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Who Will Tell

March 29, 2010

 | ONE – Who will tell? ONE – I will tell. ONE is the God of the World. |


This is matzoh, the unleavened bread.


In the garage, in a former Yahoo DSL box relabeled ‘Passover’ with a black Sharpie, are the haggadahs, sitting on top of Mom’s matzoh-print apron and the afikomon cover.  Some of them are photocopied, though no less Jewish, others date back to my mother’s childhood and their faded orange covers come apart in my hands, and some are even assigned to specific family members, with notes in the margins.  Nana’s cursive is distinctive, cutting through the Hebrew like a scalpel, effectively circumcising these Seder instruction manuals so that the service will be short and the meal will come quickly.  My uncle is the only one who can read the Hebrew anyway.

We are Southern California Jews – not the Orthodox who walk the heated streets of West Hollywood in long black coats, fur hats, or ankle-length skirts, but the secular who have a menorah, maybe a mezuzah, and not much else.  Several generations removed from the shtetls of Russia, our approach to religion has been one of wariness bordering on ignorance.

This is my legacy, this abbreviated holiday called Pesach.  These books, these haggadahs, like the manuals that come with a new computer or toaster oven, tell us how to celebrate Passover, and they are just as complicated as the instructions for my Samsung Blu-Ray player, both written, in part, in another language.    

Reaching back into that cardboard box, my fingers brush over the homemade place cards I made one year with stickers, markers, and folded index cards as a means to prevent bickering at the dinner table.  I can track the evolution of my family in these cards.  They’re yellowing at the corners, and many of the names will never sit down to Seder again. 

In our home, the service is always hurried, rushed, like the Exodus from Egypt; I don’t even know which members of my family believe anymore.  Though they still observe Passover, my aunt and one of her sons have become Christian.  Neither my father nor my uncle’s wife were born to Judaism, and my mother and I don’t believe in God. At our table, my uncle is the only one to have had a bar mitzvah, the celebration of becoming an adult at age thirteen. 

My nana was not a particularly religious woman, but family meant more to her than anything else in the world.  I never asked her what she believed in.  I didn’t want to know, in case my own beliefs – or lack thereof – disappointed her.  I think she believed in God – toward the end of her long illness, I got the feeling that she was looking toward a better place, though the word ‘Heaven’ was never dropped in my presence.           

My mother says, for her, being Jewish is about culture rather than religion, but the two are tied so closely together I don’t see how she can pick the threads apart. Being a Jew has always seemed to be about following instructions. We have so many rules and laws that if you were to follow all of them, I don’t think you could leave the house, so there have to be some compromises, but there’s a line in the haggadah I find troubling:

“Our Jewish way of life is based on a strong faith in God.”

It’s actually written in stone.  Jews are constantly punished in the Bible for lacking faith, it’s why they’re forced to wander in the desert for forty years, the bunch of kvetchers.  What does that mean for me?  Does it mean I can’t be Jewish anymore – or should I move to Palm Springs?

Whenever we get to the story in the haggadah about the plagues God sets upon Egypt, I wonder, how does Moses manage to keep any faith at all?  God keeps promising deliverance, then snatches it away by hardening Pharaoh’s heart against the entreaties of the Jews.  We dip a finger in the wine and tap it on our plates to symbolize each of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, gnats, fly swarms, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, the slaying of the first born.  Nine chances for freedom offered and then taken back, until finally, finally, God stops taunting the Israelites.  Maybe Moses didn’t really believe after all, maybe that’s why he never made it to the Land of Milk and Honey – our God is a vengeful God. 

I don’t think anyone else in my family has these thoughts. The primary emphasis of the evening is on food. ‘Eat’ is written in all-caps in the margins of the stained pages where we are instructed to break for matzoh ball soup – and it’s underlined twice.

These books, dating back to the early seventies, are time capsules.  With names crossed out and rewritten next to various passages, I can track the lineage of my family.  I can see in the pages of these books that my mother’s grandmother, Gamy, once played the role that Nana played for me, that my mother will play now, and that I, by rights of matrilineal heritage, ought to play in the future .

I can feel it slipping away, my culture, the only culture I have ever tried to claim.  I may not be a very good Jew, but it’s important that I have something.  Remembering why we do the things we do is getting harder, if we remember to do them at all.

After the third cup of wine, the spirit of the prophet Elijah is welcomed to Seder by opening the door.  I’ve always liked Elijah, maybe because he, too, is a stranger, someone who barges into the middle of the meal and joins the festivities.  Elijah reminds us that his spirit is with us when we speak of freedom, and always dwells among us, which begs the question: why do we have to open the door to let him in?

I was raised in a house without God.  I never had the option of finding Him, because I didn’t know He was missing.  Even now, knowing I am part of a small minority, I can’t force myself to believe.  It’s too late for me.

Some part of me wishes I could start all over again, with closer ties to my history, really understanding the celebrations that I only watch from the periphery.  I wish I could have a Hebrew name like my cousins, or have been bat mitzvahed, or just have a sense of belonging to something.  The price to be paid for that is a kind of belief I don’t have and never can.  I don’t know if I can have the culture without the religion.

But I think I’ll keep the door open for Elijah, just in case. 


Happy Pesach.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 30, 2010 9:00 am

    I went to my first passover dinner last night and found it very interesting. My husband was raised Jewish and he asks many of the same questions. I loved this piece of writing. You described your situation well and I feel for you. The ending was great too.

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