OT: me + (metaphorical) matzah

Actually, Passover’s been over for awhile, but it feels like a metaphor for something that’s happened the last two weeks.

Usually for Passover, I get the normal “kosher for Passover” matzah that everyone gets. It’s easy to get the kind made by Manischewitz; most supermarkets sell it, though you have to be sure it’s labeled “kosher for Passover.” It doesn’t taste very good. It’s not supposed to — it’s the “bread of affliction” — although millennia of Jewish culture have allowed its refashioning into a seasonal delicacy, as has happened with maror, which is supposed to symbolize bitterness, but which many people eat with relish during the Seder. I’ve only ever been tentatively on board with this effect. My first Jewish boyfriend, in college, sang me psalms about the wonders of his mother’s matzah brei, but I never got it, even when I tried hers once. Anyway. I eat matzah during Passover because doing so fulfills a commandment. I actually think this is a fine reason for doing it — coming from a religious setting in which everything required so much faith and feeling. I left adolescence tired of the pressure to feel certain things or see feeling as (a usually insufficient) index of something else. Something I like about my practice of Judaism is that I usually only manage to satisfy something like a minimum requirement, and I call that enough. No 120 percenting anymore. No guilt.

This year, Pesky gave me a box of super-kosher shmurah matzah — which have been supervised by Jews immediately following the harvesting of the grain in order to prevent any leavening from creeping in. These came from Ukraine — read about their production here. They’re harder to find (not usually available in supermarkets) and more expensive by a factor of ten, and frankly, I have never seen the point. If the less rigorous variety fulfill the commandment, why do I need to be extra sure? The chasidim use shmurah matzah because of the concern with potentially extreme punishment for breaking the mitzvah regarding the eating of unleavened bread. But I’m not unusually concerned with this problem, I guess; in the words of an anonymous Christian poet of the sixteenth century, “ni me mueve el infierno tan temido para dejar por eso de ofenderte.” My religious conflicts have seldom been with the G-d side of the equation and usually been with the “Servetus” half instead.

For some reason the shmurah matzah taste a lot better than the normal ones. I suppose this could make it easier to fulfill the commandment, although (see above) I’m not sure that ease in fulfilling a commandment is the point for me.

Anyway, why am I telling you this?

I’m going to be eating more shmurah matzah than regular ones for the next while, it seems. (I report this bemusedly.)

I was offered a renewal of my contract here last week, and I indicated my plans to sign it when it materializes. I am going to be here another year. So, next year not in Jerusalem (the song at the end of the celebrations for all the pilgrimage festivals), but here.

And I realized, when I told my landlord that I’d take another year lease on my apartment, that one reason I’m staying in the apartment is that I’m staying with the chasidic shul, which is conveniently only a few blocks away; that is, by inertia or default or whatever I’m praying with the so-called ultra-orthodox and plan to continue doing so. (In my opinion, chasidim are not ultra-orthodox, but that’s splitting hairs to everyone but a historian or sociologist of religion, and I know most readers here are not Jewish and don’t care about the difference.)

So, no 120 percenting anymore. But I’m praying with the 120 percenters. In fact, I’m looking forward to it. And: I’m uneasy.

