Friday, March 26, 2010

A Pesach story

Shlomo Singer wrote:

As an Assistant Prosecutor in Essex County, New Jersey, I get to see and hear many “interesting” things on a regular basis. Newark, is not a dull city.   However, something happened to me this week which I will remember for years to come.

Felix is a 60ish year old defense attorney. I had the opportunity to prosecute a case against him previously, and I found him to be a pretty good guy- as defense attorneys go. This Monday, I was doing some bail hearings when, lo and behold, Felix shows up.   He motioned to me and said, “I’ve gotta tell you something…”   so I came along, we found an empty courtroom, and Felix told me an amazing story.

“I grew up around Jews,” he started.   When I heard this, I immediately became suspicious.   I’ve spent my whole life being an identifiable Jew.   I’m the guy who people say “shalom” to in the elevators because it makes them feel better.   I’m the guy who has to hear observations from everyone who believes that my Yarmulka is some lighting rod for confessions about religion.

Nonetheless, Felix continued “I grew up on the Lower East Side.”   I had to smile.   When one thinks of the Lower East Side of Manhattan that existed in the 1940’s, one can’t help but smile.   Felix gave a big smile too and, while making motions that made me think that he was giving a closing statement to a jury, said “I’ve got a story for you!” And so it began…

Felix told me that his father immigrated to the US from Puerto Rico in the 1930’s.   When he arrived, like many immigrants, Felix’s dad came by himself with hopes of earning money that would bring his family over to the “ goldenda medina .” However, as his first holiday season approached, pops became lonely.   He missed his family and his wife.; So Felix’s dad did what he could to remind him of his family at the holiday season- he went out and purchased a Christmas tree.   Now, when he got home, he looked around and all he saw was lights. So pops said to himself: “I’ve got to be a real American!” He went out and purchased some lights. Pops felt so happy, he was both reminding himself of his family and being a “real American” at the same time.

Felix’s dad continued this practice with the tree and the lights for the holiday season.   3 years later, a friend came to the apartment during Christmas-time and looked around in horror.   “What the heck are you doing?!” the friend asked. “I’m being a real American!   I have my tree and my lights!” dad answered.   The friend laughed and replied “You fool!   That’s a menorah!”

Felix continued and told me that he has continued on his dad’s tradition of having both a tree and a menorah come holiday time.   This tradition continued to the extent that when he moved to the suburbs, a neighbor asked Felix- who has a most un-Jewish surname- whether he was Jewish.

I knew that there was a point to hearing this story before pesach .   (Aside from the fact that it was funny.) The haggadah tells us “ chayiv adam l’rios es asmo c’ilu hu yatsa mi’mitzayim .”   Translated, “a person is obligated to see oneself as if he left Egypt.”   When we sit down for the seder , do we do all the motions, do we recline, do we hide the afikomen , because our dad did them - like Felix?   Do we just do things because they remind us of prior generations?

Or worse- do we do things because we look out the window and see what the Joneses or Goldsteins are doing - like Felix’s dad?   Do we say, “their seder went until 11pm, I bet we can beat that!” Do we turn Maxwell House or Artscroll into our source of all our pesach customs?

I know that the job of every pulpit rabbi (which I am not) is to take a quasi-hilarious story and to turn it into a serious discussion. I’m guilty!   (How often to you hear a prosecutor say that?)   But, in all reality, please laugh like Felix and I did when he recounted this story.

Realize what some people do with their holidays and traditions. Acknowledge that we can bastardize the rituals that are most closely related to our service to G-d.   But recognize that if we don’t turn the pesach seder into a real, living, process, we might as well pull out the Christmas trees and the electric menorahs….for our children and grandkids.
A Kosher Pesach

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