In 2012, I took my family on our first trip to Israel.
It was the week leading up to Passover, which coincided with my kids’ spring break vacation from school. They had a week off, and we were going to spend it in a place I had only read about, prayed for, or dreamed of.
On my check-list of must-see places and must-do experiences was the chance to be sitting in Jerusalem while reciting the words of hope and longing that those of us who live in the global Jewish diaspora proclaim at the end of the Passover Seder:
L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim
Next year in Jerusalem
While we had just recently moved to Taiwan, the prior two years we celebrated Passover in Shanghai. I remember that silent epiphany I had as I sat with my wife and young children around the Seder table at a hotel, reading from the Haggadah along with about 200 Jews from Israel and the far-flung corners of the global diaspora. It was a stunning revelation I experienced for the first time in my forty-plus years on earth: “We were slaves in Egypt?!”
The following year we were invited to the home of my Israeli colleague and his wife, where we enjoyed a much smaller but warmer and more intimate Seder with our families.
And now, after touring Israel from our base in Tel Aviv for the past five days, the next stop on our itinerary was Jerusalem, so we could actually be there at the end of the Seder when we uttered that ancient phrase.
After checking into our hotel, I searched some websites, made a few calls, and found a rabbi who welcomed us to join his Seder. I entered my credit card information on his site and locked in our seats.
Jumping into the car we had hired for the week, we set off for a tour of some key sites in Jerusalem. As we made our way toward the Israel Museum, Meir, our driver and guide who took us around the country, asked me what we were doing for Passover.
I told him about my booking with the rabbi in Jerusalem. I told him I wanted to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem, having spent the prior Seders outside of Jerusalem, in Shanghai.
And then he popped the question: “Why don’t you join me and my family at our home for Passover?”
I was torn. Meir lived in Gan Yavne, at least an hour’s drive from Jerusalem.
I had flown my young family all the way from Taiwan to Israel, and now we were actually in Jerusalem. Not fulfilling my goal was not an option I had considered.
I politely said thank you, but we were going to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.
To break the awkward silence that ensued, Meir pushed a CD into his stereo. Meir loved the Beatles, and we ended up, rather improbably, listening to a good chunk of their discography while cruising through Israel. (The Beatles’ first manager, Brian Epstein, the man who introduced them to the world and was known as the ‘fifth Beatle’, was Jewish. So, I thought, at least there was some connection I could draw between their music and the Holy Land.)
Again, Meir invited us to his home for Passover. Again, as delicately as I could, I declined.
This time, Meir became visibly displeased. In a much firmer tone than the first time he tried, he insisted that he pick us up at our hotel and drive us to his home for his Seder.
Realizing another ‘no’ at that point could escalate the situation and likely damage the bond we had established over the long days we had spent together touring Israel — we all liked Meir and felt safe and comfortable in his car and in his presence — I relented and accepted his invitation.
That afternoon, before sundown, Meir picked us up and drove us to his home in Gan Yavne, where we were greeted warmly by his wife and adult children and their families. We also met a friendly family with two teens from the UK he had invited to join the Seder, long-time clients that he had guided through Israel on many occasions over the years, just as he had guided us that week.
As we all sat down at the table and began to read from the Haggadah, the door left ajar for the arrival of the Prophet Elijah, I was moved by the scene. Here we were, families from radically different corners of the diaspora joined together at the same Seder table, in our ancestral homeland.
Meir was born in Iraq, that ancient site of the very first mass exile to Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple around 587 BCE. In the early 1950s, his family fled the state-sponsored suppression and pogroms that were initiated in response to the establishment of the State of Israel, and joined one of the miraculous airlifts that brought tens of thousands of Jews to Israel. Between 1950 and 1952, nearly 130,000 of the Iraqi Jewish community (around 75%) reached Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
Meir’s wife was from Minsk in Belarus, once one of the great centers of Jewish life in Europe. Her family was one of the waves of Jews who left the Soviet Union for Israel. Minsk was also the home of my great grandfather Abraham Leibowitz before he emigrated to America.
