Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Two Kittens and an Oven Door Met a Wandering Aramean

“No rest for the weary!” Certainly not around Pesach time, for many of us. Certainly not for your inveterate correspondent. I had completed my last article describing the finding of abandoned kittens and the smashing of an oven door, and I was looking for a short respite after the holiday while we prepared ourselves for the wrecking crew coming to demolish our old kitchen and preparing for the installation of a new one. Suddenly there was a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping on my e-mail inbox door. Could it be Edgar Allen Poe’s raven? No, it was only XXX, one of my long-suffering readers, who wanted, needed to know, what happened to our oven door? Never mind that we were struggling to keep two week-old kittens alive. Never mind that I had promised in writing to continue my saga ASAP. My old friend could not wait an instant longer to find out the denouement. Perhaps she too had been without an oven at some critical juncture of her life and over-empathized with our plight. Perhaps she was being dragged along, kicking and screaming, by Idle Curiosity? Whatever the reason for her interest, I felt her pain and resolved to make every effort to continue the saga. So, in the midst of the pounding and the smashing, the plumbing and the wiring, the dust settling and the pigeons flapping in and out the open windows, Yom Hashoa, Yom Hazicharon, and Yom Haatzmaut coming and going, I began – with multiple interruptions and serious delays – the continuation of my saga. If nothing else, I was determined to silence the tapping, the gentle rapping on my inbox door.
We might begin with a question: what on earth does one feed a week old kitten who has no mother? Natania’s solution was to dilute regular milk, warm it up, and try to feed it with the eye-dropper which we fortunately have. OK for the short run; kittens cannot thrive on human milk, but we were hoping to keep our charges alive until the next morning, Friday, when our local veterinarian, Dr. Donny would have office hours. Natania, the good scout that she is, kept getting up every few hours whenever these wretched creatures would wake up and begin emitting their pitiful bleats of hunger. At 8:30 AM, Barbara was on the phone with the service company, who assured her that our oven door had indeed arrived and it might be ready for pick-up later that morning. By 9AM, I was at work starting to prepare our Shabbat meals. All the dishes had to be stove-top preparable, but I could certainly handle that. At 10AM, more or less, Barbara and Natania were on their way to the vet’s office in Kikar Yahalom, the old shopping center.
The kittens were pronounced basically healthy by the vet, and Barbara went off to the several pet supply stores in our community in search of powdered kitten formula. Not surprisingly, none was to be had, and my wife settled for infant formula from the supermarket – better than cow’s milk for our purpose. Before she left the vet’s office, she had asked him if by chance he knew anybody in town who had a nursing mother cat who might be willing to take on two more charges. Donny said he did not, and that seemed to be the end of the matter. We were now the official life support system for two tiny orphaned felines; just what we needed. Mimi, our resident feline, a solitary creature by habit, would not be happy. So my wife and daughter and the two unnamed specimens returned home. I was now turning out dishes left and right, hoping to get our Shabbat cooking done as early as possible. (I should also mention that the day in question was the first day of Daylight Savings Time in The Land, so we had plenty of time until the official candle lighting time.)
