Sunday, April 24, 2005

Seders my father and I have known

As I have done every year of my life, I attended a seder last evening. A seder is a Jewish religious feast, marking the start of the week-long holiday of Passover, which celebrates the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage 3200 years ago. The word "seder" means "order," and refers to the detailed ritual that is associated with the feast.
I am not a religiously observant person. But Passover is a very unique Jewish holiday that can appeal even to non-believers. It is a festival of physical freedom, celebrating liberty as the essence of civilized life. ("Freedom and liberty" now seem to have been transformed into political buzzwords.) Although my religious faith may lack passion, I take satisfaction in knowing that, in attending a seder, I am following a tradition my ancestors have practiced for centuries.
The Last Supper of Jesus Christ was a seder attended by his Jewish disciples. I have attended seders in my own home, in the homes of my son, other relatives and friends, in Army camps, and--the most exotic of them all--in the Calcutta mansion of the Sassoons, a famed Iraqi-originated Jewish family once known as "the Rothschilds of Asia." Last night's seder, following the same basic rituals, was arranged and conducted by my very talented friends and neighbors, Florence and Seymour Morgenstern, for a gathering of some 150 residents of my Florida community.
I have never attended a seder, however, like the one my late father enjoyed reminiscing about. My father was raised in a Hasidic community on Manhattan's Lower East Side shortly after the turn of the last century. I have always boasted that my Polish-born paternal grandfather, was one of the first members of this mystical, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect to come to the U.S.
The Hasidim among whom my father grew up were impoverished, working-class people who set up their first congregation on the second floor of a seedy tenement. Below them was a small store in which the proprietor lived with his family in the back.
There are many sub-groupings of Hasidim, each one following the teachings of a special rabbi and often originating in a particular East European town. My father's Hasidim belonged to the Gerer sect. I don't know how they behave these days (virtually all of them now live in Israel), but my father remembered his community as a somewhat rowdy lot whose religious fervor was enlivened by lots of hard-drinking. Traditionally most Jews have not been renowned for their alcoholic consumption. But the Gerer Hasidim of my father's day would hold their own with any non-Jewish hard drinker.
On one particular Passover night after the seder, according to my father's recollection, they became well fueled with "schnops" (I've never been sure whether this was brandy or vodka) and decided to reenact in the apartment the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus. They joyously opened up all the water faucets in the kitchen and bathroom. And as the water flowed on to the floor, they uproariously shouted prayers marching through the pouring water.
Their ritual was interrupted when the storekeeper downstairs rushed up to their door, screaming that the water was flooding everything downstairs. My father couldn't recall how the affair was resolved. But the following Passover, he said, his Hasidim had established their congregation in their own little storefront where, if they wanted to reenact the crossing of the Red Sea again, they wouldn't damage anyone else's property.


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