March 15, 2010
My preparations for Passover this year began in November. In the aisle of a giant superstore, on a gray autumn day, I was surrounded by red and green Christmas decorations. As I searched for symbols of Hanukkah, I realized something. Hanukkah matters to me and in actuality, each Jewish holiday holds importance for me. I wanted my house to have the Jewish symbols that store lacked. That was when I decided to have a Hanukkah party--which led me here, to Passover preparations.
Now as March begins and I imagine preparing our forthcoming seder, I drift into memories at my grandparents' home. I think of the years when being Jewish and celebrating Judaism was simple. I did not question being Jewish because our synagogue and Jewish holiday celebrations were woven into our lives.
During my childhood and throughout my young adulthood, our family gathered at my grandparents' Chicago home for every Jewish holiday. My grandfather always sat at the head of the table. He had an important tradition on Passover. When everyone had taken their seats and quieted down, he would make eye contact with each of us, old and young, and wait patiently. When he knew he had our attention, his long fingers touched a black button on an old tape recorder. Then, all of us could hear my grandfather's father reciting prayers in Hebrew. The tape's quality had been worn down by years of play but my grandfather seemed to hear his father for the first time each year. Only after listening to his father's voice did my grandfather begin leading the seder himself.
After we read the Hagaddah, my grandmother and my mother, cousins, and aunts brought all of the abundant food from the kitchen into the dining room. As we waited in line at the buffet table to fill our fine dishes with delicious food, the savory smell of brisket wafted through the room.
Besides just re-imagining these holiday moments, I can feel them. What used to seem like mere rote observances when I was growing up are now some of my most cherished memories. Spending all of these holidays at my grandparents' home and in my own childhood home is the nucleus of my identity. This is how I learned to be a part of a family and how I learned what Judaism meant to my grandparents, but especially to my grandfather. As he listened to his father's voice on the recording, I could see how emotional he became. He must have loved his father very much and he treasured the significant meaning that Judaism held for his father
I was the youngest grandchild growing up in our family but as the family expanded to great-grandchildren, I could see the hope growing in my grandfather's eyes. He couldn't always express his emotions very well but he wanted the best for us and he wanted us to carry on the foundation of the traditions he had built, nurtured, and shared with us.
Just as I couldn't always grasp the complexity of my grandfather's emotions, I didn't understand the magnitude of effort the women in my family exerted to create every holiday. My mother and my grandmother would cook for days, polish their best silverware, and graciously set tables for 20 people or more. They would always place carefully arranged flowers on the table next to the silver heirloom candlesticks. I am sure that they felt exhausted from all of this preparation but they greeted and waited on each guest as if their energy, enthusiasm and zeal for hosting were limitless. Both my mother and my grandmother have always had a great deal of class and an elevated sense of dignity that I admire. Their ability to entertain and to please others seemed effortless but I now realize that they must have worked very hard to do it with grace and elegance.
I took the Jewish holiday celebrations for granted. I did not understand how hard my mother and my grandmother worked to make each holiday dinner special and I also did not comprehend that one day I would have to do the same. I am thankful that my grandmother and my mother taught me the skills to carry on their actions. I am also appreciative of the role my grandfather played in shaping my emotional attachment to Judaism. Now that I am married and I am a mother, I am part of a new smaller family as well as an extension of my nuclear and extended family. Since my husband was raised as a Hindu, I feel a need to start a new way of thinking about the Jewish holidays.
Passover is all about cleansing; it's the ideal first holiday to carry on traditions with a renewed heart. This year, I will be the leader of my family's seder and the only Jewish adult at the table. Most of the people seated at the table will be Hindu, but they are my family and so I will be fulfilling the meaning and the tradition of the holiday the way my grandfather did. Sharing the story of Passover with my husband's family is not so different than what I believe my grandfather was trying to share with our family all those years ago.
As I pass around the haggadahs and we break the first piece of matzah, I'll hear my grandfather's father in my head and the story of our family. Then, through the communion of food, prayer and community, I hope to convey a message. Faith is not only what we believe in or the name by which we identify our beliefs. Faith is our belief in each other and who we are and a commitment. Our commitment is that we will always honor those who came before us and share this love and these values with all generations to come.