29 March 2010

Next year in peace, and love, and civility (and Jerusalem)

This makes me love our President, and what he stands for, even more. In addition, it makes me look at the recent bullies of Democratic supporters of healthcare (in Ohio, a Republican yokel spit on a Parkinson's sufferer who praised the passing of healthcare reforms) with even more distaste and-- I'll go ahead and say it-- shame. Years ago we left Egypt, but we still have not left behind intellectual servitude and slavery of human decency. Thank goodness for Barack Obama and other kindred spirits. Next year in Jerusalem-- and all that it stands for-- indeed. Happy Passover.

Next Year in the White House: A Seder Tradition

WASHINGTON — One evening in April 2008, three low-level staff members from the Obama presidential campaign — a baggage handler, a videographer and an advance man — gathered in the windowless basement of a Pennsylvania hotel for an improvised Passover Seder.

The day had been long, the hour was late, and the young men had not been home in months. So they had cadged some matzo and Manischewitz wine, hoping to create some semblance of the holiday.

Suddenly they heard a familiar voice. “Hey, is this the Seder?” Barack Obama asked, entering the room.

So begins the story of the Obama Seder, now one of the newest, most intimate and least likely of White House traditions. When Passover begins at sunset on Monday evening, Mr. Obama and about 20 others will gather for a ritual that neither the rabbinic sages nor the founding fathers would recognize.

In the Old Family Dining Room, under sparkling chandeliers and portraits of former first ladies, the mostly Jewish and African-American guests will recite prayers and retell the biblical story of slavery and liberation, ending with the traditional declaration “Next year in Jerusalem.” (Never mind the current chill in the administration’s relationship with Israel.)

Top aides like David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett will attend, but so will assistants like 24-year-old Herbie Ziskend. White House chefs will prepare Jewish participants’ family recipes, even rendering chicken fat — better known as schmaltz — for just the right matzo ball flavor.

If last year is any guide, Malia and Sasha Obama will take on the duties of Jewish children, asking four questions about the night’s purpose — along with a few of their own — and scrambling to find matzo hidden in the gleaming antique furniture.

That event was the first presidential Seder, and also probably “the first time in history that gefilte fish had been placed on White House dishware,” said Eric Lesser, the former baggage handler, who organizes each year’s ritual.

As in many Jewish households, the Obama Seder seems to take on new meaning each year, depending on what is happening in the world and in participants’ lives (for this group, the former is often the same as the latter).

The first one took place at the bleakest point of the campaign, the long prelude to the Pennsylvania primary, which was dominated by a furor over Mr. Obama’s former pastor. “We were in the desert, so to speak,” remembered Arun Chaudhary, then and now Mr. Obama’s videographer, who grew up attending Seders with his half-Jewish, half-Indian family.

No one led the proceedings; everyone took turns reading aloud. Mr. Obama had brought Reggie Love, his personal aide, Ms. Jarrett and Eric Whitaker, another close friend, all African-American. Jennifer Psaki, the traveling press secretary, and Samantha Tubman, a press assistant, filtered in. Neither had ever been to a Seder, but they knew the Exodus story, Ms. Psaki from Catholic school and Ms. Tubman from childhood Sundays at black churches.

They peppered the outnumbered Jews at the table with questions, which the young men sometimes struggled to answer. “We’re not exactly crack Hebrew scholars,” said Mr. Lesser, now an assistant to Mr. Axelrod.

Participants remember the evening as a rare moment of calm, an escape from the din of airplanes and rallies. As the tale of the Israelites unfolded, the campaign team half-jokingly identified with their plight — one day, they too would be free. At the close of the Seder, Mr. Obama added his own ending — “Next year in the White House!”

Indeed, the group, with a few additions, has now made the Seder an Executive Mansion tradition. (No one considered inviting prominent rabbis or other Jewish leaders; it is a private event.)

But maintaining the original humble feel has been easier said than done.

Ms. Tubman and Desirée Rogers, then the White House social secretary, tried to plan an informal meal last year, with little or even no wait staff required. White House ushers reacted with what seemed like polite horror. The president and the first lady simply do not serve themselves, they explained. The two sides negotiated a compromise: the gefilte fish would be preplated, the brisket passed family-style.

Then came what is now remembered as the Macaroon Security Standoff. At 6:30, with the Seder about to start, Neil Cohen, the husband of Michelle Obama’s friend and adviser Susan Sher, was stuck at the gate bearing flourless cookies he had brought from Chicago. They were kosher for Passover, but not kosher with the Secret Service, which does not allow food into the building.

Offering to help, the president walked to the North Portico and peered out the door, startling tourists. He volunteered to go all the way to the gates, but advisers stopped him, fearing that would cause a ruckus. Everyone seemed momentarily befuddled. Could the commander in chief not summon a plate of cookies to his table? Finally, Mr. Love ran outside to clear them.

