On the second night of Passover, the same evening that Obama hosted the first U.S. Presidential Seder in the White House, I hosted a Seder at the Speakeasy. Passover, or (in Hebrew) Pesach, is my second favorite holiday of the Jewish calendar. Purim is my #1 holiday, mainly because Queen Esther is such a fox, a teenage beauty contest winner who saves her people from genocide using her powers of sexual seduction, as my Porn ‘n’ Purim Bacchanal so aptly demonstrates, and the whole Purim celebration is one big party with theatrical costumes, masks, noisemakers, intrigue and drinking so much wine that “you can’t tell the bad guys from the good.” Passover is not as sexy as Purim, but it also features a lot of drinking (four cups of wine) and a different kind of ritual theater.
Passover also features a lot of eating, much of which is symbolic. The parsley symbolizes Spring. The hard-boiled eggs represent rebirth and resurrection (same as the Easter egg). A concoction of apples, nuts, wine and honey called haroseth signifies the mortar that the Egyptian taskmasters are said to have forced the Hebrew slaves to make, from which they fashioned the bricks that built the pyramids. The shank bone on the Seder Plate has an even darker meaning, symbolizing the Paschal lamb that was sacrificed so that the Hebrew slaves could smear lamb’s blood on their doors, letting God “know” to “pass over” their houses on His mad mission to kill the First Born of every Egyptian, including the Pharaoh, as the 10th and final Plague that broke the Pharaoh’s will. I told you it was dark.
Then there are the bitter herbs. The Hebrew word is maror. Most seders use horse radish, though you could just as easily use wasabi or hot salsa. The bitter herbs are supposed to symbolize the suffering of the Israelites in bondage. It’s true that a big mouthful can bring tears to your eyes. But most Seder participants over 18 adore the “bitter” herbs, which inject gustatory pizzazz into otherwise dulls foods like gefilte fish and hardboiled eggs. Traditionally, there are two kinds of horse radish: red and white. I like to layer the two into a martini glass, creating a kind of Bitter Herb Parfait. Anyone who takes a nice big slurp expecting a sweet treat will get a bitter tear-jerking surprise.
The Seder is a family affair. Most holiday services take place in the synagogue, but Passover is celebrated in the home around an intergenerational family meal. The family angle is a double-edged sword, at least for me. This Passover, my brother and sister-in-law were coming up from La Jolla, but then couldn’t make it when he suddenly came down with stomach flu. The last-minute cancellation made me all emo over my family relations, then I felt guilty for being emo, for caring more about my Seder plans than the conditions of my brother’s upset tummy. Typical old family frustrations and guilt feelings that almost always used to render my holidays nauseating. But this time, I got over them fairly quickly, as I looked into Max’s sparkling eyes and felt overwhelming gratitude for his freedom, appreciated the fine bonobo company of friends and a few strangers (another Passover tradition is to have strangers at your Seder), and dutifully downed the requisite four cups of wine.
The main theme of any Seder is freedom. Many of the traditions, like reclining at the table, stem from the customs of the ancient Roman elite and are meant to show that we free to sit and eat as we please. I took the reclining ritual a little “over-the-top” by hopping up on the arm rest of my tallis-draped “throne” (the same one we use for the King on Purim), and kicking up a high-heeled storm, as the Passover paparazzi snapped away. Later a pic of me doing a Sharon Stone at the Seder table appeared on Facebook (not my page), inspiring a bunch of Jewish women to argue about whether I was a shame to the tribe or joyously expressing “freedom.”
The freedom that the Seder literally celebrates is, of course, that of the Hebrew slaves from their Egyptian taskmasters (or so the unfounded legend goes). It is said that our Hebrew slave ancestors had to flee so fast there wasn’t time for the bread to rise. This is why we eat Matzoh, unleavened bread, to remind us of the price we must always pay for freedom.
But at Passover, everything is symbolic, and for us, Speakeasy Seder ’09 was first and foremost a celebration of Max’s freedom from the U. S. Prison System, which makes the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs seem liberal. Max spoke eloquently about being shackled like a slave and made to get down on his knees in America’s House of Bondage, and the need to shine a light upon the injustice of incarcerating so many innocents, feeding one of the biggest growth industries in America today: Incarceration, Inc.
It was an unforgettable Seder, very traditional in some ways, outrageous in others. My right hand rabbinical support came from Debra, a beautiful sexy Jewish woman who used to be a man. While a boy, she studied at the Yeshiva and Camp Ramah so her Hebrew is excellent. Now she’s a happily transgendered attorney who looks a bit like Jackie O.
My own tradition is Ashkenazy Bohemian with a couple of Sephardic rituals, such as the beating of your dinner partner with a green onion, a Passover game that I picked up from my Seder with Kosher Sex Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his eight hyperactive children. It doesn’t feel as sensuous as an elkskin leather whip, but scallion-flogging is lots of fun. Great foreplay for Passover Sex, and it’s always a mitzvah (good deed) to have sex – with your spouse at least – on a holiday.
Freedom is the greatest aphrodisiac. But restraint is a close second. Max and I wore Stars of David handmade by the jailhouse slaves of Twin Towers out of prison blues. Interestingly, they look just like Sheriff’s badges, the six pointed star. I’m sure most of our deputies have no idea that they are wearing the symbol of Judaism.
Nowadays there are all kinds of Seders, White House Seders, Christian Seders, Inter-Faith Seders, the Gossip Girl Seder; there’s probably even a Prison Seder being held somewhere, at least in Israel. But there’s no Seder like the Speakeasy Seder. Seders have become a Speakeasy tradition. I’m already planning for 2010. Should we set a plate for you?