March 26, 2021
Passover preserves the memory of Jewish people's past voyages
By Barbara Sofer
There comes that moment of frustration when preparing for Passover that I need to sit down with my copy of Bread and Fire. Obviously, no bread recipes here.
Bread and Fire is a collection of Jewish women’s writings edited by writer Rivkah Slonim, codirector of the Chabad Student Center at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
Tucked into an essay by Prof. Rachel Naomi Remen, a patient expresses her exasperation at trying to organize her first Seder. Her own family has lapsed in observance, but her Orthodox sweetheart is counting on her help to host a large Seder. She’s scared of messing up.
She says: “Sometime in the middle of setting up, I was standing by myself in the kitchen with my arms filled with everyday milk dishes, looking around desperately for some shelf room to be able to seal them away….
“Suddenly I was not alone. I had a very real sense of the presence of the many women who had ever asked themselves this very ordinary question, thousands and thousands of them, some young, some old, in tents, in villages, in cities. Women holding dishes made of clay and wood and tin, women dressed in medieval clothing, in skins, in crudely woven fabrics and styles I had never seen. Among them were my own grandmothers who had lived and died in Warsaw before I was born.”
The conclusion of this unnamed woman? “I had this vast perspective. I knew myself to be a thread in a great tapestry woven by women in the name of God since the beginning. You would think this would make you feel small, but it didn’t. I was a single thread, but I belonged….”
Bread and Fire was published by Urim in Jerusalem in 2008, but I find always find comfort in this passage.
The only problem with reaching for a beloved book is that one book inevitably leads to another. I’m not going to pretend I was crumb-hunting among the pages. A natural segue is to a new book on my shelf, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy’s recently published memoir Never Alone. You see the connection.
But first I find myself rewatching Sharansky’s inspirational message from last year, at the cusp of the first and scariest coronavirus lockdown. The former Prisoner of Zion/government minister/Jewish Agency chairman also provides comfort.
“At our great celebration of freedom, many of us, all of us, will meet without our big families, without our friends.” This, he advises, should be seen as a great opportunity “to connect.”
He describes a Seder in his Soviet prison punishment cell where the day rations were three slices of bread, three glasses of water, and a pinch of salt.
“I decided the water would be my wine, the dry bread my matzah, and the salt my bitter herbs. And I found out that that is a great place to find yourself, to feel yourself part of the unique struggle of all the people, to be connected to every Jew in the world and to enjoy thinking that this year we are slaves, and next year we are free people in Jerusalem.” The Seder, he calls “our great journey together.”
In Never Alone, Sharansky describes an additional Seder his family celebrates each year: on the second day of Adar in the Hebrew calendar (February 11, 1986), when he was freed after nine years of incarceration. Instead of the Exodus from Egypt, he and his wife, Avital, share their family story, of Natan’s arrest, trial and imprisonment, and Avital’s unyielding and successful campaign to free her husband – and with him a million and a half treasured Russian Jews.
But when he first attempted to retell the story of the Soviets as a new Pharaoh who sentenced him to jail, he used the Hebrew word for jail sentence, tzav ma’asar. Because “tzav” also means “turtle,” his grandkids started yelling “Pharaoh sent Grandpa a turtle.”
Coauthor Troy says that learning the Sharansky story has for his own family “blurred and bridged Jewish history in the best sort of way – from Exodus to exodus, from one generation to another.”
This reminds me of another story I once recounted in these pages. At the Jerusalem Seder of Bruria and Dr. Shmuel Adler, each family member receives a personalized facsimile of a German Reich passport together with their Haggadah. “Germany” is replaced with “Egypt.” The originals belonged to Shmuel’s parents with transit visas granted for Ansbach, Mir, Kedan, Vilna, Kobe, Shanghai, Aktuibinski, Gorki, Karaganda, Odessa, Vienna, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Basel” – stops on their route to freedom after surviving the Shoah.
MY OWN family history has thankfully had fewer stops in our journey.
What can our Sabra grandchildren relate to? In Colchester, Connecticut, outside the major Jewish centers, we waited to get supplies of kosher-for-Passover peanut oil, matzah, and a mysterious green liquid called schav. Should I tell about my own toddler tantrums because there was no kosher-for-Passover ketchup in those days? (Imagine!) Grandpa Moshe (who grew sorrel to make his own schav) read the Haggadah in Yiddish-accented Hebrew that none of us understood.
We eventually moved to the American-style Seder, reading much of the Haggadah in English, going around the table. My sister Charlotte and I, inveterate gigglers, hoped we wouldn’t have to read aloud the translation of Hallel where bosoms become firm.
When I moved to Israel before the rest of my family (do my grandchildren know this?) I returned to Connecticut for Passover, eager to impose the obsessive cleaning regimen I’d learned in Israel. In our nine-room rural Connecticut home, food was restricted to the kitchen and dining room, but I was determined to root out phantom hametz in every closet. In Colchester, we’d never heard of kitniyot.
Maybe I should just tell them about my husband’s last-minute arrival for Seder when he was serving in Lebanon. He hitched a ride on a helicopter. But will they make this, like Sharansky’s turtle, the heart of our story?
No matter what, my most important message: how happy we are – like the Sharanskys, the Troys and the Adlers – to all be celebrating with our families, this year and the next and the next… in Jerusalem.