Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tradition

For so many years on the first night of Passover our family would pack up and make the trek out to Queens to our cousins' home for the seder. The traffic on the Belt Parkway and Van Wyk was always heavy and some years it seemed we would never get there. The core group was always the same, but some years the numbers would vary as guests were brought or family members might have other commitments for the first seder. Although it is an important religious observation, the night was not without levity, even occasional hilarity as year after year, family members could be counted upon to repeat their words and actions. Sadie would always run into the kitchen to check on the progress of the meal, then Sid would stop and announce that we would not keep going until she returned. Sid and his brother Herbie had a competition going. Each would correct the other's Hebrew and all of the others at the table eagerly anticipated the byplay. Of course, as the years passed the numbers diminished and after Sid's death, Sadie moved to Chicago. Pearl took over the seder and Bob, our very large cousin would join us along with various others, depending upon who was able to make it. Bob always brought the charoset, Ira always grated the potatoes, Dick would consult on most dishes and prepare others, including gefilte fish that beat anything from a jar. When Pearl moved from her apartment, the seders became smaller and less formal, but the hoiday was never forgotten. There is a tradition at the end of the seder to say "Next Year in Jerusalem!" Little did Carol and Ira realize that it would be "Next Year in Hanoi!" The Jewish community in Hanoi is small and there is no temple. From time to time Ira would email the Israeli embassy to see if there were any events, but he never received a response, probably due to their intense security! On the Friday preceding Passover, we ran into Miriam Lieberman, an Israeli married to an American. The couple lives right upstairs and we know them casually(more on this later). Miriam told us to call the embassy as the seder would be held at the ambassador's home on Wednesday. Since we are not highly placed, we assumed that it was unlikely we would be invited but Ira called on Monday, only to find out that all the places were filled. They did take his mobile # in case two places might open up. Ira was delighted to receive a phone call on Wednesday morning advising that there were indeed two spots open and he said that, of course we did, emailing the news to Carol. A few minutes later, Ira got another call. this time it was Mr. Doron, the head of security at the embassy. We had to fax him copies of our passports and give him the names of anyone we knew in Israel who might vouch for us. Ten minutes later, Mr. Doron called back, regretting that, since we were not known, we could not attend for security reasons. Grasping at straws, Ira said that we knew Miriam Lieberman who was coming to seder and could(would? only knew us to say hello!) vouch for us. Ira then emailed the change of plans to Carol. The mobile rang again a bit later and Mr. Doron said that he had reached Miriam and that we were indeed welcome. Ira then emailed this new development to Carol and we were set to attend. The embassy staff told us the event was at the Sedona Suites in the ambassador's home and that they would email details. Ira then went out on his daily rounds of shopping, eating etc. When Ira returned home, he noticed that there had been no email so he called the embassy, only to find it had closed for the day. all that we could do was show up at Sedona suites and hope that we could find the ambassador's home. After some confusion at the front desk, we were shown through security and into the apartment. Ambassador Ephraim Ben-Matityahu who makes you call him Ephi, which could stand for effusive, as he is a warm outgoing person. After greeting us, the first thing that he told Ira was that the tie should come off and that when he took his off, that would be the signal for the other men to follow suit. The group of about forty guests included many Israelis and quite a few Americans. Yarmulkes were provided and the ambassador welcomed everyone before turning the seder over to Lou Lantner, the Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy. Israelis are informal and the seder, though containing all of the traditional prayers and readings, was marked with discussions and dialogues about the meaning of the holiday and the strangeness of celebrating it in a different country, one with zero Jewish tradition. Everyone present read some of the service, many in English and some in unbelievably rapid Hebrew, unlike what we are used to from the US, where we painfully try to remember our early training and go word by word through the Haggadah. During the meal, which was quite passable except for the matzoh balls, which are nowhere near as light and fluffy as Pearl's! We had a great conversation with the young man seated opposite us. He is the boyfriend of the ambassador's daughter and the couple was enjoying an extended visit. Some things are the same around the world. One is that at a seder, nobody knows the words to the songs(except one verse of "Dayenu") and the singing begins enthusiastically and then trails off into nothingness. Another is that the seder, no matter where it is held and no matter who are the participants, is always a time of good fellowship and the upholding of centuries old traditions and the retelling of the Passover story.

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