Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Child's Play: A Lost Zionist Passover

About a year before he died, in the fall of 2000, I attended a reading on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by the great Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai. It was the week before Passover, in a not-really-filled synagogue basement hall—intimate enough for him to lapse into a recollection of the bedikat hametz, the search for crumbs of bread and such, in his childhood home in W├╝rzburg, Germany, on the morning before the seder.

Jews are forbidden to eat leavened bread on the eight days of the holiday. Ashkenazi 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, like rice and legumes, that 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 dust balls, 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. Amichai’s 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.

Childhood memory is often indelible, but historical memory is potentially lost with every new child. The point of not eating bread—Passover is all about making points—is the transmission of a great ethical claim to each new generation. Jews are enjoined to dramatize for their children the preciousness of freedom by ritualizing how quickly our ancestors seized theirs, escaping Pharaoh’s slave pits: so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. The point here is not to refuse bread the way Jews who observe ordinary kashrut laws refuse, say, milk with meat. (Those ordinary laws encourage awe before the divine by prohibiting something arbitrary, and, in a way, the more arbitrary the better; were it not for “the Law,” Maimonides writes, eating milk with meat “would not at all be considered a transgression.”) No, the point on Passover is the positive act of eating unleavened bread, matzot, to emphasize the good of freedom.

And yet Amichai knew better than to leave things there. Children aren’t so crazy in the end about the uncertainty that comes with getting their way. They need games, rules to conform to (the banning of all bread products for eight days) and incantations to assure forgiveness (the prayers that accompany cleaning the house), sensuous pleasure and pageantry (the intricate rituals of the seder). Children—Amichai can’t just say this, but can imply it—are cute little Fascists. They’ll take the father over the freedom anytime:

I shriek like a child, feet swinging on high: 
I want down, Daddy, I want down, 
Daddy, get me down. 
And that’s how the saints all ascend to heaven, 
like a child screaming, Daddy, I want to stay up here, 
Daddy, don’t get me down, Our Father Our King, 
leave us up here, Our Father Our King! 
(From “Open Closed Open: Poems”) 

So all the rituals of Passover—what Amichai calls child’s play—do not necessarily communicate the notion of freedom they were devised to transmit. The play can become more uncannily precious than the ideas it is meant to put across. Better to have the smells of the seder meal filling the senses than disturbing ideas about bondage and release into the desert filling the talk; better to be a good Jew than a Jew worrying about how to be good. Moses himself learned this the hard way. When he ascended Mount Sinai to search out ethical grandeur, the Children of Israel, left to themselves, built an idol to worship. Hell, they were prepared to return to Egypt for a taste of the garlic they craved. They couldn’t handle the desert’s boundlessness.

Continue reading at The New Yorker