Feather fascination

A book about birds taught me at a young age that feathers are “soft and excellent for trapping heat.”

Feather (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
I have always had a feather fascination.
It began when, as a child, I visited areas where Native Americans lived and carefully developed their colorful headdresses. I appreciated the beauty of their fashionable creations.
A book about birds taught me at a young age that feathers are “soft and excellent for trapping heat.” Symbolically for me, my annual quest to choose the right feather for the performance of bedikat hametz (ritual search for leaven) generates some of the “heat” and “warmth” of Passover for me as I approach the holiday itself.
In 1946, at the age of seven, I participated in the first Seder of my life that I can recall. It was in Atlanta, Georgia, my birthplace.
For six years my mother and I had traveled as “camp followers” to the various military installations where my father, a judge advocate in the US Army, was assigned from January 1941 until March 1946.
A few days before that 1946 Seder, my bubbie, Sara Hene Geffen, said to me, “David go over to Kaufman’s and get a feather.”
“Why? I asked.
“For bedikat hametz.”
I crossed Washington Street where we then lived to Kaufman’s kosher store. Mr. Boorstein slaughtered live chickens in the back of the store. His wife Bessie – or “Beshie,” as she was lovingly known – was actually in charge.
She shouted out in Yiddish, “Peretz, the rabbi’s grandson is here; see what he wants.”
That tiny store was filled with Atlanta Jews buying everything that was available for Passover in 1946. The sight of feverish purchasing for Pessah has remained with me as a wonderful memory.
I looked at Mr. Boorstein and meekly declared, “I need a feather for bedikat hametz.”
“Large or small?” Bewildered, I replied, “Big – maybe two.”
He went to the back of the store and emerged with two large white feathers.
“David, you are ready for bedikat hametz!” And so I was.
The night before Passover, my Zaidie, Rav Tuvia, led my father and me around his large southern colonial home with closets galore, a sliding door from his study to dining room and a large second floor with multiple bedrooms.
The candle was held for the search. It was my job to sweep, with one of Kaufman’s feathers, all the pieces of hametz into a small box. That began my enjoyment for the hametz hunt.
Since I was never out of Atlanta for Passover from 1946 to 1959, the ritual with a Kaufman feather was repeated annually.
Then I was off to New York to study. My first Passover there was in 1960. Living in a Columbia University dorm room, I asked my friends where to get a feather.
“David, what do you need a feather for? Maybe get a few and you can make an Indian headdress.”
Now in a more emphatic tone, I explained, “I need a feather to search for hametz.”
“Go to the East Side.”
Down there on Essex Street I saw “bedikat hametz kits” for the first time – candle, feather, wooden spoon. That was not enough for me. I went to a store where they sold quills for a sofer (scribe) for writing religious texts such as bills of divorce, Torah scrolls, tefillin, mezuzot and megilot.
This was what I was seeking. For a quarter I bought two goose quills and used them in my Columbia University dorm.
YEARS PASSED. I entered the US Army as a chaplain in 1965. My w i f e , R i t a , and I went to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for two years. Since Fort Sill was a major artillery training installation, thousands of draftees poured through as they became “expert cannoneers” in eight weeks. Then they were sent to Vietnam – many never to return.
In the military, Passover is planned for well in advance. Six months before the Passover of 1966, the commissary officer called me and said that he had orders from the Pentagon to discuss preparations for the holiday Seder meals. We met and got the planning under way.
In the Army in those days, it was easy for a chaplain to reach the Jewish troops. When they arrived at Fort Sill, they indicated a religious preference. The names of Jewish soldiers came to me. The barracks where they lived were also listed. Also, I had addresses of all officers, doctors, dentists and lawyers in the area who were Jewish.
A month before Passover, the need for bedikat hametz preparations hit me. Where would I get feathers – not just for me but for all the Jewish GIs on my list? Asking around I got advice from the late Mr. Marvin Trope, lay leader of our Jewish community, a civilian from the city of Lawton next to our post.
“Chaplain, there is a Native American who deals in feathers that are used for Native American headdresses. I suggest you see him.”
My assistant and I drove there. The store was filled with feathers and there were various types of poultry in the rear.
“I need feathers.”
“How many?” “Two hundred.”
“A big order. Come back soon.”
When I returned, he had 200 vibrant turkey feathers waiting for me. I paid him for them and off I went.
I printed an instruction sheet with a transliteration for bedikat hametz and an explanation of why it is done. I took out 200 Hanukka candles I had saved.
My assistant and I addressed 200 large brown envelopes and took them to the post office. Off they went.
A few days later, an aide to the post commander called.
“Chaplain, why did you send the general a turkey feather? The post office had mis-sent that envelope.
THE YEAR 1978 found us preparing for our first Passover in Jerusalem after making aliya. My determination to find a feather led me through the city. First I went to Mahaneh Yehuda. All the chickens there were well prepared for purchase – completely clean and naked. No feathers.
Next I went to several kosher poultry stores. They, too, had no feathers.
“Haver, go down to Mea She’arim. Surely there will be feathers there.”
I moved quickly. My time was short – two days before Passover.
In Mea She’arim, since I was like a stranger, I was directed to the small shuk inside the courtyards of that neighborhood. I saw shmura matza being baked. Finally, I found a shohet (ritual slaughterer) who gave me a few feathers. My quest in Jerusalem was fulfilled.
With the feather, the shohet also gave me advice and a blessing “Just as you search and find the hametz, you should be searching and discovering all your life.”
I took the feather home and together with Rita, our children Avie, Elissa and Tuvia, we enjoyed bedikat hametz in our new home in Jerusalem. What a simha it was for all of us.