The Simple Son

When I was in college in New Hampshire, the pastor of anearby church asked our Hillel rabbi to send over a Jewish student who couldhelp his parishioners learn about Passover. I volunteered.For all the fuzzy, feel-good reasons that a liberal arts education supplies inabundance, I felt it was important to teach others about my faith and culture.

Plus, I figured, I actually knew something about Passover.Like most American Jews, I had grown up oblivious to most aspects of my faithexcept the rabbi’s High Holiday sermons, Chanukah and the seder. For me,Passover was a good time, full of food, family, laughing — of course the peopleof Lebanon, N.H., should experience it.

I went to the local small grocery store to buy matzah. Theelderly woman who ran the place listened as I described the flat, unleavenedbread. She said she knew just what I talking about, then guided me back to theRyKrisp. I told her that wouldn’t do, because it’s made with yeast. “You saidflat,” she said. “It’s flat.” I bought several packs.

The pastor and I spoke by phone. His church was going tosupply the festive meal, he said. I mentioned wine. There was a pause. “Willapple juice work?” he asked. Alcohol was forbidden at church functions. Sure, Isaid, apple juice.

The night of the seder, the rabbi gave me a shank bone, apiece of celery, a roasted egg and his car, and I drove, for the first time,through a snowstorm. Somewhere between Hanover and Lebanon, the snow built upunder my rear tires, and I got the funny feeling the back of the car was goingoff in a direction all its own. I skidded off the road into a snow-filledculvert. The car was unscathed, as was I, and the first set of headlights Iwaved down was a four-wheel drive pickup with a winch and hook.

The church was in a plain, working-class neighborhood. Thebasement was set up with rows of long tables, and every seat was full. Thesewere the people who cleaned and served at my fancy college town and on campus,but who seemed to vanish once the sun set. If I was their first Jew, they weremy first crowd of Christians.

When I asked how many people were familiar with the story ofthe Exodus, every hand went up. It was clear to me that these people believedin the Bible as deeply as I doubted it. I was a dilettante missionary preachingto the seriously faithful. I told them, proudly, that the Passover seder is atime to ask questions and engage in debate, but no one did. Removed from myfamily’s festive table, at which just being together was enough to invest aholiday with meaning, I didn’t know enough about the holiday to give itmeaning. The words of the haggadah were lifeless in my mouth.

We blessed the four cups of apple juice and the RyKrisp, andthen, finally, arrived at the festive meal. The women rose and unveiled sheetcakes, Jell-O molds and huge bowls of macaroni salad, liverwurst and ham salad.The pastor apologized for all the pork. I explained that, actually, pasta wasalso forbidden on Passover. “Why?” a woman asked. I turned to see it was theelderly woman who ran the local grocery store — the RyKrisp lady — standingthere, dressed in her church clothes. “Macaroni doesn’t have yeast in it,” shesaid. I searched my limited Jewish knowledge for an easy and convincing answer.In the meantime, I stammered. It hadn’t occurred to me when I encouraged peopleto ask questions that I’d actually have to answer them. Back at her store, Isaid the woman’s crackers weren’t right because they had yeast; now I wassaying the macaroni wasn’t right, but it had no yeast. The woman seemed to besizing me up: Was I a liar? Was I difficult? Was I an idiot? Do these peoplemake it up as they go along?

The woman had no more use for me and moved away. After a bitI thanked the pastor and excused myself to return to campus. The rabbi waswaiting up when I dropped his car off. He figured I’d have problems drivingsince he had already exchanged his snow tires for his regular ones. “Imanaged,” I said.

Then he asked how the seder went. I said, “I managed.”

My big moment to contribute to cross-cultural understanding,to bring the peoples of the earth closer together, and all I had done was offera dull reading and contradict myself. My only comfort was having proved to theChristians of Lebanon, N.H., that Jews could not possibly be smart enough to controlthe media or take over the world.

But the evening was my revelation. I decided it was time toget serious about learning about my heritage, thinking through my faith,challenging my ignorance. Even if my tradition couldn’t be mastered, itdeserved more than just being managed. Being Jewish was a pale imitation oflearning Judaism, and it was time for me to begin.

Happy Passover.