Of all Jewish holidays, Passover was always my favorite. Growing up in Israel, it meant spring time, a new item of clothing, and the yearly get together with most of the extended family. It meant great food, white tablecloths, and an occasion to touch and be touched by my religious tradition, and “feel Jewish” in a culture that encouraged me to “feel Israeli”.
It also meant that, depending on the side of the family we were celebrating with, feeling Jewish in the context of retelling the story of Exodus was a totally different experience in each household.
Having the Seder with my aunt Fanny, my mother’s older sister, my uncle Moishe and my cousins, Miriam, Tovah and Avram, was “by the book”. My uncle, a survivor from Poland, was the first modern orthodox Jew I knew. (I hope he is NOT turning in his grave for being called that!). Early to rise to catch a Shaharit (the morning prayer) in the neighborhoods synagogue before going to work, he tried very hard to instill in his children the Judaism he knew in his youth: observant, reverent, ritualistic. Passover in his house meant searching for Hametz - all leavend food - (which he “planted” beforehand) with a lit candle and a feather, huge down pillows for everyone to lean on, and my uncle reading the Haggadah - all of it! – as it was written. I seem to remember that his voice would rise as he read about the plight of the Israelites, and sink to a murmur when reading about the redemption from Egypt. There was sadness in the room that engulfed us in stark contrast to the whiteness of our surrounding. We were remembering the hardship and the suffering, and only my aunt’s delicious food somehow restored the festive mood. By the time Ehad mi yode’a ( Who Knows One?) came along, our spirits were yearning to be filled with joy as our stomachs were with food, but we were tired, slowly sinking into the pillows and drifting away towards our dreams.
Celebrating with my father’s family – now that was an event that embodied the total Exodus experience! Those Seders, too, were held at my aunt’s house – my father’s older sister, Sonia. My father’s family, also from Poland, survived the war by escaping into the welcoming arms of USSR that promptly put them in labor camps in Siberia. The miraculous stories of their endurance and survival were interwoven into the readings of the Haggadah. They OWNED the story of Exodus! They lived the hardships of building monuments to corrupt and stubborn tyrants! They did outsmart their oppressors and ended up in the Promised Land! (Well, most of them, anyway. One of my uncles, Yaakov, a diehard Communist, would create his own revisionist version of the family stories, where the land could have been the promised one, were it only a little more Socialist…). The mood, as we went reading around the table, was defiant, joyous, uplifting.
So what does this story have to do with a Librarian’s blog, you might ask?
I’m so glad you did! And here is my answer:
Articulating these differences in my family’s approaches to the idea of the Seder guides my work as I am approached by people seeking answers to questions embedded in Jewish texts and history. In my mind most are the ones who do not know how to ask, and to them I say (well, in my mind, at least...):
Even as a child I marveled at the idea that the same text, the same ordered ritual, the same songs, could move people in so many ways. We were all equally wise and learned in the Torah that was in front of us, yet so different in fulfilling the mitzvah of telling the story.
Each family Seder enriched my personal history and taught me that while Jewish knowledge is fundamental to my identity, it is MY reading that helps me access the wisdom of my tradition and participate in shaping our collective memory. Passover reminds us that while we share the obligation to remember the Exodus, there are many ways to commemorate it, and it is up to us to create our own tradition of so doing.
So go forth, and read…