And then, the phone rang. It was Doctor Donny. Somebody had just come into his office with a nursing female cat with nobody to nurse. Something or somebody had attacked her and killed her kittens. He had just anesthetized her and stitched her up. Was it possible? Could there be a shidduch in the making!!!!!!!!!!! The cat’s owner agreed to take the nursing kittens on two conditions: one) they would do their best to protect them from harm, but he could offer no guarantees as to their safety; two) when they were properly weaned, we would agree to take them back. His family had another pregnant female and enough was enough. We, of course, were desperate; a life raft is a life raft. We weren’t likely to get a better offer. Natania and I hightailed it back to Kikar Yahalom with kittens in basket and arrived just as Asher’s large black cat was coming out of the anesthesia. We placed the two kittens in the box with the mother cat and offered a silent prayer. The black kitten, who had been harder to feed with the eye dropper, sized up the situation and immediately attached his mouth to Mrs. Cat’s nipple and began to feed. The white kitten, the one who had been more willing to take sustenance from the eye dropper, seemed to be clueless. He/she kept climbing over the big cat’s back going who-knows-where, no matter how many times the vet returned him to the proper place. The mother cat began to wake up and lifted her head to see what was going on. What was percolating in her mind? Did she think these two were her original kittens? Cats apparently recognize their own offspring by smell. Had these two been climbing over her long enough to absorb the mother’s odor? Or was Mrs. Cat simply too weak to object? Perhaps she was that rare philosophically inclined specimen who saw these new kittens as a cosmic reward for her travails? It is unlikely that we will ever know the truth; and I am at peace with my uncertainty. We exchanged contact information with Asher, and Natania and I bee-lined it out of there, still offering silent prayers that this would work. My daughter called them before Shabbat started; mommy cat was grooming her foster children – a good sign. Their children were fighting over what to name these new arrivals – a very good sign as far as we were concerned. We had this vision of a flock of kids crying out, “Mommy, mommy, can we keep Lancelot and Guinevere?” However, I just heard from Asher and his wife: the kittens are doing fine and will be ready for separation from foster mommy in a few weeks. Oh, and their other cat just gave birth to five, count ‘em, five kittens of her own. So it seems that we will be stuck with them. Get ready, Mimi, for some company.
There is one other piece of information which I should mention. It was raining that morning in Ma’ale Adumim, something it doesn’t often do that close to Pesach, so all of us were dodging rain drops whenever we left our apartment. We got back from the vet and shortly thereafter the phone rang. Sherut Gur. “Your oven door is ready.” (Remember the oven door????!!!!!) I looked at the clock and reckoned that I could just about make it there before they closed at 1PM, but, as I said, it was raining, and who wants to shlep an oven door in the rain? Plus how much adventure can one person handle in a day? “Can I come in Sunday morning?” “Of course.” That would certainly give Barbara enough time to bake her renowned Pesach chocolate cakes, the kind that all of you want a slice of – whether you know it or not. More time for me to keep cooking for Shabbat.
We were planning a low-key Shabbat, one without company and without the usual leftovers – a good part of our normal weekly menus; but in the end we decided to invite one of Barbara’s friends to join us. She mentioned how grateful she was; if she needed to prepare her own meals, there would have been no way she would have had time to clean her apartment for Pesach. I was suddenly reminded of our holidays back in Teaneck. One family with whom we were good friends, had spent Pesach at a hotel for many years, courtesy of her parents. As a token of gratitude, our friends would always invite a number of their friends for the meals the Shabbat before Pesach, so that these families, all of whom would be at home for the holiday, would have an easier time getting ready. I have fond memories of those meals with lots of happy, grateful people around the table, which custom, sadly, has now come to an end. The wife’s mother died this past year; the father is now living with them, and Pesach for the family will now be in Teaneck. The other families will have to fend for themselves before the holiday. Another fond Exilic memory up in smoke, just like the bread in Jeff’s huge barbecue grill to which everyone could come and burn their hametz. Jeff and June are now in Jerusalem, and it’s too far these days to their apartment off Rehov Jabotinsky to join them for Jeff’s version of Texas toast.
Sunday morning, I was up and out early, in hot pursuit of an oven door, although I did make a stop first at an out-of-the-way wine store which had been advertising a pre-Pesach sale on Israeli ‘boutique’ wine, a bargain at four bottles for 180 shekels. However, whatever small amount of money I saved buying wine, I more than made up for ransoming our oven door. Somehow, the ‘labor charge’ was five hundred shekels, meaning the total cost of rectifying my clumsiness was over a thousand shekels. At least they bubble-wrapped my door for me before sending me on my way, poorer but perhaps wiser. I needn’t tell you that I let Barbara and Natania put the door back on its hinges. Barbara was now ready to start baking her cakes and I could lick the chocolate in the bowl and relax.
I have always wondered what it would be like to spend Pesach at a hotel, meaning you can arrive early and loll around while the hotel staff busies itself with all the necessary preparations. You would certainly have time, if you were so inclined, to review the Hagaddah and some of the commentaries on it, and you would have the added bonus of arriving at the Seder table relaxed and refreshed. The down side, of course, is that you might have to make do with someone else idea of a Seder, which in a hotel, can be something of a problem. And it might set you back a month’s salary for this luxury. But now I think I have an idea of what it would be like.
