Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Child's Play

I had the privilege of attending a reading by the great Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai in New York about a year before he died. It was a day or two before Passover, in a not-really-filled synagogue hall, and he lapsed into a recollection of the bedikat hametz, the search for crumbs of bread and such, in his childhood home. 

Jews--if you are from Phnom Penh, you may not know this--are forbidden to eat leavened bread on Passover. European rabbis, presumably pleasing God by outdoing Him, interpreted this to mean no contact at all with leavened foods of any kind (including, alas, beer) or even grains and legumes that just swell up in water. So the morning before the seder, Amichai said, he and his father would prowl around the house searching for forbidden stuff, a feather in hand, blowing into corners, and sweeping up the dustballs, looking hopefully for crumbs. The piles would be slowly nudged together and added to leftover bread. Then the whole lot would be taken outside and burned in a newspaper. His father would chant exotic Aramaic words, feather still in hand, asking to be forgiven for any crumbs still lying around, potentially despoiling the kashrut--the purity and fitness--of the home. Amichai looked at the audience, wistfully. "Child's play," he said. 

The point of not eating bread--Passover is all about making points--is a kind of ethical transmission. Childhood memory is indelible, but historical memory is wiped out with every new child. So we are enjoined to dramatize the preciousness of freedom to our adorably clueless progeny by ritualizing how quickly our ancestors seized theirs--so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. The good here is not in obediently freeing ourselves from bread, but in eating unleavened bread, matzoh, to mark the good of freedom. This, to paraphrase the slice of Isaiah chanted on Yom Kippur, is the fast that is desired.

And yet Amichai knew better than to leave things there. Poets cherish their freedom; they live, as Stanley Kunitz put it, in the layers. But for children, freedom is rather overrated. Amichai knew, with that ironic distance that launched his freedom, that children prefer fathers and games to play, rules to conform to and prayers to assure oneself forgiveness with. Better to have the smells of the seder meal filling the senses. Hell, the children of Israel were prepared to return to Egypt just for the garlic. Better to be a good Jew than a Jew worrying, like all poor bastards, about how to be good.

I AM THINKING about Amichai this morning because I've noticed a new conceit this year on Reshet Bet, Israel's dominant radio station. All the broadcasters from 6:30 to 10 AM signed off with the phrase "pesach kasher," a kosher Passover, something you did not hear in Israel a generation ago (and I have not heard since Talmud Torah, the orthodox school I went to in Montreal in the 1950s). Presumably, they were trying to be cute; most of these Tel-Aviv celebs wouldn't know a parsha from a haftorah. One interviewer explored the importance of artistic freedom with a humanities professor, with Janice Joplin's wailing rendition of Bobby McGee in the background. Not one interviewer (seriously, not one) asked about the universal importance of political freedom. Do I bore you by asking why nobody thought to invite a Palestinian, you know, to ask what it felt like to be denied the most obvious forms of it?

Okay, a little holiday blog post cannot do justice to liberty, trauma, Judaism, and the history of the Middle East conflict; please, spare me comments about how Ehud Barak offered everything at Camp David, and they came back with terror, blah, blah. The simple fact is that we have created a festival of freedom, political freedom, that has evolved for about 3000 years. In every generation we have presumed to believe that we, ourselves, stood at Sinai--standing in, that is, for humankind, passing from slavery to freedom, and from freedom to the rule of law. How can we possibly celebrate this festival without at least preoccupying ourselves with, well, occupation? Actually, the military announced a couple of days ago that the West Bank would be under a 12-day lock-down so that Israelis could celebrate the holiday in peace.

Israeli media are, instead, full of stories about where the line in Europe passed between sweet gefilte fish and the salty kind; and weirdly mandatory wishes that the holiday be kosher, that no crumbs remain. Meanwhile, some of us find this year in Jerusalem surreal--find it harder and harder in this curiously hopeful year to convey how cool it was to be a Zionist a couple of generations ago, when Israelis would have been far more likely to have heard of Paul Robeson than Sam Bronfman; when Passover meant interviews with political philosophers, the songs of national liberation, and a new Hagadah from the kibbutzim celebrating the universal rights of human beings and the workings of the natural world.

Do I idealize? Yes. I had a childhood--or at least a young adulthood--too. My Palestinian friends will tell me that Israelis back then were fancying themselves internationalists while refugees languished in camps. Still, I am noticing changes that leave their traces everywhere--changes that feel like a kind of regression, like the smiles and neatness and grabbiness of children whose parents can't stop fighting. 

For the record, Sidra and I just performed bedikat hametz with our two-year-old grand-daughter, Maya, the smells of seder meals wafting in from all sides. "Fiyah," she said, glancing at the burning pile, before running off to feed her little tiger what was left of her egg yolk. There was no point telling her about freedom. Her tiger lacked for nothing.