Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Jewish Ode To Coffee (Or, Is That Matzah In Your Colon Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?)

Steam rises from the placid ebony stillness of my mug, sending the richest aromas to my nose. Just the smell wakes me with sweet little angel kisses to my brain. I’m certain ancient kings did not know fragrances as luxurious as these, scents that have greeted simple lil me every morning of my adult life.

Well, almost every morning.

One year I foolishly eschewed coffee during Pesach. I believed a friend who said that all coffee was chametz (in reality only some of it is – particularly some of the awful instant swill I wouldn’t drink anyway). The Internet was still a new-fangled tool, and the friend in question was dating a guy whose brother was thinking about studying to become a rabbi. Who was I to question such a reliable source?

I hadn’t been drinking coffee long, but wow did I notice its absence. I’m not going to spell it out for you. I don’t need to. Suffice to say that without coffee we Jews “pass over” feeling human, clutching the pit of wet paper and cement where our colons used to be and cursing Moses for not having had the foresight to get a sourdough starter prepped a day ahead of time.

As a kid, I had a lot of erroneous notions about Halachic law: I
believed shrimp was kosher because there’s no way an exoskeleton could
be classified as a “shell.”  I thought duck had to be traif because,
well, who eats duck? And I believed that McDonald’s food was fine to
eat, just so long as my mother bought it for me.

So it wasn’t a stretch for me to believe that coffee – beautiful,
delicious coffee – was off limits during this festival of gastronomical

I was in my late teens, transitioning between two significant life
stages: The first involved being upset that I couldn’t eat my
non-Jewish friends’ Easter Peeps; the second, being upset that I
couldn’t meet my non-Jewish friends at the bar. The added insult of
removing coffee from my diet seemed downright cruel.

But, I was trying to be a good Jew, so I skipped the morning cup. And
the afternoon one. And, of course, the up-all-night-studying one.

I spent the holiday drowsy, achy and angry. I have never understood why
people say Pesach is their favorite holiday – that year, I understood
it even less. It was only after I made it through the holiday – curled
in the fetal position from the pain – that I learned my friend had been
mistaken. And to my constipation, er, consternation, she discovered her
error during Passover, picked up her coffee cup again and didn’t bother
to tell me!

We are no longer friends. And I am no longer eliminating coffee from my cupboards during Pesach.

Instead, I plan to spend Passover enjoying coffee in its two finest
forms: in my cup, and in my belly. If Moses hadn’t been so clear about
that false idol commandment, I’d build a shrine to coffee. Instead,
I’ll have to settle for this ode.

I’m not the first person to declare my love for coffee. So why, you
might ask, is this coffee ode different from all other coffee odes?
Because after being treated so cruelly, after being prisoner to
misinformation and pitiless oversight, I have vowed that it is my duty
(no pun intended) to retell this story every year.

Maybe not in these pages, but certainly to my children. And to my
children’s children. Sure, it’s not as riveting or universal as the
Passover story in the Hagaddah. And perhaps there will come a time,
when my great-grandchildren say to me, “You know what? This really
isn’t appropriate for the dinner table.”

But come, say, the bowel-aching sixth day of Pesach, they (and you)
will have to admit, the story of our freedom to drink coffee is one we
should never, ever forget.