De­sir­ing 50 shades of grain

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - EX­PE­RI­ENCE ZELDA LEON

SHOP­PING IN Waitrose — my sec­ond home — with my son, we spot that the “Sea­sonal” sec­tion is de­voted to clean­ing prod­ucts, with ser­ried ranks of trig­ger­sprays and bot­tles of bleach be­fore you reach the rather more tempt­ing orgy of choco­late for Easter fur­ther along. The Boy asks if it’s for spring clean­ing?

“Pos­si­bly, but round here it’s more likely to be be­cause it’s Pe­sach soon.”

“Maybe it’s for both?” he spec­u­lates. At school, he is cur­rently ab­sorbed by a project on cross-cul­tural tra­di­tions.

“Maybe…..” Spring clean­ing was some­thing peo­ple still did when I was a child (just af­ter the late Meso­zoic): you turned out your cup­boards and wiped down all the shelves. Or rather, it was some­thing other chil­dren’s moth­ers did; our mother re­garded clean­ing as a bizarre waste of time. Why, she rea­soned, would you use up a por­tion of your al­lot­ted span in shelf-wip­ing or table­pol­ish­ing when you could be us­ing those pre­cious min­utes for draw­ing (she was an artist), writ­ing, talk­ing, danc­ing, singing, etc? Luck­ily, we had a won­der­ful cleaner, whom we adored as an hon­orary aun­tie. Mag­gie was Ir­ish Catholic, so fully up to speed on the Jewish Holy Trin­ity of Guilt, Doubt, and Cake; when our par­ents ar­gued, Mag­gie would rush us chil­dren out to the bakery to choose cakes (my par­ents would need pas­tries too, once they had ex­pended their en­er­gies shout­ing).

Ben — The Hus­band — comes back in from work, look­ing even more tired than usual.

“David and Rachel are go­ing away for Pe­sach.” His tone in­di­cates that this is a tragedy of epic pro­por­tions. David is Ben’s brother. “And they’re tak­ing the girls too.” Now it sounds as if they are in­volved in an ab­duc­tion racket, though “the girls” are in fact their own daugh­ters, aged 17, 19, and 22 and pre­sum­ably old enough to choose whether to join their par­ents on hol­i­day or not.

Pe­sach in my hus­band’s fam­ily, like all Jewish hol­i­days, in­volves a num­ber of very spe­cific rit­u­als and cus­toms over and above those that are more widely ob­served. Thus, a cru­cial part of the Seder is my hus­band and his brother com­pet­ing to see who can sing Chad Gadya the fastest and al­most com­ing to blows over who does it bet­ter. There must be chicken soup (of course) but with two batches of matzah balls made by two dif­fer­ent mem­bers of the fam­ily (why? It once hap­pened that, due to a break­down in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, two rel­a­tives both made them – so now, of course, it’s a Tradition. Tradition! Ya-da-dada-da...) A whole sal­mon must be served for the main course and who­ever has cooked it — my sis­terin-law Rachel, her sis­ter Esther, or me — must, as they set it down, say, “I’m sorry — it’s over­cooked.” There must be too many serv­ing dishes of veg­eta­bles so that they can­not pos­si­bly all fit onto the ta­ble at once: at any given mo­ment, at least one dish must be in cir­cu­la­tion, be­ing passed from hand to hand in an end­less loop. Some­one must make the oblig­a­tory “I-can’t-pos­si­bly-lift­this” mime for the in­ex­pli­ca­bly heavy Pol­ish wa­ter carafe. Some­one must tell the anec­dote about how Greenspans once re­fused to sell Rachel a boiler chicken be­cause “we have to save them for our reg­u­lar cus­tomers”.

The first year af­ter we mar­ried, I thought I should show a bit of wifely en­thu­si­asm and shun bread etc for the du­ra­tion — not just at home, where we were do­ing the whole she­bang, but no sneaky hot but­tered toast at a café while out (toast and I have a very spe­cial re­la­tion­ship, which in­volves reg­u­lar têtea-têtes). By the eighth day, I was fan­ta­sis­ing al­most ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment about bread: 50 shades of grain – crusty sour­dough, crum­pets drip­ping with melted but­ter, chewy bagels slathered in cream cheese…

In the evening, when Ben came home from work, I con­fessed how hard I had found my ab­sti­nence. “Oh,” he said ca­su­ally, “you could have had some yes­ter­day. We only do seven days in Re­form. Didn’t you know?”

All our friends ei­ther flee scream­ing for warmer climes so that they don’t have to clean out their cup­boards, or will be host­ing hordes of rel­a­tives so won’t be able to join us. Ben’s big­gest fear is that there will just be the three of us eye­ing each other mourn­fully as we dab our wine to rep­re­sent the plagues and that he’ll have no com­pe­ti­tion for the Chad Gadya race.

I’m sure we’ll think of some­thing. In the mean­time, I’m won­der­ing how to rope The Boy into a spot of pre-Pe­sach clean­ing. Maybe I could en­cour­age him to in­clude a prac­ti­cal el­e­ment in his cross-cul­tural project? The Jewish Holy Trin­ity: Guilt, Doubt and Cake

Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a con­ver­sion course as an adult (half-mea­sures in all things…) to af­firm her Jewish sta­tus be­fore a Rabbinical Board. She is a mem­ber of a Re­form sy­n­a­gogue. Zelda Leon is a pseu­do­nym.

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