In Jewish families, Seder -- the ritual kickoff meal for the eight-day festival of Passover -- is the big one, sort of like Thanksgiving, only without stuffing. You wouldn't dream of missing it, because that would be tantamount to not showing up for your own birthday party. In a way, it is your own birthday party: a celebration not only of liberation, but also of the birth of the Jewish people. Not that I spent much time dwelling on the serious ethical and historical implications of the Book of Exodus (recounted each year at Seder) when I was a child. Actually, I didn't begin to think about Passover in any serious way until recently -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.
When I was a kid, we had Seder at my paternal grandparents', in Baltimore. To my mind (for reasons having to do with my father's passion for Judaism and the stories he told of his boyhood), Baltimore was the capital of the Jews. The whole family was there: the aunts and uncles, the first cousins, a bunch of second cousins and second-cousins-once-removed, a great-grandparent or two, and, on occasion, the grandparents of my cousins on their father's side, and assorted distant relatives named Sid. My grandfather read the Hebrew prayers so fast that he ran out of breath, and he never skipped a single one, meaning that we kids had to sit through the recitation of various Talmudic debates (recorded in the Haggada) about the meaning, for example, of the phrase "with a strong hand." Finally the food would come -- charoseth made of sweet wine, chopped apples and walnuts; boiled eggs; baked chicken; sweet green asparagus; spiced peaches served in individual crystal bowls; and, la piece de resistance: Grandma's famous Passover cake (made with matzoh meal). The grown-ups would sing; the cousins would brag about their SAT scores; my father would get this pacific look on his face that meant he was in dreamland, thinking of his own boyhood Seders; and I would slink off to my grandparents' bedroom to work on an incipient ulcer.
I wasn't comfortable as a Jew. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't comfortable, period. But my Jewish skin, in particular, didn't seem to fit. It didn't fit when I was mid-size and incapable of wielding a hockey stick at the seriously blue-blooded private school I attended, where most students had descended from either a United States president or Oliver Wendell Holmes; and it didn't fit when I was in high school, mooning over boys who didn't know my name and probably couldn't have spelled it if they had. It was a bad era: It was the time, just for starters, of Farrah Fawcett Majors, whom I didn't look even a little bit like.
And Washington, in those days, was a pretty un-Jewish town. By which I mean that it was a town that Jewish sensibilities, culture and cuisine hadn't touched. A town run by people who lived in mansions in Georgetown and ate beef Wellington and felt comfortable with chintz as an ontological concept. Spring Valley was off-limits to Jews. So were many of the country clubs. The old-line law firms tended to have few, if any, Jewish partners -- though that was beginning to change when my father got his start. And God forbid you were in psychotherapy -- this was a big, bad secret, to be shared with no one save your one Jewish friend, who, being Jewish, was more "understanding," and who also happened to be your mother.
And we lived in McLean, which was even worse.
Is it any wonder that when I finally was graduated from Langley High School, home of -- no kidding -- the Langley Saxons, and went to college, I felt liberated? Of course I would have felt liberated anyhow, because now I could stay out until all hours drinking cheap wine with sleazy boys and no one would be waiting up for me reading How to Talk to Your Teen when I got home. But for me the liberation of going away to college was an ethnic thing as well. It was there, surrounded by other Jews, that I began to feel Jewish.
Before college, the only Jews I knew well were related to me. But my family is German Jewish, and -- to give you a brief history of American Jewish sociology -- the German Jews, on the whole, thought they were Episcopalian. They got to America first (before the large wave of Eastern European Jewry, as well as the later German Jews fleeing the Nazis); they didn't speak Yiddish; and before you could say, "Bloody Mary, anyone?" they'd learned the difference between French and English antiques (even as they clung to their religion). What I'm trying to say is that my family made for a rather small sampling. But then I went to college, and suddenly there were Jews everywhere. There were fat Jews and skinny Jews, smart Jews and dumb Jews, Jews with Southern accents and Jews who sounded like Ed Koch. There were Jews who kept kosher and Jews who didn't know what "kosher" meant. There were Jews who actually spoke Hebrew and knew Talmud! And there were Jews, like me, who really wanted to be one of those tomboyish, small-breasted, outdoorsy girls named Taylor. College was just crawling with Jews (around 20 percent of the student body was Jewish), and for the first time in my life I didn't feel so out of it, so different and so weird, except, of course, when I was awake.
