Monday, March 19, 2018

One People--Passover Surprise Guests

            It’s breakfast at Club Med in Mexico. I select a white-chocolate bread, a croissant, and a slice of banana cake for the last time; as of tomorrow, my family and I must stretch my box of matzos for the remaining four days of our stay. Surrounded by a merry crowd in bathing suits and scant coverings—standard daytime apparel here—my heart is heavy. This evening, instead of a Passover Seder at a table laden with fine china, polished silver, and sparkling crystal, I must improvise a Seder on the beach. What kind of message am I giving my children when opting to trump our most important holiday by a resort vacation?
            I approach the Chef-de-Village and ask for a secluded spot where my family and another Jewish couple we’ve met here could conduct a pre-sunset ceremony. He points to a beautiful thatched-roof area over a dance floor, facing the sea. “Anything else I can do?” he asks.
            “A bottle of sweet red wine, please?” Besides the box of matzos and a silver kiddush cup, I packed a dozen Hagadahs and baby-blue yarmulkes stamped with the date of our youngest daughter’s bat-mitzvah. I write down my recipe for charoset, a chopped mix of peeled apples, walnuts, pecans and dates, all flavored with cinnamon, honey and red wine.
            Moments later, I am surprised to hear him over the PA announcing that all who wish to participate in a Seder, should meet at five o’clock at the designated area.
            I cringe and glance around at the crowd, busy picking from mounds of fried bacon and pork sausages. Is someone cracking a comment about the invasion of the Hebs? No one seems to pay attention, and I decide that throughout history, Jews in far more dire conditions managed to celebrate Passover. So will my family, down to the lengthy reading of the Hagadah, the yearly retelling of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
            At lunch, a sous-chef presents me with an industrial-size baking tray filled with charoset. Imagining that most of this huge quantity will be baked in tomorrow’s pies, I dip a spoon into the mix. The familiar taste of Passover festivity is already inside me. “May I also have a plate with a hard-boiled egg, a lamb bone, horseradish, and sprigs of parsley?” I ask. “And a cup of salt water?”

            The sun is still high when I drag my family off the beach to shower and dress in what passes in Club Med for evening attire—shorts and Polo shirts for men; white slacks or gauzy dresses for women.
            At five o’clock we arrive at the dance platform, carrying my Passover paraphernalia. To my annoyance someone must have double-booked the place, as dozens of his guests, dressed for a pre-dinner party are hanging about. “Now we must go look for another quiet spot,” I mutter, and go search for the sous-chef to locate my tray of charoset and Passover plate.
            In a cluster of people, I spot the couple we have invited and wave.
            As they wave back, some guests turn toward me, smiling. Only then it hits me: All these people are here for my little Seder!
            As my husband counts them—a hundred and forty—more bottles of wine and crates of glassware are brought from the kitchen. We place the Seder plate in the center of a table covered with a white tablecloth and dedicate my kiddush cup for Elijah. We break my matzos into the smallest pieces, and ladle charoset onto serving plates.
            Then we distribute the twelve Hagadahs—the story of Passover told in biblical Hebrew. I watch as Jews from South American countries speaking Spanish and Portuguese, Jews from France and Austria and Israel, speaking French, German and Hebrew, and Jews from North America, Australia and Great Britain speaking English, all squeeze close around their respective single Hagadah. A man from Venezuela assumes the role of the Seder leader—luckily his pronunciation is the Sephardi version, that of spoken Hebrew, not the archaic Ashkenazi version of most USA synagogues—and we begin taking turns reading aloud, with the congregants responding when called to do so. The Sepharadis chant their melodious renditions of some of the hymns, and the Ashkenazis respond with their musical versions. Regardless of our home language, we all utter the same ancient Hebrew words, recite the same sages’ arguments, and sing the same prayers. Together, we retell the narrative of liberation from slavery and urge our children to pass it on to theirs, so they, too, will forever appreciate freedom.
            I examine the men’s heads covered with baseball caps, dinner napkins, and my dozen yarmulkes in baby-blue like the undulating sea beyond. For one hour, strangers to one another, we are connected by one culture and unite through the ancient language of our ancestors in a tradition that transcends all geo-political barriers, that has stood up to centuries of persecutions, pogroms, and repeated attempts at our annihilation. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we chant together, expressing our shared vision of the place that for two-thousand years has anchored Jewish faith. For one hour we reassert to ourselves that we are one people. My people.

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Author Talia Carner’s most recent novel, HOTEL MOSCOW, (HarperCollins 2015,) tells the story of an American daughter of Holocaust survivors who travels to Russia shortly after the fall of communism, encounters anti-Semitism, and must come to terms with her parents’ legacy.

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