Years ago, we started celebrating Passover in our own home, inviting different folks to join us around the table and work through the script of the Hagaddah, the booklet to sets the order for the evening.
I know about Passover. This one would be easy.
Or so I thought.
I've had in mind (hanging over my head) that in this year of learning, it wouldn't be enough for me to read books and articles. I needed to interact with modern-day Jews on some level. I thought that would involve dropping in at a local synagogue for a Sabbath day service, but I had no idea how to do that. Can you just walk in the door? Do men and women sit together or apart? Is there some kind of ritual cleansing or class you have to pass to be welcomed?
Passover, I thought, would be the perfect time to face my fear and find an event to attend. I pictured buying a ticket for a Seder meal from a local community center or church group. That would be close enough, right? When I started looking around for which groups were offering Seders, I ran across an event called "An Inspirational Women's Passover Experience."
Just for women? That solved one of my issues. At least I'd know where to sit. And attending a lecture on Passover would allow me to sit back, listen and observe. I can do that. And the fact the event happened the week before Passover meant we could celebrate the holiday like normal, around our own table.
I conscripted my friend Joanne to go with me. She turned out to be the perfect choice. Joanne is not shy, which was great because this event was not a lecture.
A handful of women greeted us at the door and pointed us downstairs to a fellowship hall. Joanne was brave enough to ask if we could see the sanctuary, a large auditorium with pews, very similar to many churches I've visited, except behind the pulpit were displayed 5 copies of the Torah. The congregations 6th copy was unrolled on the podium where a young boy was practicing to do his first reading in front of the congregation. Each of these massive scrolls holds the words of the 5 books of Moses, meticulously hand scripted in tiny Hebrew characters.
Before we even reached the hall, we had met Kathy, and Dana, and Barbara, and Rachel, each one open, friendly, and inviting. The hall was filled with big round tables, the kind big enough to seat 10. I looked for a spot to sit where my back wouldn't be to the speaker.
I still thought there was going to be a speaker.
Rabbi Eve took on the role of facilitator, giving a few words to think about and then directing us to discuss our experiences around our table. Even on the first question, it was obvious we weren't going to be able to pretend to fit in. Our ignorance didn't phase the ladies around our table. They took great pleasure in explaining to us, throughout the evening, the significance of their family traditions, the meaning of words we didn't understand, the reason behind certain rules regarding Passover. One woman, who had grown up in Israel on a Kibbutz, added another layer of explanation as she was able to describe, "in America it is this way, but in Israel, we do it like this."
And the dessert... oh, the dessert! Three decadent Passover approved tasty bites. My favorite was the mini pavlova with blueberry compote. Yum!
After the event, we were again surrounded by a sea of friendly women wanting to know where we had learned about the event, where we lived, whether we would come again. One of the last people we talked to was Laura. She talked about some of the difficulties of Passover, the extra work, the burden of preparation. Then she offered to include us in her family's Passover Seder if we were interested. We'd have to check our schedules. I wanted to go, but I didn't want to. It was a step into the unknown with people I didn't know. That is a scary place to be. I'd get back to her.
I wish I could unpack everything I saw, heard, and thought, but there's too much. Here are a few of the impressions I left with that night.
- People are people are people. Each person we encounter comes with a unique history, a story, a memory that makes them who they are.
- A Jewish congregation feels a lot like a church family. This is a group with shared history and values. They are (for the most part) happy to be together. They are also happy to see new faces.
- It is nice to be welcomed, but can be overwhelming to be TOO welcomed. As a guest, I was happy people talked to me, but for EVERYONE to talk to me was like getting hit with a fire hose.
- We can thank our mothers and grandmothers for passing down family stories, recipes, and quirks.
- A lot of these women are practicing religion because it is their cultural tradition and their racial heritage.
- Some of the questions we asked ourselves felt empty, self-reliant. "How do you sanctify yourself?" "How will you be reborn in the new year?" "How will you sustain yourself?" They left me feeling exhausted. If it's up to me, I can never do it.
- The rules are not as set in stone as I thought. At our table, there was a lot of comparison of how things are done in different homes. I think I was expecting uniformity, but found a shared core with different manifestations.
That was last week. This week brought more Passover excitement, which I will write about in my next post.