Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Renewal of Pesach

For many years, my dad's synagogue had a great tradition of hosting different themed seders each year from around the world. Each time there were new insights into the variation of custom; one year there was honey date haroset, during another slings were placed over the children's shoulders to represent the hardship of slavery, and during yet another an orange was placed on the table to represent feminism. The families of the congregation join together for a new experience intermingled with the traditions they are used to from their own seders and learn about how Jews all over the world celebrate this meaningful holiday. For most, the experience of these seders are unique and eye-opening, they give a glimpse into a new way of interpreting the same thousands of years old story, and people come away from it with the small insight of a different kind of celebration. And isn't that what Pesach is all about? The challenge to ask "why is this night different from all other nights" and the opportunity to put forth our questions and reevaluate what it means to be a Jew and never forget that once we were slaves in Egypt and then we were freed.

I have been abnormally lucky throughout my life that this experience of the "other" Pesach has luckily been closer to my norm. Every other year or so my family travels to Israel to join my Ima's relatives for their form of Pesach, and each time we are together in Israel, I can't help but compare it to what I am used to back home. The family over here is large and diverse and every other year they switch between my uncle and aunt's house, where they host a seder closer to the kibbutz experience of their childhood, and my aunt's brother's home, where they hold their unique version of an Iraqi seder. At my uncle and aunt's the defining features are my uncle's salted fish, which is actually my great-grandmother's salted fish, which he buys from the same butcher where my Savta (grandmother) bought them decades before. It is full of tiny, tiny bones I have learned over the years to pick through and while I will never be an expert like my cousins on this side of the ocean, I think I can say that I have certainly improved over time. The fish is cut into spheres of delicious, cold, jelly and carrot-topped goodness that we dip into a shock of red horseradish and wash down with dry Israeli wine. My family also always comes up with an interesting twist, always asking each participant to think of something new. One year we were each to go around and talk about our favorite line from the Hagaddah and what it means to us. Another year we were given pieces of paper to write what we want to renew for the coming year, during this spring and harvest. And always there is the song of the children from the wheat fields, where they go to pick the first harvest and dance with the wheat stalks, always there is a speech from my Saba, always there is incredible food on a beautifully decorated table filled with family heirlooms from the 1700's from the Warburg side, and it always culminates in my uncle leading the way into hours of song, red-faced and eye-squinted as his beautiful baritone trembles through the air. The guests of this kibbutz seder had all been in the kibbutz choir in their childhood and thus beautiful harmonies float about.

Flowers of Petra
And then in America, of course, we have the traditional mixture of an English and Hebrew Hagaddah, where my wise grandfather leads the formalities and makes sure to highlight my Ima singing a song about spring, my Daddy giving a short d'var, my cousins "performing" the ten commandments from a kit of jumping plastic frogs, a push-button dying cow, red dye for blood, and fake hail among other things. We all search for the afikoman and all the grandchildren get a prize regardless of who finds it, and at the end of the evening, we open the door for Elijah. The best story is of one year when my grandfather somehow managed to arrange a hole in the table and Elijah's cup and hid under the table with a straw as me and the rest of the kids went to open the door. When we were back, we watched with awe as the wine was miraculously drained from the cup. Elijah must have actually visited! I wonder always how my grandfather got away with drilling holes, especially under my grandmother's watchful eye.

The way I've always imagined the burning bush...
But back to Israel and the flip-flop between the Kibbutz way and the Iraqi way. This year, we went to Iraq. My pesach journey began this year, however, a week before when my brother and I visited Petra and Wadi Rum in Jordan. There, among other ancient red-glazed relics carved into the blazing azure sand, we also passed the site where the Bedouins explained that Moses stood and hit the rock. This was especially meaningful to me because it also happened to be my Torah portion from my Bat-Mitzvah. But it was more than that. Walking barefoot on the ancient sands, and sleeping in a bedouin tent under the stars and surrounded by sparsely shrubbed cliffs and huddles of camels, I felt I could picture how Moses had lived his life during his 40 years in exile. I could also, when surrounded by the breathtaking majestic of this open-aired, vast-skied, magnitude of nature, understand what had inspired Moses to be able to recognize the holiness of the burning bush. My visit to Jordan was memorable and interesting, but nonetheless, boy was I happy to be back on Israeli soil where I felt most safe. So I could also appreciate, albeit minimally, the celebration of reaching the holy land (for me, once again). 


Me in the bedouin tent

Jordanian camels
Wadi Rum

This year's Iraqi Seder
And then there was the moon. Big and bright and white and glorious, rise above and winking at us over flowered golden hills of wheat. Just like every Jewish holiday, the harvest came exactly in line with the cycle of the seasons, shooting up the most breathtaking harvest moon up above us to greet this new spring. I marveled at it through the car window on our way to Carmel Yosef and to join this other side of the family to celebrate this year's seder. We sat around a u-shaped array of banquet tables with more than fifty people buzzing with the energy of the celebration. We began by coming inside and leaving the moon to peek through our windows, and then, with my aunt's brother's booming voice leading the way, we watched as the children brought in the omer (wheat) and did a special dance, sang Ma Nishtanah, and went around and read the timeless story. There were also fun Iraqi customs. Anyone who wanted to eat an egg had to bang their heads against the wall in order to symbolize the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues. My cousin and her cousin's cousin played on the flute and guitar and everyone sand loudly, swaying and smiling. And at the end of the seder, each child and grandchild approached the matriarch of the family, who sat in the middle of the room with a basket of walnuts, and sang her a song about spring in order to receive the blessing of her walnuts. She sat proud and smiling as each one, young and old, approached to get their share. Interspersed throughout, people had been asked to interpret for themselves the line, "וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ," "And thou shalt tell thy son in that day," what it means to them and to speak to their children about it. This led to pockets of beautiful words and wise advice, as we went around and the parents blessed their children. When my father rose and spoke to me and everyone about how he thinks that Pesach is all about asking questions, it led on to an even more interesting discussion.

Bringing of the omer
Family heirlooms

Ma Nishtanah
More heirlooms from the 1700's

Hitting my head against the wall for an egg...


The date and honey haroset is in the bowl, hillel sandwhich on the matzah

Our family's famous salted fish

With my adorable cousin

My incredible parents

My Ima with her walnuts!

Singing for walnuts

Today we had lunch with more of my uncle's salted fish in my Saba's  (grandfather's) home back on the kibbutz, where my aunt asked why we celebrate a story that happened thousands of years ago. We're still here, aren't we, she affirmed, so what is the point? Each of us has to interpret our own meaning of this beautiful holiday, but I think my father's answer was both eloquent and worth sharing:

We read that once we were slaves in Egypt and now we are freed. But really, in each of our own lives, we find ourselves enslaved to many things. They can be petty, like our cell phones, or larger, like an addiction, and most of us our enslaved to much more than just one thing. But during this time when we reflect on how we were freed and are encouraged to ask questions, it is also the harvest, the holiday of spring, and the time of renewal. May we all, in each of our own ways, find the strength to partake in the real work in the spring of renewal in our own lives now that the seder has passed. May we, as my father said, aim to be more like the modest, simple, plain matzah and less like the pretentious, bloated, and bitterness that can come from chametz, and find for each of us, a path of strength, beauty, celebration, and renewal.

No comments:

Post a Comment