Passover

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.

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The smooch

Before I started attending synagogue services, I thought it would be obvious I wasn’t Jewish based on my looks alone. I soon realized this wasn’t the case. Certainly my pale skin and freckles made me an outlier, but not out of the question. One afternoon my friend, Lisa, and I stopped by her mom’s apartment in Marina Del Rey for a visit. Although not observant, Lisa’s mom is extremely knowledgeable about Jewish genealogy and history. I explained to her that I had blended in so far among the reformed Jews; I suggested that maybe among the orthodox no one would identify me as an outsider. She shook her head in disagreement. “Oh, they’ll know.”

“How?” I asked. The smile that spread across her face was priceless. I saw in it the memory of a dozen lessons learned the hard way. “The second you do something wrong.”

Of course she was right and I found there was very little I did right, especially in the beginning.

For example, I had no idea about the Torah-kissing ritual. Just before the rabbi’s Torah reading during the Sabbath service, he or she, usually with a few helpers, hoisted the holy book in the air and paraded it around the sanctuary. Members of the congregation would crowd toward the aisle to kiss the Torah as it passed, either touching it with a prayer book or with the fringe of a prayer shawl and then bringing it to their lips—whether they were kissing it or letting it kissing them, I was never quite sure.

Even when the women were separate the men would bring the Torah to an opening and we would rush to it as if to glimpse a rock star. Sometimes the Torah passed so quickly hardly anyone got a good kiss in, and a handful were left to toss a kiss in the air as it whizzed past.

The first few times I witnessed the carrying-out of this tradition, I stayed firmly planted in my seat, hopelessly marking myself as an outsider.

I read that this practice of Torah smooching is considered an archaic custom by some, one that reformed synagogues may have abandoned, but I found it in effect almost everywhere I went, lending credence to my observation that many reformed places are embracing old traditions, even passionately so.

For the last Sabbath service of my trip, I went to a hipster synagogue I kept hearing about and was finally able to kiss the Torah not once, but twice. Centrally located in the middle of West L.A., this synagogue caters to liberal Jews from all over the area and has a reputation for being particularly unorthodox; it was the only one I visited with a female rabbi. Yet, besides the rabbi’s gender, the main thing that seemed to distinguish it from more conservative places of worship was the level of enthusiasm with which the congregation embraced even the smallest prayers and rituals. Something as minor as the Torah procession was performed so wholeheartedly everyone was given ample opportunity to kiss the good book as many times as they wanted. The Torah-procession came down the aisle once and then circled back around.

I had rushed through the first kiss, trying to seize the moment quickly, so when it came again I went in for a second. I put my prayer book to my lips and then reached for the Torah and then brought it back to my lips so that no matter what was kissing what, I had it covered.

That last time, I kissed the Torah like I meant it, like it was a dear friend I might not see again.

The fire

One afternoon I arrange to meet Barbara, my new orthodox Jewish friend, at a café for coffee.

In her I felt I had found someone I could ask uncomfortable questions.

“But why don’t women have to go?” I asked on the evening I accompanied her and her husband to the Sabbath-ending services.This detail had been bothering me since I learned that in more conservative congregations women don’t count toward the minimum number of people, or minyan, needed to conduct the public prayers.

As we walked, Barbara explained that even though she is not required to attend synagogue services, she likes to go as often as possible. “Because in Judaism women are considered more inherently spiritual,” she told me as we came to a busy intersection. “We don’t need the structure of the synagogue like men do.” This was consistent with explanations I’d heard for why only men often wear those tiny square top hats on their foreheads containing printed Bible passages and the straps twisted up their forearms when they pray—they are meant to have these little reminders pressed tightly to them. Even so, she must have read skepticism on my face. “It’s true!” she cried, pressing the cross-walk button.

