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 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.