This past Monday night, at sundown, Pesach (Passover) began, and I found myself at a Seder table, as I do most every year, despite any real intention on my part, seemingly by the will of God. I go months and months without thinking of Judaism, and I very likely would miss Pesach entirely if I didn’t see the boxes of matzah, jars of horseradish, and bottles of Manischewitz wine in their annual display in the supermarket.
Being Jewish is a very complicated thing for me.
I was started out on the wrong foot by well-meaning parents who, while they personally practiced very little Judaism (sporadic, at best, attendance at Synagogue, an annual Passover Seder, and the lighting of Chanukah and Yartzeit candles), insisted that I attend Hebrew School so that I could have a Bar Mitzvah when I turned 13, partly because they didn’t want me to miss out, and partly because it’s what all the other Jews they know did.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising that this do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do religious education failed miserably. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony is meant to welcome young Jews into the Jewish community, and yet my parents literally said to me, “Just do your Bar Mitzvah and then you’re an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community, and it will be entirely up to you whether or not you participate in Judaism ever again.” I know. Inspiring.
Thirteen years later, I was 26 and living in Los Angeles, having taken my parents’ offer seriously, defecting thoroughly from Judaism when I had the chance. Those were a challenging 13 years, years that are challenging for most people in their teens and twenties, a time of worldly and self-exploration, a time when the future of responsibilities and purpose loom as terrifying deadlines, and I, like many, drifted through those years uncertain of my place in the world.
One night, scanning the titles in a video store, something compelled me to rent, of all movies, Fiddler On The Roof, which I had not seen since I was a little kid. And as I watched the sprawling, melodic, and bittersweet epic, there were the Jews of Anatevka, and I remembered that they were my people, that I was connected to an ancient tradition, a heritage of both beauty and horror.
For the next few years, I immersed myself in Judaism. I began attending Synagogue weekly, I joined Torah study classes, I participated in all of the major holidays and observances as well as many of the minor ones, I relearned how to read and recite Hebrew, and I regularly was called on to recite the blessings before and after the Torah readings during Shabbat services.
When I moved to Bellingham in 1993, I became active in a small Jewish congregation here, even serving as Vice President for about a year, but then two things happened that changed everything.
First, I married a non-Jew and was chastised by the local Rabbi. Second, I became more and more disgusted by the death and destruction being wrought by both Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, and by the rise of a disturbing strain of fundamentalist Christianity here in the U.S. The Biblical and Koranic traditions seemed to have failed to prove their worth as models for human values and behavior.
I was adrift once again, dabbling from time to time in Buddhism, periodically attending the Unitarian Universalist church, and yet once a year I invariably receive an invitation to attend a Passover Seder that I hadn’t planned on.
And, it never fails that for that one night, seated around that familiar table, a scene of odd food and rituals, hearing the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egyptian slavery for, it always seems, the millionth time, something in me connects and feels a strange mix of comfort and sorrow. And the funny thing is, as secular a Jew as I am, when I’m present at a watered down Seder, void of almost all Hebrew, a service stripped down to bare bones, I feel a twinge of loss, a feeling that, hell, if we’re going to do this Passover thing we might as well do it right.
Mostly, it’s an occasion to reminisce with fellow Jews. And, because humor is so deeply ingrained in Jewish culture, it’s also an occasion to laugh one’s ass off.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s really what the reclining with pillows is really for.