“Passover is passé,” my father said from the passenger seat of my mother’s car. “People don’t have Seders anymore.”
“Passover must come from the same word as passé,” my mother concurred.
In the backseat, I wasn’t sure about the word’s origins. I was having enough trouble trying to reconcile my own origins. There were my mother and father, chatting away in the family car, as though we all still lived in the same house and went about our daily idiosyncrasies under the same roof. Yet my presence had been the only motivation for them to sit in the same car as they drove me back to Princeton, and Passover had been the only motivation for my presence.
For those unfamiliar with Jewish traditions—most of which center around food or the lack thereof—the festival of Passover celebrates Moses leading the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. In honor of our people’s Exodus we engage in specific eating rituals at the dinner table in a ceremony called a “Seder,” which means “order.” Families gather to recount the Biblical story, as well as to spend time with people they wouldn’t otherwise see, and have unique fights in the kitchen about how much salt goes in matzoh ball soup. Traditionally, they do not eat any leavened bread out of respect for the Jews who did not have time to let their bread rise while fleeing Egypt. Children who get their hair pulled and their clothes mocked in Hebrew School are comforted in knowing the songs they proudly sing at the table for their relatives’ amusement.
While studying abroad last spring I searched the UK for a Seder. Through a series of coincidences and e-mails, found myself in the basement of a church in Oxford at a Seder for Jewish students and families in the community. Thousands of miles from home, I appreciated the marked similarity between the Oxford Seder and my family Seder. The same songs, the same stories, the same foods. Consistency across oceans and generations. Of course, the former included many more people and didn’t skip as many passages.
Two weeks ago was the first Passover I’ve spent at home in suburban Philadelphia since before my parents separated in 2002. All signs indicated that during my Princeton travels and travails consistency had faded. No Seder, no traditions, and no sameness about anything I had left behind.
On Friday afternoon I caught my grandmother weighing herself, fully clothed with heels, trying to read the number: 90 lbs. Whenever we left the house she carried with her a bundle of four scarves—“in case it gets cold”—and seemed offended when I tried to convince her to leave some back.
“57 years I’ve spent with this woman,” my grandfather told me. “Can you imagine spending 57 years with someone?”
I don’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not sure what I’m more afraid of: spending 57 years with one person, spending far less with one person and facing the premature termination, or remaining completely alone. The last is perhaps the most frightening of all, but the first two aren’t far behind.
The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, still less than the time my grandparents have been married. My father says that one single Moses could not have survived that wandering. He agrees with certain commentators that there was more than one Moses: one led the Hebrews out of Egypt, and the other received the 10 Commandments.
Largely absent from my life, my father no longer commands me to do anything, nor does he call unless I happen to be in Spain during a major terrorist attack. Still my mother encourages me to see him whenever I’m in town.
“How’s scampi and eggplant parmesan for Passover?” she joked on Saturday night over a highly leavened dinner at an Italian restaurant.
“Judaism allows you to do whatever you want,” my grandfather said, breaking off a piece of bread from the loaf.
“You can be a good Jew without praying,” my mother said, buttering her roll. “As long as you’re a good person, that’s what counts.”
“I guess,” I said. I’m always hesitant about conceding such things.
Afterward, she brought me to our own house before dropping off dinner for my father and my brother, who have lived together for the past few years.
“Why do you bother?” I asked.
“He’s still my son.” She’s been bringing them dinner every night for some time now.
I, on the other hand, haven’t seen my brother since December 2003. For all I know his skeleton could be hanging in the closet. Every time I ask my father if I can see him—after all, ostensibly the 15-year-old inhabits a room upstairs—he delays it again, everything pushed to another day.
I often think about having a brother when something reminds me of him, but I don’t feel the anger at not seeing him until I look at pictures. My chest tightened on Saturday when I saw all of those photographs of Benjamin as a 12-year-old next to the phone in my mother’s kitchen. Frozen in time. My mother saw him one day at a school meeting and said his hair had grown long, his legs much longer than ours. Apparently he is a ‘little’ brother no more. If I saw him today, would I recognize him?
On our visit to Stanford during my senior year in high school, Benjamin and I had both fallen in love with the Spanish-tiled roofs, sunshine, palm trees and bicycle-riding.
“You can go to boarding school right near me, right near Stanford!” I told him excitedly. But we were “needed close to home” and there were financial considerations; no quantity of tears—then or now—could change the decisions that were made for us in 2002. Why were we both denied what we wanted most, to be as far away from our parents’ divorce as possible? At least one of us should have gotten farther away, gotten the escape we both wanted.
My dorm room at Princeton is a barely comfortable 50-minute drive from home. But it does offer a completely separate reality from everything back in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a reality for which I consider myself extremely fortunate. I don’t go home very often, but I thought that I would make the trip back in honor of a ritual called Passover that I thought my people still celebrated. I thought, somehow, there would still be Seder, order.
When I realized no formal Seder would take place in my house this year, I looked to the CJL website to join the Sunday night ceremony. All registration deadlines had passed, and the coordinators didn’t respond to my emails. Maybe I could show up in person with the $17.50 and hope someone had canceled?
“I might go to a Seder at Princeton tomorrow night, but they might not even let me in because I didn’t make a reservation,” I told my mother over our Italian entrees.
“Well duh,” she said. I taught her to say duh when I was in middle school and she kept saying it—incorrectly—long after I stopped.
“What do you mean?”
“Isn’t the point of Passover to spend time with family? Do you really have to go through a whole Seder to show you care about the people you’re with?”
She was right, of course. My coming home wasn’t really about the rituals themselves, the cracking of matzoh or the dipping of the egg in saltwater. My grandparents had clearly not flown in from Florida to mix horseradish with apples and nuts. The idea of foregoing these annual practices seemed wrong, but far worse would be letting traditions—or the lack thereof—get in the way of appreciating the time with my dearest relatives.
At the end of Seders people sing, “Next year in Jerusalem,” wishing to spend the next Passover in the Holy Land. But as I self-righteously declined a piece of garlic bread, I looked at my aging grandparents and mother, ever-changing yet still retaining the essence of those who have raised me, loved me, and put up with me for 21 years, and decided that I didn’t care if I was in Jerusalem next year or not. I wondered if we should instead say, “Next year may we all still inhabit the Earth as breathing, thinking creatures, and have the freedom to spend Passover together again.”
I don’t know when I’ll go home again, when my grandparents will visit again, or when we’ll all sit at one dining room table again. But we passed over Passover together, and that was kosher enough for us.