Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What Passover Means To Me

It may shock you to discover that I have some, erm, issues with my religious upbringing. Not shocked? Oh, well, I guess I don't do a good job of hiding it, what with my references to Zionist Summer Camp and the like. But I do enjoy a good Passover. For only some of the right reasons. It was a holiday that both my parents always got really into and, during my early childhood, one they shared with their friends, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. As we children got older and my parents made friends at synagogue, the seders became more a gathering of the people we saw every Saturday. This made my father happy because he didn't feel like he needed to explain things to the assembled crowd, but it made, and continues to make, me a little sad.

Let me examplify: for years, my parents had a crudely written handbook for our non-Hebrew speaking friends. It was a detailed transliteration of the songs so that our repeat guests could learn to sing along without learning Hebrew. I have such immensely fond memories of seeing their friends sing along with us because they could. It was an incredibly inclusive pair of evenings. I also remember how colossally pissed off my father was when the rabbi of our synagogue said that Passover shouldn't include non-Jews; livid, actually, would be how I would describe my father's response. But then, somewhere along the line, our seders, year after year, were composed of only Jews. And in all honesty, I think we lost something.

Now we split the seders. My parents do one and devoted partner and I do the other. My cousin and her four children have been coming for many years, and it is their only exposure to Jewish tradition. I imagine it can be boring. Because in those years when the seder was all synagogue people, we upped the Hebrew, upped our religiosity, and lost those little transliterated songbooks. Yes, the kids remember a little bit from year to year, but I must remember to ask my parents why they haven't resuscitated the books. For my teenage cousins, it might be just the thing to make them more active participants.

Our seder is a little different. It is almost entirely in English and I think that reflects our family of two, one who can read Hebrew and one who can't, far better. We read the story in its entirety, but I skip most of the singing. Devoted partner knows the blessing for the wine and has, over these many years, picked up a bit of song here and there, but I would say that out seder is more about assembly and less about ritual. I'm not doing a fish course this year because a) I hate making fish but also b) it's not part of our personal repertoire.

But why do I like Passover. It's not the text which I find simultaneously simplistic and deeply resentful; it's not the commemoration which, after years of indoctrination regarding All The Bad Things That Have Ever Happened To Jews And Which Will Happen Again Especially If You Marry Outside The Faith, has about as much import as a Nicolas Cage movie; and frankly, it's not the food - dietary restrictions based on uncorroborated mythology strike me as especially non-essential in my post-religious world. No. For me, Passover has always been about our family and our extended family of friends. About making and sharing a meal together.

Judaism is not an inclusive religion, just try to join up and you'll see. While eradication of a people based on the stuff they think is never the answer, and while Jews and the passover text make copious mention of how everyone was always out to get them, you have to remember that until the 20th century, Jews were the fundamentalist Mormons of the world: weird habits, cloistered, unfriendly to outsiders. I don't think that's reason enough to want to dispose of them, but it's not like 15th century Jewish communities were ever, "hey, we're having funny flat bread dinner tonight, wanna come over?" Also, when in conversation religion comes up, no one likes to hear you bragging about being God's chosen. Just saying.

So I try to ignore all that crap. I try very mightily to ignore the text that, in the face of current Jewish political practices, is so hypocritical as to make me wonder why no one else is mentioning it. I try to ignore the pages upon pages of sucking up to God. And instead I like to think of it as Stuff Jews Do: An Open House. Come one, come all, and let's sit around a table together and read a story. I'd probably also enjoy an evening of grape leaves, ouzo, and spanakopita while we read D'aulaires Greek Myths (no, I'd definitely enjoy that).

We have two first-time attendees to our seder and that makes me happy. I like that devoted partner and I have created a tradition where our guests don't have to pay to play. I don't know what we'll do if we make small ones (it occurred to me last night that I have no intention of wasting their neurons on learning a language as relatively useless as Hebrew, but that means I'll need to write up some of those transliteration songbooks), but I do know that I grew up in an environment where everyone was welcome at the Passover table and I'm immensely pleased that devoted partner and I continue that admirable tradition.

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