Horseradish and haroset

In so many ways, I am my father’s daughter. Like my dad, I’ve always been fond of using the concept of paradox to make sense of life’s confusion. Even my religious upbringing might seem from the outside to be rooted in paradox.

I was raised in a Messianic Jewish household, which means that we consider ourselves Jewish and believe that Jesus is the Messiah. (So, you know, not controversial at all.) Most of my classmates were resentful that I got to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. I was always like, a) I don’t get extra gifts at Hanukkah so calm down and b) go buy your own Menorah if you’re so indignant about it; there are no rules against that.

My favorite holiday, though, has always been Passover. Epitomizing the Jewish tradition of multi-sensory experiences, food is the conduit for communal memory at the Seder: we taste the bitterness of slavery with horseradish and the sweetness of freedom with haroset, a mixture of apples, nuts, and honey. In Judaism, to know something is to know it with your whole body. It’s why Rabbis rock back and forth during prayer; they experience worship body and soul.

My dad approached his Seder duties with similar wholehearted commitment. He was a storyteller at heart, and the Seder gave him a couple hours to channel his creativity as our emcee for the evening. I think his most popular story was about the first time he got drunk, at four years old, after finishing everyone’s leftover wine at the Seder table.

Seders were not the same after my dad got sick. He had to sleep during most of his last Seder with us, and he died just a few days before Passover in 2012. We attended a friend’s Seder that year, anyway, but the rituals that typically helped me feel grounded were lost on me that evening. The most familiar things became confusing, frightening even. My clearest memory of that night was looking out at the stars and wondering if I’d ever be able to enjoy the night sky again, because instead of awe, I felt a heart-rending hollowness looking out at the universe-sized gulf that now separated me from my dad. I still feel it at times.

Anyone who experiences loss understands how life’s joyful moments suddenly become entangled in emotional complexity. Happiness, the unbridled and fearless kind, becomes too tidy an emotion to exist in its simplest form anymore.

I mentioned this to my friend Janie, almost as an aside. That joyful moments have taken on a bittersweet taste for me now. And she said, “It’s probably a sign that you are living a full life. As you gain more experiences, you gain more of the good and the bad.”

Strangely, this brought me comfort: believing that all these shades of joy and pain and longing and hope — that this is what it means to be fully human. It’s that moment of the Seder where you combine the horseradish with the haroset as a symbol that life is bitter and sweet. Often at the same time. A paradox.

My dad was my first audience for any near-finished piece. The last thing I read for my dad was my toast for my sister’s wedding. When I finished, he said, “I’m just so happy to be alive to hear this.” It hurts me to remember that, because he’s not alive to hear this story, to meet his grandchildren, or to walk me down the aisle at a wedding of my own one day. But that place where it hurts the most is also where I feel the fiercest gratitude for the fact that he is my father, that he inspired this story to begin with.

The Jewish celebratory toast is L’Chaim: To life. A toast to our experience on planet Earth in its entirety, for better and for worse, which unfortunately includes losing those we love. But like a dark silhouette, death has also revealed to me what I can’t lose. Even though my dad is not physically here anymore, I walk day by day still actively nurtured by the strength of his love. I can’t lose him any more than I can cleave away a piece of my own soul.

When I was little and my dad would give me a kiss, I would squirm and wipe off my wet cheek as fast as I could. But no matter how fast I did it, he would insist, “It’s too late; it already sunk in.”

Thank God that’s true. Then and now, it gives me the strength to navigate the messy and beautiful garden that grows beyond “happy” and “sad.” Somewhere in the intermingling of horseradish and haroset.

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