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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Why is this night so special?

Generally speaking, I think Passover is one of the most under-rated holidays in the religious canon. I sometimes think in the back of my mind that it really requires a major branding and marketing awareness campaign in order to give the celebration its proper due.  I'm not just talking about its time- honored role in the Judaic tradition.  But elements of Pesach can be found in all three tenets of the largest faith traditions on the planet-- Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

I first learned this back in college.  I was transported by my then-girlfriend home to her family for Passover one year.  It was my first Seder, and one I will long remember.  I had falsely concluded that I was dating someone so altogether different from me in so many ways. We had been raised so differently, me in an ethnic, devout Catholic home, her in an orthodox Jewish one.  As I entered the dining room, there were the symbolic foods of the Seder plate-- bread, wine, salt, water, eggs, lamb, and horseradish. Where had I seen this all on display before? 

As it turns out, these were the same foods my mother gathered each year and put into our Easter food basket and took to church on Easter Saturday for the special blessing. My mom would dutifully take us to church in the morning, and after the service we returned home where the food was held sacred; what wasn't eaten was burnt later with flame, and not thrown in the trash.  The food couldn't be reheated and was eaten cold as if we were on the run. Each of the elements held a special meaning-- symbolizing different aspects of the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery into freedom, and the Passover's intimate connection to an Easter redemption that followed.

For my parents, whose own parents came to America as immigrants, this tradition was upheld with great reverence. My parents weren't encouraged to speak Polish in their home, and were raised to become fully assimilated into the mainstream American culture of the 50's. But at the same time, they held fast to certain customs, and the blessing of Easter baskets with special foods connects me to past and present traditions that I find ever more meaningful as the years pass.

Is it the universal emphasis on spring renewal, celebration of the good, bitter and sweet legacy of the past that I find so compelling?  Or the redemption in a newfound freedom from oppression? Or is it the connection that Passover provides, a pathway that connects me back to my own ethnic Catholic past?  Passover certainly validates for me that for as much as we differ, we are all of us one in the same, united in our common bonds of humanity.

Passover connects us all by bisecting our diverse stories.  In these we hear and see our love of family and fellowship.  We look forward to the special foods and quirky traditions of an intimate holiday repast-- Jack and Judy's songs and costumes in years past, our now vegan and traditional culinary spread, our potluck of different tastes. We rejoice in the joy of the youngest among us, Ethan and Sarah, as they beg the important questions.  Why is this night so special?  We see the earnestness in their faces, yearning for us to tell them. And we did!

With Bill's guitar version of Die-die-yaynu, Caroline's recent Nightingale Award, Rick's technology download inspired by his recent way cool CNBC fame, and Edie's book talk about the latest and greatest reads (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson or the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).

Being part of the Trapp, Nolish, Broida Passover tradition over the years is a joy to behold.  This year at Rick and Shawna's we were introduced to the fifth question, why is there an orange on the table on this night?

We learned, in deference to the women of Passover, a feminist once asked, "When will women enjoy the same rights as the men?" The answer she was told would be found when there was an orange on the Seder plate. The orange in this sense symbolizes the sweetness of bringing both women and gays into the full celebration of their rights, and an end to their oppression and slavery as the Israelites endured in the past.

This of course begs the last question of our evening, embodied in the picture (attached) from our Seder celebration tonight:

"Orange" you glad to know why this evening was so special? For me, one important reason is that it was spent in the company of these wonderful extraordinary women, connecting me to Gerry and Vicki and Anka and all those women not present this night, but whose spirit, customs and traditions remain so powerful and alive.  For it is ultimately revealed to us on this night, as on so many others that in the end we have but each others and our stories.