If today weren’t so nice, people would be bitching about our Sabbath elevators. On certain days, observant Jewish people aren’t allowed to push an elevator button and they can’t ask any Jewish person to push it for them either. I’ve been told various reasons for this and the one that makes sense to me is that work is prohibited on the Sabbath so people aren’t allowed to make a fire and since electricity is fire, it can’t be used, other than candles at Sabbath meals or if someone turned on lights before Sabbath begins or if they have a timer. And you can’t ask a Jewish person, even one who’s not observant, to push any button or switch on any switch. This because you’re not supposed to ask a Jew to break the Sabbath.
Our building, which has an Orthodox presence, has an automatic elevator that goes up and down during whatever time is needed and it stops on floors automatically where people have requested that service. This seems to me an excellent solution. I think that in 2011 it would be unseemly to question everyone who waits for the elevator to see if they’re Jewish or not. It’s not such a big deal and only adds a minute or two to a ride but since this is the Lower East Side, some complain, not so much on a day like today, but if it were rainy or snowy it would most likely be a different story. Since most people here don’t have a car, they are not attuned to the suspension of alternate side parking rules so they don’t get that benefit.
It seems to me that Jewish people have a lot of holidays. They probably don’t celebrate any more than any other group does, but since many of them are new to me, and since they usually last a couple of days that’s how it seems. By my calendar, the holidays begin in the spring when people celebrate Purim, but for sure, the Jewish calendar starts differently. At Purim, the little kids dress in costumes. The girls, I think, are always Princess Esther, and the boys dress up like biblical bad guys and there’s an occasional Power Ranger or super hero. It’s like a reverse Halloween because people drop gifts instead of threatening tricks if you don’t have a treat. It’s a very nice holiday.
If you have a Mezuzah (a little container that has a prayer scroll in it) on your door’s frame, there’s this group called Chabad that comes around and leaves you goodies. No Mezuzah, no treat. For years and years, we were gifted with treats and then we weren’t. I found this out after I pried the Mezuzah from our door’s frame and mailed it to a synagogue when I found out that it wasn’t supposed to be on my door because I’m not Jewish. That ended those Purim treats.
The end of Purim treats for us is pretty fair. This is because someone told me that the reason Jewish people put the scroll on their door’s frame in the first place was so that if there was a need to punish non-Jews it made it easier for the Angel of Death to identify who needed killing. I found out that this is completely wrong, but at the time I took off the Mezuzah, it made sense to me. Even though the decision to remove it was because of respect, there was this sidebar thought that since the Angel only took first-born, and my husband was that, well, let’s not go there. I confess that I was not in the best mood and if you think things like that, you’ve probably been with your partner for more than 30 years. And if you have thoughts like that you really don’t deserve treats and why it’s fair that you don’t get them.
At Purim, our building’s bulletin board always has announcements inviting everyone to Purim Parties and there are notices that tell of Megillah readings. The Megillah is Esther’s story, she’s the heroine and everything turns out good, so, it’s a pretty happy story and celebration.
After Purim comes Passover although there might be important dates between the two. There’s a lot of preparation.
In the weeks preceding Passover, Jewish homes have to get rid of all of their leavened products. Some people make a game of this. They put their products in a shopping basket and ask you to buy what's prohibited in their home.
When we moved here, I didn’t know that custom so I didn’t understand it was a game when a woman I knew asked me if I would buy her things, I thought that she was desperate for cash and also thought that she might be a little bit off.
This is not to disparage her; I had already been involved in a couple of other cash for goods exchanges. I wondered if this was something that I was going to have to budget for, if there was a better way to handle this, or if it was just one of those things. Then, I didn’t blend into this neighborhood too well but I think that’s changed as recently, a couple of times, I’ve been asked for directions where in the past I was only asked if I was lost.
I bought my neighbor’s things and tossed them. What you’re supposed to do is offer an extravagant amount of money for the goods. There’s supposed to be a tacit understanding that your friend might need money to flee and you’re supposed to help. You’re also holding on to the products in hope that your neighbor returns and then she buys them back from you. Also, she gives you a six pack of beer as a thank you but maybe that happened because she had the idea that we’re Irish and like beer. I simply don’t know. I do know that I’m glad she gave me two other chances to do this even though I didn’t do the right stuff the first time.
Before my friend passed she used to ask me to come into her home to look for a piece of bread that she had wrapped up in foil and put under her table. While I was searching, she would dust her home with a feather and sing a song, I think, in Yiddish. She said that the song was a prayer and that she was singing to god to tell him that she had gotten rid of all of the stuff she was supposed to and had brought in someone to find the rest and if there was any left, it wasn’t hers.
My finding the bread always coincided with an event called the burning of the Chametz. (A friend corrected me about this too because I wrote Chumash and that’s the noun for the first five books of the Torah, the books of Jewish Law) so even if there are errors here that one’s gone.
Our building sets up a fire in one of our yards when Chametz needs burning. People burn up scraps of bread. After the song was sung, the bread was found and the feather had collected crumbs, my friend would phone a neighbor who had boys and she would ask if they would take her things for burning. The boys, would scoot right over, delighted at the chance to burn something up. They were pretty gleeful about going to the burning where I heard that in addition to that there’s singing and dancing.
I’m really glad that I got to hunt for bread. I found out that only little kids do this and I found that out when I told a friend that I missed that part of the holiday. The hunt is analogous to an Easter egg hunt and is only for little kids so it is peculiar, but really nice that I got to do this.
So, that's the idea that this goy has about Passover and the holiday's preparations. I tell this story with affection for a passed neighbor and I hope that comes across. Corrections about the holiday are very welcome. This essay is not a treatise on Jewish Law or customs, only about how a non-Jewish person experiences them on the Lower East Side.