April 1, 2004
The Simple Son
When I was in college in New Hampshire, the pastor of a nearby church asked our Hillel rabbi to send over a Jewish student who could help his parishioners learn about Passover. I volunteered. For all the fuzzy, feel-good reasons that a liberal arts education supplies in abundance, I felt it was important to teach others about my faith and culture.
Plus, I figured, I actually knew something about Passover. Like most American Jews, I had grown up oblivious to most aspects of my faith except the rabbi's High Holiday sermons, Chanukah and the seder. For me, Passover was a good time, full of food, family, laughing -- of course the people of Lebanon, N.H., should experience it.
I went to the local small grocery store to buy matzah. The elderly woman who ran the place listened as I described the flat, unleavened bread. She said she knew just what I talking about, then guided me back to the RyKrisp. I told her that wouldn't do, because it's made with yeast. "You said flat," she said. "It's flat." I bought several packs.
The pastor and I spoke by phone. His church was going to supply the festive meal, he said. I mentioned wine. There was a pause. "Will apple juice work?" he asked. Alcohol was forbidden at church functions. Sure, I said, apple juice.
The night of the seder, the rabbi gave me a shank bone, a piece of celery, a roasted egg and his car, and I drove, for the first time, through a snowstorm. Somewhere between Hanover and Lebanon, the snow built up under my rear tires, and I got the funny feeling the back of the car was going off in a direction all its own. I skidded off the road into a snow-filled culvert. The car was unscathed, as was I, and the first set of headlights I waved down was a four-wheel drive pickup with a winch and hook.
The church was in a plain, working-class neighborhood. The basement was set up with rows of long tables, and every seat was full. These were the people who cleaned and served at my fancy college town and on campus, but who seemed to vanish once the sun set. If I was their first Jew, they were my first crowd of Christians.
When I asked how many people were familiar with the story of the Exodus, every hand went up. It was clear to me that these people believed in the Bible as deeply as I doubted it. I was a dilettante missionary preaching to the seriously faithful. I told them, proudly, that the Passover seder is a time to ask questions and engage in debate, but no one did. Removed from my family's festive table, at which just being together was enough to invest a holiday with meaning, I didn't know enough about the holiday to give it meaning. The words of the haggadah were lifeless in my mouth.
We blessed the four cups of apple juice and the RyKrisp, and then, finally, arrived at the festive meal. The women rose and unveiled sheet cakes, Jell-O molds and huge bowls of macaroni salad, liverwurst and ham salad. The pastor apologized for all the pork. I explained that, actually, pasta was also forbidden on Passover. "Why?" a woman asked. I turned to see it was the elderly woman who ran the local grocery store -- the RyKrisp lady -- standing there, dressed in her church clothes. "Macaroni doesn't have yeast in it," she said. I searched my limited Jewish knowledge for an easy and convincing answer. In the meantime, I stammered. It hadn't occurred to me when I encouraged people to ask questions that I'd actually have to answer them. Back at her store, I said the woman's crackers weren't right because they had yeast; now I was saying the macaroni wasn't right, but it had no yeast. The woman seemed to be sizing me up: Was I a liar? Was I difficult? Was I an idiot? Do these people make it up as they go along?
The woman had no more use for me and moved away. After a bit I thanked the pastor and excused myself to return to campus. The rabbi was waiting up when I dropped his car off. He figured I'd have problems driving since he had already exchanged his snow tires for his regular ones. "I managed," I said.
Then he asked how the seder went. I said, "I managed."
My big moment to contribute to cross-cultural understanding, to bring the peoples of the earth closer together, and all I had done was offer a dull reading and contradict myself. My only comfort was having proved to the Christians of Lebanon, N.H., that Jews could not possibly be smart enough to control the media or take over the world.
But the evening was my revelation. I decided it was time to get serious about learning about my heritage, thinking through my faith, challenging my ignorance. Even if my tradition couldn't be mastered, it deserved more than just being managed. Being Jewish was a pale imitation of learning Judaism, and it was time for me to begin.
Happy Passover. Â