Public Comment

Celebrating Passover at the Post Office on Tax Day (First Person)

Rabbi Sara Shendelman
Monday April 11, 2011 - 04:44:00 PM

In every civilization there are great days on which history turns. In the spring my two cultures come together on a great day of liberation. One day, Passover, reminds of freedom, that we came out as millions fleeing the slavery to a system which took the fruits of our labor. The other, April 15th, is the day our taxes are due with the government taking the fruits of our labor.

I celebrate both full out. At the beginning of April each year there are two simultaneous things happening in my home. There is madcap cleaning, with a list on the fridge of the many jobs and the family members assigned to them. And there is also me, at the computer working with the tallies and receipts which I always wish were done earlier by my spouse every year, so these two stressful events weren’t happening simultaneously. 

The culmination of the two are wonderful and celebratory and very freeing. The enslavement is done for another year. I love a good party. And I really love big tribal events. So both seder and April 15th have always been a good opportunity to join together with family and with lots of strangers. As far as the tribal experience of tax day, I used to confine myself to the copy shop where we all went to duplicate our efforts accurately, and there was lots of envelope stuffing and amount of postage rumination. Then came computers and we could do the returns without math mistakes and print at home. I would go by the Post Office earlier in the day to make sure mine got out, just in case, but I would always bike by later as the postal workers took the returns from all the people lined up in their cars. There would be such a transformed countenance on those who handed over their thick envelopes. It was delightful to see the smiles. 

These smiles were also on the faces of our ancestors as Pharo finally “let our people go,” and we headed out of town. 

One year, in this century, a good friend called at 11 pm and asked if I could help him out by writing a check for his estimated taxes, as he had given up trying to get all the forms sorted out by midnight. We got to the PO at 11:30 pm. There was an incredible party going on. The postal workers were busily taking forms through the car windows, pedestrians were handing theirs over and watching as they were hand cancelled and tossed into the appropriate bin, people hung out of the windows of the ‘Y’ across the street and a collection of watchers stood on the steps of the PO chatting and eating cookies.  

As it got closer to midnight, the pace picked up. By five of twelve, people were parking haphazardly and running them to the takers. At midnight, the top officer, in suit and tie, yelled to pack it up. Anyone still within range put the speed on. Even after the mail bins had disappeared into the driveway, we directed people to run and throw theirs in. That worked for many, until the first person came back sadly with envelopes still in his hand. We had cheered everyone on, felt the relief of having finished with our own tax returns for another year, and generally had a wonderful bonding evening and we went home happy...except for the twinge we felt for those who had gotten there at 12:15. It does seem odd that people would leave it so late, that they miss the pick-up by 15 minutes. 

I went back from 11pm to 12 pm for a couple of years, took my own cookies and had a wonderful evening as everyone celebrated. The PO workers were happy too, considering the overtime they got to work 

The People of Israel went out and settled by the Red Sea, our first day at the beach ever. The sun was shining and the light played on the face of the water. Then we heard the sound of the chariots of Egypt pounding across the plain. Our hearts were stricken, as we knew instantly that the Pharo had changed his mind and had sent his army to bring us back. 

One year, as I headed out to mail my tax return at 5:30, my daughter, Shaendl said, “Why don’t you just take them at 11 when we go?” My girls home schooled for 5 years and could stay up late, so it had become a family affair. As I dropped my return into the over sized curb bin before the last regular pick up, I commented to the postal worker that I would be back at 11 pm. “Oh” he said. “We are closing at 10 pm tonight.” It was because of the computer. So many folks were e-filing that the overtime was not being made up by the postage. Oy, I thought, people are not going to know this. I found out that the Oakland Main Post Office would still be open till midnight. So, I got directions, and went at 9 pm so I could still be there for the ‘party.’ But this time, at 10 pm, I changed hats. 

The Post Office had not put up signs saying they would be closing earlier than usual. There was no posting of the fact that Oakland Main was still open. In subsequent years, I would make my own signs, print directions, bring envelopes, pens and stamps as people would regularly show up needing these things. I brought the addresses of the two main places people were mailing Federal and California returns to: Sacramento and Fresno. I also brought chocolate to console the stressed and unhappy. 

The Children of Israel rose with a frenzy. One man proclaimed that our God was a poor general to leave us no way of escape with our escape route blocked by the sea. People frantically gathered their things and looked to Moses for direction. 