As we sipped coffee, she confided that she, too, went through a phase of religious exploration. In fact, in her 20s, after growing up in an Orthodox home, she became a practicing Buddhist. It was difficult, she explains, to sit cross-legged, especially given her height, but the seated meditations led her to an overwhelming sense of thankfulness for life, which then led her to a deep desire to show appreciation to a creator. She realized she longed for the more formal means of expressing gratitude that were the foundation of her native Judaism. Then a little token Buddha statue she kept broke off at the legs and that sealed the deal: she was a Jew. But, she says, if it hadn’t been for Buddhism she may never have come to understand the deeper significance of Judaism. Buddha made her a better Jew.

Her story reminds me of a realization I recently made. I tell her that when I moved to the Pacific Northwest and started to take on freelance projects, my work week shifted. Instead of starting on Monday, I would start on Sunday morning. My justification was I wanted to have drafts waiting in client in-boxes by the start of their official work week, but I maintained this schedule when I had nothing due. I even had a motto: “Sunday is the new Monday.” On the other hand, I began my weekend early, usually stopping work by early Friday afternoon to spend a couple of hours on household chores before evening. Without even realizing it, and while my ignorance of Judaism was still in full effect, I had adopted a Jewish week. What I believed was a decision firmly rooted in secularism had led me straight to the heart of Judaism.

Barbara wore the knowing smile of a person familiar with God’s tactic of bait and switch. “Maybe you’re a missing spark,” she says and explains the Jewish concept of “sparks.” Over history, some Jewish families were alienated from the faith due to political pressure or the whim of a single generation—whatever the cause, the Judaism is never fully extinguished but smolders in the children and the children’s children. I think about the Greek side of my family and how my ancestors could very well have been Jews before Constantine declared his empire Christian. It’s possible that Judaism has been burning in the bosoms of my foremothers for centuries. There’s no way of knowing, but I love the idea—a hot coal inside me is drawn to the fire of Judaism due to epic forces working to reunite the errant embers. It gives me a new perspective on the role of observant Jews, how they follow the letter of the law not just for themselves but on behalf of the global community, even those no longer in touch with Judaism. They have dedicated themselves to this task. They keep the fire burning brightly.

The mother

The mother explained that for the past several years she had organized a little festival for the Sukkot holiday. They construct a Sukkah hut, a temporary dwelling usually made of palm fronds that observant Jews build every fall to replicate those used by their ancestors after their Exodus from Egypt. “We invite the kids from the street, but they don’t come.”

I thought of how intimidated I had felt just gazing upon their yard, what I understood to be an extension of their secret and sacred world.

Her forehead strained and her eyes grew accusatory. “The neighbors are not friendly with us.”

Now I was getting miffed at her. Instead of recognizing that I was a neighbor reaching out, she was seeing me as representing everyone who hadn’t.

The uncomfortable tension was palpable as she introduced me to her son, the head rabbi. He and I shared a brief, awkward hello with no handshake. When we were kids, it would have been okay for us to talk and play, but now we were officially forbidden from touching and discouraged from engaging in unnecessary chit chat. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” he said. I suppose with that, a miniscule corner of the universe was mended.

The mother asked me to stay for the women’s group, which was starting in a few minutes. I felt she was just being polite, but I accepted. She and I waited for the others to join us around a big table; sitting quietly together, the vibe between us began to mellow. I tiptoed back to our previous conversation. “Maybe the neighbors don’t realize you’re open to social interaction with them.” I was trying to be as gentle as possible. She didn’t say anything, but she nodded slowly, her scowl softening.

She invited me to return to the synagogue the following Friday for dinner on the first night of Passover. “Thank you,” I said. “I’d like that.” It would be my first-ever official Passover. When the other women arrived, she introduced me as an old neighbor who had returned. “She didn’t feel comfortable saying hello back then, but she’s come now,” she explained. Everyone raised their tiny cups of white wine at me and I said, “Better late than never.”

The rabbi

The woman at the ultra-orthodox synagogue, Rachel, pointed at a man who had emerged from behind the partition to check on something at the far end of the gymnasium. “My husband. He’s the head rabbi here.” He was dressed almost identically to how I remembered only he and his clothes were bigger now. Even from far away, I spied faint traces of the boy he had been through his enormous beard. “His mom still lives in that apartment building.”

