Voices from the field

My First Pesach in Israel

By Lori Sagarin

At this season, wherever Jews gather the talk, it turns to Passover. It is, according to a recent Jewish population study, the most celebrated holiday in American Jewish life, even surpassing Chanukkah. Recently, at just such a gathering, a group of us began sharing our memories of holidays gone by...

One friend spoke of an Arizona Seder in the desert replete with sand in the charoset and bleating havianas in the distance. I shared memories of the year my father was whisked from the seder on a snow mobile to deliver a baby. And there was the story of my then 4 year old daughter who, when asked by the Gan director, “How do you know when Passover is coming?” responded, “because it is snowing!”

Indeed, I have lots of Passover memories emblematic of the counterintuitive weather us Midwesterners often experience during this spring festival. Maybe it’s in part because of my Midwestern background that, when asked to recall memories of Passover, I immediately go to my first Passover in Israel.

It was 1977 and I had been in Israel since early summer as an ulpan student on Kibbutz Matzuba. While learning Hebrew and volunteering, I became friendly with a group of young Israelis who were in Nachal. