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I think I can say with some degree of certainty that, having been brought up Christian, I never got stressed out about Easter the way I do about Passover. In my family, Easter means dyeing eggs, receiving chocolate bunny baskets, and saving all of the black jellybeans for my mom. When I was very young and attended parochial school, it meant giving up sweets for Lent and spending countless hours at Mass in the weeks leading up to the joyful celebration of Easter morning.
As a Jew-by-choice, I haven't been celebrating Passover for that many years and I have yet to figure it out. It might have something to do with the fact that the first seder (the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover meal) I ever attended--at age nine--set the stage for what I believed all seders would be like. My memory of that night, blurred as it is by time and the mists of Manischevitz, is of being at my friend Ellen's house in the company of her high-spirited, anything-goes mom and a group of far-out adults who debated atheism versus agnosticism while drinking glass after glass of sweet kosher wine--which Ellen and I were urged to drink along with the grownups. I don't remember reading from a hagaddah (book of prayers, stories and songs used on Passover), but I do remember a seder plate making a brief appearance not long after a "Passover cigarette" had been passed around the table; unlike the wine, Ellen and I were forbidden to partake of the "cigarette." There was also a brief discussion about Elijah's impending arrival "in a spaceship from the astral plane." What can I say? It was the seventies.
In subsequent years I attended seders that ranged from the sublime (a dear friend who is a trained chef prepared an exquisite meal and gathered a group of smart, lively friends around her table) to the Orthodox (a paid event at a shul on the Upper West Side where every single word was in Hebrew and everyone was so busy arguing and debating that at 11:00 p.m. the soup still hadn't been served.)
Flash forward to Passover 2004. In deference to my conversion to Judaism, my family decided that, for the first time, we would have a seder. Since I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment at the time, my parents agreed to hold the festivities at their house. "All you have to do," my mother told me over the phone, "is bring whatever items need to be on the table."
"But, Mom," I protested, "what about all of the cooking? There are a lot of special Passover foods, and all kinds of rules about how they should be prepared."
"Don't worry," she assured me. "I borrowed a Passover cookbook. And besides, you can tell me if I'm doing anything wrong."
I stopped arguing. First of all, there was no real way for me to know if she was doing anything wrong, having never prepared a seder before. I certainly wasn't going to use my first seder as a model. I wasn't sure of very much, but I was positive that there would be no "Passover cigarettes" being passed around our family table.
And second, the pure sweetness of my mother's gesture of making the seder was enough to put a lump in my throat. There was no way I would criticize anything she did or prepared, simply because it was so kind and generous of her to make the seder in the first place.
The day drew nearer. I purchased eight beautiful hagaddahs after days of agonizing over which one would be best for a family that had never celebrated Passover before. In my local ceramics studio I painted a seder plate and a tray for the matzah. I searched my kitchen for forbidden food items and inspected my counters and cabinets for crumbs. And then, two days before the big night, my phone rang.
"Ann?" my mom said, "I was thinking that maybe we should have the seder on Sunday."
"But Passover isn't until sundown Monday," I told her.
"Yes, but your sister can't make it on Monday, and we really have to have it when we can all be there."
I sighed. "OK, Mom...whatever you think."
I knew it was going to be a problem. Now I would have nowhere to go on the night of the first seder, and it was too late to call one of the friends whose invitations I had turned down to say that I now could attend. I was disappointed but figured that I would need to make the best of it.
On the day of the seder at my parents' house I showed up early, set up the seder plate, tasted a little of the charoset (mixture of nuts, apples and wine) at my mom's urging, and placed hagaddahs at each place setting.
Our first seder lasted about half an hour. I managed to read the blessings and the verses written in Hebrew, but I had never led a seder, and I didn't have a clue about what I was doing. My father, mother, and sister took turns reading some of the story, but no one asked any questions. My two small nephews found the afikomen (the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and that children look for later) that we had hidden in the piano bench. But the seder was over way too quickly, and without discussion, debate or conversation it felt all wrong to me. My mom served a delicious dinner, but brought a basket of dinner rolls out with the roast chicken, saying, "The rest of us can have bread, right?" Everyone seemed ominously quiet, and I was tense and tired. Suddenly, the thought of a "Passover cigarette" didn't seem like such a bad idea.
I thought about how my observance of Judaism, normally so peaceful and fulfilling during the year, always ran into problems at the holidays. Whether it was making a seder, or a Hanukkah candle-lighting, or dinner at Rosh Hashanah, I tried to include my family, but I just didn't know how to make it meaningful for them. Perhaps that was because I was so lost in the need to proclaim my new identity that I had neglected to search for that meaning myself. I reflected back on the days when I celebrated Christmas and Easter, when I could just show up for a holiday dinner with my family without judging how well or how poorly I had managed to follow the rules.
And it finally occurred to me that I was missing the point of what a holiday means, regardless of what religious occasion it signifies--in the end, all that mattered was my family's willingness to gather for a holiday that didn't belong to them, and their kindness and patience in the face of my limited understanding of what was supposed to happen at a seder. I had missed the point entirely, and now it was over. All I was left with was a sense of how truly bad I was at being Jewish.
The next night, as the soft wings of sunset ushered in Passover, I drove home from dinner at the local Chinese restaurant through the streets of my neighborhood where on every block houses glowed with warmth, golden light and laughter as families and friends gathered to celebrate.
As I parked my car and walked to my apartment building, I hoped that when this night--so different from all other nights--came again, I would be able to see beyond myself to a new meaning of Passover, that I would be able to free myself of the limitations of ego and identity and embrace the idea of what it truly means to belong to a people--not only the Jewish people, but also my own family.
In deference to that quiet hope, I murmured a tiny prayer with a new, sad, metaphoric meaning that resonated in my heart: "Next year in Jerusalem," I prayed. "Next year in Jerusalem."