Stomach growling, I wonder why I chose to spend Passover in Italy of all places. Italy! Land of the pizza and home of the pasta. Luckily I had an entire week to carb load before being interrupted by this notoriously bland holiday.
“Via Della Colonna” is scribbled on a small piece of paper alongside a sketch of the neighborhood. Phone off, this is as close to Google Maps as it’ll get. So many questions come up on the walk from the Great Synagogue of Florence to the family who is hosting me. What is an Italian seder like? Will they also hide the afikomen? Am I walking in the right direction?? I’m eager to find out.
I didn’t think twice about getting set up for a Passover seder by KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad. Why would I? Walking into a stranger’s home, alone, without technology, in a country I’ve never been to, where the locals speak a language I don’t understand — this doesn’t phase me. The more I explain this to others, the less normal I realize it sounds to those who aren’t part of the Jewish community.
See, we Jews have a special relationship with each other. Strangers are long lost cousins. Their food is yours. We are a small yet extended family separated by oceans and languages, but our history and traditions hold us together. Let’s get back to the seder and you’ll see what I mean.
I do a double take when I enter the fresco-painted home. Did I accidentally enter a museum? Nope, they definitely don’t hug you in museums. Italian and Hebrew floats through the modern apartment, smiles are shared in every direction, and the smell of za’atar fills the air. Wait… za’atar? I know what you’re thinking. “Hannah, I thought you were in Italy?!” Okay, hear me out.
The generous hosts that KAHAL placed me with grew up in different Eastern European countries, then met in Israel before moving to Italy. Naturally they all speak Hebrew, Italian, and English fluently. After learning that I am studying Spanish in Granada, my host pulls out a dusty Ladino book from the 1800s for my entertainment. My jaw actually drops.
Before I know it, everyone gathers around the dinner table in the library. Plates of sweet salmon and eggplant smothered in tahini appear. For the first time in months I can taste the love in my food. And somehow the incredible flavors mask the taste of the matzah.
That is the power of Judaism. The power to trust one another and take someone in as if they are your own. To stuff them with food and drink so that they are nourished. To sing together, laugh together, and make memories together.
There’s a saying on Passover, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Every year my family leaves an empty chair at the table in case someone knocks on the door looking for a seder to join. I never understood the meaning of this metaphor until right now. This time, I am the stranger knocking at the door. So wherever I am for Passover in the future — be it Philadelphia, Florence, or Jerusalem — I will always look back at my seder in Florence and know the importance of leaving an extra chair. You never know who might show up.