Sunday, April 17, 2011

Passover: Holiday of Exuberant Liberation--or Humility?

In most religiously observant Jewish homes this time of year, the mood is frantic.  At the deadline--this year on Monday morning, before the Passover holiday starts near sundown--leavened food products become forbidden.  That means that cereals and cakes, bread and cookies, pasta and beer may not even be owned, much less consumed.  For the duration of the 8-day holiday, these products, called "chametz," cannot be part of Jewish life, replaced by a diet big on fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and a fresh stash of specially certified for Passover goods, many of which include the flour-and-water flat crackers called "matzah."

Matzah is very carefully baked within the 18-minute time frame that excludes possibility of leavening, and during the festival is creatively served as "matzah pizza," "matzah brei," (fried up with egg), and in fake-cakes and other baked sweets using matzah "flour" instead of the real thing.  Before the holiday, homes are prepared by elaborate cleaning to remove all residue or crumbs of anything leavened, and usually kitchen counters are covered with something--a tarp, foil, contact paper--as a barrier against any errant chametz particle.

Sounds bizarre.  Seems like a lot of work.  And for what?

Not to strip away all pleasure from eating.  Not to drive Jewish women crazy taking toothbrushes to grout.  The restrictions and cleaning are important, though, because all the work and restraint do put us in the frame of mind that the holiday promotes: humility.

Everyone knows that Passover is a festival of liberation. Pharoah finally caved to Moses' repeated pleas to release the Jews, with the coaxing of ten plagues, including the killing of Egyptian firstborn sons.  Freedom is a wonderful thing; it lets you do what you want. Slavery, obviously, is horrific, especially subjugation to cruel taskmasters.  If it's a holiday of ecstatic liberation, how is the message humility?  And what has chametz to do with either liberation or humility?

If you've heard of the seder, then you probably know that the reason for matzah instead of fluffy bread is right there in the haggada, the little book that contains the proceedings of the evening.  It says that once the Jews got the go-ahead to leave Egypt, they didn't have time for yeasty expansion, so they packed their flat matzah, grabbed the Egyptians' gold, and bolted.  Matzah represents the exhilaration of freedom, and the absence of lofty loaves symbolizes the happy haste of their exit.

Of course, the haggada also calls matzah "lechem oni," the bread of poverty.  Poverty?  True, it's a poor excuse for hot-from-the-oven challah, and yes, the Jews in captivity were
kept down, and matzah is the most basic combination for subsistence, just flour and water.  Why remember this negative side of the story in the midst of our most triumphant moment, escorted out of bondage by God?

Here's where we come to the humility part. It's a myth from what used to be called a "Negro Spiritual," a traditional folk song, called "Go Down Moses," that the Jewish leader asked Pharoah to "let my people go." Instead, he asked the Egyptian ruler to allow a 3-day furlough so the Jews could worship God in the desert--and return! (Exodus 8:23)

With his heart hardened by God (so his real inclination to refuse the Jews could trump the plagues), Pharoah said no.  God told Moses and Aaron to keep going back, each time asking Pharoah to "send out My people that they may serve Me." What God had in mind, though, was the birth of the Jewish people, and their ultimate removal from Pharoah's human domination--to be replaced by a different servitude, this time directly to God.

They had to clean their mental slate, emptying it of the slave mentality. Opening their minds to something greater than their human condition.  They had to expand their sense of possibility, grow their sense of potential, inflate their view from physical survival to heavenly consciousness.

Kind of like dough, going from flat, gloppy blob to an enlarged, and more refined state baked into bread.  This is the process the Jews needed to accomplish--moving from matzah-minds to an awareness of heavenly presence.  The "rising" process took 50 days, the time between escaping Egypt and the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  The Jews started out internalizing--eating--matzah, the flat bread of affliction and poverty.  And over time moved outward spiritually, expanding upward, getting closer to God, until finally, they became ready to stand as one in His actual presence.  That day, called "Shavuot," or the holiday commemorating the culmination of this seven week process, is annually marked by an offering of real bread, baked from the first wheat harvest.

So the celebration of freedom is the kind that comes from detaching. No longer tethered by Pharoah's slavery, the Jews are actually poor, eating bread of poverty, because at that point they have neither the familiar, though oppressive status of slaves, nor their new servitude to God's demands as given in the Torah.  They're adrift, fleeing one status yet unsure of their destination.  They need to be aware of this void.  They need to be humble, to realize how desperately they need God.

