The flavor of memory
A few months after my father died, it was time for Passover. An entire shelf of our living room bookcases is devoted to dozens of different haggadot, and I like to spend time with different ones in the weeks before the Seder. That year, I found my father’s Haggadah. I had taken it from my parents’ house at some point in the prior months.
Of all the haggadot I have, this particular one isn’t one I usually spend a lot of time with. It was published by the Conservative movement in the 1950s and edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman. It’s fairly workmanlike: it gives you everything you need to run the seder; everything is translated; the language, like the artwork, is a product of the time; the commentary is straightforward. When I’m perusing haggadot in preparation for the Seder, I tend to look at other versions, in Hebrew and English, that have commentary more interesting to me or art I find more original. Silverman always struck me as, well, a little tepid.
But this was the haggadah I grew up with. Our family had a set of a dozen of them in red hardcover. Yet my Dad’s was a gray softcover, which had become worn from years of use. He had taped it back together; I needed to be gentle with the pages. What was most gripping to me as I flipped through were the notes: Not brilliant insights into the language or symbols of the seder, but names he had written in various colors over the years, cuing him to call on the right person to read that paragraph at that year’s seder. “Nancy” appeared in black sharpie by the “Avadim Hayinu” paragraph, written over “Rivka” and another name in pencil from a prior year, and above “Shifra” in red pen from another. Next to some paragraphs he wrote “skip;” others had check marks next to them. At one point I could see that one of the kids—probably me—had asked to do the assignments, and I could see where the names of various family members, including my Bubbie Lily, who used to come spend Pesach with us, were written in a child’s hand in pencil.
As I continued to peruse, I came across a to-do list Dad had written in one of the more recent years when my parents came to Chicago to attend our Seders. “Med refill, charge phone, heat, tallit, BB 2 – 4:30 [probably a reference to an NCAA basketball tournament game], chametz search, burn chametz.” And I found a card on which he had written a question I had pre-assigned to him one year (I like to pre-assign questions for people who come to our seders): “How did your family’s experience of immigration affect your sense of being an American Jew?” I remembered the moving answer he gave about his love of this country and his own encounters with antisemitism.
In an essay on Parashat Tzav (which, most years, is the Shabbat right before Passover) in his book Derekh Mamelech, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira writes that “Every mitzvah has a taste, a flavor, which arises according to the mitzvah itself and how one performs it. Flavor is impossible to explain to someone else – it exists for each of us according to how we feel and experience it.”
The rebbe connects this to the opening verse of our parasha (Lev. 6:2): “This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.” The final word of the verse in Hebrew is bo, which idiomatically translates to “on it,” but more literally means “within it.” The rebbe, in characteristic Hasidic fashion, picks up on this literal meaning: The fire is within us, and, like flavor, it isn’t something we can really explain to others. It is uniquely ours. If we tend it and sustain it, then we will be able to truly engage in the korban, the act through which we draw near to the Holy One.
For me, the flavor of Pesach is not only in the foods I associate with the holiday – the matzah and maror and haroset; matzah brei; my mother’s “strawberry poof;” the tamarind stuffed artichokes I’ve made a seder feature in recent years; those terrible half-moon candies that taste like lemon pledge – but in much deeper tastes and flavors of memory and experience and relationship and song. With every year, a new layer of memory becomes melded into this powerful mélange, transporting me between times and places and people, and inviting me to locate myself within it. The meaning and experience of leaving Egypt right now, in this year, absorbs the taste of those prior years even as it contributes its own subtle flavor to the whole. Perhaps something like this is true for you too. As the rebbe says, it’s hard to explain.
If you ask my mother, “What are you grateful for?” she will reliably answer with a few things: Her family of origin, the family she made with my father, living in Ann Arbor for most of her life, and being Jewish. I can remember her saying that for as long as I’ve been alive, and she still says it today, even with a memory that isn’t what it once was. The flavor of the mitzvah – in the most expansive sense of the word mitzvah: that which connects us – is profound and deep and mysterious. May we each be blessed to be aware of that taste of Pesach that is uniquely ours, and may that awareness enable us to liberate ourselves, one another, and all beings from constriction, narrowness, and oppression.