Exodus From Brooklyn to Tel Aviv

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A Passover seder. Credit: AFP

“When do we eat the eggs? Is it time for the eggs yet?” my mother-in-law clucked in Hebrew. But none of the Israelis at the long seder table heard her because they were all shouting their own questions. Not Passover’s traditional four questions such as, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” but rather queries regarding logistics, like “Are we supposed to eat the lettuce with the sweet stuff?” And, “Should we hide the matzah now?”

It was as if these people had never done the Passover holiday before. This was nothing like my Orthodox family’s meticulous seders back in Brooklyn, which dragged on till 3:00 A.M. and heeded to the letter of the law like a Supreme Court ruling. But I wasn’t in Brooklyn anymore. I was a lapsed Orthodox Jew at my husband’s non-religious family in Tel Aviv. It might as well have been another planet.

At 40, it had seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to marry Solomon, a secular Israeli living in New York, one who could understand my right-wing religious family but also shared my left-wing politics. Living in Manhattan, we socialized with a mix of his Israeli ex-pat community and my amalgamation of religious and non-religious friends. I couldn’t imagine anyone else getting me – a non-practicing but non-pork-eating Jew divided between my strict Jewish upbringing and my liberal American self.

Now, meeting Solomon’s mother’s secular family – her five siblings and their clans, about 18 of whom were sitting around Solomon’s 89-year old grandmother’s table in Tel Aviv – I began to panic: What had I married into? What if Solomon and I were too different?

It’s not like I loved my own family’s seders in Flatbush now. As a child, the seven first cousins had competed to find the hidden afikoman matza, following our fathers’ elaborate and fun clues to win prizes. But as we grew up, we were forced to sit around the adults’ table, reading the Haggadah aloud in unison like a prayer, raising our hand to add commentary or ask questions: about whether the Jews left Egypt at exactly midnight or later, if the matza consumed had to be as large as one’s fist or one’s hand, and how many sips of wine constituted drinking one of the “four cups.”

The older I got, the more I realized my family’s nitpicky questions seemed to miss the actual point of the seder: to tell the story of our people and open it up to debate: the doubts, reservations, uncertainties about our history, our present and our future. To ask questions such as “Why are we Jewish?” or “What is our purpose in this world?” As an adult I was the only non-religious person at my family’s Passover seder and I yearned for something different.

But I didn’t expect this. “Hey! It’s not your turn,” shouted Uncle Moshe, the 75-year-old paterfamilias who was leading the proceedings, which meant commanding each person to speed-read a paragraph. No commentary, no explanations and absolutely no discussion. Unlike my family, these people actually read and spoke Hebrew -- but they didn’t care to understand the ancient texts.

“When do we eat already?” the twenty-something cousins said every three and a half minutes. I couldn’t believe this rapid-fire recital was too slow for anyone. (If they’d attended my family seder in Flatbush, they might die of hunger.) Fed up — not literally — the cousins walked off to the porch to smoke a hookah.

“Is it time to eat the eggs yet?” my mother-in-law asked again. She wasn’t particularly concerned with the law, but she’d specially simmered the hard-boiled eggs for hours and wanted to make sure her work was appreciated.

“Does it matter?” I muttered. But I wanted to shout: “The eggs aren’t really part of the seder – they’re just a custom. They don’t go anywhere!”  My old Brooklyn roots, which I thought were buried, were bursting forth to correct everyone, to tell them how much matza they needed to eat to fulfill the law, when to drink their four cups of wine. Years of detailed seder knowledge made me want to point out: “You’re supposed to actually hide the matza, not just break it and say you’re going hide it.”

I tried to swallow my date-honey lettuce sandwich, but it got stuck in my throat. They didn’t know the sandwich should have been made with the maror bitter herbs, or that it was in memory of the Temple’s destruction. Tears came to my eyes.

Could I possibly be missing my family’s devout Passover processions? I wondered what they were up to in Flatbush. They were six hours behind us, probably getting ready for synagogue (the men), setting the table (the women) and disco napping (the children). They had a looooong night ahead of them.

No, I definitely did not want to be in Brooklyn with them. But I still missed them. Religious differences aside, they were still family. Old family.

“What did you say about the eggs?” my mother-in-law turned to me, bringing me back from Brooklyn to the present. I shrugged my shoulders: What did I know about the eggs? Who was I to tell these Israelis my Brooklyn ways?

“Isn’t this great?” Solomon turned to me, patted my shoulder, laughing. I looked around. Everyone else was laughing, too. Aunt Mira, in her fifties, the youngest of the siblings, tried to placate her hookah-smoking sons with promises of stew. My husband’s sister was posing people for pictures. Everyone shouted at their grandmother, hoping to include her in the festivities. For them, Passover was all in good fun.

And what wasn’t fun about it here? It wasn’t a legalistic ritual for them, like it is for my family, worried about getting it all perfect lest God strike them down. In Tel Aviv, they were happy to be together, healthy, in their mother’s home. Whoever couldn’t make it – Dana, the flitty aunt who ululates Middle Eastern noises at any occasion, Rachel, the only aunt who won’t eat bread on Passover – will come over on their weekly Saturday gatherings. Or maybe for the Passover barbeque, where for the first time I will witness matza and pork chops side by side.

That night, at my first seder with my new family, the smell from the hookah filling the porch, we will finally consume the brown eggs, then gorge on the sumptuous meal, collapsing afterward on the living room couch. There will be no going back to the table for more ritual after the meal, as prescribed. My husband will break out his guitar and everyone will sing old Israeli tunes but I will teach everyone the song “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which is how we always ended the night back in Brooklyn. The song is metaphorical – we don’t really expect to be in the rebuilt Jerusalem with the Messiah next year. At least, I don’t, since I no longer aspire to that religious lifestyle, not in Brooklyn or Jerusalem.

Now that I’ve experienced a typical Israeli seder, with secular Jews more like me than my own family, I think Tel Aviv suits me just fine.

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