The first bit of expansion of their souls came after they were cornered at the Red Sea.  Finally, when Nachshon ben Aminidav proves his trust in God, submerging in the rushing waters up to his nostrils, God opens the way--and their minds--to pass through to the other shore.  Once they make it, the first line of their song of praise--they all knew the words in a communal fit of prophesy--was, "I shall sing to God for He is exalted above the arrogant... (Exodus 15:1)"  A perfect juxtaposition to their own humility, in the realization of their dependence on and gratitude to God.

It's unlikely that the White House Passover ceremony of the seder (recounting the exodus), that President Obama plans to host for the third year in a row, will strictly follow Jewish law (which is actually written directly in the Torah) to avoid chametz.  The announced menu for his seder includes a noodle kugel, and unless it's made with that weird-textured passover pasta (usually made from ground matzah and potato starch), it's probably not acceptable. It's also unlikely he knows the holiday doesn't celebrate the "now we can do what we want" freedom that everybody lauds, but rather the "I've gotta serve my real master" that's tougher to embrace.

In a sense, it's easier to understand the relief those enslaved Jews experienced after you've been rooting out crumbs and emptying refrigerators and locking up cupboards for weeks.  As you do these things, you're constantly questioning its purpose, and trying to imbue the tiring experience with some kind of uplifting rationale.  Finally, when Passover does arrive, and your tired limbs want to succumb to fatigue and four cups of wine, you let go and identify with the yearning to move from the physical to the spiritual realm.  Quite a transition; quite a magnificent trick to make the exodus real and current.

I confess that my thoughts of pressured house-cleaning are memories rather than realities as my husband and I are fortunate to be scholars-in-residence at a Passover program in a beautiful hotel.  The meals are excellent, the accommodations comfortable, the setting serene. Our family will be together, among hundreds of others at their own tables reading the same words of the seder, transmitting the history of our people to our children, and attempting to relive and renew our own passages from physical slavery to service to God.  But the lovely surroundings themselves are reminders that we must not take for granted even a moment's blessings.  Nothing in this world is truly free.

This post inspired by "The Symbolism of Chumetz" by Rav Ezra Bick.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Division in our Country--Nowhere Close to Civil War Days

I can't believe the callers who tell my fave radio talk-show host that our nation is as divided now as it was during the Civil War, which began 150 years ago today. As he keeps pointing out: Not anywhere close!

As a young teenager I was caught up in the "hootenanny" fad, and learned a lot of traditional folk songs, to which I added my guitar accompaniment. One of them was called "Two Brothers," and as soon as I heard today's radio debate, the song immediately came to mind.

It was written, interestingly, in 1951 by Irving Gordon, so has no historical basis, though the notion of families so divided that sons fought on opposite sides is well-recorded in lore, and probably fact about the War Between the States, or "The Great Rebellion," as it was alternately called.

I ran to the cupboard and hauled out the fat, aged notebook in which I'd collected my typed lyrics with the guitar chords I'd arranged all those years ago.  The pages were aflutter with clippings detached from the yellowed Scotch tape that once affixed them among the categories I'd catalogued: Beatles, British Artists, American Artist, and Folk Music.  In my Folk sub-section called "war" was the page with words I attributed to The Weavers' Song Book, page 64:

Two brothers on their way, two brothers on their way; two brothers on their way,
One wore blue, and one wore gray....the fife and drum began to play, all on a beautiful morning.

One was gentle, one was came home, one stayed behind. A cannon ball don't pay no mind, if you're gentle or if you're kind. It don't think of the folks behind, all on a beautiful morning.

Two girls waiting by the railroad wore blue and one wore black. Waiting by the railroad track, for their darlings to come back, all on a beautiful morning.

Today we cannot fathom the idea that two brothers, raised in the same American family, sharing the same God-fearing values, devoted to the same mother, would be so vehemently divided that they would give their lives for opposing sides of an issue.

We are appalled to hear of Muslims killing their co-religionists over variations in doctrine or leadership.  Here, in our American culture, where reason in avoidance of conflict is the first strategy, we vocally disagree on certain topics, but simply can't understand that members of the same family would part, knowing the great likelihood that at least one would perish over their differences.

The Civil War confronted geographical, lifestyle and philosophical schisms so much deeper than whether Planned Parenthood should get federal funds, or even whether to be involved in foreign conflicts.  Despite Obama's failure to be the great uniter bearing hope and change, the events nearly a decade ago--9-11--showed the constant soul of America, when we, like the Children of Israel receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, stood as one, singular in our love for this country and our determination to defend it and our common values.