I really have this unavoidable tendency to become ever more observant when I’m observing, and I have to guard against it. Too much of it and I explode allergically and become defiantly unobservant, and that’s to be avoided — the effects are unhappy-making. I need to be praying regularly and not angrily. As a convert, I’m not sure that they’d technically consider me a Jew. Also, there’s the woman issue. I am a woman, and for this group I don’t count as part of the prayer quorum. Today, for instance, we got to the end of Shacharit and then waited around for twenty minutes until the tenth man showed up so we could read the Torah. (All for one of those parashot that usually make me wonder why I didn’t stay in bed: Tazria-Metzorah: childbirth, skin disease, male genital discharge, and menstrual blood.) I love to sing, love to sing, love to sing, but in this kind of settings I’m worried about singing too loudly because of the Talmudic prohibition on hearing the voice of a woman in song. The mechitzah (and resultant gender-separated seating) means that all the screaming kids are always seated around me. And then we have a meal together, and there’s really no one for me to talk to, because the sociability is gender segregated. Pesky sits with the men (his wife, who I like a lot, is a non-Jew and doesn’t come) and talks about the Torah, and I sit with the woman and am silent. I have little in common with the women who are there since I (a) work outside the home; (b) have no children; and (c) despite being a single, am uninterested in a shidduch. I ask questions and try to be friendly, but really the only person who talks to me is the rabbi’s wife, who’s about the age of most of my TAs and has a child for every eighteen months she’s been married. She tries to be friendly and hostessy, but I feel us both struggling despite our good will to each other. I want to be supportive, but to be honest, I feel like taking on the sort of gender role expected in that setting legitimates a cultural attitude that I don’t want to be supportive of. I’m happy to clean the table when everyone participates; I’m less happy to do it when the men sit there talking about religion while the women clean.

All of that and plenty more kept me out of settings like this for all of my Jewish life. So why am I praying with them now? Why are they a reason to stay here?

Maybe because of this. Because they do the whole traditional prayer service according to the ritual laws for doing it and I love liturgy. Because they do sing most of the prayers, even if most of the time I have to sing somewhat under my breath. Because they have tables and chairs for worship, so I can spread out my siddur, chumash, and one of the commentaries they have stored on the bookshelves that line the shul, so it really is a house of study for me. Because so few women stay through the entire prayer service that it’s really only the Torah service that involves screaming kids. Because I’m learning to achieve flow while praying even in the presence of screaming kids. Because the rabbi always reads the Torah and he knows what he’s doing, so it’s done both quickly and correctly so that I can learn while reading along. Because Pesky’s almost always the guy who carries the Torah during the Torah service, and he’s emancipated, and makes sure the Torah always makes it where I’m standing so I can touch it with my prayerbook and kiss it. Because at the meal everyone washes their hands without making a fuss between kiddush and motzi, and hums under their breath while they’re waiting for everyone to finish, and because (maybe one of the most important things), they sing the whole grace after meals. Servetus loves to bentsch. Maybe because Lubavitchers feel that every Jew who is doing mitzvot helps to bring Moshiach faster, and that’s all they care about. They have never asked me if I’m Jewish — and here being a woman shields me, as I’m not a potential member of a minyan, so no one has to ask. They’re not invested in urging me to do more, or making me feel guilty because I don’t feel about them as I should or fulfill more of them, but affirming that whatever I do is better than doing nothing. Maybe because they smile when they see me.

Because they center me. And out of the unbelievable number of surprises that have hit me as a consequence of moving here, that I’d have this experience is one of the most astonishing. Trading Manischewitz for shmurah. Tja. We want Moshiach now! Bimhera b’yomenu. I hope the Rebbe would be pleased.

~ by Servetus on April 28, 2012.

5 Responses to “OT: me + (metaphorical) matzah”

  1. Bravo. Lovely post. Just lovely.


  2. It’s funny how I’ve been responding to this news — I would have thought I’d be ambivalent about it, considering what I know of your own ambivalence about this profession. But all I can think is how I’d feel in your position, after these months of uncertainty. All I can think is how this isn’t just an end to uncertainty, but a confirmation of your importance to that department, their faith. A placekeeper for their constantly-articulated eagerness to find a way to keep you permanently (a different issue, I know, but a material example of the realness of that eagerness). I just can’t tell you how odd I feel in unambivalently feeling joy about this news.


    • I’m still ambivalent about the profession, and I still feel odd. But I’ll take this — what I can get.

      You know how I feel about being praised. It’s a bit hard to take, this intense being liked.


  3. […] 2012 / 5772: On matzah (the bread of affliction) and work. […]


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