Monday, March 25, 2013

Passover bittersweet reminder of our ancient roots

I see ghosts at my Passover Seders. Many of them are key players in the ancient story Jews recall each spring, detailing the miraculous journey of the Children of Israel from slavery to freedom.

Their names – Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Miriam – have become part of Western culture, and their story remains a moving testament to the transcendent power of faith. But there are others who linger lightly in the air, spirits who fill me with melancholy and loss.

In years past, I've seen them flitting about as my wife, Wendy, busies herself setting the holiday table, breaking open the first boxes of matzo, grating a snowy layer of egg over a sculpted mound of chopped liver.

I spot them again as the guests arrive – my daughter and son-in-law, one of my brothers and his wife and children, a friend from my synagogue and a stranger, new to the city and with nowhere to go for the holidays.

My friends and family always spend a few minutes saying hello, catching up with all that is new at work and at home, slowly finding their spots around the table. There's the muffled scraping of chairs across carpeting, the tinkling of glasses and silverware, the rustle of linen napkins. And then, just like the first few seconds before the opening of any major performance, an expectant hush falls over the room.

My wife stands and lights a pair of candles. She slowly moves her arms above the flames and buries her face in her hands, whispering a prayer that "commands us to kindle the light of the festival day." The flickering light of the candles casts shadows across the room, and I momentarily lose myself in the vast sweep of time we're about to explore in the Seder.

I reach for a nearby Haggadah, the special book of psalms, stories and songs for Passover, and begin to read. And for a brief moment my words become the echoed words of others. The ghosts have returned.

There's my great-grandfather, living in a modest home in the Pale of Settlements outside Minsk, Belarus, his family spread about him at a vast wooden table. There's my grandfather, who joined tens of thousands of other Jews from across Eastern Europe and made his way to America around the turn of the 20th century.

And there's my mother and father, first-generation Americans who came of age during the depression and World War II.

For an instant their voices join together, a euphonic blend of the ancient and old, all retelling the story their fathers had told to them. So it's with a lump in my throat that I begin, repeating the opening lines of the Exodus tale that had been repeated to me.

"And there arose up a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. . . ."

Many Jews – the unaffiliated, the secular, the indifferent – know little about Joseph and even less about Passover. Yet many of them attend family and community Seders. Maybe it's because of the food. Maybe it's a way to connect with friends. Maybe it's the tug of their personal ghosts. Or maybe they understand that it's important each year to listen to an ancient story and hear once again that freedom is never to be taken for granted, always to be cherished.

This year I’ll be celebrating the first night of Passover at the home of friends. Wendy and I will be hosting the second night Seder at our house. Both events will be filled with the rituals, traditions, food and song that define the holiday experience and I Know I’ll be on familiar ground each night. After all, my ghosts travel with me.

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