Sunday, April 17, 2011

fifty-second visit: April 18th 2011 Chabad-Lubavitch Judaism

8:30pm monday
Myer and Ann Cohen Chabad House on Campus
Passover Seder
4710 Wallingford St, Pittsburgh PA 15213

The Weinstein family members, managers of the Chabad House on Campus, are remarkable in their grace, hospitality and generosity. All 3 generations. Here Judaism is a way of life, in the purest, most inviting way. Pretty incredible.

I am reminded of this: My dad once asking me, “Do you ever stop thinking as an artist thinks, in the way that you think when you are making art?” Well, I hope not to lapse too often. I know my soul is happiest when I do not.

Passover and Chabad. Some background: 1) Passover commemorates the story of Exodus, the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. 2) Chabad is a Hasidic movement within Orthodox Judaism—perhaps the largest Jewish organization in the world today, with roots in the late 18th century. 3) A Chabad house is a center that hosts services and activities for the local Jewish community. Often, as in this case, it provides a comfortable, less formal setting in which college students can observe, practice and learn about Judaism. A Chabad Rabbi (here, Rabbi Shmuel Weinstein) orchestrates services. Programs and activities are organized, managed and run by his wife (Sara Weinstein) and their children, which, as I hope I’m remembering correctly, range in age from 23 (Chaima) to 5 yrs or so… maybe younger? (Chaima’s name: spelling? forgive me and do correct me!) Chaima’s son, at 17 months, rounds out the 3rd generation.

By now, two others have arrived. Sara, openly: “Did the web really say 8:30? I meant to post 9pm. You’ll have to excuse me while I run up to change.” In the kitchen at the back of the house, while feeding her small son, Chaima talks of her family’s move from Delaware to Pgh 23 years ago to establish Chabad House. She was 3 mos old at the time, and knows no other life, no separation between life and Chabad House, and no desire or need for it to be any other way. “It’s incredibly normal to me—events like this—also incredibly exciting and new each and every time.” Her inspiration glows.

I help prepare the Passover Seder plates. Six nesting spots for the symbolic foods: horseradish and lettuce, the bitter herbs of slavery; charoset representing mortar used in building storehouses; karpas to be dipped in salt-water (tears); a shankbone referring to the sacrificial lamb; and a hard-boiled egg representing festival sacrifice.

Others arrive. Much chatting amongst young women in the kitchen. I meet Patrician, who grew up in Manhattan. She talks about her family: she is African-American-Jewish, but really it’s not so simple—can trace her family tribe: Spanish, Egyptian, and beyond. Imitating her uncle, a Southern Baptist minister, preaching the Passover story “let my Peeee-ple …go” giggling at herself all the while. She invites me to a Seder taking place the next night. I very much wish I would be in town.

Well over 60 …70 Seder participants in total. Tables lined up into one, run solidly right through the wide archways between three continuous rooms. At our table: two regulars at Chabad house, plus one Weinstein son, and a teacher, Kami, invited by two of her students. She teaches at a private Jewish school; this is her first Passover. And my first Orthodox Passover. She has a hard time with the matzah. Especially the eat-a-large-sheet-in-4-min requirement. We laugh about the tradition of swallowing each of the night’s 4? 5? glasses of wine in one gulp. Why? Judaism is to be experienced all at once, fully, deliberately. I actually really like matzah. Childhood memories of begging bites from my school friends’ lunches during Passover. I tell her to try to think of it as a cracker; don’t expect it to taste like bread. The other woman at our table tells her to just think of how hungry she is. I don’t know if either works. Both Kami and I are wide-eyed when we learn the service will end at 1 or 2am.

The Passover Seders I attended previous to gatherings were not Orthodox, and were an hour or so in length. This time: more rituals. This service book: many pages, and much more thorough. Leading to the freedom celebrated by Passover is a story of extreme hardship. The story does seem like it deserves more than an hour’s ponder per year.

Rabbi Weinstein: wonderfully conversational. His children: remarkable. Three of the sons… one maybe five years old or so, one pre-teen and one teen recite prayers and series of questions effortlessly in Hebrew and also in Yiddish. Once Rabbi turns to his son to confirm the age of a figure in the story of Passover. “He was just 18 years old then, right?” “Yes,” his son offers a doubtless confirmation to his father’s question.

Sara says: this is a night for the children. For them to ask questions, too. They had naps so that they can stay up. Pillows at their chairs. Oh how I so badly wish I could have stayed to the end… 1 or 2am and 4-5 glasses of wine. But my drive to Baltimore tomorrow is long, must begin early, and the 6 hours of teaching immediately following (ending at 10pm), is not something I can do short on sleep. Regretful. I leave the house by midnight, but my mind does not.

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