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Saturday, April 1, 2000

A Passover Dream


The other night I dreamt of a Seder long gone. My restless sleep carried me back to the days of my childhood. There we sat around the candle lit table, white napkins, unleavened squares, white-hot horseradish, cool red wine. And the rowdy group of us gathered there to laugh and remember, to pay tribute, and to argue and even doubt. In the midst of that foggy dream sat my uncles and aunts, sneaking bits of matzo before it was time, recalling lost family members and their antics at Seders of old. My cousins and I sat at the far end of the table. In a dreamlike way we smirked at the nostalgia of the older folks, watching my Papa hold up the bread of affliction and tell our story. It was a good dream, and now that I'm the Papa I'm beginning to understand most of it.

When we sang our slightly off-tune, out of sync Dayenu in my dream, I came to realize that, although I joined in and sang out, I did not feel that it really was "Enough," for me, that is. My Jewish journey had been but a short hop at that point. I felt little connection to the Israelites wandering in the desert. Heck, I was more interested in the unfolding season at Wrigley Field than the journeys of our people. But on a long winter's night there's ample time for the mind to play. With no regard to my desires, my dream dragged on, like a blender mixing family memories with the Haggadah's stories of our people in the wilderness.

My rebellion and rejection of the simple connectors of that holiday became my walls of identity. I was ME, different than any who had journeyed before. In dreamlike fashion, I drifted away from my family scene, still smelling the Seder smells, and hearing the Pesach melodies. I'd become a participant at a distance, a half-hearted, gefilte-fish-eating skeptic. I remember thinking that this night was not so different from ALL other nights. There had been Seders for centuries. Other doubters sat with their families wondering how they fit into the grand scheme of our wandering ancestors. Maybe that was my connection. I was heir to the Jewish throne of alienation, bound to all those who had come before me who had sat on the sidelines, unable to take the step and get out there and play in the Jewish People game. Thrashing about, as my dream became nightmare-ish, visitors began to appear.

My visitors looked like any of the other kids in the neighborhood, one of them, the girl, had a bright knowing gleam in her eye. The other two were just regular kids, a simple boy and then the very quiet one, who seemed to just be tagging along. Staring me down, my bright-eyed female all-of-a-sudden companion challenged me. "Don't you realize that God has given us these laws and observances?" she scolded. I defensively countered with, "What do you mean 'Us?' Maybe God commanded you, but certainly not me! And, how can you be so sure anyway?"
                                                        
"Why, look in you heart." She said, "Do you think your life starts with you?"
With that, a light flashed and a fog descended. We were floating on a cloud. A breeze began to blow, dispersing the cloud. My hostess, her companions, and I had been transported to a barren and rocky place. With an outstretched hand she presented a most unusual scene. I witnessed a line of people following an old man through the desert. They looked disheveled. I heard their grumbling, saw the fear in their eyes. The old man stopped. He turned to speak to them.  "My dear ones," he said. "I know that you are weary, and frightened. We have left all that is familiar to us, our homes, our friends, our old ways. Be strengthened in the understanding that it is the One God who has commanded us to build new lives in a new land. Know that because we have faith, because we are brave, because we have each other, we will endure. We are the birth of a new People. Our new homeland lies before us. God protects us. Because we have begun this journey, the world will never be the same. Our ancestors will remember what we have done. We shall be the inspiration for future generations of Jews in their own journeys. So begins the greatness that will be; a free people, living in their own land, speaking their own language, in covenant with the One God."

I tossed in my sleep. I wanted to shout out to that band of ragged pioneers. "We do indeed remember the words that God spoke to you." I wanted to show them all that I understood the words "Lech Lecha," and that those words still held meaning to millions of other Jews, maybe not me, to this very day. I wanted so in my heart, in the midst of my dream, to encourage them. My frustration was enormous and my hosts sensed my discomfort. The smart one understood.

"You're beginning to get it. Hold that feeling," she instructed. "This is just our first journey. There are others to see."

The simple one asked, "Where to next?" The other one followed quietly along.
The wind kicked up. Our magic fog-carpet floated us along, depositing us in a large auditorium. This was a familiar place. I tossed and snored and looked around. Slowly, while the lights were dimming, I realized I was in the Chicago Theatre. The movie was about to begin. I'd been there so many times with my mother, I could smell the popcorn right there in my bedroom. The plush seats and ornate sculptures on the walls of this old, magnificent theater comforted me. Turning to my hosts to ask just what the heck was going on, the wise one signaled me to "Shush and watch the screen." But as dreams would have it, the movie reels were out of order. It didn't start at the beginning.
                                                          
We saw a ragged bunch of European Jews walking slowly across the screen, pushing carts filled with belongings. They sang of Anetevka, their village, as off they marched to unknown destinations in new worlds. I remembered the saga of Tevye the dairyman. He had problems with his daughters Tzeitle and Hodle. I remembered Golde and her dreams, and the tailor, Motle. I remembered the Pogroms. "But what has any of this to do with me, I thought? It's a movie. Ancient history. After all I'm dreaming of the Chicago Theater." Now the most incredible dreamlike thing happened. Tevye turns to talk to the Jews behind him, but instead he’s looking right at me.

