I don’t make a big deal out of being Jewish. I try to underplay it most of the time. For one thing, I am not observant in any way, so it’s a cultural thing at most. I do not like jokes about Hitler, the Nazis, genocide, or gas chambers, but I like to think I would find them tasteless and disturbing anyway. I like Jewish folk music, and klezmer, and Torah scrolls send a bolt of pure delight into my heart for their artistry and the fact of them, but that’s about the extent of my obvious Jewishness. More deeply, I have a commitment to knowledge and a love of wordplay, and I can’t claim those as strictly Jewish traits, though there is a correlation.
Tonight is the first night of Passover, and for the last few weeks, I haven’t wanted to celebrate it. Part of it might be laziness, and part of it might be discomfort. Our long suffering and non-Jewish correspondent is coming, and I think I might feel a little awkward about showing him what all of this means to me. Because it does mean something to me, as much as I do not like the effects of organized religion, as angry as I am sometimes. It’s part of who I am. It’s tradition. It’s the ritual that reminds me who I am, and where I come from.
At the center of all this, I don’t want to break the chain. I always felt like, if in other places and other times I would have been persecuted for what is, essentially, an accident of genetics and history, I might as well wring as much meaning as possible out of it. I still feel that way. That means that I do consider myself Jewish, as far as it goes. (And with me, it’s not that far.) I do feel a connection to Judaism, even though I don’t believe in gods. Judaism resonates with me because it preferences your actions over your beliefs. You need to do good deeds, be a good person, and what happens in your head is between you and your god, if you have one. And I do not.
But the songs get to me. Some of the observances get to me. A professor in college told us the way one of her very religious friends described belief to her was by saying, “I am not living in the past. I am living in all time.” There is an idea some very religious Jews have that we are always receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. That we are always being led out of Egypt. This resonates with me, even if not in a strictly religious sense.
We are always transitioning from one thing to the next. We are always on a journey, arriving and departing every moment, never stopping for anything. Anything you believe you possess is meaningless. In the story, the Hebrew slaves only had time to take what they could carry, and the same is true for all of us. Our real possessions are our memories, our minds and our hearts, and there is no way to leave those behind.
So we go on the journey, marking it year after year. We tell the story again, and we eat the food again, and I chant the way someone has always chanted, even if it wasn’t me. I hear, echoing down thousands of years, the hopes and the prayers of a community who managed to do what so many others did not. They survived. Through the power of their stories. If anything can resonate with me, it is that.
We can’t stop. But we can make memories to take with us when we inevitably have to move on to the next moment. Tomorrow night, when as much of my family as possible is gathered around the table, I’m going to do just that.