We had no idea what we were in for.
All we knew was that it had been a really long time since we had Passover together. In fact, it hadn’t happened since the Bubby and Zaidie of our family passed away.
This Passover, we spent the first days of Yom Tov by my husband’s cousin, Rabbi Eytan Yammer, of Knesseth Israel Congregation in Birmingham, Alabama, and his wife, Marisa, who is also highly active in synagogue life. By we, I mean the 25 of us family members — and one dog —who trekked down in a mass exodus from the hustle and bustle of the tristate area (as well as a few who came from Israel) to experience the warmth of both the weather and of the southern hospitality that the area is so known for.
Away from the tumult, away from the noise, the lot of us had a good 15-hour drive to prep ourselves for a weekend for which we had no idea what to expect. All we knew was that we had traveled from our suburban homes to a slower-paced atmosphere, away from our usual comfort zones.
There are no kosher restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama. No glatt marts or glatt worlds or glatt universes. There is a JCC, though, with a modest cafeteria that serves small delights like grilled cheese, hash browns, salmon on top of green salad, and the like. The lady behind the counter knows most customers by name. The JCC is attached to a Hebrew day school where young residents of different affiliations receive their Jewish education. There’s also a mikvah in town. And, interestingly, though maybe not surprisingly, among this greater-Birmingham population of about 5,000 or so Jews, there are synagogues of different affiliations —Reform, Conservative, Chabad, and Orthodox (I sense a joke in there somewhere.)
Rabbi Yammer, of the Orthodox KI Congregation, also happens to have been recently named by the Jewish Daily Forward one of America’s most inspiring rabbis. A student from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Rabbi Yammer has certainly gained the respect and admiration of the 100 families of KI as well as other town residents who learn with him, attend special events, and seek halachic advice. But to us, his relatives, it’s no surprise that Eytan, as we all know him, and Marisa are incredibly inspiring and hospitable people.
Thirty of us packed in one house seemed less cramped that first Passover weekend than you might imagine. Like during many family holidays, the children ran around playing, the adults conversed in different rooms (some sneaking a nap in here and there), there were walks to the park —nothing so out of the ordinary on the surface level. But if you were to look more closely, you might recognize something that doesn’t often exist in the holiday pandemonium of NY/NJ.
It wasn’t just that everyone in the neighborhood seemed friendlier, like when the cashier at the supermarket said, “You have a good day, y’all” after ringing up our order on that last shopping run before the holiday. And it wasn’t just when, on the second night at KI, our 30 family members were joined by 40 congregation members for a meaningful, community-oriented seder led by Rabbi Yammer. And it wasn’t just the sense of community that existed among members of KI.
It was all of those, but more than that, there was something in the air — a feeling of relaxation, maybe — that allowed the family members to really reacquaint each with one another. During the first seder, especially, many noted how blessed we were to have so much family around. Had we been back up north, would the same sentiment ring true? Yes, perhaps. But the distinction between the holiday up north and that down south is that down south, when family dysfunction occurred, as it does in most families, there was really nowhere to run, nowhere to hide (insert evil laughter here). There was only the opportunity to engage with family members over and over again. Which is interesting, because despite everyone living on top of each other for those couple of days, there really wasn’t much by way of family drama. What I did find that weekend was a whole lot of love and appreciation for the circle of life.
After the holiday, I asked different family members to reflect on their time in Birmingham, before, during, and after the first days of Passover. While some regretted not getting to see more of the city, the biggest regret was not spending more time with each other during the year. A few of the young adults reflected on how nice it was to see the next generation of children playing together just as they had done not so long ago. Some enjoyed playing with the children as well, such as by creating relay races in the park or teaching a new generation of card players. Most enjoyed a Sunday night kumzits and bonfire on the deck, the moon peeking out from behind the clouds as the family sang in harmony with accompanying guitar playing for hours — or, at least until “The Prince of Egypt” was over and it was time for the little ones to go to bed. Overall, family members mused on the importance of connecting the generations and remembering where the importance of family all started — with ancestors no longer present.
I’d imagine this description above rings true for many families during the holidays. Whether you’re in the north or the south, it makes little difference. And I think that is part of the beauty of Passover — no matter where you are at present, to spend it with family and pass the experience of freedom down from one generation to the next. As one family member so aptly put it:
“The celebration of freedom and returning to our roots also allowed my family to connect and drink from our original roots, to relive memories and create new ones.”