Keys to front doors and back doors long abandoned and long forgotten; keys to private homes and public kitchens; keys to closets and cabinets, old hotel rooms, cars, rusty mailboxes, forsaken lockers and safes. Keys to who knows where and who remembers what?
I use them for my omer counter. Each day of the omer, from the second day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot, we count. Day One of the Omer; Day Two of the Omer; Day Three of the Omer….
To remind us which day we are on, and to serve as a mnemonic so we don’t forget to count altogether, folk art has created a vast array of Omer Counters.
Our youngest son used to create a simple cross-hatch poster that hung in our kitchen. This year, he is away at college. The space reminding to count us lies vacant. I decided to fill it with a hand-made omer-counter made from keys.
Each night, we hang a key on our omer chain. Each night, we are reminded of life’s constant surprises, of opportunities hidden behind doors we have not yet opened. Or, through regret, or distraction, or anger, we once closed.
We are reminded it is up to us to see the openings that await us, the places we can go, the adventures we can dare to try.
Some doors are old ones - grown creaky from neglect. Some are brand new, scary for their novelty.
But one of the blessings of the Omer is that nightly we are reminded that life offers to pour itself out to us, to burst through the door, as we journey from Egypt to Sinai to the Promised Land, if we but dare to turn the key.
Egypt at night, courtesy of NASA’s photo of the day.
The Land of Goshen, where the Israelites first settled during the reign of Joseph, is thought to be located in the mid-right side of the “blossom” part of the flower. Having come in freedom to a wide, open place, the Israelites were ultimately pressed into the harsh and narrow service of building monuments to Pharaoh’s ego.
There are many lessons to be culled from the story of Passover. Some obvious, some extrapolated. The following is of the latter sort:
Under certain circumstances, the pursuit of comfort, even in a seemingly benign, welcoming environment, can seduce, lull and blind us to the incremental encroachment of slavery. What begins as a luxury becomes a necessity; what begins as desire becomes a need; what begins as a lark becomes a habit.
And then, one day, we see that we are no longer our own masters.
Passover allows us this moment of re-assessment. Have we landed where we wanted or have we somehow gone astray? Has a simple, innocent veering sometime a while ago led us to a place we do not want to be? Have we made the right choices for the right reasons?
What would it take to right our course? shed our shackles? Return to our simple but fulfilling land of milk and honey?
Pursuing that new course is true liberation.
In it she made matza balls, some “hard like a rock,” as she would say, for those who preferred them dense, and some so light and fluffy you almost weren’t sure you were eating them at all.
Then there were the other other-worldly delicacies that emanated from this spell-bound bowl: the “pesah bagels,” the matza brei, and the taiglach (small knotted pastries boiled in honey). It has been 24 years since my grandmother passed away. My mother kept this bowl, which she brought out every year on pesah.
Last year, as we were cleaning up after the holiday, I somehow ended up with the bowl. There is something about its smoothness, and its robin’s egg color that is just enchanting. Magical. It is hard to make something bad in this bowl.
Which is to say: much of the meaning of Passover comes in the preparations. Before the seder, before the dinner, before the matza comes the planning, the cleaning, the shopping, the cooking, the invitations. And its essence.
It is in these rituals, both those passed on from generation to generation and those created anew, that make the holiday. As in so many of life’s most precious rituals, it is in its anticipation that its drama, tension and meaning take flight.
Switching over the foods, utensils and routines of the kitchen hold much of the power of the holiday. Holding the bowls and plates and wooden spoons that span 3 and 4 generations releases the memories of the holiday.
Some people I know keep records in the backs of their haggadot of who attended their seder and who sat where. I keep menus in my computer of what I meant to cook (things always turn out differently in the end!) and who we thought would come (people always come and go at the last minute).
Families have fought over lesser issues than what exactly goes into the haroset.
And one of life’s most unheralded rites-of-passage is deciding when the seder should move from a parent’s home to a siblings - and then who will be the one to inherit it.
The seder, the story, the retelling, the gathering, the eating, the songs and the family jokes all build shared memories. But for many of us, much of the power in the holiday is found in its run-up, in the quiet but far from lonely scraping the carrot, peeling the egg, sauteeing the onions. For it is in standing by the stove, handling the pans, the knives, the bowls that we stand where our grandmothers did, see what they saw. It is through these acts that we are joined to our ancestors in this most basic of human tasks.
And as we are joined to those of the past, so those of the future will be joined to us.
Even, then, when we are alone in our kitchen, wondering if the sponge cake will fall or not, we know who we are, and “whose” we are.
Have a wonderful Passover.
In my on-going quest to blend economic prosperity with social justice, I offer you the following idea.
During this respite up in Cambridge, I determined that I neither wanted to spend the money nor expend the chemical and water waste in coloring my hair. I wish I could say it was about purity of motive and the release from the insatiable clutches of vanity. It wasn’t. It was all about saving money and the environment. And therefore it was subject to being overturned if I thought I looked awful. (Though I would color it less often to reduce my outflow of money and pollution.)
But, Avram seems to like it and in the dim light of the bathroom mirror I can’t really see what I look like, so, so far so good.