Not that I was keen on Judaism as a religion. For one thing, there was the little stumbling block of synagogue, which, for me, had never been a whole heck of a lot of fun. Unless you count four hours of praying in a language that no one but a handful of old men understands fun. And then, just when you turn the page and see that you're on the last prayer, the hazan (cantor) gets up and begins to sing each word about 8 million times. Now, all this is something that most goyim (literally, "nations") simply don't get. God knows why. Probably because they don't spend enough time in shul. When we were kids, my brother and I passed the time in synagogue thumb-wrestling. When that very diverting sport lost its excitement, we took turns torturing our little sister. The bathroom was another fun place to kill time while the grown-ups were in the sanctuary talking to the Big Boss. If nothing else, you could wad up the toilet paper into small wet bullets for future little-sister-torturing sessions.
Though I had resolved to never again set foot in a synagogue, I was, despite myself, searching. And after college, I moved to New York. I didn't move to New York for the Jews -- I moved so I could start publishing in the New Yorker by my 21st birthday, and I also moved there for the boys -- but the Jews sneaked up on me anyhow. I mean, New York is such a Jewish town that even the WASP s are Jewish. I know this because my own dear friend and former roommate, Lissa, who definitely wasn't Jewish, knew more Yiddish than I did. Despite her Fair Isle sweaters, her penchant for playing golf and her mother and father, who called one another -- honest -- "Mother" and "Father" -- Jewish culture had penetrated her soul. She had a serious Jewish boyfriend once, but, thank heavens, she came to her senses and realized that the man was, in her own words, a "complete and utter shmuck."
It was in New York that I got a job at the last remaining haven for pure goyishness in all of publishing: Reader's Digest. I was hired to work on one of those cheesy books about the Bible, but the net result was -- ta da! -- I actually read the darn thing. And it was, like, so cool. And wouldn't you know it, around the same time,I found myself resolving these, like, major issues having to do with my mother and my father and those little fantasies I had about the Nazis, and I also rid myself of my old boyfriend, whom I didn't even like, and fell in love with this really handsome Jewish guy with prematurely graying hair and so what if he didn't even own a suit, Mom? And okay, so he lived in this brownstone in Brooklyn with a bunch of people who hadn't yet heard of this neat invention called the "vacuum cleaner," and he made so little money that we had to go Dutch when we went to Coney Island for hot dogs, and he was way too young to even think about making any kind of commitment. None of this mattered, you see, because his mother liked me. When I first met her, she noticed that -- unlike every member of her own family -- I didn't wear glasses. And right in front of my future husband, who at the time was only 22 years old, she said: "You don't need glasses, Jennifer? That's good -- we need some good eyesight genes in the family."