Mr. Obama began the Seder by invoking the universality of the holiday’s themes of struggle and liberation. Malia and Sasha quickly found the hidden matzo and tucked it away again, so cleverly that Mr. Ziskend, the former advance man, needed 45 minutes to locate it. At the Seder’s close, the group opened a door and sang to the prophet Elijah.

In preparation for this year’s gathering, Mr. Lesser and others have again been collecting recipes from the guests, including matzo ball instructions from Patricia Winter, the mother of Melissa Winter, Mrs. Obama’s deputy chief of staff.

“We like soft (not hard) matzo balls,” Mrs. Winter warned in a note to the White House chefs, instructing them to buy mix but doctor it. Use three eggs, not two, she told them; substitute schmaltz for vegetable oil, and refrigerate them for a day before serving (but not in the soup).

The Seder originated with Jewish staff members on the campaign trail who could not go home, but now some celebrate at the White House by choice. Participants say their ties are practically familial now anyway. “Some of the most challenging experiences of our life we’ve shared together,” Ms. Jarrett said.

No one yet knows exactly what themes will emerge this year. Maybe “taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves and health care reform,” suggested Ms. Sher, now Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff.

The evening might also reflect a group that has settled into the White House and a staff more familiar with the new custom. Last week, Ms. Sher was leaving the East Wing when a guard stopped her.

“Hey, are you bringing macaroons again this year?” he asked.

Correction: March 27, 2010

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Herbie Ziskend.

28 March 2010

I shouldn't love you

Standing alone, wild and somehow out of place, at home amongst the winds
But maybe you and I just fit into one another, like measuring spoons
...It's not meant to be. But somehow I'd rather fit with you, no matter the tears that follow, than be alone on that hilltop on my own, wondering why you would not stay and dance...

"And I am a writer, a writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones
My bones
My bones..."

25 March 2010

You're the reason why the opera is in me

Here is a secret thought that makes my heart sing:
Even though it may be out of place, even though it may have snapped strings to its flock,
a duck can still find a puddle in a field somewhere-- or alongside a road, or in a parking lot--
and make it home.

21 March 2010

only you can cool my desire

If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean-buyer.
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in! Come in!

19 March 2010

the state of the world

If I'm Anne Shirley, then I have met my Pringles.
I could go on and on. In the words of Anne Shirley, "Cantankerous, prejudiced old creatures! How can anyone possibly succeed against such tactics?"
Books are lovely and meaningful. If only people wouldn't take their ignorance and blacken books. And blacken the hearts of the teachers who only try to make this new generation more altruistic, more worldly, more sensitive, less egocentric, than the generations that have preceded them.

15 March 2010

tea for two, and two for tea...

"Oscar, Toby, and I are the founding members of the Finer Things Club. We meet once a month to discuss books and art, celebrate culture in a very civilized way. Sometimes the debate can get heated, but we're always respectful. There is no paper, no plastic, and no work talk allowed. It's very exclusive."

13 March 2010

She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning

"When I received the book as a fourteenth birthday present from a friend, it was, to paraphrase Alan Bennett, as if a hand had come out and taken mine. Lolita was an “exasperating brat” and a sucker for cheesy gift-shops, and she was vindication. Looking back on my own past, I could never quite conjure the requisite image of innocence lost. I conjured loathing, despair, and wanting to shrink until I caved in on myself and would no longer have to think about anything, sure, but I could also remember being an exasperating brat myself. I could remember the initial affection I had for the man who became the first to rather spectacularly betray me, and how hard it was to make sense of that affection in light of what was happening. I could remember, very vividly, fretting over the fact that I had “impaired” his “morals,” in whatever confused internal language was available to me at the time. It didn’t matter that I was seven years old and couldn’t fully grasp what was going on, what mattered were the feelings I had to live with.

Reading Lolita at fourteen, I was only beginning to make sense of my experience. I did know that the ordeal of the title character made me feel pity, but not self-pity. There was nothing sentimental about it, despite, or perhaps because of the sublime prose. More importantly, I was angry on behalf of Lolita and the horrible banality of her situation, and anger, it turned out, was a useful emotion, far preferable to pathos. Humbert’s calculated desire to appear as a victim of Lolita’s frail shoulders and gray eyes was infuriating:

I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her — after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred — I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever — for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) — the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again — and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure — all would be shattered.

Here, Nabokov does more than write about a self-contained world of horror in a beautiful way. He also presents a curious way in which the human mind can experience that world of horror. One of the things that always bothered me most was how my awful recollections could come back to me in exquisite wrapping: how I could recall overripe apples thumping to the ground in the night, a shooting star, or Bach being played on the piano in an adjacent room. In attempting to make sense of what happened to me, I seized on those moments as “evidence” of the fact that I “liked” what had occurred. If I could focus on the loveliness of Prelude No. 1 in C Major as something disgusting and illegal was going on, wasn’t I just reveling in that which was disgusting and illegal? I punished myself for a way of thinking that, reading Lolita, was revealed to me as a survival tactic. I realized, for the first time, that there was nothing wrong or strange with how I had been coping, by stepping out of the horror and into the beauty that was running parallel to it."

