All Other Nights: On Passover and Growing Up Jewish in the South

I think I grew into my Judaism. Yes, I was born Jewish, have practiced every year of my life. Even before I understood what it meant, It was always a part of me. I was Jewish the same way I was a Louisvillian or a Kentucky fan. As soon as I was old enough, I started Sunday School. Eventually Hebrew School joined the mix, and I spent five years studying for my Bat Mitzvah. But despite the incessant preparation for that coming of age ceremony, and the rite of passage itself, it wasn’t until I was sixteen and sitting in confirmation class that I actually felt connected to this faith that had been passed down to me. A group of about twenty of us sat around a table in the Jewish Community Center, and our Rabbi asked us what we wanted to know about Judaism. What questions did I have about my faith?

It was the first time I was confronted with the fact that my faith was about me, what I wanted to believe and how I interpreted things. Through that class, I learned that my Judaism was what I made it. It was ok, even encouraged, to push boundaries and ask questions, both of myself and of the other members of my community. But that was just the first step. It took me much longer to accept that my Judaism wasn’t any less valid than what other Jews believed. I spent the early part of college feeling “not Jewish enough” to go to Hillel, and when I did attend services on campus, I felt bad for not liking them.

Let’s back up a little. Growing up Jewish in Kentucky, even in the biggest city in Kentucky, is starkly different from growing up Jewish in a place like New York (Exhibit A: At my bat mitzvah, the must-play song list included the hora, the cha-cha slide, and Rocky Top). Even with one of the most robust Jewish communities in the region, I can count on one hand the number of synagogues in my city, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother knows every Jew in the city of Louisville. It’s a tight-knit community, and it’s part of the reason Zelda and I are such good friends. When we met in school in sixth grade, we didn’t just have classes together everyday. There was carpooling to Hebrew School every Wednesday, and after-Hebrew School pizza nights, and Sunday School, and even a brief stint in the youth choir (our Passover skit featured rapping: it was a huge hit).

Celebrating Chanukah at Zelda’s apartment this year.

Now our class was a bit of a novelty. In seventh grade (the year of the b’nai mitzvah), we were nearly 20% Jewish, way more than any other class at our small school (really, more than most any class at any school outside New York). That year, there was a party every weekend, sometimes two. Our sizable contingent meant that, even though we were a minority, we still had clout. When our parents fought for the High Holidays to be excused absences, they got their way. In music class, by sixth grade, we had officially exhausted all the token Chanukah songs (as devoted as Irving Berlin was to the Jewish faith, he didn’t do us any favors in the celebratory songs department). In a show of interfaith cooperation straight out of an after-school special, we all banded together to beg our teacher, “Please, God, let us sing a Christmas song at the holiday program this year,” instead of something obscure and in Hebrew.

I kind of look at being Jewish in the South the same way I look at being a Southerner in New York. It’s a community, something you immediately connect over, something you have that everyone else doesn’t. Not to say that Jews other places don’t have that — the diaspora is an inherent part of the Jewish experience — but the ratios aren’t quite as stacked against them. As a Southern Jew, you are a novelty to most people you meet. It takes people a second to process, and sometimes they don’t know how to react. At my camp in North Carolina, I was the first Jewish person many of my friends had ever met. In New York, it’s the combo that shocks; people’s response is often, “There are Jews in Kentucky?!”

Some other Kentucky-raised Jews and myself during our trip to Israel (aged 16).
Some other Kentucky-raised Jews and myself during our trip to Israel (aged 16).

While in theory moving to New York, bastion of American Jewish culture, should have been a homecoming of sorts, when I got here I felt the same way I did in college: like I wasn’t Jewish enough. I attended services at a few different synagogues here in the city, celebrated a High Holiday or two. Nothing quite seemed to fit. They were too stuffy, or too formal, or too New Age. None of them were a Judaism I recognized. I felt like a stranger; I hadn’t found my tribe. But after about a year, I realized the problem wasn’t that I wasn’t Jewish enough. I was just a different kind of Jewish.

Reform Judaism, at least the kind in which I was raised, is about choice. The choice to go to synagogue every week, or not; the choice to keep kosher, or not; the choice to play “Rocky Top” at your coming of age celebration, or not (ok, that one might just be me). The choice to see Judaism as part of your culture or as part of your faith, or as both. Choosing in and of itself is an act of faith — actively engaging with your heritage and making it your own. Which brings me to the actual topic of today’s post: Passover.