This year we got lucky. Not only were we invited to the Seder with our friends Ron and Esther (for the third year in a row), but we were invited out to other friends for lunch as well. So all our meals were covered, and we had little left to do. (As you all are aware, because we live in The Land, there is only one day of the holiday at the beginning and one at the end; we get time off for good behavior.) I had only two chores to do on Monday, make some charoset for Tina to take back to Tel Aviv with her and then go through the ritual of burning the remaining chametz. Absent Jeff’s barbecue pit, I was resigned to going down to the street and trying by myself to burn what that I had kept in reserve. But there was Eliezer, an elderly Sephardic man who lives in apartment #4 below us, to the rescue. He had made his own campfire next to the garbage dump and was making Moroccan toast. I had just kept two pitas for my offering; he seemed to have an entire bakery to dispose of. Or else he had been saving up bread to burn since Purim. Why do things half way? I dropped my piddling pitas onto his fire, thanked him, and returned to my kitchen. I took out my Pesach food processor, whose main raison-d’etre is pulverizing the ingredients for our Ashkenazic charoset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and sweet wine. I usually make about a quart of the stuff. Again, why do things half way? Besides, it’s yummy.
That task accomplished, I had the rest of the day to relax, just as I would have at a hotel, and prepare myself for Ron’s Seder. I had been going through the Haggadah little by little for several weeks, and now I would have time to review everything one more time. There would be no pool to sit by and no deck chairs to sit on, but I could at least sit on my own balcony\\on my own folding chair and admire the view.
I had hoped that ‘my’ Haggadah would be finally be available (the English language version of Rav Shlomo Aviner’s commentary, translated by my buddy, R. Mordechai Tzion, which lists yours truly as the editor) but it’s still not out after a year and a half delay. It still might be ready before the Jerusalem Light Rail project – my benchmark of comparison – which now has an official start date in April 2011. I am not holding my breath on either account.
As a consolation prize, I had bought myself a Haggada with a commentary compiled from the study notes of the great Torah teacher, Nechama Leibowitz, whose textual approach was to point something out which needed clarification,, offer her students suggestions, and make them come up with their own solutions to the difficulties. What a novel idea! What got me going was something that has always bothered me, and my discovery that I was in good company. In the Haggadah, there is a reference to a passage in The Torah in which it says that when the Jewish people were to enter The Land, they were to offer their first fruits as a sacrifice and recite a paragraph which begins: “Arami oved avi.”
The ‘official’ translation of these three enigmatic words is, according to Rashi, the medieval commentator who seems to be the be-all and the end-all for many people for what things in The Torah or The Talmud mean, “The Aramean (that is, Lavan) sought to destroy my father.” The text continues, “and he (my father??!!) went down to Egypt and sojourned there; and he became there a nation…..” This interpreation always seemed to me to lack a critical element of coherence, but I have never been able to express my skepticism as well and with as much authority as the fifteenth century commentator, known by his nom de plume, Akeidat Yitzchak, “All of my life I was puzzled by this verse….For in truth, according to the simple meaning of the text, Lavan did not seek to destroy Yaakov…..And even if we assume that he intended to harm him, what is Lavan’s relevance to ‘And he went down to Egypt’? (Go get ‘em, A.Y.!)
Even earlier, Shmuel ben Meier, the Rashbam, the son of Rashi’s daughter, who seemed to delight in disagreeing textually with his grandfather, interpreted these three words to mean that the patriarch Avraham was a wandering Aramean – wandering and exiled from the land of Aram. One of the earliest commentators and Biblical grammarians, known to us as ‘the son of Ezra’ gave a succinct explanation why you would have to torture the syntax of these words to make it mean what Rashi says it does, adding “But it is more logical that the Arami is Yaakov, and the verse is saying that when my father was in Aram, he was poor.” (Ibn Ezra, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can!!!)
