Next Year in Jerusalem

Have you taught your children that, while Christmas is very important, it’s really Easter that’s the greatest feast of the year? Do they buy it?

When I was little, this point of doctrine was obvious: All during Holy Week, my father could be heard practicing the Exsultet to chant at the Easter vigil, as my mother fried and ground up liver and onions in preparation for the Passover seder. The fragrant schmaltzy steam of the chicken soup, the palm leaves, bags of jelly beans for Easter Sunday and the boxes of jellied fruit slices for the seder—these were all equally essential for Holy Week. We drooled over the growing heaps of luscious Passover food as we suffered the final pangs of Lenten sacrifices. My mother covered her head to bless the candles at the start of the seder, and then a few hours later, hovered over us in the pew to save us from singeing our hair on the Easter candles. I can’t imagine eating leftover gefilte fish without a chocolate bunny on the side; and I can’t imagine hearing “Christ our light!” without echoes of “Dayenu!” – “It would have been enough!” still lingering, both exultant prayers of thanksgiving to the God who always gives more than we deserve.

You might be pardoned for imagining some kind of schizophrenic clash of cultures in my house, but that’s not how it was. My parents did struggle to synthesize the incongruities between Catholicism and Judaism (and for a hilarious read, check out my mother’s account of interfaith communications). My parents were raised secular Jews, and went through a long and strange exodus through the desert together, and eventually converted to Christianity—and then, when I was about 4, to Catholicism.

But for us kids, there was no incongruity: Growing up Hebrew Catholics just meant having much more FUN on Easter than anyone else. My Christian friends wore straw hats, ate jelly beans, and maybe dyed eggs if their mothers could abide the mess. We, on the other hand, whooped it up for an entire weekend as we prepared for and celebrated the Passover seder, the ceremonial feast which Jesus ate with his disciples at the Last Supper. At our seder, which we held on Holy Saturday, there was chanting and clapping, giggling over the mysterious and grisly ceremonial roasted egg and horseradish root, glass after glass of terrible, irresistible sweet wine,

special silver and china that only saw the light of day once a year, pillows for the chairs so we could “recline,” and the almost unbearable sweetness as the youngest child asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

It was different because, every single year on that night, there were laughter and tears. The laughter was always more: I waited with bated breath for my father, after drinking his third or fourth ceremonial glass of wine, to trip over the Psalm and say, “What ails thee, o mountains, that you skip like rams? And o ye hills, like lung yams?” And then there are the tears, when we remember the slaying of the first born, and a drop of wine slips from our fingertips onto the plate.

Most Catholics are familiar with the idea that Moses prefigured Christ: Baby Moses was spared from Pharaoh’s infanticide, as baby Jesus was spared from Herod’s; Moses rescued his people from slavery, as Christ rescues us all from sin and death; the angel of death passed over the houses whose doors were marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb, just as death passes over the souls of those marked with the sign of baptism. Moses brought the Jews on a generation-long journey through the desert, during which God showed constant mercy and forgiveness, and the people demonstrated constant faithlessness and ingratitude—a journey which is mirrored in the lives of everyone. And Moses eventually brought the people within sight of the promised land of Canaan, as Christ has promised He will lead us to the gates of Heaven.

I will always remember my father pausing in the middle of the ceremony, and holding up the broken afikomen matzoh to the light of the candles. When he had the attention of all the children he would ask, “Do you see the light, shining through the holes? Do you see it?

It is pierced, just like Jesus’ hands, feet and sides were pierced. And do you see the stripes? Just like Jesus was striped by the whip of the Romans.” And then we would replace the matzoh in the middle compartment of a silken pouch. This special pouch held three sheets of matzoh (a Trinity?)—and the middle one would be hidden away (as if in a tomb?). Until it was taken out and consumed, we couldn’t have dessert. All the sweets that were waiting in the other room—the chocolate and honey sponge cake, the fruit slices, the nuts and blonde raisins, the halvah and the macaroons—all of these had to wait until that middle piece was found and found (resurrected?) again.

But what always stopped me in my tracks is something my father discovered one year. Imagine, he told us, the Hebrews in their homes, painting their doorpost and lintel with the blood of the lamb as the Lord commanded. They would raise their arm to brush the blood on the top of the door, and then down again to dip again into the blood; and then up to the left, to mark the post on one side, and then to the right … does this sound familiar?

Act it out: up, down, left, right.  It’s very possible that, thousands of years before Calvary, the children of God were already making the sign of the cross.

Make of it what you will. At our house, what we made of it was that God loves us, has always loved us, and always will love us. “I have been young, and I have grown old, and I have never seen the righteous man forsaken or his children wanting for bread” (Ps 37:25). We are all the chosen people, and God speaks to us each in our own language, through our own traditions.

And I believe that he laughs and weeps along with us when we say with a mixture of bitterness and hope at the end of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

————-
[This post originally ran in Register in 2011 – re-posted at the request of several readers]

So tell me: West and Wewaxation

My parents are semi-retired.  They visit their grown children when they can, and try to combine these trips with very specialized iteneraries.  For instance, they made a tour of exhibitions of the work of their favorite artist, Charles Burchfield

image source

(The title of this particular piece is “Sun Emerging,” but, like most of Burchfield’s work, it ought to be called “Damn!” or “Wowza!” or “Help!”)

And a few years ago, they visited Lost Cove, Tennessee, of Walker Percy fame.  We also got a postcard from a full-scale reproduction of Moses’ tabernacle, which the Mennonites built in Lancaster, PA, for some reason.

My parents take pictures at various glitzy tourist traps:

and their photo albums on Facebook have titles like:   “Fungus”;  “Lichen”;  “More lichen.  We like lichen.”  My mother’s description of one outing with my father was as follows:

What he didn’t mention was that I was scared for him because his sense of balance was off since the spinal cord tumor, car accidents, and several surgeries, and I didn’t think the narrow edges of cliffs and stone bridges with no handrails were a good place for him to be. I even had to bargain with him to get him to agree to use one of the tree branches I found for a walking stick. At age 66! You can’t tell a man anything. I kept thinking, between Hail Marys, “I’ll have to arrange to have his body shipped back home, and then drive back from Tennessee all by myself–and the car key was locked in the trunk!

Ahh, west and wewaxation at wast.  I don’t know if this is how they pictured their retirement (or even whether they expected to have one at all).

My husband and I are anticipating something more like this

 

photo source

for our own retirement.  There is also some talk of living in either a yurt or something made of adobe, but I forget why.  I think we also somehow plan to live in Greece or the outskirts of Rome, and one of us is going to have to learn how to play the guitar finally, or at least the harmonica.  It will sound good to us, despite our age and palsy, because we will be pretty drunk.

So tell me:  what are your retirement plans?  If you could do anything at all, I mean?  Or, if you are already retired, is it working out the way you hoped?