Note to Self: Next Passover, Take the Whole Week Off.
I adore the way this holiday invites us to clean up, clean out, look at what we don’t need, simplify, be humble, and leave our narrow places behind. Between two jobs and a house that never stops getting dirty, I didn’t give these preparations their due. I spent every night after work and every Sunday preparing lessons, grading papers, and managing my thirty-two students.
On the day of erev Pesach, I took an unscheduled half day off and raced home, sweeping and doing dishes like a madman, boxing and sealing up the chametz with tape.
There hadn’t been time to get rid of it by any other method than throwing it away, which struck both of us as too wasteful. So it spent the week out of reach and out of view.
On a related note, we also decided against selling our dog and her chametz-laden food, which, to our credit, we were not tempted to eat.
“What Are You Doing on My Planet?”
A good week before the start of the holiday, we had trekked out to Ladue to buy matzoh at Schnuck’s. We walked in the door alongside a very big, very visibly Orthodox woman, and I was so busy feeling self-conscious that I practically ran our cart into the stack of five-pound boxes of matzoh. I feel like I should have anticipated they’d pile up the Passover stuff right by the entrance.
“Oh, right,” I said out loud. “Here it is.” I talk when I’m nervous.
A clutch of bearded men in kippot stood close by in the floral section, smiling and shmoozing, oozing authentic yiddishkait out of their every olive-hued pore.
I felt like I had a flashing neon sign over my head, “First-Class Interloper.” Please don’t notice me, I said silently. Please. Please. Please don’t notice me.
“How much do you think we should get?” Brian asked me, so himself, loud enough for the Orthodox lady to overhear.
“Uh, I don’t know.” I said.
The lady flashed me a look. What are you doing on my planet?
Brian grabbed a container of Manishewitz cake meal and asked me – just as another man in a kippah was walking by – if he thought we could make the recipe on the back.
I wanted to tell him to keep his voice down. I wanted to get out of there. But I didn’t. I let Brian be Brian and focused on managing my panic.
We left with the cake meal, which led to a store-wide search for potato starch, and ten pounds of matzoh. If anyone really was looking at us strangely, that would have to be why.
So Many Steps
I thought Passover was going to go right over my head. So many steps. So many little rituals.
I knew we were going to spend the first night in a Jewish home, at the invitation of Brian’s supervisor, who goes to a Conservative synagogue. I pictured myself there, in the midst of people with decades of combined Passover memories, fumbling through a hagaddah, still not really understanding what it was or how everyone manages to come up with so many different versions.
I thought for sure I’d embarrass myself one way or another, taking from the seder plate when I wasn’t supposed to, or being caught off guard by some blessing I’d never heard of or somehow overlooked in my semi-desperate preparations.
Talk about your narrow places.
I guess I needed Passover to help me understand what I need to free myself from. Maybe I’ll make it out of Egypt next year.
In the meantime, something else has happened. Something is different now, and I’m trembling as I try to put it into words.
I think I’m a part of this tradition now, in some way that I wasn’t when I walked into Schnuck’s that day, and I think it’s also a part of me in a way that it wasn’t before.
Maybe it was that first seder. Brian’s supervisor invited friends and neighbors who weren’t Jewish, but I felt I had more obvious things in common with the Jews at the table, from a comfort with the Hebrew to an intimacy with the story. I’ve wrestled mightily with the Exodus story since we first entered it in our Torah study group, and now following it through into the Israelites’ joyous, wrenching transition into freedom has brought on dozens of we moments.
And I felt totally and immediately at home in our host family’s haggadah, cobbled together as it was from a 1980’s-era printed version and bits the family had pasted and stapled in over the decades since, garnished with new pieces downloaded just this year, stained with food and wine. A gorgeous mess of accreted love, attention, inclusion.
I totally get that now. Selah!
A community’s heart beats in its kitchens, so I’m happy that’s right where I was on the second day of Passover, helping out in the kitchen at CRC. Picture dinner and decked out seder plates for 150 people. Shredding the beets that went into the maror, chopping the nuts that went into the charoset, slicing about forty thousand pounds of onions, tasting gefilte fish for the first time ever, fresh out of a chilled mixing bowl. Chopping, washing, assembling seder plates, swapping stories.
Leslie asked me about my conversion journey, and I finally got to tell her about the moment when she was singing Avinu Malkeinu at High Holidays, one of those points at which everything changed. I felt so totally at home at CRC that day, a feeling I suppose won’t always amaze me as much as it still does, but I’ll hold on to amazement for as long as I can.
