Another Passover week begins today, and for this uninitiated goy who lives by happenstance in the Promised Land, the celebration of the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt three millennia ago has a special meaning.
My first Passover seder cost me one horse, a broken finger, a protracted legal battle with the Israel Lands Authority and a reputation among my peers of not quite being all there.
It began around the family dinner table of our friends, Charley and Harriet Weiss, when, donning a yarmulke and firmly grasping a copy of the Haggadah , I plunged blissfully ignorant into the unknown.
"Why is this night different from all other nights?" Weiss intoned. How could I possibly know how different?
Only slightly confused by the unfamiliar rituals -- dipping greens into salt water and tasting bitter herbs -- I was able to more or less follow the enactment of the slavery of the Israelites in the land of the pharaohs.
That is, until the sacred matzoh was broken and half of it was hidden for the children of the table to find and return, in exchange for their parents' promise of small gifts. The requests seemed modest enough: Joey Weiss wanted a guitar case; one little girl demanded a "doll with real hair"; another child sought a tricycle, and my youngest daughter, Lisa, said that a pet rabbit would be nice.
Then, Sarah, my teen-aged daughter, announced that the afikomen -- the hidden half of the sacred matzoh -- would be promptly returned and the seder could continue if she could only have a horse.
A horse! The gasps around the dinner table were almost as one, and the guests seemed to turn in unison to good ol' Dad, who clearly held the key to returning the afikomen and resuming the Passover feast.
Perhaps slightly loosened by the ritual wine, perhaps confounded by the jumble of Hebrew in the reading of the Haggadah -- and, certainly, feeling uncomfortably on the spot -- good ol Dad drew another round of gasps by agreeing to the tribute of a horse. (Well, easy come, easy go. Maybe, I thought, it would keep her mind off the teen-aged Israeli boys who started hanging around the house when we moved in.)
The feast proceeded, with my Israeli friends making much of the fact that an afikomen promise is not to be lightly broken, given 3,000 years of tradition behind it, and that in the harsh light of day, the horse would have to be produced. It was a warning Sarah seemed all too eager to support.
Apparently convinced that I didn't fully appreciate the seriouness of an afikomen promise, and claiming concern for my soul, my friends called serveral times in the weeks ahead to inquire whether I had made any progress on buying a horse.
God only knows why I didn't hold out for a ten-speed bike, but I soon found myself at a kibbutz near Rehovot, on the Mediterranean plain, looking at two horses. One was priced at 12,000 Israeli pounds (about $450 then) and the other was 10,000 Israeli pounds (about $400), so naturally I bought the cheaper horse, particularly since it was bigger then the other one and, obviously, a better value. I thought.
Closer examination when the animal was delivered to my home revealed that it was a stallion, and a rather unruly one at that. One of my first attempts to lead him by a rope resulted in the broken finger, when he reared and kicked me.
On the advice of a veterinarian, I decided to have the horse gelded (a euphemism for castrated), which did calm him down some, even though my friends thought it a bit harsh for just a broken finger, and wondered aloud what I would have done if the horse had broken my arm. I did, however, detect among my colleagues a new-found respect, and the word seemed to quickly spread that Claiborne was not to be messed around with.
The next incident came when my wife banned the horse from the lower garden, and I was forced to build it a small stable in the olive grove next to our big stone house in Jerusalem's German colony. By this time, it was the Sukkot holiday, and the neighborhood kids could not be convinced that I wasn't building a sukkah, the traditional, palm-topped hut for holiday worshipping.
The building inspector from the Israel Lands Authority, however, was less amused when he came around with a demolitation order -- a process which led me into a mindhoggling bureaucratic maze of special land use exceptions, survey maps, removal contracts and annual taxes on six square meters of public land next to my house.
The Inspector said building a stable on public park land -- even if it did look like a sukkah -- wasn't kosher. But higher authorities, seeming impressed by my argument that the horse is Jewish and had a right to settle anywhere in Eretz Israel, relented.
In two years, the horse, Inshallah (Arabic for "God willing"), has made himself something of a legend in Jerusalem, a city that does not exactly abound with horses. Sometimes he can be seen loping riderless through nearby Liberty Park, making an attempted getaway with park police in pursuit. He has been known to walk, Sarah astride him, through the Old City, past security guards and to the ancient Wailing Wall, or down busy King George Street to the Anglican International School, looking at his own reflection in the store windows and attracting much attention from passerby.
Sarah also rides her steed down through the Kidron Valley and through the Arab village of Silwan, up the Mount of Olives past the Garden of Gethsemane, and out into the Judean desert, where she is always welcomed into the Bedouins' tents for mint tea and some conversation in rudimentary Arabic and broken English.
He is known by Israeli kids across the city as "Booki" -- the name given to "Black Beauty" in the Hebrew edition of the popular horse novel -- and people are forever stopping at the door of his little shack and feeding him sunflower seeds. This Passover he has been getting a bonanza of snacks as the neighbors assiduously clean their houses of all traces of leavened bread in preparation for the holiday.
As far as taking Sarah's mind off the boys, my plan backfired. The horse attracted an even larger crowd of Israeli drugstore cowboys who suddenly developed equestrian interests that before had never surfaced.
Our friends, the Weisses, have moved away from Jerusalem, only partly aware of the consequences of having invited us to their Passover seder two years ago.
But three years in Israel can make a man wise to the ways of the local inhabitants. And this year, when I take the Haggadah in hand and begin reading that wonderful enactment of the flight of a whole nation of people from foreign enslavement, I'll be ready.
Afikomen or no afikomen, my limit is one set of new horseshoes and a sack of oats.