It was the first Jewish holiday I ever celebrated. I was twenty years old and it was also the first time I met my Jewish boyfriend’s family. I was also NOT Judy Schonberg, my boyfriend’s previous, law-school attending, wildly intelligent but most importantly, nice Jewish girlfriend. No, Judy I was not. I was a shiksa from Northern California with aging hippy parents. I had seen Fiddler on the Roof and to me, the Jews seemed a pretty colorful group. I was down for this, I told myself.
The first thing I decided to do, as I waded through my boyfriend’s (and later husband’s) enormous family, was to find a small corner where I could possibly become invisible. It didn’t take me long to find a very bored 4-year-old – Nathan. Nathan didn’t care that I wasn’t Judy Schonberg, he just wanted somebody willing to bounce a ball with him. Relief!
Nathan and I bounced a ball back and forth between us in the room just adjacent to the bustling kitchen, which emanated chaotic clattering, affectionate squabbling and the smells of chicken soup, brisket and Aunt Clara’s famous meatballs. Suddenly, the kid bounced the ball a bit too hard. In slow motion, I saw the ball head toward an iron that was perched on a dresser. In slow motion I saw the ball hit the iron, then the iron fall, hitting a glass table that SHATTERED. Suddenly, every family member was in the small room at once, staring at the embarrassed shiksa. The kid took off.
That was how I met my future husband’s family.
Seder commenced, with Grandma Ethel using tattered Hagaddahs with a Folgers ad on the back. She’d gotten them from some big Southern California grocery chain like forty years ago. I was under the impression that we had to go over every page of the book and Uncle Chuck, the family clown and unchallenged Boss of Seder, made it fun. But it didn’t take more than ten pages before Grandma Ethel interrupted and asked who wanted matzo ball and who wanted gefilte fish. Uncle Chuck just kept going but food began to stream in slowly, passed down the length of the table at which at least twenty-five family members sat. I was anxious – matzo ball or gefilte fish, which was the right answer? Instinctively, I went for the matzo ball soup.
Grandma Ethel stared at me for a second too long, turned, cupped her hand around her mouth and shouted back to someone unseen in the kitchen: JULIE DOESN’T WANT THE GEFILTE FISH! But – I do! I do want the gefilte fish, I thought. Was that the right answer? And why are the men suddenly piling huge spoonfuls of horseradish on matzo and making a great, manly show of it while their eyes streamed? Why was the seder so chaotic? Weren’t we supposed to be quiet or in some way serious about all of this? Not in that family, I discovered, though I had no measure. No, Passover was a constant stream of fragrant food, a tumble of overlapping conversations and arguments and salt water and maror. It was delightful and I had no idea what we had just celebrated. Something with the Moses movie.
Two years later, I had a much more solid idea of what Passover was; I had converted and was married into the family. Thus began a twenty-year adventure. Unfortunately my marriage ended, although I remain good friends with my ex-husband, the person responsible for opening up the world of Judaism to me (and not to mention also giving me two of the world’s best children!).
About one year ago, I made aliyah from Los Angeles to Israel. I wish I could say that my first Passover here was very special but I did not yet know a soul in Israel and I spent it by myself. It was fine, I had matzo. This year I am celebrating with some friends and I look forward to it. I have even learned to read the hagaddah (haltingly at best) thanks to Ulpan.
As a writer, I am struck by the rich themes and messages of Passover. That of going from enslavement to freedom, of miracles and of wandering. By the time I left Los Angeles, the city of Angels had taken a toll on me; I had become enslaved by the rat race of materialism and ambition. Coming to Israel was like coming home.
The first year I was in Israel, I wandered, without direction. My Hebrew was terrible (now it’s only a little less terrible), the heat and humidity made me feel as if I was swimming through a sauna, and I did absolutely everything wrong. Being an olah chadasha is hard work. I am glad I had no idea how hard it would be.
Two days ago I celebrated one year in my new home. I am beginning to feel a bit more settled and Passover comes with perfect timing for me to reflect upon my exodus from LA and on being a new immigrant in Israel – the country that took me in when I was down and out and has so generously provided me with support, friends and a home. I am so grateful to this country I could weep.
And no, I am not Judy Schonberg and yes I will have the gefilte fish.