A gasp. The door flings open. A stranger walks in. The crowded room falls into silence. Hunchbacked, cane in hand, covered in a white Arabic sheet head to toe, only eyes piercing and an imposing white beard, he carries a young child on his back. The service stops for a lingering moment. My courageous grandma, Tooba, stands up and with a smile that melts an intruders’ heart, disarmingly asks “Welcome. Will you join us for the Seder?”
The stranger sits quietly next to me, placing the child in front of him. I immediately recognize her as my cousin, Angela. He removes his head covering and reveals himself to be my uncle. While reaching out for Elijah's cup, in a tired, shaky tone he proclaims “I have traveled here from distant lands. My child is hungry. Thank you for opening your home to strangers. There is clearly love in this house. My daughter’s name is ‘Ma Nishtana.’ She has four questions for you.”
The recollection of my first Passover in Iran is both soothing and painful. Like sweet charoset. Like bitter marror. Like the memory that fades with four cups of wine, and refluxes in the morning with indigestion. Delving back into our youth is never easy. As children we are sponges that soak up and exaggerate the stories of those around us. At the right moment, a smile can propel our progress and a harsh comment can scar us permanently. Courage is needed to walk backward on the narrow bridge that threatens a collapse onto mine fields of memory. Going back without a professionally guided tour, risks awakening our buried demons.
My son, now six, performs ma nishtana this year. Such pride, yet so torn. I look around the table, grateful to have escaped imminent danger, but at what price? I left a country, my home, my roots behind. I am elated to have my parents, yet almost all those at my first Seder are gone. I praise God for my freedom, yet remain shackled to the post traumatic blows of the sirens of the Iran-Iraq war, and the bullets that landed inside our home during the Islamic revolution.
The Hebrews wandered in the desert for forty years. It is now forty years from the memory of my first Seder. I hold my son, David, on my lap in the deja vu position in which my father held me.
As David continues to sing, I realize that we all have Egypts in the corners of our hearts. We all carry places where we are trapped, places of exile. So “why is this night different from all other nights?” Perhaps because on other nights we allow darkness to cover our eyes, we fall prey to the ravages of our souls. But on this night, after a long winter, we forgive the past. We forgive time. We remove the handcuffs of memory.
We walk defiantly through the desert into light, into a parting sea.
Over the horizons, we see the glimpse of a future that we don’t yet comprehend, but that we know we need desperately. It is not about who I was, nor about who I am. It is about transforming myself into hope and by so doing, by being brave, strengthening the heart of my child toward a better world.
Life is more than a few memories framed on top of a slanted fireplace.
I am no longer that innocent child at the first Seder, on my father’s lap, in awe of my uncles’ traditional Passover role play. But I refuse to become dulled by life. Instead, each rub, each year, each memory shines the mirror of my soul. I will see innocently through his eyes, and have him see hopefully through mine.