"Nu, nudnik?" He said. "You think you're not part of this poor journey? Why this is the very community that gave birth to your great grandparents. Our trouble, our experience, our faith and nostalgia are the cornerstones of your Jewish life. Like you, I sat at my family's Seder table and heard the story of our Peoples' flight from Egypt. I never expected to lead my own community from a kind of slavery to a hope of freedom in new lands. We lived in a little Jewish town…not exactly a suburb, but a very Jewish place. When Shabbat or Passover, or any other holiday descended on our village, everyone shared the warmth of the holiday, every family, every person. We could hear the family in the next house singing Dayenu, a few moments before or after we sang it. We were each other's echoes. We wore the warmth of those communal feelings like a suit of armor to protect ourselves from the outside world. But the armor proved thin. It couldn't keep us safe.  As you can see," he continued, "My family and I are forced to venture out into the unknown. Who knows what will be? One has a cousin in New York, another, an uncle on a Kibbutz in the Galilee. But what we do know is that this is not the first time our People have journeyed forth from their homes. What we do know is that we have faith in our God and the love of our families. Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Maimonides, many generations of Jews, no different from this one, have learned to face the trials and anxieties of challenges like ours. You'll face them too, in your own way, in your own time. God only knows what will happen to us …and he's not telling. But whatever happens to the poor Jews of Anetevka, the story of our journey will be etched into the identity of your generation."

Then Tevye turned his eyes to heaven. "Dear God. You have made me a poor milkman, but one who now understands the anguish of Abraham, the dilemmas of Moses. Give me the strength to lead my family as they led theirs…and if, along the way, we find some nice new Shtetle… like Shaker Heights or New Rochelle…even Skokie…well, who would mind?"
                                                    
The old velvet curtain that once opened and closed the vaudeville shows of its time descended over the screen, ending this historic, if nightmarish performance. My restless sleep had carried me over centuries and continents. But my hosts, the smart, the not so smart, and the quiet one were hardly done with me. Slowly they turned, inch-by-inch, it seemed, they raised their eyes to mine, silently questioning, "Now do you see your own connection to the journeys of our People?"

I must admit the skeptic in me had weakened. Even I was a sucker for the Sunrise, Sunset nostalgia of our more recent past. But there still lurked a question or two in my This-is-the-twenty-first-century, and I'm-a-modern-Jew mentality. "I can relate to the journeys you've shown me. I can see how they have built the character of my generation. I can appreciate being a link in the chain of this tradition," I admitted. They flashed a glimmer of a victory smile in my direction. "But what journeys are REALLY mine?" I still wondered. "Where are the drama and the challenge, and the hope of my generation's future? Do we have a 'Lech Lecha,' a Sinai, an Anetevka of our own?"

And so I returned in my dream to that Seder of my youth. There my grandfather sat during the meal and told us of his younger days, coming to America. I heard him tell of the orthodox lifestyle his family had maintained in the "Old country," and how America became his religion. The Yiddish, and the Jewish, he explained, was the old way, the greenhorn's way. He wanted to be "An American."   We sat and listened to him admit to leaving all his Jewish practices behind him in Europe. He laughed as he recalled that even his name changed when he passed through the gates of Ellis Island. They couldn't pronounce his Jewish sounding name and he was happy to take on the new, Americanized pronunciation as his introduction to the New World. My grandfather's eyes always twinkled when he told this story.

"So Nu? How come we sit together tonight at a Seder table, if I left our Judaism on the boat?" he asked. We all knew, but would wait for him to answer his own question. "It wasn't that America could be our religion," he'd come to realize. "We needed to be Jews even in America. But what kind of Jews? That was the question." My grandfather was the wisest man I ever knew. He was the bridge from Anetevka to my Seder table. Now I remembered how he taught us. "We needed a new Judaism. Special (sp.) made for the modern world." He said. "That's how I came to talk to the Reform Rabbi at our synagogue, and that's why we are sitting at the Seder table tonight."

When we opened the Haggadas in my dream that night, I had a minor revelation. We read of the four children, the wise, the simple, and one unable to ask. My dreamy hosts described to a tea. "But what of the wicked one?" I thought. "What happened to the one who says "You," and not "We?"  Well, there I was, to round out the foursome. And so the lesson was well taught.

I'd come a long way during that restless night. I'd dreamt of a Seder long gone, and the hardships and faith of our People. It was a good dream, one of my ancestors and my grandfather and me. It was a dream of our journeys, not someone else's.

Now that I'm the Papa, I'm beginning to understand.