Passover or die trying
It’s April of 2012 and I am a junior in college. It’s approximately 5 p.m. and I’ve just stepped into the school dining hall, which looks like a slightly classier high school lunch room (there’s carpeting and the chairs are made out of wood instead of plastic.) Something is bothering me. Something I should remember, but have forgotten.
I stand in line and get my food. The thing niggling the back of my brain hasn’t stopped. I’m worried because I forget everything, but it can’t be a paper or reading, because it’s a Friday. I get my green plastic plate and make my way to a mostly empty table. The dining hall is full. Voices and laughter bounce off the wooden rafters high above us.
I stand for a long moment before sitting down. What am I forgetting?
My friend Thelonious (yes, that is his real name, though he’s a skinny white kid) reaches the table. He throws his book bag into a chair. “Zoe,” he says, eyes wide, jaw clenched. “It’s freaking Passover.”
Only he doesn’t say “freaking.” He’s a self-respecting 19-year old. Of course he doesn’t say “freaking.”
My stomach drops and I start swearing.
As you may imagine, a college dining hall in rural Maine doesn’t offer much in the way of a Seder, or any of the necessary parts. It took them two years of bothering to put “Happy Hanukah” up on the holiday sign in addition to Christmas. An impromptu Seder is kind of out of the question.
I didn’t grow up Jewish. I’m not even “technically Jewish” to begin with. My mother isn’t. My father is, but he’s secular and his first email address was “email@example.com,” so that shows you what kind of person he is.
But I grew up in Vermont, which is a very gentile state. It’s basically Buddhists and small town folks. I have dark curly hair, dark eyes, and this massive hawk nose that dominates most of my face (thanks, Dad, at least I didn’t get your Dumbo ears). In high school, I was known as “the Jewish kid.” People used to throw pennies at me in the halls.
Then, in 11th grade, we were studying the Holocaust and my teacher assigned us a paper about what we would do if we were alive in Germany at the time. I’ll pause to let that sink in. My teacher told us to write about a genocide as though we were there. Awkward.
To make matters worse, she told us to “think about whether we would help the Nazis, be a bystander, or try to save people being targeted.” Those were the only options she gave us. Immediately, I saw this as a way for her and everyone else without a personal connection to feel better about themselves.
The day came to present our papers. Boiling with barely contained rage, I listened to almost all of my classmates talk about how they’d “totally help people” and pat themselves on the back.
The discussion got to me. I folded my arms and leaned back in my desk chair.
“I’d be gassed,” I told them.
We’d learned that one only had to have a single Jewish grandparent to be considered Jewish in Nazi Germany. I have two. I don’t look Aryan. I can’t pass. I knew how this would have gone down for me. I’m not an idiot.
Everyone stared at me in horror, including my teacher. I don’t think she’d ever thought that maybe one of her students might have something more than a passing fantasy or Christian guilt about this particular piece of history.
Ever since then, I’ve been way more willing to explore my cultural and ethnic Jewish identity. Sorry to people out there who feel I’m not Jewish enough; I get you, I understand how that works, but also, hey, I’m trying here.
Back in my college dining hall, Theolonious and I are running around trying to work out a Seder with stuff we can find. We actually get a boiled egg from the salad bar, as well as some romaine lettuce. Great, off to a good start. Then the hard part comes. Theo finds a twice baked potato, which is going to have to do for a vegetable. Horseradish? Not going to happen. Yellow mustard is our stand in. The charoset is applesauce — no nuts allowed in the dining hall because of allergies. Lamb wouldn’t be available, even if we were buying it — we’re all broke, and in the humanities — so I grab some chicken nuggets and offer a silent apology to my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and over 5,000 years of other maternal Jewish ladies I am related to.
I’m trying, I tell them. Sorry I’m such a disaster.
We don’t even try for matzo. For people who say they like it, you’re not supposed to actually enjoy eating that stuff. It’s supposed to remind you of that time your ancestors were lost in a desert for 40 years without yeast. It’s a sadness cracker.
We spend the rest of dinner trying to remember bits of blessings and yelling at anyone who tries to sit in Elijah’s seat. They don’t understand. But to Theo and I, this is a victory. Sure, it’s a mess, but it’s our mess. A+ for effort (ignore the D- for product).
In past years, I’ve been better about it. Last year, I actually did the whole thing, and yellow mustard didn’t even make an appearance. This year is the same, but twice as many people.
I don’t do Passover because of religion. I do it because my ancestors have done it for thousands of years before me and it’s a tradition that I can hold on to. It’s a tenuous identity at best, but it’s mine and I’m proud of it.
I mean, as long as I don’t have to actually ingest too much matzo.