But 150 years ago, national divisions even pit brother against brother.  It was unique enough in our history that a song commemorating the phenomenon would be recorded by popular singers, and captured the imagination of a teenage girl.

More Food Choices, More Obesity?

Some of us are old enough to remember when supermarkets didn't offer anywhere near the variety they do now.  Probably all of us remember.  Starfruit. Purple potatoes. Gnarly heirloom tomatoes. Hot sauce-flavored dark chocolates. Sage-flavored grapefruit juice. Yes, it's true.

 Choices in the cereal aisle are now staggering (check out Wikipedia's list of them), the number of teas and coffees mind-boggling, the bottles, cartons and cans of waters and juices (acai, pomegranate, passion fruit, anyone?) towering.  It's enough to paralyze shoppers, and selecting products has become a lengthy process of squinting at labels, noting price-per-ounce on shelves, calculating cross-brand sizing and wondering which of those strange ingredients are benign or worrisome.  Is this just a new chore of modern life, an expansion of taste enjoyment--or a threat?

Research now suggests the dizzying array of products in supermarkets is actually harmful. It's making us obese.

  In Los Angeles, when I grew up, our Safeway and Ralphs chains offered only classic pasta shapes (spaghetti, macaroni, lasagna), no exotic fruits (and none out of season) and a handful of ice cream flavors from a few manufacturers (Neapolitan was a boon because it combined all three top flavors).

  In those "good old days," obesity was rare, and the percentage of overweight citizens low.  US Center for Disease Control statistics show that in 1962, 13.4% of adults were obese (BMI between 30 and 40), and .9% "extremely obese" (BMI more than 40).  This compares to 2005-6, years of the highest rates recorded, when 35.1% of adults were obese, and 6.2% "extremely obese"(since then obesity rates have declined slightly). Men's average weight shot up 30 pounds, and women's about 25 between 1960 and 2002 (average height increased 1.5 inches for men and an inch for women in the same period).

Those who blame plenty for increasing obesity argue that easy access and food's very deliciousness causes people to over-ride bodily cues. With so many gourmet foods appealing to the most specific tastes, each person in the household can maintain a personally-pleasing stash of favorite indulgences. 

Yummy foods beckon between meals when boredom or stress plead for a distraction, and the mere existence of a plethora of delights is therefore the source of deleterious girth.
Studies show that "salience" of food increases consumption.  In other words, if it's right there, especially if it's visible, it calls to you.  Also important is its convenience--food easy to procure and prepare, like the burgeoning number of ready-to-eat goodies increasingly populating store shelves, according to data, increases the amount of food munched.

Other research shows that awareness of abundant food options encourages eating:  More foods on the plate, in fancier presentations.  More brands of more new items in the stores, of multiple flavors and colors.  More depictions of food, touted by "celebrity chefs," advertised everywhere you look--at prices easy to afford--hammer the mind, offering constant enticement to own, manipulate, and ingest.

A front-page story in the New York Times this week said that retailers are returning to cluttered, high-shelved, abundant-product displays because a clean, pared-down shopping environment, while deemed more pleasant by customers, hurt the bottom line.  More stuff, says the article, gives shoppers the idea they're getting a better deal, as well as offering more sources of temptation.

So, in the days when tiny mom-and-pop stores commonly provided one's comestibles, and when supermarkets offered an average of 9,000 items (1974), people went to the grocer looking for ingredients rather than immediately edible satisfaction.

No more, now that the average number of items in a supermarket has climbed to about fifty thousand.  And routinely, food emporiums include delicatessens with glass cases showing prepared salads and main courses, bakeries wafting their warm cookie fragrances, salad and olive and cheese bars where you can fill plastic containers yourself.  Rows of bins and crocks, with handy clear bags and little shovels, and dangling pens to write ring-up codes.
And all this food is cheap.  It may feel like the price of food is high and becoming ridiculous, but the proportion of household income devoted to it is far less than in the days when choices were more limited.  In 1950, Americans spent about a fourth of their income on food; by 2009, they spent less than 10%.

Can we really blame what overwrought pundits call "the obesity epidemic" on greater food options?  Are retailers' ads, media's ubiquitous images, and stores' bounty so effectively brainwashing us that we've allowed this massive expansion?

