“Why is this night different from all the other nights?”
— Ma Nishtana, the beginning of the four questions in the Passover Haggadah
“Are you hosting a seder?” my work mother asked me about a week before Passover began. “Not to worry, if not—you can always come here!”
“Oh, shit,” I trailed off, remembering that I teach on Monday nights, and that it was too late to cancel class. They say there are no accidents, but I’d somehow forgotten about the holiday entirely.
“I’m Jewish,” a student mentioned on her way out of class the week prior, “So I won’t be in class on Monday.”
“Chag sameach!” I said.
“This is none of my business,” my student said, “But I have to ask: why are you having class on the first night of Passover? I thought you were Jewish!”
“I’m not sure how to answer that, ” I said.
“I’m canceling Passover!” I thought, but didn’t say. Instead, I said, “I hate to cancel class,” an explanation I thought my student would understand.
“That makes sense,” she said.
While it wasn’t the whole truth, it wasn’t a lie, either. I hate to cancel class; it’s true. But on Jewish holidays, I usually do.
In my corner of the world, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated in autumn, a time when everything is dying. And it feels appropriate, somehow, that there is life in death, and it is in this time of great change that things begin anew. Here, the Passover celebration occurs at the advent of spring.
I am rapidly approaching middle age, but I can’t experience the first days of spring without thinking about the seders of my girlhood, at my grandparents’ split-level suburban house. I was possessed of a literal interpretation of the Haggadah; this was our story. My great aunts and uncles felt biblical, ancient and mystic, in the way that elders can in childhood.
For many years, I was the only child. I asked the four questions, I found the Afikomen. Our family seders offered my first sense of genuine connection to religion, to Jewish history, to a wider world. It was easy to tell the story as if we lived it: we were heroes, we were slaves, we were in exile, we would be renewed.
Over the years, I participated in every kind of seder you can imagine, from a radical feminist seder hosted by my favorite college professor, to Orthodox Israeli seders, conducted solely in rapid-fire Hebrew, to freedom seders, and each one was meaningful and captivating and brought me hope and belief that we might one day all be reconciled.
Passover is easily my favorite holiday. I like routine and I like order, and I love stories. I like the expansiveness of the ritual, shared with others, and more than anything, I like the holiday’s confrontation with history, with memory, with the sorrows and the joys of time.
So you can imagine my ambivalence about canceling the holiday wholesale on account of a teaching conflict. But something stopped me from celebrating it this year.
On Monday afternoon, as sunset, and Passover, rapidly approached, I found myself on campus as usual. I was feeing mixed about the cancelation, and calmed myself with the knowledge my little one was attending a seder with my ex and a warm and ebullient collective of Israeli friends; everyone would be fine.
The full moon hung bold and bright in the sky, as it always did on the holiday. I tried to cancel the holiday but I couldn’t avoid my birthright; even on campus, amid a sea of students, ambling back to their dormitories after class, I could feel the holiday, and it weighed on my body and my mind. I was mildly distracted while teaching but we all made it through.
I wandered around campus after teaching and admired the gorgeous weather. Spring was upon us, and it was an achingly beautiful night. I could almost smell the salt water and charoset in the air; taste the horseradish and bitter herbs on my lips when I closed my eyes. I contemplated crashing a seder late; instead I made plans to see a man. This night was in fact different from all other nights.
I bristled at my decision to cancel Passover, but I knew that also that I couldn’t celebrate Jewish exodus and freedom from bondage at this moment. In view of all the peril that my government is enacting in the world, in view of the innocent lives taken and shattered and denied, it felt like a particularly heavy and hollow lie.
When I arrived at my paramour’s house, he asked me to explain the premise of the holiday.
“It sounds like a beautiful thing,” he said.
“It is,” I said.
“But really, you’ve never been to a seder?” I asked, and he shook his head no.
“We’ll have to change that,” I said, and I meant it.
Later that evening, after I made my way home and asleep in my own bed, the same man came to me in a dream.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I feel terrible that you canceled Passover, although I understand why.”
“We cannot be free until they are free,” he said. It’s a James Baldwin line.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” I promised, and I meant that, too.
This Passover made me realize that we must find our way out of exile, as we did in Biblical times. It wasn’t a hypothetical or an allegory or an abstraction; our shared future depends on our ability to make the damage we have wrought in the world right. We have no other option if we are going to survive.