Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pesach, Eighth Day: Yizkor, the Memorial Prayer.

Pesach, Eighth Day: Yizkor, the Memorial Prayers

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Pesach, besides its major theme of Liberation from Slavery, also has the poignant coda of Yizkor, the Memorial Prayer. We Jews are famous Rememberers, and it reminds me of the Old Days, growing up in the apartment with my family, and the Sedarim that my parents used to hold. We had no innovations, no “Bags O’ Plagues” with plastic animals or fun figures of scepter-shaking Pharaoh or crook-wielding Moses. We put on no plays. No: as many of my congregants and contemporaries can recall, an old-time Seder Meal consisted of Grandpa or Papa plowing slowly through the Traditional Hagada in lugubrious Hebrew without translation, adding a song here and there, with the family trailing along, yawning, chatting, or hiding in the kitchen with Bubbie and Mama, to taste if the chicken soup had enough salt or pepper.

            It was the same thing in our family. My father, a self-taught Hebrew reader, was like a steam engine slowly chuffing its way up a mountain; I, yeshiva-honed to zip through any page of Hebrew, was more like a shiny-new diesel train. We didn’t even use the same Hagadahs: he preferred a large-print Saul Raskin, while I loved the Arthur Szyk colored edition that a girl classmate had gifted me for my bar mitzvah. (She had inscribed the flyleaf, but the word “love” was notably absent. Darn.)

            As for food, there was plenty: roast turkey, broccoli (the official Jewish green vegetable in our health-conscious house), and baked potato. Horowitz-Margareten Matzos were preferred, all the more ironically, with the Streit’s Factory a short walk away, but it was my mother’s family’s choice. Matzo cannon-balls thick and heavy enough to level Jericho, in a thin broth made palatable by carrots and onions. As for cake, it was dull, spongey, and made from matzo-based mixes, unlike today’s taste-tempting patisseries. Oh, and macaroons. Lots of macaroons. And Malaga wine, until I started buying Kedem Crème White at the Yeshiva High School Wine Sale, and bringing it home on the subway, sneaking it past the eagle-eyed token clerks who wondered why a thirteen-year-old was carrying unbagged liquor on a Sunday onto a public conveyance, and using his Subway Pass to do so (Don’t ask.).

            There were Yuntef services at shul with my father—endless, unvarying Hebrew prayers that went on and on and on, including Torah readings that varied not a whit, describing legions of cows and sheep and goats (I read the translations in our big black Pentateuchs, no commentary provided) that went to Cattle Heaven for the benefit of this springtime harvest festival. We prayed for dew—not in the neighborhood, but in Israel. For Kiddush, we ate matzo in the basement, and I got a sip of Slivovitz, which knocked me back on my keister. Then, we went home, to more matzo.

            During Chol HaMoed, the Festival’s Intermediate Days, I was relieved from the ongoing cattle parade by my mother’s taking my older sister and me to the Radio City Music Hall for the Annual Easter Show, where we watched the Rockettes kick their perfect legs up high to the tunes of “Easter Parade.” The show climaxed with an enormous cross made of fake flowers descending from the proscenium.

            “What an amazing religion Christianity must be,” I remember thinking to myself, while munching matzos-and-butter, tangerines, and macaroons (again) in the dark. I don’t remember what movie we saw; what did it matter?

            “Such beautiful legs—and such ugly faces!” my mother would always say. Now, why did she have to say that? I always felt bad when it rained on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Rockettes had to do their final splits in a puddle.

It must be cold down there for them, I would think.

Finally, at nightfall on the Eighth Day, after Dad and I came home from the final service, all of us would pitch in to wash, wrap, reach, pass, and store away the Pesach dishes, cups, pans, cutlery, and all the little odds and ends that made up our Pesach dish set. We would break out the chametz food we had stored away, and make a small meal of it. The next day, my mother had to be careful not to buy any chametz that had been baked while the holiday was still in effect. Trust Judaism to make a holiday even more challenging than it had to be, but we were Orthodox.

That was it: Pesach was over, for another year.

Stay well, family, I would think, Pesach always comes back.

            Pesach did, but our folks are gone. O Pesach! What have we left but memories? Memories and Matzo….