~Natalia Antonova~

12 March 2010

Reader, I married him

"I knew that Jane Eyre would work its magic upon you someday."
~An Education~

If there were one book that both merits favorite status and guides my life path, it would be Jane Eyre. I have read the book multiple times and even wrote my thesis on it...but every time I read it, I'm struck even more to the core how much of a pioneer Charlotte Bronte truly was. It's the creation of Jane, not the spinning of the dark gothic romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester, that is the true feat here. I love the imagery of Jane's passion and desire for liberty as a bird beating against the caged walls of her chest.
I like to think that we've all felt out of place at times-- iconoclastic, yes, but also irreparably alone. I read about Jane sitting obscured by curtains in the Red Room, seeking comfort in a cherished book, and I can identify with the feeling of an interloper, an uncongenial alien finding a moment of refuge (only to have it be interrupted, too soon, by the jarring blow of reality). I too have felt the sensations of passion radiating out of my pores, threatening to inundate me and my surroundings. Like Jane, the restlessness was in my nature; like Jane, I assert my dissatisfaction with tranquility, believe that women do indeed feel just as men feel.
I've had my moments of restless pacing along banisters and rooftops, gazing out at the panorama before me and longing to be a part of it. Jane, in 1847 no less, opened up that cage for us. She allowed us not just to long for liberty but to make it our own. She allowed us to put our powers in play and in force. And she also provided transportation, on the wings of imagination, to English woods on rainy afternoons, comforted by a cup of tea and a warm shawl.
"I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing."

11 March 2010

gossamer threads...far from this

Lily I hope you picture me in your dreams
Put down your King James Bible
You don't need no kings
Close your eyes, baby I'll try mine
Echoes through the phone
Far from this
Lily dreams on
Think back to fields of Catherine
You used to play
I swore I heard you laughing
And almost say
Put your marrows down, take away the past
And let the past be gone
Far from this
Lily dreams on

03 March 2010

what a beautiful mess it is

I'm so sorry that I've been missing. Today I found that my head was so crowded with unaired thoughts that it was all I could do not to scream them out, inchoate and incomprehensible. Instead I ate a chocolate-cherry Godiva chocolate bar and bought a copy of The Help.
Dearest readers, I love teaching, but lately I find myself to be just exhausted. It takes all of my energy to arise in the morning and even more to remain upright all day (without betraying to my students that, in fact, their teacher is a mess of nerves and stress). I want my life to be Glee, full of teachable moments but without teacher burnout (and with plenty of Mr. Schuester kisses-- I'm in love with a fictional character).
It was my birthday last weekend (well, the weekend before last), and my best friends surprised me with a flight to DC to spend my birthday with my soulmates. We spent nights cuddling and eating delicious food and drinking champagne-- imbibing and thriving. Sunday we went to brunch where they had a dazzling dime-store-variety candy buffet! I'm taking malted milk balls, Pixie Stix, caramels, Tootsie Rolls, Necco Wafers...Eastern Market followed, where my friends bought fresh ravioli and I acquired a chartreuse cocktail ring. On the plane ride home I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society-- a new favorite! It reminded me of another cherished tome, 84 Charing Cross Road.
With a St. Louis trip having occurred the week before (and being entirely glorious), returning to reality and the work accompanying it has proven...daunting, for lack of a better word. I keep trying to tell myself I'm happy, and overall, I am. It's just that I miss knowing my community, having places where I can settle with a chai latte and a book and stay for hours (Kaldi's even has containers of Red Hots affixed to the wall, and we all know about my love of chandeliers in unexpected places).
I miss creperies and walking from place to place (peripatetic, poetic, and chic) and stately homes behind wrought-iron gates.
"Cause what if I'm a mermaid
In these jeans of his
With her name still on it
Hey, but I don't care
Cause sometimes
I said sometimes
I hear my voice
And it's been here
Silent all these years..."

"Give to me your leather...
Take from me, my lace..."

"Yet Irina had once tucked away, she wasn't sure when or why, that happiness is almost definitionally a condition of which you are not aware at the time. To inhabit your own contentment is to be wholly present, with no orbiting satellite to take clinical readings of the state of the planet. Conventionally, you grow conscious of happiness at the very point that it begins to elude you. When not misused to talk yourself into something - when not a lie - the h-word is a classification applied in retrospect. It is a bracketing assessment, a label only decisively pasted onto an era once it is over."
~lionel shriver, the post-birthday world~

"See us winter walking after the storm
It's chill in the wind
But it's warm in your arms..."