Sunday 4 April 2010

Pesach in Exile

One of the things that I enjoy most about living in Israel is the experience of the chagim and the holidays here. In particular, I enjoy experiencing the chagim of Pesach (Passover) and Succot (Tabernacles) in Israel. The weather at that time of year is usually good as it is between the heat of the summer and the cool of the winter. Children and adults can be seen making trips out to enjoy the good weather and the holiday atmosphere. These two holidays are both week-long holidays that involve people making changes to their everyday lives to observe the holidays. Pesach requires a change of the kitchen to ensure that no crumb of leaven is consumed, and Succot involves the outdoor living in the Succot (tabernacles) that are constructed for the holiday. It is interesting to note that religious as well as secular people get involved in observing these holidays. Even those who are not religious will not be seen eating bread or leaven during the Pesach holiday.

This year, I travelled with my family to South Africa to celebrate a barmitzvah and for Pesach. It was the first time in many years that I was not in Israel for the Pesach holiday. To be with our families, and for our children to experience some time with their grandparents and other members of their extended family in their home environment was truly wonderful. We received fantastic hospitality and were treated like royalty during the time of our visit. We especially appreciate the efforts of our families to give us food that would allow us to celebrate Pesach as much as possible like home in Israel, while also giving us a South African eating extravaganza.

When going around South Africa, I felt a little like a fish out of water from a Jewish perspective. The feeling that I had during the time of Pesach in South Africa took me back more than 30 years, and reminded me of the feeling that I had during my childhood years over the time of the Jewish holidays. It was a similar feeling that I experienced when living in London, when trying to instil some Jewish values in my children when trying to bring the Jewish holidays to them. I guess that it is the same feeling that most Jews living outside of Israel will experience when celebrating Jewish holidays. The feeling is one of feeling a real chag at home, whilst trying to create an artificial environment outside of the home to continue the celebration of the chag. The celebration and the chag is so real when you are in the shul (synagogue) or in the home where the celebration is taking place. When venturing outdoors, however, all feelings of the celebration are suddenly ceased, and life outside is completely different from life inside. There are two completely different worlds which seem to be totally disconnected from each other. I had forgotten how this felt until these emotions were renewed over the course of the past week.

Upon commencing my trip back to Israel and upon my arrival back in Israel on the eve of the second chag of Pesach, I could feel that I was back to my more familiar holiday atmosphere. The feeling of Pesach is everywhere. It started when we got into the aeroplane where big signs assured all passengers that all food was kosher for Pesach. It was pervasive in the airport where people seemed to be rushing around readying themselves for the chag, and the quiet on the roads indicated that most Israelis were either still at their holiday destinations or arranging their homes for the holiday. Supermarkets were happy busy places with everybody ensuring that they have all that is required for the chag. This was a much more familiar feeling, and one which I learned to live with immediately upon arrival in Israel and have continued to love over the past 12 years. My wife was able to make all required arrangements within a very short time for our chag dinner.

There was no need to search out the Pesach foods in the supermarket, or to have to explain to people that we are celebrating something that they are not. There was no issue about whether there was still stock of the Pesach goods that we needed - this was all that the supermarkets had. All have the same feeling, and are celebrating the same celebration. Even those homes which may not be observing the religious laws of Pesach will not be able to avoid celebrating Pesach along with the rest of the nation. It is a feeling that I feel so privileged to have the honour to experience each Shabbat and each time we celebrate a chag.

There are those who believe that there is some value in forcing people to seek out their Jewish identity when living in the diaspora. It causes them to learn a little more about the religious observances, and draws them closer to the community. Failure to do so would essentially assimilate them into the non-Jewish environment in which they live. While this contention may be true and has been proven correct in a number of cases, I believe the opposite to be true in the most part. I believe that living in an environment that is entirely Jewish, and in which you are allowed to celebrate the holiday on the streets and in public areas as well as in your homes is much better for Jewish continuity. Too many people fall into the trap of not seeking out their Jewish identity, and therefore become like everybody else. It seems to be much easier for Jews in the diaspora not to make the effort to have a Jewish home. Assimilation statistics in the USA alone are testament to the number of Jews being lost to the religion because of this.

I continue to admire those Jews living in the diaspora who make significant efforts, and go to huge lengths to ensure that their children and families having the feeling of Judaism in their homes despite what is happening on the street outside. For me, however, arriving home earlier today and feeling Pesach in everything that we did made me feel so good to be back in Israel. Having experienced both sides of the coin, there is no doubt where my choice lies. There can be no greater joy for me than celebrating the Jewish holiday in the Jewish homeland.

Chag sameach and a good Pesach to all. Next year in Jerusalem!

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