Saturday, March 31, 2007

Passover

Among the Jewish holidays, Passover is my favorite; it has something to do with its occurring around the Iranian New Year as well as something about its meaning which reminds me of most of our holidays: cleaning, preparing special foods, bringing symbolism into life, referring and pointing to one thing which stands for something else.

In our first Passover, my husband gave me a little brochure regarding what should be done. I do not remember how much of it I understood, but I never forget the hot taste of the horseradish on my pallet. I learned about chametz and cleaning the house in certain fashion. It was years later that I learned Passover is not just getting rid of chametz.

We spent the first Passover with my husband’s family, who were not very kosher about it. They zip through the little Maxwell House Haggadah and rushed over the roasted leg of lamb. My husband’s grandfather, rest in peace, after the first page would announce, “Let’s assume we read it.”

Little by little I learned more about this holiday as we occasionally attended the Seders where the Haggadah was read through more faithfully. As we moved to a more orthodox neighborhood and time passed by, I noticed that things were becoming more elaborate than what it was in Park Avenue and New Rochelle. Little by little the list of forbidden items became longer. The leavened bread ban was extended not only to other grains but to the green beans, green peas, sesame seeds and tahini sauce, mustard, and others which I had no idea what for. One Jewish friend explained many of these extensions was to build a fence around the law and to avoid whatever is doubtful, whatever could possibly be mistaken for wheat. Even mustard? I wondered.

As for the history of the tradition, it is told that Hebrew slaves were leaving Egypt towards the Promised Land, a hard and troubled trip through the desert full of hazards, which they succeeded in doing eventually. There are reference symbolically to all the hardship and pain that the Jews went through and many Haggadah have illustrated them beautifully and even humorously. Four questions are raised, always the same: why we eat matzo, why… and why… any why…? And the Table of the Covenants? I once asked, but guess what, I asked in the wrong place! No one knew the answer.

Several years ago we were invited to Rabbi Fund for a Seder. I did not dare ask any question in room full of rabbis. However, as if he read my mind, in a very elegant speech, the rabbi answered all my questions and said nothing about matzo, God bless him.

The rabbi explained that the Jews made a pact and committed themselves to this exodus. They knew they had a very hard and difficult road ahead, but they still accepted it full-heartedly. They were not forced but walked into it willingly and knowingly. Why? Why should anyone willingly accept hardship and danger? Is that not against human nature to avoid what possibly would bring harm? Are we not supposed to prefer safety and survival? Why should our ancestor endanger their lives as such? The answer, of course, is “freedom.” They were willing to pass through the unknown desert from slavery to freedom. But was that all? Is this commemoration of one of a kind incident? And was this “freedom” found in Jerusalem? Was this freedom just an end? Rabbi Fund answered this very eloquently. No, freedom was not an end, it was not “there, in Jerusalem.” Freedom was in that “covenants,” in the “commitment” and in “choosing,” freedom comes when we choose one and commit ourselves to it, when we “make a pact,” when we accepted a way of life, no matter how difficult and hard it might be and when we let go of other possible choices; it was by “choosing” that we liberate ourselves from running astray.

Once more I felt how close we are, this notion of “choice” as a liberating factor which is celebrated in our life again and again, when we are named, when we become Bar Mitzvah, when we choose a partner, when we accept the citizenship of a country, or when we cast our votes. Is that not the same for all of us?

It is years since I, a goy, have lived among the believers. To my dismay, I found very little of any sort of these essentials we share together being acknowledged. On the contrary, efforts are made to distinguish us as much as possible. It seems there is a competition to show how different we all are from each others. You think it is hard? Not at all. When we forget about the meaning, the cornerstone of humanity, and stick to the structure and forms, there we are: the valley of differences and “otherness.”

Last night in the rows of “Kosher for Passover” products I was amazed at the variety of pastas in all forms and shapes (made with potato or matzo), the variety of cakes and cookies, covered and uncovered with chocolates or whatever else, which had filled the supermarket shelves. I wondered what would have happened if we did not eat cake or pasta for a week? What would happen if we deprived ourselves of certain things that we like? What would happened if we restricted ourselves for one week to a tiny flat matzo and cheese and spinach and eggplant and yoghurt and potatoes and tons of other vegetables and call it a week of deprivation for the sake of practicing “choice” and “commitment?” And what would happen if we repeated it every year? Nothing would happen, except that we just might grasp the meaning of these rituals, we might learn that committing ourselves is a virtue that would bring us more freedom, we might learn that a little restrain wouldn’t do us any harm, it might just give us a very satisfying feeling of achievement. We might learn that, after all, limiting our lives a little bit is not the end of the world; it just gives us more room to concentrate on our life and achieve our goals better. We might learn to celebrate “choice” as a real “freedom.” And then what? Nothing. We might learn almost that all religions share this in one way or another. Is it that so bad?

Have a happy Passover.

3 comments:

Eric said...

Mina, that is lovely and eloquent. It is sweet to be able to choose a constraint for a period, with the hope of freedom or improvement, as your story suggests. What is the effect of having limitations placed all around you that are out of your control?

Anyway, I'm sorry we won't be spending the seder together and I hope we will see you both soon.

Love

E

Bat Yerushalayim said...

Very interesting post.
One thing you should know, Mina, is that we Iranian Jews have a custom of "deed o baz deed" on Passover, which is obviously a parallel of the custom with No Rooz.

stu said...

Hmm. The concept of giving something up...reminds me of Lent.
But more seriously - is that not the very concept of Passover, the 'our ancestors were slaves, fleeing Egypt, who had to give up bread to flee..
Finding perfect substitutes seems to defeat the purpose.
And spending all of this energy to exclude both other Jews and non-Jews prevents others from seeing the universal aspects of the holiday and its meaning.