By the time I arrived at the ultra-orthodox synagogue for Passover, it was dark outside. The gymnasium had been completely transformed for the feast. Fluorescent lights blazed over four long tables already populated with an odd assortment of individuals, men down one side and women down the other. Most of the guests did not appear Hassidic. They were a little bit of everything, Jews from every background and country. The rabbis and their families occupied tables on either side of the four main tables, whether to protect us from the world or themselves from us, I couldn’t be sure. As I entered the room, I froze to take it all in. I spotted the rabbi’s wife, Rachel, and waved; she smiled and waved back. I noticed that the corner of the room where there had been an assortment of liquor bottles the week before was now wiped clean, the spirits nowhere to seen.
I found a seat in one of the last available spaces, to the left of a cluster of Iranian-American Jews, one of whom sported a platinum hair do and ample bosom like a Persian Dolly Parton. Across the table was a young couple visiting from Israel and, to their right, a guy who appeared completely out of place. He looked like a biker or a Vietnam vet with an American flag bandana tied around his head and a scraggily white beard. I thought he must be a homeless man who had come for a free meal.
Long sheets of Saran Wrap covered each table and atop this waterproof layer sat a jumble of plastic plates, cutlery, and cups punctuated by bottles of wine and stacks of matzah bread. Within reaching distance of my seat, a small platter had been set with the Passover elements. I understood that minor variations might be found within each category, but here we had: a hunk of cooked meat with the bone still in, a single peeled hard-boiled egg, a blob of horseradish, a lump of apple cinnamon mush, and several sprigs of parsley. Next to this was a small Styrofoam bowl of water that I knew had been salted. As the proceedings officially began, I turned my attention to my old friend and new acquaintance, the head rabbi, who was standing at his table holding on elaborate oversized wine glass. He pronounced this the “Cup of Elijah,” the prophet whose arrival is supposed to herald the coming of the messiah. Tonight Elijah’s drink awaits him and the door is left ajar in anticipation of his grand entrance.
If you allow it, something happens on this night of storytelling and symbolic reenactment. I chewed a bit of parsley dipped in saltwater and I let it take me back. Passover isn’t meant as a memorial to the events of a long-dead group of people; the Jewish sages wrote, “In every generation a man is obligated to regard himself as having personally come out of Egypt…” Just as the living give voice to expressions of gratitude for the dead with the Mourner’s Kaddish, we are to make their memories of being enslaved our own. Judaism collapses past and present: time is only an ever-changing now and what we think of as different generations are merely a single people evolving and surviving.
Tonight, I let the sages’ words ring true for a woman, as well as a non-Jew. The taste of salty water on the parsley is the sweat dripping into my mouth from the physical exertion in brutal heat, and my angry tears at having my freedom taken. But my reverie of hardship is interrupted by the lively crunch of the parsley, freshness as vibrant as the color green itself floods my mouth, filled with life and hope.