Today, on Pesach Sheni, the best Jewish holiday no one ever heard of, one reader kindly requested a reprint of story I wrote years ago that doesn't seem to be available online. Here's a slightly edited version.
Jimmy Cannon, the long-gone but great columnist for The New York Post and later The Journal-American, banged out a column, “Loser’s Christmas,” in 1954. Christmas, he wrote, “persecutes the lonely, the frayed and the rejected.” He hung a mistletoe “for those who popped up and struck out…. for men with no place to go and all the short-order cooks everyplace… Give those who ache from old errors back all their mistakes … May all those who are lost reach their destination.”
Sounds like Cannon was describing Pesach Sheni, the holiday of second chances, but he didn’t know it. Who does? Pesach Sheni (literally, a second Passover), is a club-fighter of a holiday so obscure and cauliflowered of ear that it doesn’t even have an English name.
Pesach Sheni evokes its sister holiday, Passover, but it’s just one day not eight, you can eat bread, there are no restrictions, and there is no seder. Some eat leftover matzah, but this day is less about matzah and more about leftovers.
There is really nothing to do on Pesach Sheni but “give those who ache from old errors back all their mistakes.” Pesach Sheni originated at the time of the Exodus, when the chevra kadisha burial society that carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt was told by Moses that, according to God’s law, they were disqualified from offering the Passover sacrifice because they had come into contact with death—Joseph’s bones.
The chevra, refusing to be denied, appealed to Moses to appeal to God, who, overruling Himself, replied that anyone who couldn’t do what they had to do because they were touched by death or “on a distant road … now or in future generations,” could have a second go at it every year, one month after Passover, for one day only — Pesach Sheni (Iyar 14).
“Death” and “distant roads,” rebbes explained, also refers to sadness and disconnection. Anyone who missed doing what he or she had to do, be it on a Passover or in other circumstances, essentially could go back in time if his or her yearning was true enough. Nothing broken was beyond repair. After all, time itself is an earthly concept. Heaven is not confined by the laws of time.
Shlomo Carlebach used to say that it’s no coincidence that Pesach Sheni was born of an encounter with Joseph’s bones. Joseph was “the master of the second chance,” said Reb Shlomo. The very name Joseph means “something additional,” the holy coda. Joseph’s mother, Rachel, married Jacob, the love of her life, only after Jacob first married Leah. Joseph was in dungeons until dream interpretation freed him, making him second only to Pharaoh. And then Joseph gave his brothers, who sold him into exile, a second chance too.
In prison, or later, did Joseph ever dream about Potiphar’s wife? No one knows Pesach Sheni like those who sleep alone or those who wish they did. It is for those Dylan nights “when you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time, too.” Few day schools teach it. Most rabbis never speak of it. We think ourselves a people without Cannon’s short-order cooks and lonelyhearts in furnished rooms. We speak of the exile after Tisha B’Av, but not the exile from lost loves or even lost routine.
Let Pesach Sheni be a day for everyone who was ever chewed up and spit out by the great American and Jewish scolds. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives but the decades have brought dignity to Ralph Branca, and Ralph Kramden is still kissed in reruns by Alice after his dreams still go bust.
Here are some ways Cannon would have told us to observe Pesach Sheni: Go to shul in the East Bronx, filling the pews for Rabbi Zevulon Charlop in Mosholu Parkway and Rabbi Sol Berl in Co-op City, who stayed when others didn’t. Put out a saucer for the stray cats of Jerusalem. Rather than a doomed bus to Gaza, let Alisa Flatow take a ride on Elijah’s chariot to the woods at dusk along the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv.
Give back the night to Karnit Goldwasser, her last night with her newlywed Ehud before he left for the army and oblivion. “Life after death” is the ultimate Pesach Sheni. As Thornton Wilder wrote in “Our Town,” in Act III, “Now there are some things we all know but we don’t take’em out and look at’em very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t bones and it ain’t names and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal,” something and someplace like the "high lonesome" bluegrass hymn, “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies.”
Wilder has the Emily character, from the Other World hill on the edge of town, saying, “One can go back; one can go back there again, into living. I feel it. I know it … I can go back there and live all those days again … why not?” She’s advised not to do it, it’ll hurt too much, “at least,” she’s told, “choose an unimportant day in your life. It will be important enough.”
Back in the 1970s, I knew a much older woman, Lilly, who lived in a Catskill cottage. In the 1920s she had been engaged to be married. She was picking out colors, checking out halls, as young brides will, but came down with tuberculosis. Her groom left her. Her family sent her, “for fresh air,” to live in the Catskills where she found work as a manicurist in the Jewish hotels, never to marry.
She saved enough to buy a small place. When her parents died, all their family furniture was placed in storage and it wasn’t until decades later that, with a place of her own, she retrieved her parents’ sitting room. She now had, from the 1920s, a four-foot-high stand-up radio in one corner, and a crank-up Victrola in the other. For her visitor, she played a 78-rpm ballad and asked if I liked it. I heard more scratches than words, not recognizing the song of Pesach Sheni.
Perhaps these are hymns and a holiday that elude the young. No junior congregations, young couple minyans or young professional groups post Pesach Sheni calendar listings, though it will be a beautiful night, as Reb Shlomo used to tell friends, to “call me for no reason.”
According to Leonard Cohen, “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.” On Pesach Sheni there are no sins, only second chances.