However, I can hear the Wall Street capitalists bemoaning the loss to the billion dollar hair industry if we all decided to go natural (though I am sure that we will not give up using all “product”. We still have to wash our hair!). So here is what I propose:
In lieu of the hundreds to thousands of dollars we each may spend each year coloring, dyeing and otherwise highlighting, streaking and tinting our hair, we take a portion of that saved expenditure, let’s call it a pe’ah, and tack it on to our hair care bill each time we go in for a haircut. This mandatory bonus for the salon will then be set aside to pay for haircare for the sick and indigent: for wigs for those undergoing cancer treatment who do not wish to be seen bald; for abused women who need someone to treat their bodies with love and care and tell them they are beautiful; for those who spend every dollar they get on food, shelter, shoes and medicine for their families and who have nothing left over for indulging themselves; for anyone needing someone to touch them gently, lovingly, safely, reassuring them that they and their bodies are blessed.
I know of a mobile dental unit that treats for free those who otherwise would not get dental care. Why can we not have a mobile salon, beautifully appointed with pastel colors and plushly upholstered chairs, that travels from place to place where people need to be reminded of the true treasures they are and the gifts they bear.
Then going grey would be a sign not of one’s parsimoniousness or slovenliness, but a part of one’s largesse and commitment to social justice. Just like the bracelets we all wore a few years ago, only this sign becomes a piece of us, a constant signal of who we truly are.
The month of Nissan has dawned, the first month of the Hebrew year, the month of Exodus, of harvests, of spring, and eternal renewal. The fears of winter are gone.
(Tishrei is also the Jewish new year - when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. But Nissan is always the first of months in the Torah. Whoever said there can be only one new beginning each revolution around the sun? The Jewish calendar reminds us that a new beginning comes with every dawn.)
So at this time of new beginnings, when the world feels fresh and our hope is restored, when despite the overwhelming weight of threats and war, of injustice, divisiveness and our earth’s degradation swirling all about, despite it feeling like so much is falling apart and there is so little we can do, our sacred story bolsters us, speaking of healing, overcoming oppression, starting over, leaving the old behind.
How appropriate, then, that NASA publishes this photo of the turmoil and beauty, the messiness and promise, of new beginnings.
Enjoy. May your Passover preparations lead you too to new beginnings, new awareness, new understandings, and a new openness as wide as the footpath in the midst of the Red Sea.
That is all you need to start.
In a supreme act of consumerism, we moderns have learned to buy time, that rarest and most precious of commodities. We do this in many ways, but one way that is doubly inventive is our penchant for distressed jeans. They are the ultimate symbol of purchasing an unearned identity, of paying for an imaginary personal past.
That in and of itself is worthy of exploration, but here I want to talk here about the unseen price we pay in the production of those jeans. Here is a menu of techniques used to give our jeans their pre-worn look:
[The] industry has developed a wide range of techniques [to simulate wear and tear] ... The very first distressed jeans were sold as stone-washed… washing them with a large pile of pumice stones is still common today, though it is increasingly supplemented by cellulose enzymes… One can [also] opt for acid wash, moon wash, monkey wash, show wash, white wash and mud wash. Chemicals such as potassium permanganate are applied to shift the tinting…. There is ozone fading or water jet fading. There are various forms of sandblasting, or handsanding…”
(from an article called “Buying Time” by Daniel Miller in a book entitled Time, Consumption and Everyday Life.)
Besides the fascinating awareness that we choose to walk around in clothes that proclaim a simulated life that we were perhaps too busy, unskilled or impatient to actually experience ourselves, simulated pre-worn jeans have two severe deficits:
the processes used to get the pre-worn affects are often detrimental to the health of the workers. For example, workers who use the sandblasting technique often contract silicosis, a serious lung disease;
the chemical wastes of these processes are polluting local waters and lands in the localities that manufacture the jeans.
Upon reading this, I got an idea, one that solves all the problems in one fell swoop. So I offer this as a not-so-tongue-in-cheek proposal:
Let manufacturers give new jeans to their pre-worn workers and let the workers spend a year wearing them while farming, teaching, being a kindergarten teacher, parenting, whatever they need to do to live their lives. Let the jeans legitimately get all dirty and worn and just the right touch of torn. Then collect the jeans and sell them at American malls and around the privileged world for inflated prices (just like jeans sell for now) and pay the workers a fare wage for their labor.
The benefits are multiple:
the workers/wearers will not be exposed to harmful chemicals
the environment will not suffer (no water, energy, waste will be consumed in the process other than that used by workers in their on-going daily lives)
the workers will be able to earn money wearing these jeans all the while doing valuable jobs that can truly benefit their community, thereby doubling their productivity
the jeans will have an authentic history and bear marks that carry real work and real memories
We could even get fancy and attach a photo of the prior owner of the jeans to the manufacturer’s sales tag, telling a bit about the prior owner, their town, their family, and what they did while wearing the jeans. This will personalize the pants, narrow the gap between purchaser and worker (we are seeking to do that with our local farmers, why not our jean wearers?) and can truly make a village out of the world. (That way we can more or less justify the jeans-miles-traveled so that we may clothe ourselves in pre-worn comfort and fantasy.)
This is, of course, offered part in gest and no doubt it is unlikely to be pursued or truly profitable (although half the world wears jeans; so there are lots of lesser-privileged people who could moonlight as pre-worn jean workers who can sell their services for other more-privileged members of the jean-wearing public). But as long as we are trying to live more ethically, it seems we should not be trafficking in a market in discretionary goods that harms people, water and land (which goes back to hurting people) for the sake of purchasing pants that offer us the unearned adventures of a surrogate life.
There is already enough in life that we need that leaves traces that are problematic. Being conscious of what we don’t need, and being aware of the toll such consumerism is taking, is part of the Grand Project of the 21st century.