Our Annual Orthodoxy
Letter from Away — April 14, 2022
I am what is called a secular Jew. When my children were young, I somewhat regularly attended services for Shabbat, the weekly day of rest and prayer; a few times a year we would go to a holiday celebration or a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue. My connection to Judaism is one of culture, rather than religion.
From an early age I wanted to understand what I was being asked to say, and so while others were mouthing Hebrew words without comprehension, I was reading the English translation on the facing page. As I developed a personal understanding of the deep matters of life, it became harder to accept the meaning of some of those words. The essential core of Judaism remained true, but sometimes the ornamental phrases of prayer felt hollow.
One thing that always troubled me was the idea that one group of people might be “chosen” over another. Having suffered ostracism and casual bigotry as a child, I learned that factions do not serve Creation. But even in the midst of adolescent angst and the Age of Aquarius I could not separate myself from my heritage. My cultural roots are too deep for me to pretend that I am more or less than what I am.
That ethnic heritage is never stronger for me than when I am in the kitchen. The gallons of chicken broth brewed against the colds of winter and the combination of crisp apple and thick, sweet honey that greets the fall, are where I find the most solid connection to my ancestors. For me, and for most Jews, the queen of food holidays is Passover.
Pesach, as it is called in Hebrew, is the springtime celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. We are asked to retell the story of how, after he read Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph’s people came to the Nile valley to work in the years of plenty and thus survive the famine that followed. We tell how a new Pharaoh ascended to power and chose to treat the immigrants from the east as slaves. Eventually, in his fear that they might grow powerful and threaten his rule, this Pharaoh ordered the oldest sons of the Hebrews to be killed.
Most Americans know something of Moses, who escaped the purge through the wisdom, courage and generosity of three women. We know he rose to a position of some authority and are told that when, as a young man, he saw a slave being beaten, he took the whip and used it to kill one of the Egyptian oppressors. The slaves were afraid to shelter him and he escaped to the desert, to return years later at the command of a burning bush, to set the Israelites free. From this story three powerful religions have sprung, none of which totally trusts the other two. That’s the history. The ritual of Pesach requires that we make and consume a symbolic meal called a Seder while telling the tale.
For the first 26 years of my life the Seders I attended were led by my Grandfather, my uncle Avram, or my brother. They were all pretty much the same. I knew that families all over the world were celebrating Pesach at the same time and assumed every Jewish house looked and sounded the same on those nights. Then I got invited to the home of a co-worker, a vegetarian who took his religion very seriously. Everything was different. The food (usually my favorite part) was simple and dull. But the story, and all the questioning and discussion it raised, were wonderful. Since then I’ve made an effort, when hosting the Pesach feast, to make sure of two things; lively discussion and a tasty meal.
One of the key elements of the Seder is the invitation, spoken at the beginning of the evening, that all who are hungry should join us. “Once we were slaves and hungry,” we say. “Now we are free and have plenty.” Another important part is a discussion of four children. First is the wise child, who understands that this story belongs as much to the current generation as to those of Moses’ time. Then there is the foolish one, who wants to know why we are fussing about the past at all. The indifferent child does not identify with the events being described and feels isolated from the tale and the tellers. Finally, there is the child who does not know enough to ask any questions at all.
Over the years, we have often welcomed strangers to our table. Once a young Jewish man from out of state, in Maine for short-term work, fit the role of the wise child. He knew the story well and gave us insight into what many of the small rituals mean. At that same table, 16 years ago, there was also a young man who was not Jewish. Ours was his first Seder and his presence encouraged us to hear the story through new ears.
Sometimes Passover is merely an opportunity to take the good china out of the attic and iron the linens. It’s always meaningful to stir the soup I first tasted from my grandmother’s spoon and smell the sweet potatoes, carrots and prunes slowly turn to tzimmes.
Although he came from a Christian background, when Joe and I got married he cast his lot with mine, joining and supporting a cultural tradition that, over time, has become as much his own as it is mine. A lover of spicy foods, his contribution to the plate of symbolic foods, that will appear on Jewish tables throughout the world on Friday evening, will be freshly grated horseradish. The pungent vapors will fill the house, helping us to breathe in our portion of the human story.
Two years ago when all the world was staying home, a dozen of us met online, each family group with its own meal, sharing the story though the then-unfamiliar auspices of Zoom. As the Passover song has it, Dayenu — it was sufficient.
Now I prepare to welcome a small party of family and friends into my apartment, planning a simple meal that is likely to be richer in symbolism and celebration than in food.
The bitterness of slavery and injustice was not ended when Moses took his people through the sea and the desert to receive ten rules and start the adventure of Judeo-Christian-Muslim culture. If we treat the story as an artifact, to be polished once a year and set out with the fancy silver, told among ourselves in the exact same way we heard it as children, we have not done what Pesach requires. If we call the story ours and no one else’s, we miss the point.
In human history, those who were once oppressed sometimes overcome their privation; once ascendant the formerly downcast all too often impose their will on others in turn. If we are to deserve the liberation we celebrate we must share each others’ stories, and their promise. We must see the common losses and gains, taste the traditions of those with whom we share this fragile human experiment.
Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.