the audience who is a member of an organization which clearly would be excluded from funding under the restrictions of the Federation’s new guidelines said that by denying her a seat at the table, the Federation is saying she is not a Jew. Rabbi Derby answered her by asserting there is a distinction between the rejection of a person’s political view and the rejection of a person as a whole. He said he doesn’t think anyone that evening had said she isn’t a Jew; just that some organizations, in setting their own boundaries, have chosen not to support her organization’s views.

Another audience member pointed out that the panelists seemed to agree with each other on most points, and suggested the conversation might have benefitted from the inclusion of at least one panelist who would have argued against the desire for pluralism.

Overall, I was pleased with the tenor of the discussion, and I was glad the audience members were willing to ask pointed questions without being rude and the panelists were willing to address those questions. In the end, I found myself wishing the conversation had gone on longer, and I hope Sh’ma and/or the museum will host more, similar conversations in the near future.

Monday, March 1, 2010

My Time as a Chicken

By Susan Esther Barnes

Yesterday was Purim, a Jewish holiday which calls for us to give gifts to friends and the poor, to eat a festive meal, and to listen to the public reading of the Book of Esther, in which Queen Esther risks her life to save all the Jews in Persia.

It has also become a celebration in which we dress up in costume and celebrate our deliverance from the evil Haman by acting as silly as possible. This explains how I found myself standing in front of the synagogue in a chicken outfit, carrying a sign that read, “Studies show matzo balls taste better in beef broth.”

Before long, I became fascinated by the reactions people had to my presence. Some responded to the existence of a person holding a sign by refusing to look at it, as if I were staging some kind of strike or protest and they didn’t want to get involved.

Some people immediately figured out who I was, and said, “Is that Susan?” to which I nodded, “Yes,” while clucking agreeably. Others seemed to have no clue, even though they have seen me stand in the same place every Friday night, and even though I pointed to the “Purim Greeter” badge I wore in place of my usual “Shabbat Greeter” badge. Thus, people who normally would greet me with a hearty smile and/or hug kept a respectful distance from me.

Children, in general, were intrigued. Several of them wanted to pet me, which I encouraged by holding out my arm (wing) and clucking soothingly. One poor little girl was scared and cried, until I took off the chicken head to show her there was a real person inside the costume. One trio of girls insisted I tell them who I was, although I’m sure my name meant nothing to them, since I don’t have kids of my own and I’m sure they assumed I must have been the mother of one of their friends. Many people with cameras took my picture.

The message on the sign I carried was a bit subtle. It requires one to put together knowledge that matzo balls are commonly cooked in chicken broth with the concept that it’s a chicken pushing the beef broth idea, presumably in order to save itself and its kin from the cooking pot. Some people got it right away. Some got it after a few seconds, but a small minority didn’t seem to put it all together. I enjoyed hearing parents reading the sign to their kids and making sure the kids got the humor. A vegetarian woman suggested matzo balls actually taste better in vegetable broth, with which my chicken persona readily agreed.

I had one mildly embarrassing moment today when I found out that one woman who I had leaned over to watch a cell phone video had no idea who I was. I had just assumed she knew, because she had seen pictures of me in the same costume from last Halloween and she did say, “Hello,” when I walked up. She seemed much more reserved with me than usual, and now I know why. How odd and unsettling to have an anonymous chicken leaning over you like that!

It was particularly interesting that almost nobody spoke with me, including those who knew who I was. This is, I suspect, largely due to my insistence of clucking rather than speaking, except for a few times when I felt compelled to use English. I wonder, though, how much of it was due to people not being able to see my facial expressions, not being sure whether or not I was someone they knew, or the general lack of social norms regarding how someone should act around a person in a chicken suit.

At any rate, it was liberating to be able to just wander around on my own, observing others’ reactions to my costume. It makes me want to consider an equally concealing outfit for next year.