Singing, absorbing the teachings, laughing with Brian, helping him with the Hebrew, then later milling around, schmoozing, pouring wine and water for the people around me. At a certain point in the evening, Brian and I were sitting together, looking out over the room, both thinking the same thing.
“What did we ever do without this place?” I asked him.
He smiled wistfully and said, “I don’t know.”
I went into the holiday with my mind focused in its characteristic way on appearances and details, on the cold political dimensions of the Exodus story.
I came out of it, four seders later, with deep gratitude and a more encompassing understanding. The high price of freedom, the knowledge that it is a journey, not a destination, one that has to start inside us long before we take our first step out of bondage. The space that is created at the Passover table for everyone to add to the shared remembering.
And the profound, encompassing symmetry of the lessons the Exodus story gives us, which Rabbi Susan put into words on the night of the LGBT seder: What we do to others will be done to us.
On that night at CRC, we both felt so comprehensively embraced that I don’t have words for the feeling. Only gratitude. Only a long-held breath, finally exhaled. Only awe at how much love, commitment, and risk-taking must have happened over the years for CRC to become a place where LGBT people aren’t just welcomed, but deeply integral. Selah!
Best Western® Shabbat
I left for a work-related conference in Mesa, Arizona on the last day of Passover and ended up staying through the weekend. I found the nearest Reform congregation to where I was staying, Temple Chai in Phoenix, and planned on driving there on Friday. But when I got off the plane and tried to rent a car without a reservation, I discovered that a NASCAR event was in town, which put a car way out of my price range.
So there I was, stuck in a Best Western, not about to welcome Shabbat by navigating the public transit system or paying a taxi for a seventy-mile round trip. So what was I going to do?
Here’s the really cool thing. In a most uncharacteristic move, I had planned ahead, figuring it would be difficult even with a rental car to get to Temple Chai. So I had packed two candles and two little hotel-sized bottles of wine in my luggage. I borrowed a glass from the hotel restaurant, lit my candles, and said the blessings.
It was actually kinda wonderful. I had a freedom to dwell and explore that I’d never give myself with other people around. I sat at my little table, saying kiddush six or seven times, tasting each delicious syllable as I watched the candlelight filter ruby-red through the wine glass.
Then I leaned back, put my feet up, ate quesadillas and sipped wine as I looked out the window and watched the sky fade through a million shades of blue into black.
Oseh Ma’aseh v’Reishit
I had yet another stroke of planned-out genius the next day. The conference was scheduled to continue into Saturday, but I knew there was no way I was going to work that day, so prior to leaving St. Louis I had booked an all-day, all-inclusive tour from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon. There were ten of us in a van driven by a local tour guide, and it was a perfect way to spend Shabbat, letting someone else do the driving watching the glorious landscape go by.
The biggest surprise came in the form of Hadas, one of my fellow passengers, an Israeli working as a sort of Hebrew-immersion au pair for what she described as a very religious family in New York. They had been at a very posh resort in Phoenix for the entire Passover holiday, and over the course of the journey, Hadas told me about her rigorously secular upbringing in Israel, which had given way, through her relationship with the family in New York, to another kind of immersion. She’s been going to a neighborhood shul with the family, studying Torah, and living daily observance in a way she would never have imagined back in Israel.
What a curious situation to be in, so unexpectedly and for the first time! It’s one I realized must be quite common, when two or more Jews meet for the first time in a new place and feel out each other’s level of observance. Are you going to use your camera today, Hadas asked me. Are you going to buy anything? Have you been steering clear of chametz? Did that include rice and beans for you? A Ukranian woman who was traveling with us overheard at one point and asked what we were talking about. Hadas and I laid it all out for her, filling in details and completing each other’s sentences.
We said the b’racha together when we stepped up to the rim of the Grand Canyon. Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reishit. ‘Blessed are you, Lord, our G-d, creator of creation in the beginning.’ Then we slipped into awed silence.
I went off on my own for about an hour, exploring one of the trails along the rim. I kept saying the b’racha over and over as I took in the glory around me. I’ve always experienced a profound wonder in natural settings, but this was the first time I took it all in through a very Jewish lens.
I let my mind dwell on the idea of a creative act that could have led, through whatever path, to such an ancient, all-encompassing beauty.
I breathed in the air, listened to the quiet, and wondered at the unity of a divine Mind that could bring about such things and speak to us through the Jewish texts. I thought about how fortunate I was to be right there, right then as I said over and over, Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reishit.