Passover. Then Pass out
In my youth, every spring right around Easter, my family and I would get together at my grandparents' house to celebrate the commencement of the Jewish holiday, Passover. Passover lasts eight days and commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery after the last plague Moses bestows upon the Pharaoh and his people - The Angel of Death killing all firstborn but sparing the homes of the Israelites and passing over their doors, which they had smeared with lamb’s blood. When I think about it as an adult, it doesn’t sound very celebratory at all, but more like a B-rated horror movie - morose and sad - which is the embodiment of almost all Jewish holidays - some sort of weird “celebration” in remembrance of a horrible tragedy that happened, yet again, to the chosen people.
The first night of Passover is called the seder, which is the meal we gathered for at Grandma and Grandpa’s. The rest of the seven days is an entire week of not eating bread or any bread products that need to rise during their cooking process - in short - everything delicious. Cookies, cakes, and bread were henceforth replaced with matzo - large, unleavened sheets of crumbly blandness. For this week, I had to forgo the hot lunch provided by my school and endure seven days of different iterations of matzo sandwiches my mom prepared for me and my brother - mayonnaise and salami matzo sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly matzo sandwiches, or when Mom was really lazy, matzo smeared with butter with a dash of pepper. At lunchtime, while my Gentile friends were biting into white Wonder Bread, American cheese, and deli meat, I was crunching my way through two flat, hard, flavorless squares of flour and water and whatever shmear was between them. By the end of lunch, the part of the table in front of me was littered with all-sized pieces of matzo that had broken off during bites and fallen to their demise in front of me like jigsaw pieces, kind of like what happened to the ancient Jews.
This week of enduring almost inedible sandwiches coupled with shredding the roof of my mouth with the jagged bread replacement was worth it because of the seder. I always had a great time at the seder, listening to my uncle tell jokes, eating my grandma’s flavorful, juicy brisket, and slurping down her homemade matzo-ball soup (the only good thing that comes from matzo). And at the end of the meal, my brother and I got to search Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the afikomen - a broken-off piece of matzo that my grandpa would hide somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the house. My grandpa would award whoever found it a crinkly one-dollar bill produced from his breast pocket smelling slightly of minty Skoal chewing tobacco and Chapstick, which he kept in the same pocket.
Many Jewish holidays, whether deliberate or coincidental, mimic those of the Christian variety, but with a slight hint of pathos. Passover is around the same time as Easter but instead of searching for brightly colored eggs hidden by an illusive pink bunny rabbit, Jewish kids get to search for a piece of a stale cracker hidden by a wrinkly old man. Christmas and Hanukah are also around the same time, but Christmas comes with beautiful blinky lights to celebrate the birth of a cute baby who would become the most revered person in the world. Hanukah comes with eight sad candles in remembrance of the destruction of the temple, the slaughter of thousands of Jews at the hands of the Greek-Syrian army, and a guy named Judah Maccabee, who most people have never heard of. But hell, when I was a kid, I didn’t know what I was missing out on being a Jew and had a great time anyway, especially at the seder, and at one seder in particular, when I was around seven years old.
The seder has many traditions including reading prayers from the Haggadah (the prayer book that accompanies the seder), a platter of symbolic Passover specific foods, songs, a bowl of salt water to represent the shed tears of the once enslaved Jews, and four small glasses of wine to be drunk at specific intervals during the meal. The wine of choice for most Jews at the seder and other Jewish celebrations was/and still is a brand called Manischewitz. I remember the tagline - "Man oh Manischewitz, tastes just like grapes right off the vine!” when in reality it tastes like sickly sweet cough syrup with just a dash of grenadine. Trying to drink a full pour of it would be like what some of my friends used to do in high school called “Roboing,” which was gulping down an entire bottle of cherry-flavored Robitussin as fast as they could in order to catch a buzz off of the medicine. It tasted disgusting going down, but the after-effects sure were fun. But as a kid, to me, Manischewitz tasted like heaven - sweet, grapey, and delicious.
I too, even as a young child, was made to drink the mandatory four glasses of ceremonial wine, however, the “glasses” were anything but. My grandma used tiny vessels resembling miniature vases for the wine. They couldn’t have held more than an ounce of liquid if that. Four standard glasses of wine per person would have made for a stumbling drunk, albeit entertaining, way to commemorate the Jews’ crossing of the miraculously parted Red Sea and then wandering around the desert for forty years. It kind of sounds like they were all drunk.
