“The Ten Commandments on television this weekend?” my dad asks me.
“I don’t know. We never watch ABC.”
“Isn’t it on for Passover?”
“That’s next weekend.”
“You sure?” He glances over at the calendar.
Of dates? Yes, these days of at least that much, I am sure. I haven’t stopped counting them for the past year, really the past three.
I roll Passover against my tongue. The food and the story, the taste of sand and matzoh. The holiday when Jews reach out, when what we have is measured against what others should. At least that’s what my book, Jewish Tradition, says. I have never had that experience myself. My dad continues speaking. I don’t hear what he says until he reaches the word, desert.
“Is that where I am right now? The desert?” I look up into his face.
He smirks. “Sure.”
I’m disappointed; I’m tired; I’m lost. I stopped wandering, came home, only to be lost, in the desert of my own making.
Living with my father who is not Jewish, and maybe even if I didn’t, the foods in the house aren’t Kosher. I see other inconveniences than faith, when I squint into yellowed kitchen light. I peruse the Seder plate described in the book and refresh my memory of the foods that must be present and what they mean.
Haroset- the sweet paste that recalls mortar and enslavement.
Karpas- a sprig of spring
Z’roa- the sacrifice unique to the day
Beitzah- the sacrifice that remains constant
Maror- the bitter herbs some connect to the word “mar” or teacher, and the reality that we must learn from our bitter experiences.
I stare at the layered refrigerator shelves, let the coolness as if desert night wash over me, the fact that I restrict myself to use what’s on the shelves that he buys too much of versus choosing or purchasing something I like better for myself, makes resources all of a sudden scarce.
I stare at the rolling dunes, piles of items on cupboard shelves he acquires “free” or pieces he discards from packaged meals. Instead of wasting away, my desert is one of self-inflicted duty to use all ingredients.
Laura Shapiro recently published a book entitled, “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & The Food That Tells Their Stories.” In her book, Shapiro poses that food, when I eat it, when I choose it, how I cook it, when I hate it, when I ignore it, if I grow it, who I share it with and any other action helps me to tell my story. She writes about six women and she may be right about them. I know for a fact, she is right about me.
If such a symbol as the seder plate persists for centuries, then food cannot help but say something about me, for me, to me. If in fact, I am in the desert, than I have at least moved beyond the blind enslavement to which I subjected myself in younger choices. I am counting dates on the calendar, but I am counting away from instead of counting down. Most importantly, until I learn the lessons with each bite taken into my mouth, the words and actions fueled by them will only be seasoned in the bitterness of my experiences and lingering indigestion of those sacrifices.
I’m disappointed; I’m tired; I’m lost; I’m not, but maybe I am right where I need to be. I sweep the floor of dirt and dog hair, but not crumbs. Wisps unnamed billow up around me in a swift storm. Vision clouded and restricted, the desert is something else. It is the sifting out of other lives necessary to see new opportunities, distinct combinations. If nothing else, as a woman, as a Jew, as a professional, a sister, a human, Passover is a remembrance of the freedoms I have thanks to others, the freedom to choose.
The day before Passover begins, I buy two boxes of matzoh at the store. In the town where I live, Jewish items are next to impossible to find. These boxes were in stock at the local health food coop. The irony does not escape me. I carry my reusable bags, checked costales from Guatemala, another irony. In fact, I celebrated more Passover dinners by invitation from a family in Guatemala than I ever had in my American life. At home, I balance the boxes atop the refrigerator with my dad’s boxes of Cheerios and Ritz. I contemplate the sandwiches the slim crackers will come to be, Hillel sandwiches in fact, those that take the good with the bad.