Beliefnet

In my traditional, observant Jewish community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, no sooner have the playful Purim masks been doffed then the ponderous, pre-Passover preparations are donned. We work for an entire month toward removing every speck of leavening from our cupboards and our coat pockets. Out come the dishes that are only used on Passover–two separate sets, one for dairy and one for meat. All this, so that during these eight days of the year, our homes will recapture the essence of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt when, in their haste to escape, they had no time to let their bread rise and instead, ate it flat. Even as I allow myself to be swept up in the search for the perfect matzah farfel recipe, and the debate over which is more authentic--the round, expensive, hand-made, half-burned shmura matzah or the boxed, perfectly square, machine-made matzah--I find myself pondering the eternal question: Is tossing a lamb shank on the seder plate and covering my kitchen cabinets in tinfoil truly an authentic re-creation of the journey from slavery to freedom? At moments like these, my thoughts turn to the Samaritans, who have neither been saddled with the entire Bible nor with rabbinical Judaism.

There are about 700 Samaritans today, most living in the modern day city of Nablus on the West Bank. They parted ways with normative Judaism in 722 BCE, and thus received and recognize only the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, as being divinely inspired. None of this latter-day separation of milk and meat laws, no prohibitions against opening umbrellas on the sabbath (considered work because it falls in the category of constructing a tent), and no month-long preparations for Passover, a holiday that is significant because of its haste! No, on the day before Passover, the Samaritans grab themselves an unblemished lamb, head over to Mt. Gerizim, slit the sheep’s throats, roast them, then bring them home and eat them—quickly--along with matzah and bitter herbs. I won’t go so far as to say that the closer we are in religious practice to the days of yore, the more authentic and correct we are. But I’m willing to edge awfully close to this assertion.

My Passover meal, the seder, is anything but quick, and in these weeks before, I have PLENTY of time to consider not only how cursory I can afford to be about de-leavening my house but also give thought to my ongoing search for authenticity.

It’s authenticity, indeed, that is at issue when my beautiful friend, Felicia, calls to tell me that she’s depressed because she looks old (she is over 40), and perhaps she should go to some Buddhist retreat and come to some sanguine acceptance of aging. A few hours later, as I lean my head back into a sink in a hair salon in my quest for the most natural shade of blonde, I tap out a text message to Felicia. “I plan to fight against time, and I hope u will join me in the trenches!” Unlike Felicia, I don’t think that looking my age renders me a more genuine person, nor do I view my surface concerns as being at odds with my spiritual leanings. Maybe they are perversely a part of the same thing: an attempt to achieve verisimilitude. Like the modern-day Samaritans who dress up in white robes and appear to have just crossed the Red Sea, when those thin needles filled with botulism erase the lines in my forehead, it’s as if I’ve returned, albeit virtually, to my younger, past self. I’m not fooling anyone, or myself, that I am authentically 30, but it’s nice to play pretend.

Exiting the superficial, secular world, and re-entering the world of macaroons and matzah brie (Passover "delicacies"), I realize that a number of my friends are not racing hither and thither, hunting and gathering grape juice and eggs, because they are going to kosher-for-Passover hotels! I’m not the Passover Police, but honestly, is matzah with a shmear of Mickey Mouse truly the way in which the holiday was intended to be celebrated? On behalf of the ancient Israelites, I feel indignant that my fellow Jews aren’t slaving and suffering. It’s not that they are less authentically Jewish, just because they haven’t run their dishwasher through two cycles or turned their stove on high for two hours to render their appliances kosher for Passover, just as bleached-blonde hair and a botoxed visage shouldn’t cast suspicion upon one’s depth of character. But still, both seem a little bit like cheating.

Putting aside how the holiday should be celebrated, there are scholars who doubt the veracity of the event itself. Some believe the Exodus from Egypt never happened, period. Others think that it sort of happened, but on a much smaller scale. I say, if it didn’t even happen, then why am I buying copious amounts of heavy-duty tin foil?

I doubt that many people truly believe that all of the hocus pocus 10 plagues and miracles and parting of the Red Sea took place. Nonetheless, whatever our personal take, each year we suspend our disbelief and doubt, gather around the table, and recount the story of the Exodus. “We were slaves and now we’re free.” Of course we were not literally slaves in Egypt, but the Passover text asks us to feel “as if” we were slaves. Two years ago, this imperative sparked a debate between my friends, Thane, a novelist who has written books about the post-Holocaust world, and James, an imminent Holocaust scholar who has written widely about memory and how we commemorate traumatic events, and who served on the committee to choose a 9/11 memorial. Thane claimed that even trying to feel “as if” you had suffered something is like play-acting, and trivializes the essential tragedy simply by stating that for this one night, while we stuff ourselves with yeastless foods, we are one with the slaves of Egypt. If you weren’t in actuality a slave, then you cannot be a “virtual” slave. James contended that play-acting "as if" we were there was just one of many ways of "making these events our own," while being careful not to mistake our play-acting for having actually been there. “The secret is holding both the past and present moments in mind at once--hence, the emphasis on ‘as if.’” And there you have it: our ongoing human search for connection to events that we did not witness or experience renders us willing to serve as our ancestors’ shadows and attempt to make virtual contact with their lives and histories, their enslavement and freedom.

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