On this specific seder, at the tender age of seven, after I had drunk the fourth requisite mini-vase of Manischewitz nectar but before the serving of my grandma’s famous brisket and potato kugel, I had a sudden urge to retreat to the bathroom. Something wasn’t right with me. I didn’t have to pee, I just knew that being alone in the bathroom was essential at this moment. I tried to remove myself from the table unobserved and sneak away to the downstairs “blue bathroom” which was adorned with swirling blue and silver patterned wallpaper and matching blue floor mats and hand towels. Even the decorative, dusty round soaps were shades of blue. They called it the "blue bathroom" to not confuse it with the upstairs “red bathroom” which had a similar motif except with red and gold hues. My grandparents’ taste in decor left something to be desired, but this was the late seventies when gaudy home decoration was all the rage.
Upon entering the bathroom, I immediately sat down on the fuzzy blue toilet cozy and rested my elbows upon my knees. I cupped my chubby cheeks into the palms of my hands and scanned the small powder room trying to figure out what this new sensation was. Things around me started moving. The blue and silver swirls on the wallpaper began swirling, and the shaggy blue bathmat upon which my tiptoes were perched appeared to be rising and falling. I didn’t feel sick, however, I certainly didn’t feel like I had for the first part of the seder when objects around me were not animated. As I remained slumped over myself, I heard the distant conversation of my family in the next room.
“Where’s Aimee?” someone asked.
“She went to the bathroom,” said someone else. I then heard the approaching footsteps upon the parquet floor and a knock on the bathroom door.
“Honey, are you ok?” asked my mom. I was ok. In fact, I was better than ok. The warm and fuzzy sensation in my body was growing stronger, and I felt so relaxed I could’ve curled up on the soft, cuddly bathmat and drifted off into a peaceful slumber.
“I’m ok but feel kinda funny,” I said, and then noticed the toilet paper roll mounted to the wall beside me and began spinning it round and round watching the free end delicately flutter with each rotation. It was amazing. I kept spinning it, all but forgetting about my mom’s concern.
“Do you need me to help you?” she asked, but I was a big girl now, and didn’t want my family to see my mom come into the bathroom to help with whatever was happening to me at this moment.
“No. I’m ok,” I replied.
“Ok well, shout if you need me,” she said and padded away again on the hardwood floor. I then heard her say, “Aimee’s drunk” followed by muffled laughter from the rest of my family. I had heard this word before but only when my grandpa had let me take a tiny sip of his beer occasionally. As he pulled the can away from my mouth he would say, “That’s enough, sweetheart. I don’t want you to get drunk.” I didn’t know what drunk actually meant, but if it involved being enveloped in a peaceful coziness making everything around me more colorful and lively, then I wanted to be drunk forever.
After a few more minutes in the whirling bathroom, I finally composed myself, took one more look at the wonderland that it had become, and opened the door. I rejoined my family at the dinner table and as I took my seat, everyone was looking at me with suspicious eyes and crooked grins.
“How you feeling, Aimee?” my uncle asked with a little snorting giggle. “I sure hope you’re not planning on driving home!”
“I don’t know how to drive, Uncle Jeff,” I said, and then my family burst into laughter. I joined in on their laughter although I did not know why this was funny.
Grandma finally served the brisket along with roasted potatoes and rugelach for dessert. By the end of dinner, everyone seemed to have forgotten about the bathroom incident. I even found the afikomen, quite an accomplishment considering I was still seeing double.
Why I got drunk on that particular evening is unclear. I hadn’t been affected by the mini-vases of crappy wine in the years before when I was an even smaller being, nor did I get drunk again in subsequent years at the seder, which we eventually stopped having once I entered adolescence and my interest in searching for a hidden piece of cracker for a dollar had waned. I didn’t get drunk again until I entered high school and began drinking for reasons other than paying tribute to the Angel of Death passing over blood-smeared doors. I drank to fit in and have the courage to make out with cute boys. My drink of choice became Boone’s Strawberry Hill wine and Seagram’s wine coolers, not exactly a huge jump in quality from my once-revered Manischewitz, but pulling out a bottle of “Jew wine” at a keg party wouldn’t have looked too cool.
Drinking eventually became part of every high school and college weekend, then in adulthood, pretty much everything else became an excuse to imbibe; holidays, birthdays, Mondays, and the effect of the booze was always the same, to varying degrees. But never did I feel quite like that first time I unintentionally got drunk as a seven-year-old, full of wonderment, with no knowledge of what was happening to my small body as that delicious, red sticky liquid pulsed through my virginal veins. It was as if I had been given a gift I hadn’t asked for, nor knew of my reaction to, until I stumbled into the swirling blue bathroom, plopped down on the toilet seat, and saw two of me in the big, shiny mirror.