Passover is a family experience, a good time to tell and listen to one another’s stories. So I offer up a few examples that I’ve shared at home over the years about my cluelessness as a youngster. Like the time when I was a kid of about 10 or 11, growing up in Annapolis, Md., and wondering who Morris Eyen was.
He was becoming the bane of my existence and I’d never even met him. This was puzzling because I thought I knew just about everyone in the town’s only synagogue, where my Dad was the rabbi.
Occasionally challenging the religious limits on my ability to lead a life more like my non-observant friends, I’d ask my Dad if it would be okay
to go a movie on Shabbat if I paid for my ticket in advance. (Granted, this was a hypothetical question because our family had a “clergy pass” to the three local theaters, a wonderful perk, but that’s another story.)
My Dad would smile, presumably at the cleverness of my logic, and say my plan might have worked if not for Morris Eyen.
Same for my request to join my friends at a local eatery as long as I didn’t eat, since we kept kosher. No dice, he said in effect. Why? I’d ask.
Who was this guy, and why was he keeping me from having a social life?
It was only then that I learned that “ma’aris eyen” (literally, “the way it appears”) is not a person but a rabbinic construct based on a deep understanding of human psychology.
The rabbis of old prohibited being seen in a situation that gave the appearance of having violated a religious law, even if, technically, the person had committed no such offense. The rationale might be best explained through an example, one that I was involved in when I was in my late teens and working a summer job at a local moving and storage company in Annapolis.
Nowhere near brawny enough to actually do the heavy lifting in moving furniture, I was the utility guy who worked in the office and did a variety of less strenuous chores, one of which was to bring lunch to the workers on the job.
One day I was in line at the fast-food restaurant, looking over my list of cheeseburgers and bacon sandwiches to order, when a woman behind me, a member of the shul, spotted me and greeted me warmly, if a bit surprised.
“Oh hi, Gary,” she said. “I didn’t know McDonalds was kosher.”
That’s “ma’aris eyen” – having someone conclude falsely that since an observant person was committing an act, it was permissible when in fact it wasn’t.
Morris Eyen wasn’t the only phrase that had me confused as a kid.
I remember a Shabbat meal at home – I must have been about nine at the time – when my parents were discussing a congregant they’d known many years.
“We go back a long way,” my Dad said. “I married his daughter about 10 years ago.”
I was in shock. Even more so when my Mom nodded benignly, adding: “Yes, and her sister before that.”
What was going on here, I wondered. It was only after lunch, when my older brother explained that Dad had officiated at the weddings, not been the groom, that my worries were put to rest.
Another incident from about the age of 11: I came home from school one day and turned on the TV, but was stymied when the picture wouldn’t focus. My parents weren’t home, so I started fiddling with the different knobs on our console, but to no avail. It was then that I noticed that on the bookshelves above the TV were my father’s collections of volumes, including an annual series of RCA Manuals.
Hey, I thought, we have an RCA, this is just what I need. So I opened up the book corresponding to the current year for some help. But what I found were not instructions for adjusting the picture on the screen, but sermons on topics ranging from bar mitzvahs to the High Holy Days.
Not knowing that my Dad was a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (hence, the RCA Manual), I was deeply puzzled as to how a eulogy for an elderly congregant could help me get a clearer picture to watch The Mouseketeers.
Finally, one of my favorite stories about Jewish life in Annapolis occurred during High Holy Day services at the shul. For many years the two Cohen brothers, as members of the priestly tribe, had performed the special birchat kohanim, or priestly blessing, during the Musaf service, and today, for the first time, they were joined proudly by one of their sons, who had recently become a bar mitzvah.
After services, an elderly congregant called me aside and asked how old the young man was. “Thirteen,” I said.
“Thirteen years old,” she mused, with a mixture of admiration and wonder, “and already a kohen.”