“Jews are tied together by irrational bonds of memory…” — Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews
I am not a religious person, not even a little bit, but you would never hear me say I wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to it until my ex-husband’s parents tried to get me to convert — how could I convert from a religion I didn’t really have? And yet, I could not give it up, it was the same as if they’d suggested I become ethnic Chinese.
This wrangling with my identity resurfaced when I lived in Austria where Jews were such a — well, the word “novelty” is the best I can come up with. How strange it was to have my presence be so amusing and so decontextualized from modern history.
I had a funny discussion once during my Deutsch fur Auslanders class with a classmate. It was spring, our teacher was using Easter traditions as part of the German vocabulary lesson. My classmate, a 20-something pistol of a woman from an Islamic community in Kosovo, turned to me and asked, “Are you Catholic?”
“Lord, no,” I said, “I’m Jewish.” She looked at me, so confused and surprised.
“Oh, honey,” I said, “Don’t look at me like that. You’re Muslim. We’re both a couple of oddballs in this place.”
Most of the time it didn’t trouble me to be in a tiny minority. Plenty of people — the Turks and the Bosnians — had a harder time than I did with Austrian small town life. But if I was in Austria when Passover came, I would get very sad. There was nowhere for me to go. My people were nowhere to be found. I joked, blackly, that I was going to make a sign board and walk the valley. “Got Passover?” it would say, and then, my phone number, probably in some Hebrew inspired font.
Instead, I emailed the nearest synagogues, one in Salzburg, one in Graz. I apologized for my awkward German and explained that I was living in the boondocks and looking to join a Seder for Passover.
It’s my favorite holiday, it’s full of stories and good food. It is Exodus told in your dining room as though it was about your uncles and cousins and other third and fourth degree relatives, as though it happened not in ancient history, but maybe a few years ago, or before you were born but that crazy second cousin’s uncle remembers it and has the goods, but won’t tell you the real version until after that third glass of wine, you should top up his glass.
We all know the story, too. The Jews lived in relative peace in a foreign land, then things went bad and they had to hightail it out there for some new unknown place, lest they all be crushed by pyramid stones or trampled under the hooves of Cossack ridden horses or turned to ash by Nazis. It’s our story and it has a happy ending in the version we tell at Passover, we find a place that’s ours and we don’t have to move all those damn books again because we’re not letting them go, but damn, they are heavy, please stop making us move, okay?
I got one answer to my emails. It was from the synagogue in Graz, and it was in English. Off we went, the husband and I, to the home of an American woman who’d attended the same synagogue we went to as kids in San Jose, California, what are the odds of that? We joined their Seder, a joyous mix of German and English and Hebrew, and we sang the same songs and said the same prayers and ate the same food and told the same story that we’d be telling had I been back in Seattle. I brought a pile of English books that I was done with — our hostess said she would rather have books than flowers. And half a planet away my family — and lots of other Jews — did the exact same thing, only with less German. I traded email with a contact in publishing once, he said, “I find it so reassuring to think that everywhere around the world, we’re all sitting down to tell this story.”
I feel sorry for people who haven’t been to a Seder. I had a big one once just to invite some friends who had never attended a Passover dinner — I think it is time for me to do so again. I feel like there’s something in this one holiday that distills everything about being Jewish into an evening of eating chicken soup and drinking wine and telling stories.
“Here, eat this, and let me tell you this adventure. It’s crazy, this tribe, they miraculously cross an ocean, okay, it was just sea, but STILL… only to wander around in the desert for 40 years, can I get you some more wine? And by the way, that’s my tribe, can you believe what we put up with? And we’re still wandering around doing the best we can to find a place where we can just read a book in peace. Have some more soup, these matzoh balls are super fluffy.”
At Passover we invite in complete strangers, we’re are dying to feed them and tell them our story. It’s not just our “irrational bonds of memory,” it’s also in the story itself.
You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. — Deuteronomy, 10:19
Tell a sweeping story. Be kind to strangers. Give a nod to your tribe. Have some more soup.
What else do you need in a holiday?