Our First Passover Without Sam
The name Sam Orbaum may not mean anything to those of you who haven't been readers of The Jerusalem Post over the years. So let me fill you in: Sam, who died of cancer this year, was one of the best humor writers I've ever read.
He was definitely on top of his game when skewering the Jewish holidays, particularly the one he hated most -- Passover -- for the same reason I do -- the crazy combination of cleaning and obsessing over food. As I was unhappily tackling the cleaning this year, I couldn't help thinking of all the great columns Sam had written about the absurdity of the Passover rituals. And feeling incredibly sad that this would be my first Passover in Israel without reading his take on the absurdities of the holiday.
So here is a tribute to Sam: my favorite of his Passover columns, and a link to the rest of them at the bottom: Feel free to cut, paste, e-mail or forward any of them. Sam would have loved to know that he was making people laugh even after he was gone.
The Revisionist Haggada
Why believe in miracles? Now we know what really happened. Here we are, 1998, and we're still reading the Haggada -- with all its racism, sexism, genocide, torture, revenge and impolitically correct historical fantasy. C'mon, Jews don't behave like that! For that matter, in my experience, neither does God.
This is the real story of Pessah:
We were slaves in Egypt.
We were not slaves in Egypt. We were running the country. But pay was so lousy that we complained we were like slaves.
God split the waters of the Red Sea.
A typo. God spilt the waters, and the Egyptians, who were the direct ancestors of the Wicked Witch of the West, melted. (Much more believable, no?)
The Israelites ate manna in the desert for 40 years.
An obvious misinterpretation: manna means "a serving" in Hebrew. They were getting a full-course meal three times a day for 40 years. Problem is, there was no menu, and you know how we are, we like to choose. Then once, at lunchtime, things got ugly. Chopped liver was available, only no one knew to ask for it. There was talk of turning back to Egypt, where the pay may have been lousy but at least the restaurants were good. Moses asked God what to do. But God, as we now know, does not speak to people. Thinking fast, Moses addressed his hungry 600,000 and suggested takeout (in Hebrew, "Chinese" is "Sini," sometimes misspelled as "Sinai"). He eventually returned -- not with eggrolls, but something much better: the world's first written menu, etched in stone. It consisted of 10 items, including "Thou shalt eat fish," and "Honor thy waitress," all the way down to "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's cake; get your own."
Unfortunately, the Israelites got fed up waiting for Moses to return, and roasted a calf.
The 10 Plagues and the Ten Commandments.
Lemuel the Bearded One, an underrated fourth-century gematria expert from Upper Macedonia, wondered about this iniquitous equation. Why, he asked, why? For 30 years he avoided the military draft and collected a monthly stipend to devote all his time to contemplating the mystery. He prayed three times a day (and sometimes more) for an answer, but eventually had to come up with something himself. The key, he explained, was in the number of mitzvot beginning with the letter "gimel" (there are 53), divided by triple the square root of pi times a third (the minimum number of beans in one serving of cholent), plus 1 (the number of Gods), which proves it. One of his students, Yoshke the Unkempt, avoided the military draft and collected a monthly stipend for 30 years while attempting to figure out his mentor's answer. The key, he explained, laconically if smugly, is the number two: the number of plagues the Jewish people suffer from, and the commandments they still keep. This theory would fuel antisemites for the next 1,500 years.
Moses was prevented from entering the Land of Israel.
Moses was the first Zionist. He believed all Jews should go live there, but he just couldn't get there himself -- y'know how it is: maybe when the kids are grown, when I can get a good price for the house, when I retire...
The number four.
The number four permeates the holiday. Why? No one knows. Fact is, outside of Pessah, the number four is one of the most neglected numbers. (Lemuel hypothesized that four was a specifically goyish number.) But here we have the four questions, four sons, four cups of wine, four mothers and forefathers. And yet, none of the numbers jive with reality. The four questions were in fact 22 (see below). The sons had brothers (the Mechanic Son and the Faigele) and sisters (see below the above below), all of whom were conveniently omitted because they didn't serve pilpulistic purposes. Jews can't drink four cups of anything fermented (see advertisement, next page), and if history can learn anything from the present it's that one Jewish mother and her one husband is just about the limit (see for yourself). Forthwith, and to wit, is the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Hebrew representation of God's name which, if published here, would require all copies of this column to be buried with full religious honors, rather than being tossed into the recycling bin to be made into low-grade toilet paper. However, if you check the sources, there are only two letters and a dash (G,-,d). Strange, no?
The Four Questions.
These were real questions asked by the son of Reb Nigel. The boy, a known nudnik, actually asked 22 questions, haranguing his mother while she was busy with last-minute Pessah cooking. Exasperated, she yelled at him to go ask his father, who was taking a nap. Annoyed at being awoken (and afraid his wife might ask for his help), the venerable rabbi yelled at the kid to get lost.
Later, when the seder was underway, the boy, in a tantrum, posed his final four questions: (1) Why does everyone hate me? (2) When I run away from home, will anyone care? (3) When do we eat? and (4) Are we having boiled tongue again, like last year?
The tale of the Wise Son, Wicked Son, Simple Son and the Son Who Doesn't Know How To Ask:
What is this, nobody in rabbinic mythology is female? It so happens there were also four daughters: the Balabousteh, the Knockout, the Spinster and the Daughter Who Doesn't Know How To Say No. But, like, women don't count in Judaism, right?
The song "Dayenu" ("It would have sufficed").
Until Ben-Yehuda introduced the question mark into modern Hebrew, there was no punctuation in the language. Thus, what was really being said, over and over again, was "Dayenu?" ("You call that enough?")
This was, for centuries, a spittoon. That was a necessary element of the seder setting, because it's a known medical fact that Jewish digestive tracts cannot handle booze -- certainly not four cups of it.
Searching for hametz.
This used to be done with a candle and a feather, which just goes to show how old fashioned Judaism can be. To find hametz nowadays, you just have to turn on a light switch and get out the vacuum cleaner.
Matza for dessert? Yecch! Reform Jews have, for thousands of years, used an Oreo cookie instead. That is, when they've had a seder.
We know for sure the Israelites baked matza, because archeologists have unearthed petrified matza remnants, which taste exactly the same as what we buy in the stores today. But at the same site they also found discarded beer bottles and corn flakes boxes, proving what we've suspected all along: that there's no basis for restricting ourselves to Passover foods. The whole point of the slaves' flight from Egypt is that they had to skedaddle on the double, and we commemorate that by scrubbing the villa for three weeks and spending a fantastic fortune on special foods of no relevance to our noble desert trekkers, like dolphin-safe tunafish. If we want to be true to our past, we'd sprinkle sand on everything we eat to make it kosher for Pessah.
The frivolous ditty "Ehad Mi Yodeya" (Who Knows One?).
In the original version, this was a spelling bee, not a counting bee. But no child awake that late could ever get past the first question ("Spell 'Nebuchadnezzar' ").
"Next year in Jerusalem!"
Zionist sloganeering has no place in a ritual religious text, as it fails to address the Palestinian question. The British Foreign Office has vowed to omit the inflamatory words from all future editions of the Haggada published under its auspices.
Here are more classic Passover columns by Sam Orbaum.
The Four Hundred Questions
The Pre-Pessah Cleanout
Kitniyot, I Kid You Not