Pesach is one of the few Jewish holidays that baalei teshuva (BTs) and frum from births (FFBs) can both reminisce about. Sure, a BT’s memories may be more about Manischewitz wine, background TV in the other room, and driving home after seder, while a FFB’s memories are more about matzah measuring charts, ziploc bags of lettuce, and giggling during silent matzah-eating sessions. Yet for most Jews, Passover memories form some part of their Jewish experience, notwithstanding differences in observance.
Jewish holidays are often associated with grandparents. Pesach, particularly. Bubby bakes the brisket, Zeidy hides the afikoman. No doubt, the inter-generational focus of the seder helps bring families together, across denominations. It should be no surprised that Passover is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, precisely because family, tradition and legacy is at its heart.
My Pesach memories start at age 11. Before that, memories of a holiday in the spring were about Easter egg hunting in my backyard. You see, when I was 11, my father started to explore Orthodox Judaism. My mother was Jewish and dutifully made Christmas dinners, even though she and her daughter were Jewish, because we were a proud “multi-cultural” family. She had few conflicts raising her Jewish daughter with a non-Jewish man, and when they arose, they were mainly about education. When my mother walked into a local Catholic school for a tour and was greeted by a crucifix on the wall, that was too much. And when I was enrolled in a community Jewish elementary school and came home with challah and excitement about Shabbat, that was also too much. So, my parents enrolled me in public school where I was just another kid who celebrated Hanukah and Christmas. Easter, but not really Passover. I had no grandparents to celebrate with. Passover wasn’t so important.
As my father fell in love with observant Judaism, and dragged my mother along, we had many opportunities to share in Shabbos and holiday meals with members of the community. Most experiences were extremely positive and enjoyable. Over time, my mother connected with wonderful families who became role models and showed her the beauty of living an observant lifestyle. But there was this one seder, very early on in their journey…
It started late as is. The husband had a stack of haggadahs to his left and his wife who was nodding off to his right. As he shared dvar Torah after dvar Torah, he kept elbowing his wife to wake up. My mother, the consummate feminist, was boiling. I noticed that my father seemed really into the seder, especially the matzah part. He looked like he was somewhere else as he chewed the matzah intently with his eyes closed.
It was close to 2 a.m. when we got in the car and began our 30-minute drive to our home in the other neighborhood. My father began. He talked with great enthusiasm that as he was eating the matzah, it was as if he was eating the dust of Egypt! “It was like I had this spiritual experience – I was there!” he exclaimed. My mother had reached her tipping point. “Did you see that woman!” she growled. “She was the slave! In the kitchen the whole time. And when she wasn’t, her husband was elbowing her to wake up at the table!”
Then came the biggie. “I’m telling you,” my mother warned. “I will never become Orthodox. And if you become Orthodox – and if you ever wear tzitzit – I will divorce you!”
Today, my mother wears and sheitel and my father, of course, having converted 25 years ago, wears tzitzit.
We found a better place to go to seder after that, and my father continued to have his spiritual experience reliving yetzias Mitzraim, bless him. This story, to me, is proof that he has always had a Jewish neshama. If only we could all be able to fulfill the mitzvah so literally of feeling like we ourselves were slaves being redeemed from Egypt during the seder.
Year after year, we attended the most perfect seders at my high school principal’s house where my mom fell in love with the extraordinary singing, led by the rabbi’s talented bunch of sons. Yes, one year my mother knocked the light off and we sat through the rest of the seder in the dark. (There really should be a book written about BT bloopers.) Every year, without fail, the rabbi’s daughter and I would literally crack up laughing during the matzah eating while everyone (including my father, of course) was silently and seriously munching away. But these were wonderful and formative years. These were my Pesach memories.
I had no grandparents, and my parents had no parents to teach them, but we had a community who embraced us as their own and gave us the warmth of family that we never had. Their minhagim became our minhagim. Their love of Yiddishkeit became our love of Yiddishkeit. They did the most wonderful job of transmitting the mesorah to us. They gave us Shabbos and Yom Tov – and Torah.
Today, I have a family of my own. And (disclaimer here!) I do not make Pesach. Yet. I am enjoying the opportunity to go to my children’s grandparents’ house, where Savta makes the brisket and Grandpa hides the afikomen and my children, with their cousins, run around the house to find it. And you know who also comes? Bubby and Zeidy. My children have grandparents to celebrate with, all together.
Until next time,