By: Boris Braverman
Do you remember your first Pesach? I do. I was a young child, 4-5 years old at the time. My family, like many of yours, had recently emigrated from the Soviet Union. We were getting by everyday with the dreams and hopes that your rigorous efforts to move were not in vain and that we’d be able to live out our dreams of success, integration into American life, and pursuing happiness in this new land. It was precisely at this moment in my recollection that I encountered…the Jews. These black and white – wearing people with their weird hats and homogenous looks found us and encouraged my family to attend their even…with the promise of free food, of course. I knew it then…they were planning to recruit us so that we would become like them…that my parents would force me to wear their hats and suits…and then…they would circumcise me! Oh god (wait…I didn’t know about that yet) the horror, not me! But the allure of free food was too overwhelming and my parents acquiesced…and we attended our first Passover Seder.
I remember it being a very boring affair. It took place at a stuffy, poorly lit event hall of a Synagogue in Borough Park. A mass of people were speaking in languages I couldn’t understand. There were too many old people, and the children were all Hasidic and spoke a weird language with each other – so approaching them was absolutely out of the question. A speaker was saying something at the podium, but whatever he was saying didn’t make any sense to me. The whole situation was surreal and I wanted to go home. Finally, the speaker finished lecturing and the food came out. Nothing (in all my years that I could count on one hand) could have prepared me for the letdown that was that dinner.
Dry, stale, bland, schmurah matzah. A piece of Romaine lettuce dipped in…salt water (really?!), gefilte fish with a carrot on top and covered in leftover jelly that encased it…and horseradish (the rabbi tried to explain to his audience what it was in Russian, but he had the funniest pronunciation by calling it “ha-rain” instead of “hren.”) Then the chicken came out…folks, I can keep going, but I think I drove the point home… was this supposed to be the dinner to lure us to this event or the reason for the Jews leaving Egypt?
The hall of about two hundred plus people started eating, talking, and laughing. The Hasidic kids started to run around the hall and cause minor mayhem until they were told off by the rabbi. The jovial atmosphere got me through the entrée portion of the dinner. Folks began to talk about the motherland, discovering and rediscovering old friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and the like. This continued until all the food was eaten. By now, I was comfortably buzzing with a belly full of matzah and a few bottles of Kedem Concorde grape juice swirling in my bladder. If I could get through this night, I could get through anything, I thought.
Then the interrogation started. What makes this night different from all the other nights? That was the question I was apparently supposed to know…this according to the disappointed look on the face of the rabbi. Other questions. What other questions? Why are you pressing me for questions? What do you want? What, is this the Gestapo? I did everything you asked of me! Why are you torturing me? This is my first Seder, I don’t know anything! Pick on someone else, please!
The room is quiet and the rabbi is speaking about an analogy that I remember to this day but couldn’t fully comprehend its meaning till much later. Whether you’re religious or you’re not. Whether you believe in the events of the Exodus as a historical fact or not, everyone has their own personal Egypt. That is, everyone is a slave to something. Every person has something or someone that prevents them from being free. Something is holding me, and something is holding you back. What is it? That’s for your to think about.
Pesach is situated right around the halfway point in the Jewish year. It provides us the time to take a pause and recalibrate our faculties. It enables us to recalculate the importance of certain things in our lives. It allows us to reassess our being, find our blockers, blinders, pain points, and free us from them. Who needs a self-help book or an expensive weekend in an empowerment seminar when you get to do this every year for free?
Finally, the evening’s events came to a close. I went home with my parents and the knowledge that I would have to keep doing this same thing year after year. Unlike other folks and friends that I met over the years, who have Seders with their friends and families, I would have to keep attending this stuffy, overcrowded room…with the black and white people…eating their free food and drinking their Kedem and Manischevitz…until finally, some day, I would start having my own Seders, create my own interpretations, and start forcing my children to ask questions…year after year…until finally, next year we will all be in Jerusalem.
Good Yom Tov everybody and have a good and happy Passover!