Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Passover Diaspora

(The following essay ran in Hebrew this past weekend in the magazine section of Yedioth USA, a Hebrew-language paper read by about 30,000 Israelis living in the U.S. The editor asked me to write about Passover from the perspective of a half-Israeli American, a POV his readers rarely see. I'm not sure I fulfilled the request, but he was happy with the result. I would never have written so openly for publication in English, but now that it's done, and it's too late to flog it elsewhere, I decided to air it here. Translations follow Hebrew and Yiddish words.)

The Passover Diaspora

If you're reading this, you have your own story of exodus and struggle, of shaking off the bonds of history and forging a new identity in a promised land. As a refugee people, Jews are forever applying the exodus metaphor and a new meaning to the modern diaspora. We do it to remember … we do it to make the next generation remember.

I have my story too. I'm the American product of an Israeli-American marriage, and I am not like you. I am not quite an American, either. I am an other, in between, for various reasons, and Passover always makes that very clear.

The Last Seder

When I was seven, just a few years after their divorce, my parents staged a final seder for my sake … even though they barely knew what they were doing. Dad forgot the kippot (yarmulkes), so I made sailboat-shaped hats out of newspaper for us and our three guests. He led the blessed event, but because he'd actively rejected religion his entire life, he lost his way occasionally, and one of his Israeli friends had to keep jumping in to help him. Mostly, what I remember is the hats.

Jews and hats. My saba (grandfather) Avram wore a hat every day. He was a tzaddik (righteous man) who walked to Jerusalem from Vilna in 1926 and basically spent the next 60 years in a shul (synagogue). My dad was a "wild kid" who hated shuls and hats and eventually fled from Katamon (a poor, older neighborhood of Jerusalem) to Manhattan with $50 in his pocket. He left behind a huge family and 5000 years' worth of religious observance. Feh! Out with the Old World, Into the New! Sound familiar?

Dad worked at the Israeli Ministry of Defense on 57th St. as a night guard, went to college, and did electrical work on the side. That's how he met my mom -- he was doing some work for her parents. My grandfather Leo was a socialist and an atheist. He didn't bring a lot of kippot to the table either. Nobody in my family cared about religion, except for a little lip service and shul time three days a year.

Clearly, the odds were against me hooking up with god. I dabbled a little (a Thursday bar mitzvah, a month at Camp Ramah, a visit to the Aish yeshiva (a center of intramural proselytizing in the Old City), but it meant nothing to me. I've never liked prayer, never felt moral uplift, and never felt a sense of belonging at a shul or any other Jewish organization. And that was fine for a long time.

Return of the Prodigal Father

Then, after 25 years of living the American dream and what he now calls a "pagan" life, dad moved back to Israel. He started to reconnect with religion after his father's death. And his observance grew and grew and it's still growing to this day, like some kind of science fiction movie monster that just won't stop growing. He's not wearing the beaver hat and probably never will -- don't exaggerate! -- but once the Rabbis have their hooks in you, Boom -- game over. High on religion, armed with the delusion of the true believer, dad decided he could just restart my Jewish education.

This happened when I was in my 20s, and it caused some friction, to say the least. Religion is inclusive and exclusive. You're either inside the shul or you're outside. I poked my head in briefly, but it's not for me. I'm outside, and I like the fresh air. It doesn't make him happy, but dad understands now that I will probably never come inside. I want to jump out of my skin when he starts to explain some point from the gemara (Jewish books of learning), but I've trained myself to sit still and let him go, because some day he won't be around to bore me with his god talk … and then I might miss it.

So I'm a sport. If you're thinking of inviting me over for dinner, don't worry -- when I'm a guest, I play along. And I've been playing along for almost 40 years. Which brings us back to Passover.

The Eternal Guest

Ever since that paper-hat seder 38 years ago, almost my entire life, I have been going to other families' seders. I used to go to other families' seders with my dad, but from the year I went away to school at 14, I've generally been on my own. That seemed normal when I was just another kid. It was still pretty normal when I was a college kid. In my 20s, I started taking my girlfriends along, and we'd be like any other visiting couple -- except that my girlfriends were rarely Jews. That added a little spice to the matzo balls.

Lately, I've been a freak at the seder table, a single adult male over 40, either because I was between girlfriends or didn't want to subject the lucky girl to the ritual. I'm so tired of those hardened eyes sizing up my non-Jewish date. I can barely face another year of going it solo, but hey -- I'm tough. I've been wandering in my own personal Passover diaspora for 38 years. If the story holds, I only have two to go. Then what?

The Jewish Defense Force

Until a few years ago, I used to liven up seders by reading my paragraphs in a funny accent -- either Israeli or Yiddish. People laughed and laughed. Most of them, anyway. For me, the seder was always a time for easy laughs. From slavery to comedy in five easy millennia. Then one year, after too much slivovitz (plum brandy), that shtick got tired. The hostess told me so the next day in very clear language.