After Rachel left me, I tried to relax. I closed my eyes and focused on the sound of the Hebrew words being spoken by the men. I imagined each one like a soap bubble, filled with love and gratitude, floating up and out beyond this room.

Mid-way through the service, two men pulled each side of the partition apart. A glare flooded the cozy dark of the women’s side and I squinted. I felt uncomfortably exposed.

A rabbi stood behind a podium. He was the one with the voice like Joe Pesci. He made several announcements in preparation for Passover, which was to begin the following Friday evening. Most importantly, he wanted to remind everyone to get rid of all chametz, which is food made of grain mixed with water that has fermented and risen, or “leaven.” This is given up on Passover in honor of the ancestors who fled Egypt and had neither the time nor accommodations to prepare such elaborate dishes. I always knew flat, cracker-like matzo was eaten instead of bread during this holiday, but I hadn’t realized all the other things that are forbidden; beer, hard alcohol, pastas, cookies, and cereals—the kind of items that are commonly kept in bulk in most pantries. To avoid throwing away these often costly goods, many observant Jews have developed a system whereby they temporarily “sell” them to a non-Jew and then buy them back after Passover. The leavened products may even stay in the house, though they would technically not belong to its inhabitants during that time. Rabbis generally manage this transaction.

The rabbi explained that this was the last chance to pick up the forms labeled DELEGATION OF POWER OF ATTORNEY FOR SALE OF CHAMETZ from a nearby pile. He invited anyone who wanted to help to sweep all chametz from every surface of the synagogue to come back on Thursday evening. When he finished, the men closed the partition again. The women’s side dimmed, the words returned to Hebrew, and I went back to pretending the source of the voice was the great and mighty Oz.

After the service, we did blessings over cups of wine and challah loaves. An older woman approached me. Here was the mother, who had been told about me. Her wig was a chestnut bob. She said her name in Hebrew, a sound like a growl with a hiccup. I tried to imitate the noise, but she looked disappointed in my rendition. “Why didn’t you ever come into our yard to play?” she asked after our brief introduction. I didn’t know what to say, I hadn’t realized that was an option. I don’t recall anyone in her family ever making eye contact with me. She said, “The neighbors are always so standoffish with us.” She seemed upset at me.

Together

With the notion of Tikkun Olam fresh in my mind I decide it’s time to find out what will happen when I try to reconnect with my old neighbors, the family of Hassidic Jews that lived a few doors down from us when I first moved to Los Angeles. Followers of Kabbalah might think of Tikkun Olam as the process by which pieces of the original vessel, shattered by the “Big Bang,” are brought together once again.

I studied a map of my old neighborhood and found an orthodox synagogue seven blocks from the corner of their apartment complex. As ultra-orthodox Jews, I knew they’d live within walking distance of their place of worship. This was the only place it could be. Perhaps the family had moved, but it seemed likely that someone at the synagogue would remember them. I would reconnect with their community if not the family itself.

I called the synagogue and made sure they were alright with visitors and to see if I needed to do something with my hair. A rabbi with a voice like Joe Pesci said, “It’s not important your hair.”

By the time I left for the Saturday morning service, the only thing showing besides my hair was my face and hands. I arrived early. I thought parking would be a nightmare, but a space directly in front sat waiting. I wondered what the building was before being converted into a synagogue. A WWII dance hall? Inside looked like an old gymnasium. I spotted a couple of elderly women behind a partition and I joined them. They were speaking in hushed tones and they nodded in my direction and went back to whispering. I flipped through a prayer book with no English or phonetic translation, just a sea of squiggles, and listened to the rain falling outside. Everything felt damp and dreary and not at all welcoming. I wondered how often they were visited by non-Jews. I reviewed my motives hoping some element of insincerity would grant me good reason to flee. I decided I was coming from a genuine place and that the discomfort was a sign of this effort’s importance.

