A Gentile’s Passover Memory

You could not help but notice Batya. Her long, tousled auburn hair and freckled nose shouted Irish, and being so myself, I thought she looked more the part. My own raven locks befitted her ancestry, and we later joked about a reversal of roles. Maybe, I was the one found among the rushes, abandoned by a desperate Jewish mother. The one thing we shared were eyes the color of a summer lawn. We felt that bonded us as sisters.

Batya’s family consisted of her brothers, Hillel and Yosef, both handsome, dark, and worthy of numerous crushes, her father, Aharon, and mother, Devorah. The two boys were aloof in a studied way, their heads buried in various books which paid off in two successful careers as a lawyer for Hillel, and a neurosurgeon for Yosef. Batya’s mother and father were warm, gracious people who took an immediate interest in you with a barrage of questions. “What are you studying this year? How do you like seventh grade?” One summer I met her grandmother, Ester, a formidable petite woman with an iron gaze, sparkling eyes, and a mysterious tongue called Yiddish.

I remember talk of Pesach in the household and the intriguing custom of frenetic spring cleaning where every bit of crumb was swept clean. Of course, I was never invited to the Seder meal, because I was a Gentile, which at the time I did not realize applied to me. I thought I was Baptist. My red-haired Jewish friend would not have me live forever in ignorance, however. She broke tradition, and probably more than a few rules, and hosted our own private Seder meal unbeknown to her family or mine. The memory lives on with me this day.

The food was different, if you could call it food, not the traditional romaine lettuce for bitter herbs, rather a handful of dandelions picked from the side garden. We did manage a boiled egg and a bone—not from a lamb. In fact, it resembled closely a chicken leg from KFC. The wine was another disappointment, being not the true fruit of the vine, but Welch’s grape juice. When I attended Christian Seder meals in later years, I experienced the same sinking feeling when grape juice was substituted and a profound disappointment that the Lord’s Supper at the Baptist Church offered the same. Sacred Scriptures most certainly list wine in both instances. That is a fact no prohibitionist can dispute.

Our little Seder meal might have been on the meager, improvised side, but the words Batya spoke were authentic as gold. She read the Haggadah. With all of its drama of the Exodus pouring over me like water in the desert, the words had a mesmerizing effect on my twelve year old imagination. Many years hence, I happened to view an illuminated 14th century Haggadah in a museum. There were other manuscripts, Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, texts familiar and dear to me, but somehow the Haggadah echoed Batya’s youthful voice articulating ancient words. To my surprise, I discovered there were many forms of the Haggadah (and just as many forms of Judaism), including special ones for Orthodox Jewish Passover, Reform Jewish Passover, and even a Humanistic Jewish Passover Haggadah. Splintering from the fold is not unique to Christianity.

With an uncharacteristic seriousness, Batya placed two candles before us. She lit them carefully and said, “Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the lights of the Festivals.” Then she added another blessing, “Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and allowed us to reach this season.” Her face illumined by the soft flame took on an angelic quality, and I felt chills on my spine.

She tossed two large pillows down beside us and instructed me to eat our meal leaning to the left. “Why,” I asked in Gentile fashion. “To symbolize freedom,” she said.

We proceeded through our makeshift Seder beginning with the Kiddush, the blessing over the first cup of wine, and sanctifying of the holiness of the day. Our meal proceeded with the cleansing of the hands, the eating of the greens, the breaking of the Matzoh, the tasting of bitter herbs, and consuming the Aphikomon. After we completed our meal, Batya sang the Hallel, a selection from the Psalms, in her sweet, clear voice. “Blessed is He, who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Exodus had taken on a new meaning for me beyond the Sunday School pictures of Moses and his staff. I read over the essential verses of Chapter 12, where the Mitzvah, the Commandment, to the Jewish people to keep the Passover is contained. Late into the evening, I poured over the Torah, or Pentateuch, revisiting stories I knew from Bible studies and discovering a richness that previously escaped me.

My thoughts returned again and again to the Zeroah, or lamb bone. Vivid images of bright smears of blood applied to door posts by hyssop branches washed across my mind. The Lord “passing over” and protecting his people. Batya explained to me that the sacrificial lamb was no longer consumed since the Temple was destroyed.

Remembering my own lesson I needed to prepare for Sunday, I left the world of the old and flipped to the Gospel of Matthew. “Blessed be He who comes in the name of the Lord,” I read, and I settled in for a long read, of course, reclining to the left.