I guess I grew up a little that year. I lost my taste for fun. All comedy is hostile, but my Passover comedy was becoming a transparent act of passive-aggressiveness.

Just over a year ago, I moved back to New York, so this is the second year I'll be a guest at my cousins' seder. I like my cousins a lot, and I appreciate their invitations, but every holiday dinner at their house is a reminder of my detachment, of the paths not taken. She's my age, and the oldest of her three kids is applying to college. Other guests half my age have their own babies already, and soon they'll stop coming. They'll be hosting their seders at their houses. Not me. I'll remain the constant guest as all around me the cycles of life race by like sped-up clouds in a car commercial.

I have a friend, a non-Jew. He's successful, straight, over 40, and single, and he can't stand Christmas: "I just want to take a vacation and get as far away as possible. What could be worse than having to spend time with all those families?"

Will he ever have kids? He doesn't know. Will I? My parents haven't given up hope. Never say never. But let's say I do have kids. What then? Will I lead my own seder … or will I pass on my broken traditions and raise a new generation of guests?

The Festival of Unleavened Bread

At the seder table, watching some apple-cheeked cherub stumble through the Four Questions, I feel my prolonged adolescence acutely, like an estranged anomaly, an affront to the natural order. If I were gay I'd have an excuse. Hell, if I were gay I might have adopted a kid by now. But I'm not gay -- I'm just stuck in a folded paper hat at the festival of unleavened bread.

At Sukkot (a holiday) last year, these same cousins almost sat me at the children's table. I wouldn't have minded, but I couldn't help wondering how they had arrived at that decision.

"Look, we still have too many people at the main table. Can we disinvite your mother?"

"Not again. She's still complaining about last year. What else can we do?"

"Well, Barak is alone again, and he's like a big kid. More or less…"

"Good idea! Let's put him there so the Rubins can sit together. Barak can talk about DJs with David. Or being a vegetarian."

"Do you think he'll mind?"

"Who cares if he minds? I just don't want him hitting on the Goldbergs' 19-year-old daughter."

At the last minute, I got an upgrade to the adult section.

The Three Questions

My safta (grandmother), may she rest in peace, had a little seder (not just the Passover dinner, but literally "order" or process)of her own whenever I came to visit her in Jerusalem. She ran that seder like clockwork, and it consisted of The Snack and The Three Questions. She'd feed me a crooked slice of cake and a glass of tea and ask:

• Why are you so skinny?
• Why did you come for such a short visit?
• When are you getting married? (Matai teet-khaten?)

That was the routine, without fail, for fifteen years, until the year she stopped asking questions. She never liked my answers.

Many years ago, safta told my first cousin Gila, "Marriage isn't for now. Now it's fun to be single. Marriage is for later." Gila took that advice to heart and found a guy at a religious mixer in the Catskills. They moved into the land of Queens, and she bore him five children, and there they dwelt, building a mountain of equity and a bigger mountain of disposable diapers. Amen. But Gila always wanted a family.

No Answers

Most of the time, I live my life on my own terms, and for better or for worse -- it's my life. A few times a year, our heritage reaches up like that hand from the grave in "Carrie" and drags me into the mulch of our traditions, where it rubs my nose in every decision I ever made or didn't. Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," but as far as I can tell, the examined life isn't all it's cracked up to be either.

As the seder draws close, I confess to mixed emotions. No, I don't want to pray, and I don't wish I were having my own seder, but I feel a little bad about the pizza in my freezer. I'll be eating hametz (leavened bread, forbidden during the eight days of Passover), but I wonder if my saba Avram, a man who essentially lived in a shul, was right. After all, he led a happy and fulfilled life, while I'm forever wandering through my own modern diaspora. Yet my revulsion for religion and the religious and all those easy answers keeps me from delving into the four or forty or 400 questions that nag at me. Was saba Avram right? Was Socrates?

This year, I'll be reading my paragraphs in a sober, clear voice. No jokes. I'm not going for the easy laughs anymore. No, I have a very adult seder plan this year. I'll bring a real horseradish to make sure everybody feels the pain of history. I'll have my four glasses of wine when I'm supposed to. I'll eat my matzoh, read like a mensch, and maybe help some kid hide the afikoman (a piece of matzoh that kids hide and hold for a ransom).

And I decided to invite my girlfriend. She's not a Jew, and she's never been to a seder. She's looking forward to it.


David said...

Next year in Tel Aviv, with the Lazars, OK? lots of humor, lots of non Jews lots of meaning and lots of fun.
And veggie food.
C'mon, you'll enjoy it.

Lord Zim said...

Do you sing "Next Year in Jerusalem" when you're already in Jerusalem? What about when you're in Tel Aviv?

Thank you for the invitation. Inshallah, I'll be able to accept it. I bet your seder is everything you promise and much more.

For all my grousing, I must admit: I had a very good time at the seder this year. Thanks, esteemed cousins! It went by so quickly there was hardly any time to get restless.