Why is this night different from all other nights
I have always resented Passover (or Pesach, as those in the know, call it).
For a mixed religion family that isn’t religious, it was always a bit of a chore, admittedly. I never really understood why we insisted on these rituals for a thing none of us ever took seriously, despite the fruitless attempts of my parents to have us more involved: 12 years of Jewish education wasted on two indifferent atheists / agnostics. Yet this year for the first time we are not doing a Seder and I have surprised even myself with my longing for a familiarity I never had.
For the goys in the audience, (goys are like the Jewish version of muggles), Pesach is the Jewish equivalent of Easter. Except instead of Jesus dying for everyone’s sins, a generation of newborn Egyptians died to save the Jews from slavery. Along with really bizarre weather patterns, frogs falling from the sky, locusts killing the crops, bloody global warming eh?
But seriously folks, Pesach is a solemn two-day event in which we commemorate the suffering of the slaves and all those who perished to save us.
I say ‘us’ probably for the first time. (More on this in a second).
Let me take you back to give you an idea of what it is I am missing:
For two nights a year, Jews around the world gather at a long table with their family and friends to commemorate the freeing of the slaves from Egypt.
We eat matzah – unleavened bread – to remember what the Jews ate as they prepared to escape Egypt to wander for 40 days and nights in the desert. (The old saying goes they didn’t have time to wait for the yeast to rise so they ate flatbread). We eat bitter herbs to commemorate the tears of those who perished and charoset, a Jewish delicacy of grated apple, cinnamon, walnuts and litres of sacramental wine to remember the cement we used to build the Pyramids. We drink sacramental wine to remember the blood of those who perished.
We read from a Haggadah (a prayer book) and recite the Twelve Plagues that rained down on Egypt a forewarning of what would happen if the slaves were not freed. It’s a two-night epic of three-to-four courses, a not altogether unpleasant affair. A bit like Christmas except twice as long with more family politics and less stoicism. I’ll admit I took the tradition for granted. I never really appreciated it at all.
I am a Cadbury. A half-and-half. My dad is Catholic, and my mum is Jewish. Half the faith, twice the guilt. Growing up, and now still, I have never felt Jewish. Not properly. I have never felt a part of the community, because though Jewish religious lineage flows through the matriarch, I always felt… ‘apart’.
In it but not of it.
To be fair, I am not laying blame at the feet of ‘the community’. I was pretty hostile to the whole idea. I spent a pretty decent amount of time ‘running away’ from the community in which I was raised. Though I came up in the reform shul, a more progressive, edgy, cool version of Judaism which accepts women as Rabbis, and marries interfaith couples etc, I was yanked out of public school in year three and sent to an orthodox Jewish day school and Bat-Mitvhaed in the orthodox shul. Even at 12 I thought it was a waste of my Saturdays practicing to be a part of a faith I don’t believe in.
I fought pretty hard against the identity bestowed on me by our Rabbis and Jewish Studies teachers, and my parents.
I resented the ‘us and them’ polarities that existed even then, in a pre-911 world. Words like Palestine were strictly verboten. Bomb scares and drills were common. Besides that year where I experimented with being ‘frum’, I am not sure any attempts by the community to extend a more obvious hand would have been accepted. I didn’t last more than a year and even then I could see the factions emerging. It wasn’t for me. I tried being Catholic, too. That definitely wasn’t for me.
I don’t need faith, I have guilt.
What became apparent to me during my adventures with religion, is that I was forever the other in the community in which I allegedly belonged.
“You’re Jewish though, right?”, my Catholic cousins asked, as we walked to Mass on Christmas Day.
“So do you celebrate Christmas?”, asked my Jewish friends.
Incidentally, my parents stole Christmas, which we celebrated right up until the third grade when my parents moved me to a Jewish school and my Christmas tree was replaced with a Menorah.
I have this very distinct and specific memory of a moment in time, no more than five minutes, which would come to shape my entire identity.
It was the 6th of November 1995. It was a weekend and I was in my winter school pinafore complete with scratchy tights. I played clarinet in the concert band and we were due to visit the old folks home. And I was pissed. And I said so.
The phone rang, my mother answered, and with tears rolling down her face, turned to me and said the concert had been cancelled. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister had been killed.