Of course, I brought this issue up at the Seder, and I mention this only to preempt the skeptics who would wrongly assume that we “cheated,” skipped something, rushed through everything, in order to get done at the incredibly early hour of about 11:30. I’ve noticed an interesting activity, one which has probably been going on for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s called the ‘When did you finish?’ game; that is to say, how long did your Seder drag on until? (perhaps akin to ‘How much water did you get in your basement after the recent downpour,’ or ‘How long was your power out for?’) We know that it is a mitzvah to retell the exodus from Egypt, but I feel confident that nobody gets any ‘points’ for time wasted in the effort. We’ve all heard about or been part of Pesach horror stories when the Seder were very late in starting because the assorted teenagers present insisted on bickering on and on about who wouldn’t be caught dead sitting next to whom; and then some of the guests waltzed in an hour late; or it was the children were quarreling over whose turn it was to recite the ‘divrei Torah’ which they had spent the entire month before Pesach copying off the chalk board in their yeshivah, so that, in effect, they were running the Seders with their parents functioning as referees; or the relative who has to be invited, even though he doesn’t want to be there, whose role it is to ask the same annoying questions year after year, ignoring the fact that someone patiently has given him the same answer for the last ten years – because he’s only asking the questions to annoy you PLUS prove that the wicked son is not just as construct, but is alive and well. These are just some of the many sure fire recipes for wasting time and diminishing the joy of those assembled.
Ron and Esther are very good at avoiding these and other pitfalls. We could officially start the Seder a little after 8PM; we, in fact, started exactly at 8:15 because all of us were there on time. Ron and Esther’s daughters and a friend had made place cards for our assigned seating, so we were sitting where we were supposed to within one minute. All the stuff we needed to begin was ready ahead of time. We went around the table, each person reading a paragraph in Hebrew or English, depending on their linguistic capabilities. If anybody had a question or something brilliant to say, there was time for that. We didn’t rush, but we didn’t dawdle. We ate a leisurely meal, finished the rest of the Hagaddah, and, lo and behold, everyone at the table was still awake at the end. That’s an accomplishment worth trumpeting!
We were able to get a good night’s sleep, and I showed up the next morning at our beit Knesset, Musar Avicha, no later than a lot of other guys. As I mentioned before, we were invited out for lunch as well where we continued overeating. I remember quite clearly my train of thought as we were walking on that beautiful afternoon back to our apartment after the meal. I’M FREE! I DON’T HAVE TO DO IT AGAIN! I DON’T HAVE TO GO BACK TO MITZRAYIM FOR A SECOND SEDER!
The purpose of the Seder is to enable one somehow, some way, to recreate for oneself the experience of the Jewish people leaving Egypt. We start the Seder by holding a piece of Lehem Oni, poor man’s bread, a symbol of our affliction, and we end it by singing about our fondest dream, a rebuilt Jerusalem. Having symbolically escaped from Egypt the first night and being physically a bus ride away from Jerusalem – albeit in an ‘un-rebuilt’ state – every day of the year, why would I want to go back and repeat the harrowing experience a second time the following night? Would you want to repeat the fourth grade after you’ve finished college?
The first part of Pesach was over, but there was still something tapping, gently rapping on the cortex of my brain which I could hear even over the banging and the clanging in our kitchen, until I suddenly realized why it wouldn’t go away. It was the business of the differing interpretations of Arami oved avi. It occurred to me that, taken together, the ‘someone’s out to get us’ part and the ‘wandering Aramean’ motif, they sort of sum up much of Jewish history. Whether or not Lavan was actually seeking to destroy us, a lot of other folks have been, for real, for a very long time, up to and including the present day. And collectively we have certainly been wandering, dispersed, powerless, throughout much of our history. What is so distressing today is that even though, with G-d’s help, the historic process of our physical re-unification is going on before our very eyes, we are in many ways acting as if we were still wandering in the desert, scattered, weak, and confused. Maybe that’s why I prefer the second interpretation, because perhaps we need to focus our attention on ending the Exile – not only physically, but in the ways we think and act. And so, everyone, all together so everyone can hear, “I AM NOT, WE ARE NOT, A WANDERING ARAMEAN. And let us say Amen.

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