Shopping for Passover items can be challenging in small Southern towns – and I’m sure there are others around the country who can relate to this as well. When you’re outside of a major metropolitan area, the quest for Passover foods (especially more than just matzah – although, as you’ll see, even that can get tricky…) can be a challenge.
Many grocery store managers are unfamiliar with “Kosher for Passover” merchandise, and they don’t want a lot of extra product on their shelves after the holiday. When they do stock up, though, it’s almost touching. I actually get excited when the Passover items make it to the special display in the grocery store.
What will they have this year? Any new dessert mixes, or new flavors of macaroons? Anything new to help fill the kids’ brown bag lunches for school– especially when one child is not particularly fond of matzah or the “Passover rolls” (you know, basically the same recipe as a matzah ball but baked, not boiled – mmm!).
What amuses me is that my local grocery store has a small “Asian section” – and somehow, that’s also the “Jewish section,” at least for part of the year. So, next to the udon noodles and fried rice mix, one can find the gefilte fish!
Of course, there’s also the fact that the stores don’t always get it right, even when they’re trying. I especially like picking up a box of matzah, suddenly available in the springtime, for Passover!– only to discover that the hechsher specifies “not kosher for Passover.”
Not very helpful, but it made me laugh. And when they do get it right, it feels even more special.
Have you had any “special” Passover shopping moments this year?
Clarksdale, Mississippi. To fans of the blues, Clarksdale is the birthplace of the great Sam Cook, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and of course, site of the legendary crossroads of Hwy 61 and 49 where bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil.
To me, however, Clarksdale represents family, and an important part of my childhood.
Growing up in Jackson, I remember our family’s annual “pilgrimage” to Clarksdale, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Every year before the fall holidays, my siblings, mother and I (Dad was at work) would drive up to the Delta, passing lush farmland and cotton fields, to go to Beth Israel cemetery and “visit” with my mom’s parents, both buried there.
We left early in the morning, got to the cemetery by 11, had lunch – vague recollections of the plate lunch special included fried chicken and black eyed peas – and then visited with my mom’s friend, who we knew as “Aunt” Adele Cohen (who was not an actual relation). And then we turned around and drove home.
My mom treasured this annual road trip. She lived in Clarksdale as a young girl and graduated high school there. My grandparents had a small grocery store in Clarksdale, and lived there until the early 1960s before moving to Jackson.
I left Mississippi when I was 24, and headed to the West Coast. After two decades away, and now with a family of my own, I moved back to Jackson five years ago. By the time I returned to reside in my home state, my mom had passed away.
I don’t really know when my family’s last Clarksdale “visit” took place. But this summer, en route to Memphis, I vowed to go visit. All I had was the street name for the cemetery; no address. I drove up and down Friar’s Point Road – no cemetery. I decided to find downtown Clarksdale – perhaps someone could direct me.
It was a hot day in July – I mean, HOT. Easily 99 degrees, with humidity to match. I made it to Main Street, which has seen better days. Lots of empty stores, a victim of small towns getting smaller and a poor economy in the Delta. But I spotted the Clarksdale Press Register newspaper office, went in, asked if they could point me in the direction of the Jewish cemetery.
Though her companion gave me a confused look, one of the young women said: “Oh sure, it’s just around the corner.”
I quickly got back in the car and made my way to the cemetery.
And there they were. Michael (for whom I’m named) and Shelda Binder, my maternal grandparents. It was a moment that brought a flash of days long gone, as well as a connection to my mom and generations past. I also saw the graves of relatives for whom I have no memories – they were just names to me.
As I placed the stones on their tombstones, I spoke to them; whether it was aloud or simply words in my head, I’m not certain. But I told them: “I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since I’ve been here. I love you.”
I returned to my car and headed back to the highway, feeling a sense of calm and comfort. It won’t be my last visit to Clarksdale.
As the only Jewish kid in his middle school in suburban Mississippi, my youngest son Eric will be telling his friends why he won’t be at school Monday. He’ll say he won’t be there “because it’s Rosh Hashanah.”
And inevitably, the follow up question from his fellow 6th graders will be: “What’s that?”
I can just imagine the conversation continuing from there…
Well, it’s the Jewish New Year.
New Year? So does that mean it’s like New Year’s Eve, and you stay up late, and at midnight say ‘Happy New Year!’?
Well, no, not really.
Does it have anything to do with Chanukah? Oooh! Do you play the dreidel game? Do you eat those good chocolate coins?
No, it has nothing to do with that.
I thought about how to respond. The questions were about to hit hard and fast, and as his mom, it’s my job to coach Eric and make sure he knows what to say. I want him to be prepared. Which meant I needed to be prepared, and I am embarrassed to say… I had to look it up.
I mean, of course I know what Rosh Hashanah is. I certainly know how to prepare the holiday dinner. I know what to say and do during services. I know the prayers, I know about saying I’m sorry, I know about the reflection … but I guess I was looking for the Cliff notes (Sparknotes?) version for what Rosh Hashanah “is”.
So at first, I went to my go-to reference guide, Joseph Telushkin’s wonderful Jewish Literacy book, and discovered the following information: “On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are instructed to scrupulously examine their deeds and more significantly their misdeeds during the preceding year. During these days, Jewish tradition teaches, God decides who shall live and who shall die during the coming year. The prayers that we say attempt to influence God’s decisions.”
This is pretty heavy stuff. Who shall live and who shall die. I have said those words every year since I began attending the adult service (let’s just say it’s been more than 30 years) and I never internalized those words – who shall live and who shall die.
Hmmm. Meaningful, yes, but not necessarily what I would advise Eric to tell his peers. “What’s Rosh Hoshanah? Oh, okay. Well. It’s basically when God decides who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die.”
So I went to the next great resource I had on hand – the ISJL pre-K curriculum. And you know what? In this particular situation, I think I prefer the early-childhood explanation: “During Rosh Hashanah, we think about how we want the new year to be better. We reflect on the past year – at both the good things and the bad things. At the new year we get a chance to start over fresh and make every effort to be a better person.”
As Telushkin admits, the theme of life and death could easily have turned Rosh Hashanah into two days of utter morbidity. To prevent this, the rabbis encouraged Jews to observe Rosh Hashanah in a spirit of optimism, confident that God will accept their repentance and extend their lives. For example, they ordained that honey be served at all Rosh Hashanah meals and that slices of apple be dipped into it. A special prayer is then recited: May it be Thy will, O Lord, Our God, to grant us a year that is good and is sweet.
That’s more in line with what I hope Eric’s classmates will learn when they ask him about our holiday. It’s a day of fresh starts. A season when we ask for a good and sweet year to come. (And if you need more resources on what Rosh Hashanah is, there are plenty of great ones here, too!)