Why did my family celebrate the first night of Passover, when all the other holidays were for me, as a child, just strange names? Yom Kippur -- I didn't know what that was; the word brought to mind kippered herring. Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah...what were they supposed to signify? And Sukkot? I'd never heard of it.
But Passover: on Passover we piled into the family car and drove out to Long Island for Aunt Sophie's matzah ball soup and four glasses apiece of sweet wine. Why? I had no idea. I was the youngest of all the cousins. So it was my job to read the Four Questions: Why on this night do we eat unleavened bread? Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs...
The questions stirred me inexplicably, but what did they mean? Our grandfather, Pop, took it seriously. He read aloud from a little pamphlet in a guttural, incomprehensible Hebrew, which embarrassed me. It embarrassed all of us children -- again, I knew not why. Why was it so uncomfortable to have Pop sitting there with a black yarmulka on his head, reading that old language in a thick, unfamiliar tongue that sounded Jewish. Too Jewish.
That's what the Four Questions were really about for me: Why was this child different? Why can't I be like everyone else? I want to belong!
We kids cracked jokes which hard-of-hearing Pop could not make out. He'd look up every once in a while from his recitation, at his giggling, smirking grandchildren sitting there around the elaborately set dinner table, with its white tablecloth and crystal wine glasses, and he, too, must have wondered, "Why?"
Why did our family, like American Jewish families everywhere, recognize Passover as the one thing we would never forget? Aunt Sophie told me years later that she made those Passover Seders in order to forge a bond between all the cousins, and in that she succeeded. But unbeknownst to her, perhaps, and unbeknownst to me, she was also forging bonds between me and my Jewishness, and my people, and between me and God. The Haggadah tells the tale of our bondage at the beginning of our history, and of our liberation. Matzah represents redemption; the bitter herbs life's suffering. We make a sandwich of both of them together at the Seder, enclosing life's bitterness within its kindness. This gesture describes our personal histories as well as our national history. For it's precisely the experience of enslavement that can create inner freedom; the harrowing experience of crossing the desert that makes it possible to earn self-respect; and precisely the experience of wandering that makes finding a home such cause for celebration.
Every one of us in the course of our lives passes through an exile of one kind or another, to disconnect us from all our various forms of enslavement. We dream of reacquiring that liberated homeland where everything will be right, and where we'll feel like our own real selves. In Rabbi Ephraim Oshry's anthology of his halachic responses to the religious queries of fellow Jews in the Kovno ghetto during World War II, he recounts the following incident:
"One morning during prayer at the camp, the man who was leading the congregation in the service reached the blessing, 'Blessed are You Who has not made me a slave.' The man stopped short, and suddenly he shouted bitterly to the Master of all masters, 'How can I recite a blessing of a free man? How can a hungry slave, constantly abused and demeaned, praise his Creator by uttering 'Who has not made me a slave'? Every morning as he led the prayers, he let out the same cry. And many of those who joined him in prayer felt the same way. I was then asked for the Torah ruling on this matter.
"Response: One of the earliest commentators on the prayers points out that this blessing was not formulated in order to praise God for our physical liberty but rather for our spiritual liberty. I therefore ruled that we might not skip or alter this blessing under any circumstances. On the contrary, despite our physical captivity, we were more obligated than ever to recite the blessing, in order to show that as a people we were spiritually free."
During this same era, the mid 1940s, while those Jews in Auschwitz were debating whether or not to recite the blessing, my husband was growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One of the taunts he used to hear on his way home sometimes, from the parochial-school children, went like this:
Matzahs, matzahs, three by five!
That's what keeps the Jews alive!
My husband would flinch, the Catholic kids laughed, and neither he nor they knew that the song they sang was true.
Excerpted from Sarah Shapiro's book, "A Gift Passed Along", Artscroll Publications.