I’m a fallen Jew. More of a Buddhist really. I only go to temple for Bat Mitvahs. Not even for the High Holy days anymore. I find so many of the requirements absurd and so many adherents hypocrites that I’ve all but fallen off the Hebrew wagon. But I honor some of my family’s – and hence my people’s – traditions, as an homage to my heritage and those who came before. Passover holds a special place in my heart.
Since I am an “orphan” for this suburban Connecticut Passover of 2015, I sit with an adopted family to remember the story of how Moses freed the slaves in Egypt from the tyranny of the Egyptian Pharaoh. My mother died a few months ago, and my children are at college. My ex-husband is a non-specific Christian and his new wife a hybrid Hindu/Muslim, so there will be no Seders with them. My sister’s good friend invited her, and in a generous gesture of inclusion, she invited me, too. We Jews do this. We gather strays for religious celebrations. Not so much to promulgate the faith as to eat the inevitably massive amounts of artery-clogging food that will need to be consumed. Even the household dog can only pick up so many scraps; it takes a village.
I am happy to have a place at the doublewide, burgundy-clothed table; Seder plate set familiarly in the center. Modern artisans may put their spin on the ceramic, but at their core they’re all comfortingly the same. The adjacent wine glass is filled to the brim with the cloyingly sweet Maneschewitz that provides most young Jews with their first taste of alcohol (another Jewish tragedy). It awaits the legendary prophet Elijah, the prophet who is said to visit every Seder as a symbol of hope and peace.
Thinking of Elijah flying in takes me back to my childhood Seders. As the oldest grandchild, I always opened the door to welcome him as my Orthodox Grandpa David gingerly and conveniently shook the table so we’d believe he’d entered and taken a sip from the glass. Like Santa, he had a lot of ground to cover in one evening. Unlike the milk-drinking Santa, though, Elijah must have really tied one on as he flitted in and out of every Jew’s home on earth sipping wine at each for two nights in a row. Good thing he wasn’t driving a sleigh.
My grandparents’ dark, dank railroad apartment in 1960s Union City, NJ was scary. The only windows were in front, facing a bus depot, which generously shared its fumes with us, and in back, overlooking the Lilliputian yard. Chickens clucked under laundry waving on a clothesline. A greyed pane of glass masquerading as a window in one bedroom afforded a view of the sooty blackened brick of a misnamed “airshaft.”
The constant tension between my ebullient and outgoing grandmother Sally and the dour, stern David made it as difficult to breathe in the apartment as the bus exhaust. Especially on Passover. She was drained from cooking. She slaved over her famous kreplach (those yummy, doughy dumpings)that eagerly obeyed gravity and ignored biology and landed in your stomach with a loud clunk on ingestion. It took her hours to prepare the brisket of beef that surely seeded roots of my aversion to meat. It literally glowed in an iridescent sheen of Day-Glo orange oil.
Grandpa David was perpetually annoyed, but especially now, in anticipation of the unruly, hungry mob of grandchildren interrupting his serious, and seriously long, Seder. We decidedly did NOT skip pages in the service prescribed in the Haggadah, like most families did. “Quiet,” he would grumble as he glared over his tortoiseshell half-eye reading glasses. Even the reward of silver dollars he doled out for the return of the afikomen – the “dessert” matzo that the adults “hid” and the children “found” at the end of the meal – elicited only one-way smiles; from us.
But at that moment during the ceremony, when he would look up at me with his big, blue eyes sunk deep in his yarmulke-covered head and nod, redeemed the evening. Privilege surrounded me; the others watched enviously as I pushed back from the lace-clothed table to walk down the long, lonely corridor to the big, wooden door with the intricately etched glass inset. I trembled as I turned the crystal doorknob. The hallway and the steep stairway were even blacker and more forbidding. Who knew what Elijah might do to me as he breezed in and out; would he carry me away with him? I was alone, seemingly miles from the safety of the table, and terrified. But I took pride in not showing it, and returned triumphant: Proud of the responsibility as well as the ability to mask my fear. And relieved at surviving another year without being spirited away by the wraith. Also, I thought that Grandpa David might be proud of me, and maybe, just maybe, he might smile.
I realize that I, like Elijah, have been visiting a different Seder table, many years removed, so I check back in to the present. When it comes time to let Elijah in I wriggle in my seat a little to hint at interest. It seems unbecoming for a 55 year old nonfamily member to jut her hand out and exclaim “ooh, pick me, pick me,” like an enthusiastic schoolchild, so I just sit up extra straight and look super interested. To no avail. I lament not being the chosen one. I yearn to tug on that thread to my past to tighten the connection, but feel reluctant, as a guest, to force the issue. Everything about this evening, which, as we learn in the Four Questions that we and generations before us have repeated, is different from every other night. And is different from my now ancient-feeling family Seders. Here in Connecticut the mood is upbeat and light. The room is spacious and bright. No one is scowling.
Someone slips the dog matzo over and over. She doesn’t even have to beg for it. We each read from yellow index cards typed neatly with Passover trivia, and laugh at the obscure Hebrew factoids. We start drinking notably dry red wine considerably before the point prescribed in the Haggadah. The youngsters joke and laugh; I feel reflexively tense, half expecting the Ghost of Passover Past to appear and rattle a lamb shank at them.
“We can’t have dessert until you find the afikomen,” our hostess and Seder leader chirps. There’s another thing that surely has Grandpa David turning over in his grave in NJ. A female Seder leader. What has this world come to? The children return happily to the table, waving small pieces of matzo in baggies “I found mine first!” “Mine was under the DVD player!” “Mine is biggest; do I get more money?” And tucked in their kosher chocolate bars are crisp new $10 bills.
Yet for all the differences, everything is exactly the same; the same as it was for us all those years ago in Union City, and the same as it will be for generations to come in Jewish homes around the world. Jews and honorary Jews gather for the Seder to rest and reflect; to take a moment to celebrate family, friends, and freedom. Those joys are universal and eternal. I had, indeed, found the thread after all. And I felt that for once, and finally – I could see Grandpa David smile.