April 2015 has been on my mind for a while. Since last September, to be exact, when I began counting the weeks to estimate a due date for my first child.
For the past several months,I have been reading the books, cleaning the house, painting the room, purchasing the gear, making checklists at work, all in anticipation for this impending April deadline. It wasn’t until last week as I was strolling through the grocery store past the matzah display that I realized I had left something off the to-do list: Passover.
As I cracked open one of those tiny bottles of Kedem grape juice (hey, it’s almost a satisfying treat after a long, dry, 8 months), I thought about our annual seder in Jackson, Mississippi, that I’ve come to love so much.
Every year, my husband and I host thirty-plus people, packed in our small home. It’s a special time of sharing my favorite traditions, enjoying the meal I spent two days preparing using old family recipes, sharing my Jewish culture with my mostly non-Jewish friends.
But this year… could we pull it off?
Three years ago my husband and I decided to forego hosting the event, seeing as it was so close to our wedding, but this year I’m feeling like it needs to be a priority. I’ve been getting a lot of great advice about parenthood, but one thing I can’t seem to swallow is when experienced parents give me that stern warning about how my life will never be the same. I really like the way life has been going so far; do I really have to give it all up? Thinking about Passover, and other Jewish holidays , I’m reminded that they serve as important touchstones throughout the year and how ritual and tradition helps focus and redirect a sometimes challenging or overwhelming time in our lives. They aren’t something having a child will take away – they are something I’ll want to share with the new addition to our family.
And so, seder is a go!
Sure, there’s going to be a third person living in my house soon, but right now it’s time to make the charoset. Sure, I’ve got to finish my spring semester assignments before I go into labor, but this is the time to read the story of Exodus in funny voices with my favorite friends. Sure, I’ve got piles of baby clothes to wash, but this is time to search for the afikomen (bonus if someone finds tiny socks during the process!).
I’ve tried to soften my stubborn habits during this pregnancy and as I entered my third trimester I began accepting my limitations. My body is working on a major project that needs special care and attention. But on the days when my mind starts racing about all the things I can’t do or the things that are about to change, I find comfort in the yearly traditions that won’t change. I don’t have to host the seder, but this year part of me really needs to. The Kedem grape juice doesn’t quite hit the spot as much as its Manischewitz cousin, but in the grocery aisle that day, the sugar provided just enough energy to throw some matzah in my cart and commit to making this a very pregnant Passover to remember, with maybe a few extra helpings of “matzah crack” for the mom to be!
Right now, Rabbi Matt Dreffin and Rabbi Marshal Klaven are in the midst of the Passover Pilgrimage, journeying to communities throughout the South to lead seders and Passover programming.
Here is one of Rabbi Klaven’s first updates from the road: “Question: What do you get when 10 Jews and 50 non-Jews get together? Answer: An unforgettable 1st Seder on the ISJL Passover Pilgrimage. This evening in Natchez reminded us all: to go great distances, we cannot go at it alone; but –as the Bible says– we must go as “a mix multitude!” Thank you, Congregation B’nai Israel and all our wonderful friends there!”
The Passover Pilgrimage continues through April 20, with stops in more than half a dozen Southern states:
Seders along the way take place at congregations (including churches), and additional pastoral visits and events are planned. As ambassadors for this festival of freedom, the rabbis are excited to share their thoughts along the way and post-pilgrimage. In the meantime, we wish them safe travels and will continue sharing periodic updates on the ISJL Facebook page, as well.
The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews). At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.
However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.
As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.
However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.
Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.
I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.
Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.
My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.
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