Easy access and ability to afford all these wonderful choices have contributed to the problem, but don't explain it.  Mainly because schools and government have vociferously discussed nutrition, for decades.  For example, the federal "Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program" taught millions of low-income youth and young adults about good food choices--for forty years! It started in 1969; surely by the time the obesity epidemic started--about 1980--and as it escalated to its peak in 2000--the national program would have disseminated its message about healthy eating.  Yet obesity kept growing.  (Despite its title, I doubt the program educated toward "expanded food and nutrition...")

And 45 of the 50 states require students take a health course, usually three, during elementary, middle and high school years. Even states that don't require a course have support programs on healthy eating, obesity-prevention and exercise.  We know what to eat.  But it seems the "new normal" has inflated anyway.

In previous posts, I've discussed parents' inability to curb their kids' intake of sweets, despite healthy food alternatives, incessant inculcation and even personal vigilance, such as the Philadelphia parents who stood outside corner stores between their homes and their children's schools.  Could it be that all this focus on "healthy diets" switches people from the "eat to live" orientation to the "live to eat" push-pull between tasty treats and the "you shoulds" of educators and experts?

Naturally thin people who eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full aren't compelled to "take advantage" of the bountiful food in their paths.  They eat what their bodies suggest would be most pleasing, and listen when they feel full.  Why does it seem there are there fewer such people around nowadays to emulate?  Answering this would be key to knowing why the rate of adult obesity jumped between 1980 and 2000 and since then has remained level.  And it might help examine why childhood obesity also increased in that time period.

I wonder about the impact of the Adeno36 virus, as well as genetically-related changes we haven't investigated. Some researchers suspect air conditioning, maternal age, or medication for the bulging figures.  In the meantime, I consider the dazzling choices in the supermarket evidence of our flourishing economy and creative product innovation, not evil sources of decay and obesity.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What Parenthood is All About

From the headline, "Sharing the Shame After My Arrest," you'd think today's "Modern Love" column in the New York Times was about remorse at being caught breaking the law.  You'd be wrong: it's about the essence of parenthood.

I haven't cried as much over something I've read in quite a while.

The author, Brooke Rinehart, is a 28-year-old employee of a New York public relations firm whose new husband stole her identity and used it to commit wire and mail fraud, federal offenses.  Before that was established, she was awakened by officers one morning, handcuffed, and hauled out of her newly-purchased home in pajamas.  As her life unraveled over the 90-day period it took to clear her, her mother took on and traveled the emotional distance, physically and soulfully there for her, sleeping, contorted, in a living room chair so as not to be more than a few feet from her distraught daughter, who was sleeping on the couch.

The daughter lost her appetite. So too, the mother.  The daughter grieved her marriage, her lost home, her future, her assessment of reality. So too, the mother.  The father, being male, did his best to be supportive, but in a different (and equally important) way.

My mom in action
When I got to the end of the article, where Brooke's female gynecologist finds out about the whole sordid story and is overcome with emotion about the mom's devotion, I was a basket case.  You can't really put into words the complete investment of a parent in a child, the extent of hopes and prayers for the child's well-being, and the ongoing urgency to prevent, and if necessary, cushion any negative experiences.  Not because the child is you, but because the child is more than you, your sense of possibility and continuity and the repository of years of tiny efforts that seem like privilege because the child then takes that, and from what you gave, becomes an individual.

My children, now launching into their own worlds, probably think me clingy when I want them to kiss me goodbye. When I ask about what they're doing, and need reassurance they're all right.  I was one of those guilty children who couldn't understand my own parents' protectiveness, and as a teen, when I'd grouse, they'd respond that I'd understand someday.  I thought it preposterous.

But here I am. I'd sleep in a chair, too, if my child were going through an ordeal.  That doesn't make me a heroine. That makes me a mother.

Friday, April 1, 2011

But Clouds Got In My Way

As, aptly, a post-script to my last post, here are some photos of clouds that I've taken here in the Northwest.  I think my favorite "clouds" song is Simon and Garfunkle's "Cloudy", from which I take the photo captions, though of course one's immediate reaction is to start singing Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now."
"Cloudy: the sky is gray and white and...cloudy..."
"...Sometimes I think it's hanging down on me"

"I left my shadow waitin' down the road for me awhile..."

"Cloudy: My thoughts are scattered, and they're...cloudy; they have no borders, no boundaries..."
"Hey Sunshine, why don't you show your face and bend my mind?"

"These clouds stuck to the sky, like a floating question: 'Why?'"

"They don't know where they're going, and, my friend, neither do I...."
All photos copyright 2011 by Diane Medved.