Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Finding the Afikomen

I'm still chuckling about a Jon Stewart thing the other night. (Probably most of North America is doing the same thing, but only half a million or so of us will blog about it, so there.) Stewart caught me with a bit about a dogged TV news reporter whose specialty is personally recreating peculiar scenarios that pop up in the news – in this case, falling off a cruise ship and being lost at sea.

Among other things, Stewart poked fun at the reporter for pointing out earnestly to a Coast Guard rescuer that finding people at sea is as hard as (wait for it) "finding a needle in a haystack". Open-mouthed mugging from Stewart, who offered a few better similes, finishing with " finding the afikomen... in a really big house!" Then an aside along the lines of "That'll please about 16 Jews. The rest of you won't have a clue what I'm talking about."

Well, while I was studying Hebrew (and Latin and Greek and German... oy!) at university, I kept getting invited to Passover dinners (seders), although I'm not myself Jewish. And somehow I was always the youngest one (a mere 23 or so), so I kept being given a lot of songs and readings to do, and being made to go find the afikomen.

At which point I should explain that the afikomen (stress on the third syllable) is a piece of broken matzoh that is wrapped in a napkin and hidden before the seder. The children get to look for it (think: Easter eggs); or sometimes they "steal" it and get to "ransom" it back to the grownups. Different families have different traditions around the afikomen; some keep part of it in the house for the year the way Roman Catholics keep blessed palm fronds after Palm Sunday.

Actually, even apart from the Easter-egg and palm-frond tie-ins, the afikomen is one of those points where Jewish and Christian traditions share common DNA. The Christian Last Supper was a seder, and the bread that Jesus blessed – commemorated as the sacred wafer in Christian services – was essentially a broken matzoh. The afikomen, if you will. In the Jewish tradition, the afikomen stands for the sacrificial lamb that could not be prepared in the days of the destruction of the temple; the Christian wafer stands for the body of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb... the parallel couldn't be much closer.

So whereas I've been laughing with pleasure at being reminded of this longish funny word with such a tremendously specific meaning, those four syllables have also brought back to me the recollecton of a whole fabric of interlaced threads that bear reflection at this time of year. (The first day of Passover is Tuesday, April 3 this year, and Holy Thursday, the commemoration of the Last Supper, is April 5, with Easter on the 9th.)

Flashback to a typically tasteless Family Guy joke a few nights earlier, with a nerdy Jewish guy fleeing from a Hitler scarecrow (dear God, was it referred to on the show as a "scareJew"???) yelling "Save Jon Stewart! He's our most important Jew!" Tasteless, yes, but there's a point there.

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