Out There: Explaining the unexplainable

Some Pessah questions just don't have easy answers.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
'Hey, Keinon, what's with the wafers," is the type of question I expected each year during Pessah at Denver's Hill Junior High School. Every year, without exception, one of my less than cosmopolitan non-Jewish classmates would approach the lunch table frequented by our Jewish clique and ask about our matza. Some of the questions were genuine, asked by kids who really didn't know matza from crackers, while others were just toying with us. And we were ready for all contingencies. If the question was genuine we would launch into Hebrew-school honed answers about flour that didn't have time to rise and Jews rushing out of Egypt. Then we'd all dutifully offer to share our "wafers." But if we were being mocked, we'd say something extremely clever like 'better matza than the slop you eat,'" and proceed to try and stare down our tormentors. I'm convinced some of the Gentile kids with the genuine questions looked upon this experience like a factory field trip: after a rather boring explanation, they got some free samples. And we were more than willing to provide those less than scrumptious samples. The problem wasn't explaining Pessah; most of the kids in the school - thanks to Easter - had heard something about Passover. The problem, actually, was explaining the day after Pessah, and this had nothing to do with Maimouna, that Moroccan Jewish post-Pessah celebration that none of us in Colorado ever actually heard of, and which to this day I still haven't quite yet mastered. No, our problems had to do with explaining why if Passover was over, some of the Jewish kids at our table - those from the more traditional homes - were still crunching on the wafers. The reason, obviously, was that we went to school the morning after the holiday before it was possible to buy bread that was not baked on Pessah. But that didn't answer all the questions, because while some of us were still eating matza-and-jelly the day after Pessah, some other Jewish kids came to school packing white bread sandwiches. Explaining that to our classmates - why some Jews did certain things, and other Jews did not -- was too philosophical, and demanded a degree of intellectual finesse that went well beyond the abilities of this very average seventh grader. "Just 'cause,'" was - instead - my exasperated explanation. FROM THAT time on, that response has become my fall-back option when asked anything at all about pre-, during or post-Pessah activities that lacked a good, logical explanation, or for which I simply did not know the answer. For instance, that's the response I give to the wife's annual questions about why - after some two weeks of vacation - the kids don't go right back to school the very day the holiday is over, but rather get an extra day of vacation - called isru hag - when everyone else in the country, except for their teachers, has gone back to work. It was also the defense I used with my father two weeks ago in San Francisco when he couldn't believe I was going to schlep eight tins of Manischewitz macaroons back to Israel. "What are you, nuts?" he said, never one to understand the do-your-grocery-shopping-in-America thing. "Tell me, you can't get macaroons in Israel? Why don't you just take gefilte fish as well. It's a Jewish state for goodness sakes, they ought to have a lousy macaroon for Pessah" They ought to, but they don't have the Manischewitz variety, that comfort food of my youth, and if they do, it's about six times more than it costs in the States. But my father doesn't have much patience anymore for buying or bringing when he comes, food items like large tubs of peanut butter, bags of licorice, boxes of Hot Tamale candies or plastic bottles of taco sauce. He used to do it, but no more, arguing that since all those items can now be bought in Israel, it is a waste of time and energy to buy and schlep them from America. I try to explain that while all those commodities can be found here (except maybe for the Hot Tamales), they are much more expensive. But this fails to register, especially when talking about bringing kosher for Pessah products to the Jewish state from not-so Jewish San Francisco. So, inevitably, I fall back on the "just 'cause'" default. The same brilliant reply is used with the kids when the wife and I insist they stay home the night after Passover to de-Pessahize the house. "We did our share," they complain, somewhat justifiably. "We cleaned before Pessah. Enough already." And while they are right, they - like many of us - overlook the getting-the-house-back-in-order-after- Pessah chore. And it's a big one, an unsung one, and one which they - by virtue of their standing in the house - get to take a big part in. We try to explain that the everyday dishes are not going to return to the cupboards by themselves, that the sold hametz that has now reverted to our control isn't just going to jump back into the pantry. We tell them that we feel their pain and empathize with their despair at yet more household jobs, saying that we - too - are sick and tired of cleaning. But, inevitably, that too fails to convince them, and when they continue to protest this last big Pessah chore, asking why they have to do it, I pull out the response that has served me so well since I was their age: "just 'cause.'" And then they understand.