In 1897, the Jewish population of Belarus reached 910,900, or 14.2% of the total population. Prior to World War II, Jews remained the third largest ethnic group in Belarus and comprised more than 40% of the population in cities and towns. It is estimated 800,000 of 900,000 — 90% of the Jews of Belarus — were killed during the Holocaust. And today? According to the 2019 national census, there were 13,705 self-identifying Jews in Belarus.
The family from Britain came from a country that today boasts a large and vibrant Jewish population, with some 290,000 Jews as of 2018. But today they also face rising anti-Semitism, an ancient hatred that began almost immediately after the first Jews arrived in Britain with King William the Conqueror in 1070. On March 16, 1190, on the eve of the Third Crusade, the Jewish population of York was massacred. And in 1290, some 200 years after first arriving in Britain, the Jews were expelled by King Edward I.
In the early decades of the 20th century, my great grandparents left their homes and families in Eastern Europe and boarded steamships out of cities like Hamburg on a weeks-long sea journey to ‘Di Goldene Medina’ — Yiddish for ‘the Golden Land’, as America was known among shtetl-bound Jews at the time. It must have been a wrenching decision for them to abandon their homes and sources of income so they could move to an unknown land and an uncertain future.
Like millions of other Jews who emigrated from Europe at the time, my great grandparents and their families were likely fleeing pogroms, poverty, and mandatory conscription in the Russian army, so their motivation must have been strong.
And just a few decades ago, I picked up and left the US, where I was born, raised, and educated, to pursue my career and raise my family in Taiwan, where I’ve found a small but vibrant community of fellow Jews.
So there we were, sitting together at the Seder table: Meir and his wife, each from different corners of the Jewish diaspora, joined by two young families from two disparate and distant centers of the diaspora. What brought us all together at their home in Gan Yavne — the site of another momentous exile from Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE — was a story.
Passover: the story of freedom from slavery, the story of an impossible journey from oppression in a foreign land, under a foreign power, to a land of independence and freedom. The story of the birth of our nation.
In a video he recorded in 2010, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explained the central role that the telling of the Passover story has played in the continuation of the Jewish nation throughout time, even as all other once-mighty ancient civilizations disappeared into the history books.
Ancient Egypt and ancient Israel were two civilizations that asked the deepest question that any of us could ask, ‘How in this finite, ephemeral, all too short a span of years that we call a life can we achieve immortality?’
The Egyptians gave one answer: You achieve immortality by building monuments of stone that outlive the sands and the winds of time. And do you know what? In a sense they were right, because the buildings are still there. But the civilization that brought them forth, the values for which they lived, disappeared long ago.
Ancient Israel said no. To become immortal you do not need to build monuments of stone. All you need to do is engrave your values on the hearts of your children, and they on theirs, and so on across the centuries of time.
Jews built living monuments. And how did they do it? By the process of handing their story on to the next generation. That is what we do on Pesach. We give the next generation the gift of the Jewish story. And that slender ritual turned out to be longer lasting than the mightiest empires and their greatest monuments.
After two millennia of exile to the nations of the world, after my ancestors had moved through Europe, and then to America, and then with my move to Asia 20 years earlier, I felt I had completed the circle.
My family and I finally arrived at the very place where my ancestors had first set out — probably on foot, probably with just the clothes on their backs and a few essential belongings — more than 2,000 years ago.
We were in our homeland, where we could celebrate the birth of our nation, where we could pray and sing together, where we could just be who we were born to be.
As the Seder at Meir’s home came to a close, we reached the part where we proclaim the words that for centuries Jews in exile have uttered as a declaration of yearning, of hope, of longing for the ultimate return to their homeland.
Ironically, after all the effort and expense I went through, I didn’t get to utter that famous phrase while actually sitting in Jerusalem.
But finding myself at the same Seder table in the company of fellow Jews from different corners of the diaspora, in a country that we could collectively call our own, I had a feeling of returning home that I had never experienced before.
And, I reminded myself, there’s always next year, in Jerusalem.