As an adult, Passover has become my favorite holiday, representing all the parts of Judaism I love. For me, Judaism is both cultural and religious, and Passover celebrates the best of both. The seder is an at-home service, led by the head of the household rather than the head of a synagogue. Throughout the festive meal, we retell the story of Exodus: the ten plagues, the Jews escaping bondage in Egypt, parting seas. It’s all very epic stuff (tailor-made for cartoon specials, too — the Exodus story plays many ways). As we tell the story, we dip our parsley in salt water, eat bitter herbs and charoses, and spill drops of wine. It’s all meant to remind us of what our ancestors went through and to put us in their shoes. Eight days of eating the bread of affliction reminds us that our people suffered to be where they are now, and that even hundreds of generations later, we are still kindred spirits, part of the same line. Our people have suffered for thousands of years, and we shoulder that burden with them. But juxtaposed with the trials of our ancestors is celebration. There are songs and food and laughter and terrible wine. And that juxtaposition, the bitter herbs mingling with the sweet charoset, is what makes Passover my favorite holiday.

Didi Pickles knows whats up. (Rugrats knew what was up on how to portray living in an interfaith household)
Didi Pickles knows whats up. (really, Rugrats knew what was up when it came to portraying life in an interfaith household)

With most of the other Jewish holidays, the cultural aspect is separate from the religious. We go to schul and pray, and then we leave schul and move to a separate place to eat blintzes and drink more terrible wine (if you’re sensing a theme, you would be correct: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat…and get shit-faced). On Passover, there is no division. We reflect and pray, we sing and celebrate, we drink and break bread (or rather, matzah), all in the same place. In this way, Passover is actually a deeply Southern holiday — all about food and family and tradition and storytelling. We gather around a table, and while the fried chicken and biscuits may be gefilte fish and matzah balls, the feeling is the same. That closeness to the people we care about, and the deep connection to the heritage (and foods) that brought us here, are what the South is all about for me.

I feel closest to Judaism when I’m sitting around a seder table, wherever it may be. At home, my grandfather sits at the head of the table attempting to lead the service. We get sidetracked, someone makes inappropriate jokes, and someone else spills the wine (in the Goldman house, it’s not a holiday until somebody has upended their glass on TG’s pristine white tablecloth). When we pause the service to eat, we usually discuss some sort of medical procedure, because my family is full of surgeons and nothing really fazes us at the dinner table anymore. When the service is over, we stay around the table for a few more hours — drinking, eating flourless chocolate cake, and arguing about all the things you’re not supposed to bring up at family gatherings (usually politics or, if Passover falls during March Madness as it does this year, sports; my father’s family leans Zelda’s way when it comes to basketball). And at some point, after glass number four, someone breaks out into song. This is all well and good as long as it’s not my father or my grandfather, neither of whom can carry a tune. If it’s one of my cousins, there’s a 75% chance it’ll be something from a musical. And if it’s my uncle, we’re getting “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” because I’m pretty sure that’s the only song he knows.

Sometimes I spend the holiday with my surrogate family in Philadelphia, who adopted me into the fold when I moved to Baltimore for school. Things at the Hirschs’ are slightly less vulgar than home, but just as warm, and from the first time I attended a holiday there, they made me feel like part of the clan. There are four families at their table, and they’ve been celebrating together for ages, but I never felt like an outsider. They may not be my biological family, but the comfort and camaraderie are the same. Plus, their songs are slightly more harmonious.

See, like Judaism as a whole, Passover is what you make it. More than any other holiday for me, it’s deeply personal, and I think that’s why I like it so much. I’ve celebrated in different states and on different continents, with my family and several time zones away, but as long as I have people, prayer, food, and song, I’m good. This year, I have to work early on the second day of Passover. There’s not enough time to fly back to Kentucky, and I am forgoing my yearly trip to Philly in favor of paying my bills. Instead, you can find me on the couch with my non-Jewish roommates, reading from a haggadah on my iPad, eating Fresh Direct brisket and matzah, and watching The Prince of Egypt. People, prayer, food, and song. Hopefully, they won’t begrudge my belting an off-key “When You Believe.” After all, it’s tradition.


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