No one paid any attention to me. Male voices chanted on the other side of the room divider. More women arrived but they seemed not to notice me. They set about chatting quietly with one another. Every once in a while one would stand, bow, take a step back, and mouth prayers. Occasionally some kids would wander in to say a few words to their moms before being ushered back to their classroom.

I sat mutely for what felt like a very long time. As the sounds and activities went on around me, I was painfully aware of my own presence, even more so because no one else seemed to notice it. After what felt like an eternity, a woman my age approached and asked what brought me here today. I could tell she was trying to be friendly, but she didn’t smile.

I’ll call her Rachel. She looked surprisingly normal. I knew her hair was a wig because most Hassidic women use wigs to cover their real hair, but it looked like my hair except better. My hair was a fuzzy mess from the moisture in the air but hers was smooth. I explained to her about living down the street and how I saw the kids but never spoke to them. “I’ve come back,” I said. Spoken to a stranger, the endeavor seemed bizarre, but she nodded like it was the most natural thing in the world.

She said, “My husband grew up there.”

I stared mutely. I couldn’t believe it. It was that easy. I had found them.

Forever light

Part-way through the Friday night Sabbath-welcoming service, the singing stops and the rabbi makes his way to the front of the room. Several individuals break from the congregation to join him.

This is a joyous occasion, the rabbi explains, because tonight the newest addition to the family before you receives her Hebrew name. Only then do I notice that one of the women is holding a tiny bundle in her arms and I put the pieces together: this is a naming ceremony, one of the most significant of the Jewish life-cycle rites of passage. Boy babies are normally named during a bris eight days after being born, but female newborns are named at the synagogue in front of the entire congregation.

The mom, holding the infant, huddles with both grandmothers. The rabbi wraps their shoulders in a single prayer shawl, pulling them in close. He speaks to the women, expressing sentiments you might expect to hear: how this baby is the future, the continuation of all of her ancestors who lived before her. Then he flips the script and addresses the baby directly. “You will one day be an ancestor like us,” he tells her. For me, his words conjure an image of this room in 70 years: this brand new human is the older generation wrapped in a prayer shawl giving out special names.

I still have that in mind when the congregants begin singing the Mourner’s Kaddish. When I first realized this prayer for the deceased was a part of every service at every synagogue, I thought it was intended specifically for those who were grieving. When we came to it, all those who had lost someone within the last year or so stood, and sometimes the rabbi requested them to call out the name of the departed. I didn’t know or understand the significance of the Hebrew words being recited by the congregation, but I sensed it was a sorrowful lamentation, the shaking of a metaphorical fist at the cruelty of death. I thought people stood because they were meant to see one another and thereby know they were not alone in their grief and to allow the rest of the congregation to identify those in need of our support. I believed the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish was akin to other life-cycle ceremonies in Judaism—whether a naming or bar mitzvah or wedding—that act as markers in a person’s life tying her to millions of others in the past, present, and future. The ceremony might transform what feels like an ordinary occasion into one with extraordinary potential or it might reassure a person who feels overwhelmed that what they are experiencing is actually very ordinary.

I was surprised when I saw an English translation of the Mourner’s Kaddish and realized it doesn’t even mention death. It’s simply a collection of lines praising and thanking God. Only then did I learn the true purpose is to rise up and proclaim your joy and love at a time when you might feel bitter or lost or angry. But the Mourner’s Kaddish continues to be spoken by the entire congregation day in and day out long after the official grieving period for any one person has passed. The gratitude it expresses is offered on behalf of all those who are departed, giving voice to worshipful words they can no longer utter here on earth. Through future generations, the dead continue to honor God.

Only then did I sense how those who are no longer here rely on those who are to continue expressing faith thereby carrying on the task of bringing light into the world. It’s such a big job, no one generation can do it alone. It’s an on-going responsibility that rests on the shoulders of countless generations. Only together can the ultimate goal of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, be achieved. I learned that the literal translation of Tikkun Olam is something like “forever light.” Each generation after the next working to endlessly shine light here on earth is how the healing takes place.