(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Jewish Jews” across America are enveloped in Passover preparations.
I use the expression “Jewish Jews” carefully. I want to distinguish between sociological Jews, for whom the Jewish part of their lives is marginal, and those Jews who act Jewishly. Sociological Jews, when asked, might call themselves Jewish, but very little of their lives involve Jewish actions or thoughts. Jews who act Jewishly need not define themselves; they wear their Jewishness on their sleeve for all to see.
This is a difference with a distinction. I am not speaking about affiliated or non-affiliated Jews. That distinction is less significant. And I am not referring to congregational and non-congregational Jews, those who join religious institutions versus those who do not.
I am referring to people who prepare for Passover – because Passover is different, not just from all other nights, but from all other traditions and laws and observances. I am speaking even of assimilated Jews who are still moved to action by Passover.
Passover is the litmus test for American Jews.
Those Jews who take Passover seriously are considered hard-core Jews. They are Jews for whom Judaism and Jewish life resonate beyond a fleeting, introspective moment and an answer on a demographic study.
Don’t think Orthodox Judaism – Jewish Jews are a far larger and more diverse group. They are a huge swath of American Jewry for whom Passover is significant. They clean, even if only a little, for Passover. They shop, even if only to purchase matzah, for Passover. They go to Seder or host one themselves. The Seder is not an Orthodox Seder and the cleaning is not halachic, according to Jewish law. This is not about religious observance. This is about being Jewish.
The process is significant. It is a positive step asserting Jewishness. It is a decision that is taken, a choice that is made. It has positive value. This kind of Jewish action does not often happen on the American Jewish landscape.
Passover preparation has no parallel to anything else that happens in the yearly cycle of activities. It is far more detailed and strenuous and even trauma-laden that mere spring cleaning – just ask anyone who has undertaken the task. The High Holy Days are synagogue-based. All one has to do is buy a ticket and attend. Accompanying meals are ancillary.
BREAKING FAST on Yom Kippur, which has become de rigeur for American Jewry, is what counts. And that act, like Passover observance, is a defining characteristic of Jewish Jews. These are often the only times during the course of the year when many Jews, of their own volition, think Jewishly. They plan, they prepare, they invite, they participate with friends and family.
This act of preparing for Passover is critical to recognize. It is the last universal Jewish act in which American Jews participate. It is the act that makes them Jewish.
Once upon a time there were other Jewish acts and ideas that American Jews across the spectrum shared. For many years Israel – love of Israel, defense of Israel – was a unifying force, a common denominator. Today, for so many reasons, fewer and fewer American Jews connect to Israel. Those who do love Israel are either older, more Orthodox, or more congregationally affiliated.
Passover is the last vestige of Jewish life, values and actions that links Jews.
Why is Passover the last standing Jewish symbol for Jewish Jews to grasp onto and hold tight? The obvious answer would be the symbolic lessons of freedom and the universal values of liberation. But there is much more, and it is a much less complex answer. It is the foods and the memories of those foods, eaten together throughout the generations of parents, grandparents and great grandparents. The foods our grandparents made have a huge impact on memory, and they make us smile.
If it were possible to package those memories, those foods and the aromas of those foods would guarantee the continuity of the Jewish people and Jewish tradition for future generations. If we could reproduce them, we would be successful in transmitting Judaism and Jewish values to the next generation.
My fear is that this next generation will not have those Passover smells, and hence those Passover memories. Each year, Jewish Jews dwindle in number. Our challenge is to instill the value of being a Jewish Jew to the next generation. It’s a looming task.
The writer is a political commentator and host of Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.
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