It’s lovely that some of us are able to be with small groups again this Passover. It is a time that is rich with memories and connection. Wishing everyone a safe passage through the Wilderness this year.
by Allan Ament, Whidbey Island, Washington
Within the safety of my home, I contemplate the meaning of Passover, one of my favorite holidays. Traditionally, it celebrates the Exodus—no, not the movie or the ship, but the departure of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Fascinating how we take that story as historically valid even though historians have been unable to find any hard evidence that several million people (the Bible says 600 K—but that was just the men), with their animals and possessions, wandered around for 40 years. What we know for sure is that Moses, assuming his actual existence, did not look like Charlton Heston, assuming his actual existence.
The long journey enabled a perhaps easier transition, emotionally, mentally, physically, and, of course, spiritually. The holiday starts with a traditional ritual feast, a seder, in which the story is retold, songs are sung, and ritual foods are eaten. It is the actualization of the short explanation of many Jewish holidays — They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!
Home movies of seders past scroll through my mind. What seemed like endless family gatherings when I was very young, which my grandfather led in Hebrew from a Haggadah (Passover story book) published by Maxwell House Coffee. I still have several copies in my office, unopened for years. (They seemed endless because traditionally the ritual comes before the meal—and the ritual can last a couple of hours. Or, in the mind of a preschooler, days!) One, with a college friend’s family, stands out in my memory. My friend’s mother said she didn’t like wine, so she was serving bourbon. As a good Southern boy, I was taught to respect my elders and conform to the customs of my host so, I, not reluctantly, followed her lead. I was, after all, a Kentuckian. It seemed to make sense.
Then there was the seder a friend and I organized the first year I was living in Seattle. We had no haggadahs but figured we all knew the story and so could just tell it extemporaneously—forgetting that half the attendees were not Jewish, and this was their first seder. It was a big success, probably because we combined the traditional four glasses of wine with at least that many joints. The Exodus story somehow turned out to be about a pregnant duck; not sure how that happened, but apparently pregnant waterfowl need liberation too. Then there was the last seder I hosted in my home where Deloris, myself, and most of the guests wound up sick.
Immediately after receiving my second Covid vaccine injection, I felt a sense of relief. When I realized, a little later, that Passover was coming up, it seemed appropriate to celebrate being liberated from, if not slavery, then pandemic confinement. I remember learning that the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, can be also be translated as “a place of confinement.” Mystical Judaism superimposes this translation onto the traditional one, which provides a deeper spiritual overtone to what is otherwise a quasi-historical celebration. This approach seems especially meaningful to me this year.
The confinement may be mental, when we feel constricted by events or our own thoughts. It can also be physical, as it certainly was in ancient Egypt, and as it is in this year of Covid lockdown. As the pandemic eases, and restrictions are lifted, a sense of liberation, a return to some idea of “normalcy” slowly takes hold. I had my first hugs in over a year yesterday from someone not my wife. It felt liberating, freeing. The start of a new journey.
We are having our first guests for dinner on Sunday—close friends from Seattle. We will have a small seder—a short pre-meal ritual was requested rather than the full-on traditional one. I found a script for a 10-minute seder on the Internet. Where else. All the basics and required elements are covered, well, at least mentioned and touched on, so it seems perfect for the occasion. Our friends are also bringing most of the food, which makes them ideal dinner guests! They are long-time friends, so Deloris is extremely comfortable with them, and they with her, adding to our sense of non-confinement.
The other day I found a recipe in the Seattle Times for a chocolate icebox cake made with matzah. It sounded delicious and will definitely appear at our seder. Coffee-soaked matzah, layered with chocolate mousse, topped with chocolate icing. And no cooking—Talk about liberation!