The poor man didn't stand a chance. Our wedding was a full-Cinderella: the long white dress, the chuppa, the band, the flowers, and the dozens and dozens of guests I didn't personally know, all of whom seemed to be members of a large extended family by the name of "Client." And my parents! Oy! Were they thrilled! Or, to be more specific, my mother was thrilled. Dad was happy, too, I guess. Actually, I don't think he was fully prepared to see any of his daughters walk off with another man -- and just because he actually grabbed me away from my husband mere minutes after my husband and I had exchanged our "Ha-rei aht me ku-deshet li be-ta-ba'aht zoh, ke-daht Moshe ve-Yisra'els" and insisted that he, rather than my husband, walk me into the large striped canvas tent set up in the front yard where the reception was being held, well, what of it? It didn't mean that he wasn't secretly thrilled that I was about to have my honeymoon night. And, anyhow, the point is: I married a Jew. BREAK And now it's Passover again -- my favorite (everybody's favorite) Jewish holiday. So I'm thinking about the Exodus -- and about my own personal exodus. The Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years, until at last the generation that had been born into slavery had died out, leaving those born in freedom to forge the new nation. I, too, have left my own little Egypt (in my case, McLean) and have been wandering in my own private Sinai (in my case, all over the United States) trying to figure out what God wants of me; trying to figure out how to live as a Jew; and trying in my own little way to reach the Promised Land. Only unlike my great-great-great-great-great-great-greatgreat-etc.-etc.-grandfather, Moses, God doesn't tell me what to do.
But He did give me children -- three of them, to be exact. Thus, on August 1, 1989, I became my parents. I had a son now, and suddenly this is how I saw things, child-rearing-wise: Either that son would grow up knowing who he is and where he comes from -- in his case, as a Jew -- or he would become one of those guitar players you see on rock videos doing strange things with the microphone. Moreover, my husband and I realized that we wanted to make sure that he would be every bit as bored and fidgety during synagogue worship as we ourselves were! Because how can you rebel and go around saying things like "there is no God, and anyhow, He stinks," unless you're given the tools? And unless you rebel, how can you return to the fold and end up marrying a nice Jewish girl just like your own mother only not quite as pretty?
Indeed, God had brought this tiny, very loud, very beautiful creature to me -- and I saw the hand of God in everything he did. We named him Samuel: "God has heard." He was my parents' first-born grandchild. Raising him (and his brother and sister) as a Jew seemed the only real gift I could give to my father.
Of course, Sam was only 5 weeks old when we moved from Los Angeles back to Washington, and he wasn't yet asking a lot of theological questions, although he was strict in his observance of the laws of kashrut (keeping milk and meat separate, just for starters). And though I was worried about coming back to this place where I myself had been constitutionally incapable of wielding a field hockey stick, Washington wasn't the Washington that I'd remembered. It didn't seem so clubbish, so old-boy, so blue-blooded and blond-headed and old-moneyed and "I just don't understand Woody Allen's sense of humor, I suppose" anymore. People knew what bagels were. And EVERYONE was seeing a shrink, not just those of my mother's friends currently going through hideous divorces. And of course, I learned -- hello? anyone home? -- that Washington has never been a primarily Anglo town, anyhow.
Sam was joined one disgustingly hot and humid day by a brother and a sister, and even though I begged Georgetown University Hospital to keep me for a third night, they assured me that I was perfectly well, and sent me home. On that very day, Sam came home from nursery school with a fever of 102 degrees and a rash all over his body. Meanwhile, my husband, who hadn't looked too good during the delivery, came down with something resembling bubonic plague. My babysitter ("Ta Ta") also got the plague. The point is: After I got through that first awful week, which also involved shlepping Jonathan (a k a Scooter) to the pediatrician's three times because he was turning progressively more yellow, I KNEW there was a God.
Anyway, Sam recovered (as did everyone else), and grew, and eventually became socially aware enough to realize that there are two kinds of people in our particular bubble: those who drive giant four-wheel-drive "sport utility" vehicles even though they're gas-guzzling, environment-poisoning, road-hogging yuppie-mobiles, and those who don't. Actually, what Sam really notices is that he's Jewish in a largely Christian world, so much so that his usual response to any new social situation is to ask, "Are they nice to Jews?" Where he got this notion that, once upon a time, there were people who weren't necessarily so "nice" to the Jews is anyone's guess. Lord knows that I myself have never personally been at the receiving end of any antisemitic moments, unless you count the countless times that I've been called a JAP. Which really makes me angry, because what's so terrible about wearing too much makeup? And okay -- so my husband and I went ahead and told him about the Holocaust. For crying out loud, it wasn't as if he was still in diapers. He was already in "training pants." And he had a pretty sophisticated notion of the history of the world, starting with "Jurassic Park," moving up to biblical times, then through the era of knights in shining armor to his own birth, and, finally, to the end of the world, when the sun collapses into itself. And can we help it if he sees the newspaper? It's hard to ignore front-page stories of, for example, suicide bombings in Jerusalem, which is where Sam's cousins Avishai and Itai live, or pretend that those pictures of twisted steel and mangled bodies are from some new super-action-hero movie, coming soon to a theater near you.