The first year, the police had to be called. Many people arriving after the run down the driveway would no longer do the trick (around 10:15) and were very angry. Berkeleyites do not take inconvenience lying down. A hand came out of the main door taking a few more returns. The later arrivals tried to storm the doors. I climbed the steps and said loudly enough for all to hear, “Why don’t some of you take everyone’s return to Oakland?” One woman turned on me, “Why should we trust them?” Then don’t I said, I have directions to Oakland if anyone wants to go. It takes ten minutes and you have plenty of time. The police came, people shouted that the website had said Berkeley Main would be open till 12 am. Those troublesome computers again. 

They demanded the police make the Post Office re-open. Yea, you gotta love those Berkeleyites. By this time, I had found someone who was going to Oakland and asked him if he would mind taking others’. He was fine with that and I spread this news around. Hesitantly at first, then more easily people began to hand them over, each one pausing to chat with the courier, take his measure and thank him.  

One of our couriers wrote to the Berkeley Daily Planet the next day to say what time he had delivered his load. He quoted my daughter, Aliya, saying what came to be our stock phrase as people approached looking perplexed that there were no bins and orange cones in the street. “There’s good news, and bad news. The bad news is that this PO closed at 10, the good news is that Oakland is open till 12. We have directions, or if you prefer someone will be going soon and they can take yours.” We generally had a trip taking off every 10-15 minutes, faster as midnight approached. One fellow railed that he had lived in Alaska and that people had been out in the snow taking returns till midnight! Then he calmed down, decided to be a hero and took many envelopes with him. He showed everyone his i.d. People approached us as he walked to his car and then ran to him, after we explained the situation. He was still talking returns while sitting at the light. 

The skies became gray and restless, the winds blew and howled. Moses climbed onto the tallest outcropping and raised his staff. He shouted, “The Lord will do battle for us!”  

Every person or couple who approached had to have the news and instructions all over again. It wore my voice out, as some folks would challenge me on my information. 

It was especially a mitzvah (good deed) for those on bicycles or on foot. It was a bit exhausting, but wonderful to be helping so many, and doing all this grass roots organizing so spontaneously. The first 3 years, there was a self selected crew who would just show up. My kids and husband joined me a few times. Over the years, we must have been more assured as there was very little of the questioning about honesty which I had the first year. The people who are taken aback at the thought of handing their returns over decide to drive themselves, and at that moment, I ask them if they would mind taking a few more. Some senders offer gas money to the drivers. Most don’t take it. One fellow welcomed the dollar bills being offered and I was outraged. This is a free community service, I said. You can’t get paid! But these people didn’t really work for me. It felt like a betrayal of the spiritual mission we were part of. When people overpay me for stamps because they don’t have change, I give the overage to charity. 

These days there are fewer people every year, but many people still chose to print and mail. People still come at 11 o’clock and say ‘it was open last year!’ No, I tell them, you must have finished earlier than 10 last year. I’ve been here, doing this for seven years. 

What I don’t say is, ‘Gee, you wait this long every year? Sounds stressful to me.’ 

Once a good friend, the local mohel, got the news and decided he would go and take others’. A woman looked at me and asked if he was trustworthy. Oh yes, I told her, I have known him for 20 years, very honorable. But, I pointed out to her, you only met me 3 minutes ago. 

A couple of times, my kids and I decided we should take a batch over and see where we had been sending people all this time. We left with about 15 minutes to go. It was quite a show there. It was all lit up, lots of flashlights, orange cones, workers wore reflective vests, and there were signs and protesters in costume. We made our way into the long line. I became worried that we wouldn’t get through the traffic in time, so my kid took our special parcels and ran across the street and deposited them. She was not allowed to stay in that area till I could get there, as she might be a mail thief, and it took me a little while to find her. 

The sea parted and the winds blew the earth at the bottom of the sea dry so our donkeys and wagons could get across. 

This service business had turned April 15th into a day I look forward to. I just make sure that I have gotten all my returns, forms, checks, envelopes, and stamping done a few days ahead so worry over procrastination won’t spoil the day for me. The other piece is that it is usually happening during Passover. So, here we are trying to clean the house, get ready for the seder (a lot of organizing and shopping and cooking) and also devise the script for the ritual as I am trying to get the taxes done. We are self-employed and have lots of forms to do. My husband could not be persuaded to add up the receipts for me till the last minute.  

We made our way through the sea and began to arrive at the other shore. The women picked up their timbrals and began to sing, “Who is like unto thee O Lord? Who is like Thee among the mighty?” We rejoiced and praised and danced and celebrated. 

It is the pivotal metaphor for modern life, going from slavery to freedom. 

At the post office, we all felt that we were coming out of Egypt and the evening of getting the returns in was a symbol of letting go and liberation. And everyone, not just the Israelites, was welcome to participate.