Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why is this Night Different from all Other Nights?

Tonight is the first Passover Seder, and while my family gathers around the table and retells the story of our deliverance from slavery, I'll be slaving away in the library writing a paper about Islam.

Ironic.

I'm not one to delve into the spiritual side of religion. I prefer to view it more as a buffet than a set menu, and when it comes to religious practice and observance, I'm kind of a picky eater. Every Passover since I can remember I've been more apt to whine about having to eat matzah and be the designated Hebrew reader than anything else. The meaning of the holiday was obscured by my annoyance with it's restrictions. Truth be told, its my least favorite holiday. Somehow though, this year, being in Dubai without the option to observe it, I'm actually missing the cardboard-esque sheets of matzah, our homemade Haggadot with their specks of crusted-on Charoset from Seders past, dry Manischewitz box-mix cakes in tiny tin pans, and my little brother's annual refusal to complete the Mah Nishtanah and his subsequent ill-mannered table behavior more than I ever thought I could.

I'm pretty sure I'd have to make my own dough, run away before it had time to rise and let it bake in the desert sun like the original version if I wanted to have any matzah at all.

So I'm a little bit at a loss. I've got questions running through my head about what this all means and to what extent I'm damning myself to the firey depths of JewHell... My dad, the kind of Jew whose idea of religious practice is eating corned beef on marble rye (until recently, it seems), always made it clear that no matter what kind of Jew you may or may not be, you at least have to observe Pesach, Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. I'd have to agree. I think the closest I'll be able to get to observing Pesach this year is going to be writing this blog entry and hopefully Skyping in to my family's Seder in Maryland later tonight.

I'm not fretting over the "bad Jew" thing. I'm not really one to do that (though I did feel badly about accidentally eating shrimp in Bahrain...). Its more that it just feels uncomfortable. It feels wrong. Dispite my griping, I've observed Passover every year of my life, so the lack of it this year cannot simply go unnoticed. I've not written before about being Jewish in this blog, nor do I talk about it here outside the group of American study abroads with whom I spend my time. Supressing something that is so much a part of me has felt odd from the get go, but I knew it would, and I knew it would be something I'd do since before I came here. Still, now, at Passover, hiding this part of me stings a little more.

So I start drawing parallels between the holiday and my own situation. Self-centered? Yeah, a little. The theme of Passover is freedom. In the case of the Jews in Egypt, the definition is pretty clear. In the case of the Jew in Dubai, what is the definition? Who would stop me if I chose to paint a Star of David on my forehead and walk around town? No one (or at least I'm pretty sure I could get away with it for a little while...). But does freedom always have to do with force? Just because I could do it, does it mean I'm free to do it? And if so, then what's stopping me? What would happen if I did it?

A couple months ago I decided to do a litmus test on an Arab student here (a Syrian) with whom I'd become friends. We were talking one-on-one and the topic of Israel came up. He made a comment that though he did not acknowledge Israel's right to exist, he did differentiate between Israelis and Jews, and had no problem with the latter. While to western ears this still sounds harsh, its actually a very forward-thinking statement for someone of his background. Just this week in one of my classes another Arab student who loves to say things like "The Jews are our enemy, we will never negotiate with them" also raised his hand to ask what the Holocaust was, because he'd never heard of it. That's another story entirely, but back to this one: After feeling comfortable about this kid telling me of his tolerance of Jews, and hearing him say that he had had Jewish friends, I decided to cautiously drop the J-bomb: Silence. Then, "Cool." Then more silence. Then, "Well, this is a stupid topic. Let's talk about something else." The next thing I know, his Saudi Arabian buddy is drunkenly saying, "Shabbat Shalom" to me that same weekend. I pretended to have no idea what he was saying, but the fact that the first thing my little Arab test dummy did with my classified information was spread it didn't put me at ease. I've since adopted a vow of silence on the matter when it comes to the locals, and also in speaking up in class when students or professors proport total inaccuracies about Jews, Israel or the Zionist lobby that supposedly controls America in class (this decision came about from another incident in my History class). This silence is not something that comes easily or for which I have ever been known.

The point is, while I may not be bound in chains, forced to make bricks or sacrifice the male children of my people, I feel like my freedom has, in a way, been stripped from me. Though the temporary nature and fact that I have people with whom to share my secret makes said non-freedom much easier to stomach. Still, most days I feel like I'm in the witness protection program.

To wrap it up, dispite the fact that I'll not be able to sit around my grandmother's table and retell the story of my ancestors' freedom as if it were my own, and dispite the fact that I will not have a kosher Pesach by any means, I think that the absence of Pesach from this Pesach, for me, will bring home a point I've failed to grasp for the last twenty years. At the end of the Seder we say "This year we are slaves. Next year, may we be a free people in Jerusalem." Since I have no Seder at which to recite such a verse, and I don't consider myself a slave by any means-- I did CHOOSE to be here, the closing to my internal Seder will be a little different:

This year I am not free to express myself as a Jew. Next year, may I fully appreciate my freedom to do so.

or maybe...

This year I am not free, next year I will be. May I please not screw up the meaning of this holiday then.


בשנה הבא בירושלים

I love and miss you all, and will be thinking of you lots this week, as the Yenta in the back of my head berates me for every bite of Chametz I eat.

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