My parents didn’t practice Judaism. They were Jewish but only passively so.
Descended from people who immigrated for religious liberty, they were glad to inhabit the land of the free. Like thousands of other Jewish families, they sent their kids to religious school on Sundays. But they never supported that education with discussions of bible stories, lighting Friday-night candles or resting on Sabbath. They were “assimilated” Jews.
In essence my folks said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” And I did what they said, graduating number one in confirmation class at age 16. But I never “got” Judaism.
For Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and for the Passover Seder, Mom made sure I had new outfits with matching shoes – her version, I guess, of the Easter bonnet. So I have clearer memories of dressing up than of eating matzo and roasted eggs.
At Passover, relatives joked about the ideas in the text and the, too long, length of our Seders. Perhaps they observed Passover because they were embarrassed not to, but nobody took the service seriously. Including me.
So when Orthodox Jewish friends, whom I had met on an earlier trip to Israel, invited me to spend Passover at their home in Karnei Shomron, a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, why did I fly 5,000 miles? I wanted to know if anyone took the holiday seriously. I found people who did.
I spent three days in the home of Shlomo Shoham and his wife Ronit, who started my visit by teaching me about kosher kitchens. Every cupboard had a red or blue sticker: Red for hametz, which is bread that has risen and must be discarded before the holiday begins. Leading up to the holiday our collective responsibility was to eat every remaining bite of hametz. The blue sticker cabinets were for pesadiche foods, or items that were OK to eat during Passover.
In the kitchen Ronit showed me the meat sink on the right, and the dairy sink on the left. Each station was outfitted with separate sponges and bottles of Palmolive dish liquid and separate squeegees to cleanse the marble counter tops.
We set up three tables, arranged in a U to make space for 13 people. The gathering included my hosts four grown daughters, two sons-in-law, four grand-children and me.
For days, everyone pitched in to clean the small, suburban house. We cleaned floors, walls, cabinets, and window shutters. My primary assignment was to wash dishes for 26 place settings each day of Passover. Scrubbing is serious business, performed with love and attention by people who want it perfect.
On the morning of Seder, food prep continued in earnest. We braised meats, roasted beets, cleaned radishes, chopped lettuce. I made my Aunt Millie’s recipe for charoset, a sweet paste of apples, cinnamon, sugar, nuts and kosher red wine. The evokes the bricks and mortar that Jewish slaves used to build ancient Egypt.
The Seder was in Hebrew and Shlomo carefully interpreted for me. I can decipher about 15 of the 22 characters in Hebrew, so I followed the beloved, frayed prayer book. It was a five-hour affair, more pleasant than some 15-minute Seders I’ve endured, but still, long enough for three feature-length movies. We climbed the stairs to bed just before midnight.
I had finally enjoyed Passover with people who treasure every crevice of its ancient imperatives. I learned to appreciate the beauty of the ceremony in a new way.
At the end, Shlomo asked for my observations: “Well, Susan, you always say, ‘Next year in Israel!’ You have just experienced Seder in Israel. What do you have to look forward to?”
I replied, “Next year in Philadelphia.”
Susan Perloff is a writer, editor and writing coach. Her website is writerphiladelphia.com.