This is the run-up to Passover, which is, hold onto your seats, three weeks away. I can hear the strains of Dayenu wafting through the air right now. Of all the Jewish holidays on the calendar, Passover holds the most memories. Sitting around the table, year after year, the cast of characters shifting, growing, contracting, growing again.
The seder has morphed for lots of us. In the old days, many of us had some old guy at the end of the table interminably mumbling in Hebrew as the guests around the table surreptitiously noshed or listlessly rolled their eyes, overwhelmed by ennui. At the kid’s tables, there was a slow squirming right before the silverware percussion began. It was a dangerous scene, parents warning the kids to cease and desist, or else no afikomen prize…
Now the seder is a much hipper scene. This is reflected in the sheer number of hagadot on the market today. Everything from A Passover Haggadah, prepared by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to The Passover Haggadah: The Feast Of Freedom, prepared by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, to A Night Of Questions, for The Reconstructionist Movement. There’s A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah , published by the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and about 200 others, from hardcore ultra-Orthodox no mixing matzo with water, to Like An Orange on a Seder Plate: Our Lesbian Haggadah by Ruth Simpkins, to Ma Nishtana: A Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Ally Haggadah, to the Global Diversity Haggadah. I’m sure there are still old guys mumbling at the table, but more and more, there are seders that include Martin Luther King and Eli Weisel, seders where the music of Bob Marley and The Redemption Song, resonate beside Adir Hu and Who Knows One.
The Sixties was a turning point for seder tables around America. Somehow Jews began to realize that the words in the Haggadah, the true meaning and substance of the text, was about change and liberation and the end of subjugation. We are a strange nation that moves to the beat of a different drummer. Maybe it has something to do with the Passover story; maybe it didn’t even happen. But I think most Jews believe something may have happened. Surely this has something to do with the fact that Jews the world over, frequently of imperfect faith, have gathered sometimes awkwardly and even resentfully around Seder tables annually and retold their ancient narrative. They have sung and talked about an almost broken people who were remembered and redeemed … for a unique role and an existential mission. They all told a similar story of hope, obligation, and gratitude, expounding upon (but not changing) the universal format of Pesach, Matzo, and Marror, no matter how wonderful or horrible things were, regardless of their legitimate doubts.
The scary thing about change is that you can never know what the next stage is in the metamorphic process. We know about caterpillars and butterflies, about tadpoles and frogs. But we humans are an utterly unpredictable species. Once we acknowledge that we need to change with the times, where, as Tevye once asked, does it stop?
This is a continuation of the Judaism 2.0 trope. What was once the answer no longer works. We are challenged to make our Judaism a relevant part of our lives, not culinary nostalgia for a bowl of matzah ball soup, then business as usual. The seder must be a place where good food is accompanied by good conversation and relevant controversies. Otherwise, the ride is over, and Judaism becomes an atavistic footnote, as quaint and “odd” as Amish in buggies. Make it real!
PS This Saturday night is my 20th anniversary with Temple Beth Avodah. Twenty years?? It has been a ride of a lifetime, and the good news is there is still more to come! I am so grateful for this moment in time. I will put my remarks up online. In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom – and thank you.
The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevy, is most known for his treatise called, The Kuzari, and for this poem:
My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west–
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in foreign chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.
Halevy here describes a deep longing, a yearning for the land of Israel that is palpable. Like a young man who is far away from his love, just thinking about his object of affection causes a loss of appetite. He just cannot think of anything else – he’s useless. As good as the best things in life are in Spain, he would abandon them all to just to see the dust of the remnants from the 2nd Temple. That’s some obsessive yearning. He would simply say that it’s true love.
I’ve been home from Israel for five days. And I’ve made enough round trips to and from Israel to keep my yearning at a tolerable temperature. When I went to Israel for rabbinical school in 1978, I fell in love with Israel. Hard. I even know when it was.
I went food shopping one afternoon at the Supersol in Jerusalem. I was going to prepare a beautiful, fancy meal and wanted to make saffron rice. Real saffron is very expensive. It’s made from the threads that grow in a crocus. It supposedly takes 20,000 crocuses to make an ounce of saffron. The woman at the cash register was tallying up my purchases, commenting as she did so. “This is good bread – better than the bakery across the street. This avocado… did you squeeze it first? Eat it soon or else”, and so forth. When she picked up the saffron and eyed the price, she stopped. She looked at me – very seriously. “You’re a student, right?” “Yes”, I answered as the shoppers in the vicinity leaned in, without shame, to hear her castigate me for my costly little vial of herb. “You can’t buy this. It’s too expensive. Use turmeric instead.”
I was in love. “This is where I want to live!”, I thought, “I want to be in a nation where everybody has an opinion about what I spend on spices. I want this kind of intimacy and connectedness.” Later I would learn the adage that the thing that you love most about your partner, in the beginning, is the very thing you come to hate 20 years after…
The real issue that ended up preventing me from making Aliyah was my chosen profession. There wasn’t a lot going on for American borne Reform rabbis in Israel in the late Seventies. I didn’t want to be an English teacher for Israeli high school students. The dream of being a rabbi was too deeply planted by then to replace my love for this country that so touched me to the core.
The wild love I had for Israel slowly attenuated to something a bit more manageable. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what if I had taken that other path and followed that other passion. In the end, though, I know I made the right decision. Because of my wife and family. Because the work of the rabbinate is my calling. Because in my heart I am an American Jew.
I don’t feel myself a stranger in a strange land as Halevy did. There are no chains on me. Living in Israel is simply not the only authentic choice for a Jew in the 21st century. So I live that split level Jewish life, my heart and soul in the east … and in the west.