I made this gesture:
…threw my stuff down and turned to get changed. But before I could my mum grabbed me, firmly, by the arm. I will never forget the look of disappointment on her face. She made some comment about how Yitzchak Rabin did not die for my convenience.
“You live in this house, you have clothes on your back and warm blankets and three square meals a day. You may not do anything with your education that we pay for, but you will be informed.”
She sat me down in front of the ABC and made me watch eight hours of assassination coverage. Little had I known the world was falling apart.
The day that orchestra at the old-folks home was cancelled spelled the end of any possibility of a Middle Eastern peace.
Rabin was the closest Israel had ever been to an accord deal with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
The Oslo Accords had been signed a year earlier with 68% Palestinian support, according to Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and 64% Israeli support according to Chanan Cohen, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys. Rabin and Arafat both publicly recognised the legitimacy of the other’s country, and government. Israel had agreed to withdraw its troops from Gaza Strip and West Bank by April 1994.
That promise ended on the 5th of November 1995. (It was the 6th in Australia by the time Rabin was assassinated, live on television). Fewer than 10 years later Arafat would be dead, poisoned for good measure.
That day didn’t make me feel more Jewish. It made me a journalist.
“Question everything, Clebzy”, she told me, imploring me to read the opinion section of the SMH, back when analysis and opinion was a rarified art.
“It’s not enough to simply know what is happening in the news, we need to know why, why it is happening.”
That conversation would come back to haunt my parents. “Why” became the favourite catch-cry when my brother or I were asked or told anything.
They took me to a foreign film about Operation Solomon – a covert military operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews, thought to be the lost tribe, to Israel in 1991 – and the hostility the newly “rescued” refugees were met with upon arrival.
“Jews can’t be black, can they?”
Things have changed since then. Businesses and divorces, lifestyles and priorities. I have a theory that, as the eldest child, I caught the tail-end of my parents’ politically active twenties and thirties, back when they still had the emotional energy for politics.
“Why are you skeptical?”, mum exclaimed to me over coffee the other day.
Because you raised me that way..
So anyway, tonight is the second night of Pesach and we’re not having a Seder. We passed over Passover. Geddit? How can you have a longing for something that was never yours in the first place?
I was never Jewish. Though it was on offer, I never had a faith. I have always been deeply admiring of people of faith, but deeply skeptical of religion and its leaders, their intentions and motives.
I am not an all-the-way atheist. On my best days I am a casual agnostic. On my worst days I am a guilty one. Mainly I use my Judaism as a weapon. I like to drop it into conversation when people least expect it. An undercover Jew.
I like to listen in on conversations people have when they think you’re a goy.
Politically, I am Jewish, though I am sure my views run contrary to what most people would consider Political Judaism. Comedically, I am definitely Jewish, having been raised on a steady diet of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles and Carl Reiner.
The fire of justice runs deep in me. It burns. But on days like today I do long to be capable of giving it all up for a belief in a higher power. In a sense of order to the universe.
A man must have a code but he must also have validation. And when you’re wandering around a universe with no known order or reason beyond the physical limitations of science and money, well, it’s a little lonely.
I have always taken a fairly Brechtian attitude to the universe. All people are islands. Man is ultimately alienated and alone and any connections we are lucky enough to form with other people or groups are the fault of chance and will be fleeting so hold on to them while you can.
We should search not for faith but for reason.
And most days I am at peace with that.
But tonight is second night Passover and I am not eating matzah & charoset or drinking too much wine, complaining ‘why do we insist on doing this every year’? Sardonic readings from the Haggadah over eye-rolls and wine and heavy sighs from my brother and I:
“They killed us, we won, Amen”.
Met by amused parental exasperation.
I get religion now. It would be nice to have a community, and be a part of one. To have people with shared experiences and backgrounds. A shared faith. But I do not think that will ever be on the cards for me. In it but not of it. Not a Jew. Not a Catholic. Not White. Not Brown. A beige outsider. Just another soulless atheist in search of world peace and harmony.
I always hated Seders but I will admit I am a little sad tonight. Why is this night different from all other nights?
Perhaps I am a little Jewish after all…
Claire Connelly is working on her first book, How The World Really Works, a guide to recognising rhetorical red flags and immunising yourself against bullshit. You should definitely buy it when it comes out. A podcast of the same name will also be launching in the coming months. Stay tuned!