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Passover, post-Pandemic


I’ve had a complicated relationship with my birth religion, Judaism.

I was raised in what I suppose you’d call a “conservative” Jewish home. We certainly weren’t orthodox—keeping kosher and all that. My father attended synagogue, but I always thought it was more for the social aspects than the religious ones. For example, he ran the Bingo game. My mother never went to schul. She just didn’t care all that much—despite the fact that her father had founded the first synagogue in Oklahoma!

Still, my parents made sure to send me to “Hebrew school.” This meant that, from the age of seven, at least three days a week after regular school, I had to attend two hours of religious classes at Congregation Hope of Israel, three blocks from where we lived. We studied the Hebrew language, Jewish history and culture, and religion, and as I got nearer to my 13th birthday, I was heavily drilled in preparations for my bar mitzvah.

When I was really little I believed in God with a simple faith. By my early teens, the complexities of life began to overwhelm me, and that faith was diluted, never again to fully return. With my education, my rationality convinced me that much of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) was made up. I mean, burning bushes and seas parted? To this day, people who believe in the inerrant literalness of the Bible are, to my way of thinking, mentally ill.

But there’s always been a bifurcation in Judaism. Lots of Jews claim to be culturally Jewish. I’m not sure exactly what that entails. I Googled it and found a couple of elements that are said to comprise “cultural Judaism”:

• Judaism’s commitment to activism

• its encouragement of intellectual curiosity

• its emphasis on the importance of community

• an identification with Jewishness without believing in the religious precepts

• a proud recognition of the importance of Judaism to world history and philosophy

I guess all of those apply to me.

In the next week I’ll be participating in two formal Jewish events. Tomorrow is the first evening of Passover, and I’m going to Maxine’s and Keith’s for our seder. It will be the first meal I’ve had in their home in more than a year. Just the three of us…I know we’ll raise glasses to the ones who used to sit at that same table but are no longer here. We’ll say the usual prayers, most of which I’ve known by heart since we used to go to Seders at Aunt Yetta and Uncle Sam’s apartment, in Brooklyn. But I can’t say the Passover story means much to me.

Then, next week, my grand-nephew Jamie is being bar mitzvahed up in Seattle. The ceremony will by via Zoom, and Jamie’s mom, my niece Janel, asked me to do an Aliyah. This Hebrew word has a variety of meanings, all connected with the concept of “going up” or “higher.” For example, Jews who emigrate to Israel are said to make an Aliyah. In this case, my Aliyah is being called to chant a series of bracha, or blessings, in Hebrew. Normally this would be done at the altar, but I’ll be doing it from my living room. Being invited to this particular Aliyah is a great honor. Of course, I’ll have to rehearse over the weekend to get the pronunciations and tune right.

I certainly have no problem with people, like my niece, who are observant of Judaism. In general, it’s a nice religion with many good things in it, and one of the things I like best is that Jews have never been evangelical; that is, they have no interest in recruiting, and would prefer that outsiders not try to get in. I don’t particularly care for the Jewish rightwing extremists—the ultra-Orthodox, who have made such a mess in Israel with their hatred of the Palestinians and distrust of science. But I don’t like extremists in any religion; our evangelicals can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned, and Islamic extremists are really crazy.

So, to my Jewish friends, Happy Pesach! Now go and enjoy the roast lamb, drink lots of wine, and be happy.

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