Remembering refreshes the past. This week Passover is celebrated all over the world, and the highlight of the holiday is the Seder - a dinner where history and symbolic foods remind us that freedom is the human trait that cannot be compromised. It’s a meal of simple food. The focus is on matzo, the flat bread with not much flavor that baked quickly in the desert sun, as families of newly freed Jews followed Moses toward the promise of a homeland. When a people has just been released from the chains of slavery, freedom tastes good.
As I began writing this, I was remembering things in two very different ways: from my head and from my heart. Rather than choosing one, I’ll share both.
INTELLECTUALLY, I appreciate the Seder as serious fun. During this ceremonial meal we remember the tyranny of slavery - not in an abstract way - but in a personal way. We reenact the oppression of our Jewish ancestors in Egypt. We remember that they were the sweat labor working in scorching sun, hauling rocks to build the mighty pyramids.
During the Seder, children and adults alike, ask and answer the four simple "why" questions that are the focus of the holiday. The answers construct a too-familiar story of distress and reluctant heroism. We realize that bravery is less a romantic notion, and more a mandate to act in the face of oppression. We see this repeated in almost every decade of history: empathy with the plight of an oppressed people; negotiations with a tyrant who breaks promises; the exodus of a people; families traveling without adequate food or supplies, motivated by hope, freedom, and a place to call home.
EMOTIONALLY, preparing for the Seder awakens the connection to my immediate ancestors and to tradition. I am not alone. Memories live in every action.
- I replicate the hostess role my grandmother modeled. I’m cooking the traditional foods that mark this celebration of Passover. There’s no written recipe for the hot brisket I’m carrying from the stove to the oven, or for the crisp potato pancakes frying on the stove. I see the hands of my grandmother, my mother, and my great aunts superimposed on those of my grandchildren, as I pass along the family tips, teaching them to roll matzo balls so they stay light and fluffy as they plop into the pot of bubbling chicken soup.
- I recall the tangy sweetness of my grandfather’s homemade wine. The few treasured bottles we had are long gone. There's a Manischewitz wannabe on the table, along with some fine Passover wine to please the palate.
- My father built a top for our dining table, large enough to fit extended family and friends. And he appointed himself chief taster. I remember him watching as the first latke begins to brown. Then, cautiously he would move the sizzling fritter to his lips, and closing his eyes to savor the first bite, he'd murmur, "Mmmmmmmm, that's worth waiting for." That's true of the whole event - it's worth waiting for!
- My mother would be helping set the dining room table, adding flowers, the candles she will light at sundown, and the special touches that make it festive.
- My muscle is a Frenchman named Jeannot. I depend on him to do the lifting and carrying that is part of the weight of the Seder. He is tireless and uncomplaining. I ask, and things get done.
- My daughter is a master charoset chef. Her recipe for chopped apples, nuts and wine has a special magic to it in the texture and proportions she uses. Although the dish is meant to symbolize the mortar the slaves used when laying bricks for Pharaoh, tonight it is an edible highlight that everyone anticipates.
- My son will lead the Seder. He is in charge of preparing the Seder plate: matzo, salt water, lamb bone, burned egg, greens, salt water, bitter herbs, and charoset - each a symbolic reminder of the tears shed in bondage, the bitter taste of slavery, and the Exodus from Egypt.
- My sons-in-law move into the spirit of the holiday with ease. One relit the house providing energy-efficient bulbs everywhere. Each time I touch a switch, I feel the light of his presence. One does an annual pilgrimage to the butcher store, artfully selecting the lamb-bone centerpiece for our Seder plate.
- And last, but definitely not least, the kids surprise us every Seder, throwing plastic frogs in the air, to remind us of the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to “let my people go.”
I can’t separate my mind from my heart when it comes to Passover and freedom. There will be a phone call to my cousins in Canada - a long distance hug - as we remember past Seders together. We will likely express gratitude for our liberty. And we will remember that now it’s our turn. There's more to do. As long as there is hunger and homelessness, bigotry and discrimination, bullying and violence, there is no freedom.
If only one of us feels the threat of prejudice, it is a reminder that all of us are not free - not yet.