Actually, Sam's question about who is and who isn't "nice" to the Jews is apt, Passover-wise. Passover, after all, is a celebration, first and foremost, of freedom -- specifically, of the freedom to worship God. For more than 2,000 years, the Jews have been subjected to terror and murder for one reason only: They were Jews. America, in fact, was the first country to grant Jews equal rights; for the Jews, it continues to be a Promised Land. Now when we gather at the Passover table we are truly free, truly joyous. And though antisemitism is growing -- among other interesting historical facts you can learn on the Internet is the "fact" that the Holocaust is a deception cooked up by the international Jewish conspiracy -- here in America, we continue to be safe.
In Washington, as in most places in the United States, we celebrated Passover surrounded by our Christian neighbors, who, more often than not, were packing Easter baskets around the same time that we were ridding our homes of Hostess cupcakes. (The reason that Passover and Easter tend to fall around the same time is that the Last Supper was a Seder.) The two holidays are at odds with one another -- deliverance to worship Yahweh on the one hand, the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the other. And yet every year, when I shlepped our khametz (foods forbidden during Passover) to our Catholic neighbors, Jim and Colleen, we didn't feel that we were, religiously, at odds with anyone. Only in America, I thought.
Even now, my childhood Seders are the ones that I remember best. But at some point in my late teen years, I looked up from my diary, in which I was recording various morbid thoughts about my poetic genius and complete alienation from the bourgeois world, and realized that we were now having Seder at home, in McLean. Then one year my grandfather was no longer with us. Then various small, loud people began to appear at the Seder table, spilling wine. Then, just last year, my mother was suddenly and horribly sick, and my sisters and sister-in-law and I cooked the Seder meal -- it was okay, but not quite up to snuff. Mom sat at the end of the table, trying to look happy. More small people appeared. And then my husband and I moved again, leaving Washington, probably forever. We packed up our three kids and our world-class collection of "Sesame Street" tapes, and moved to a place where there are practically no Jews -- a place where they think that the "bagel" is a new Japanese subcompact. And yet it's no longer as important to me to be surrounded by American Judaic culture.
Maybe I've simply come to accept that being Jewish is never going to be easy for me, but that it's the path I need to take. At any rate, that's what our rabbi told me recently when I confessed that I myself didn't know why I bothered with the strange and difficult religion I was born into. After all, there are many, many other ways to celebrate life, and live it well. "But, Jennifer," he said, "God changed Jacob's name to Israel' after he wrestled with the angel. Israel' means one who wrestles with God.' "
And this is the exact same rabbi who is soon to be leaving us for a bigger and more established congregation in Baltimore -- Congregation Beth Am, which happens to inhabit the same beautiful old building where I myself spent an eternity, as a child, throwing spitballs at my little sister. I guess I'll be dragging my own kids there soon, where they'll sit with their mother and father and grandmother and grandfather, while the ghosts of their great- and great-great-grandparents dance on the bimah. For it's Passover again, the season of hope, and the Promised Land no longer seems quite so far away.
And anyway, that's what they make airplanes for. This year, we'll be having the first night of Seder with my family, in McLean; and the second night we'll be with my husband's family, in Bethesda. That way, we get to hear what each side of the family has to say about the other.
Since Maalox is kosher for Passover, I ought to be all set. Jennifer Moses is a frequent contributor to the agazine.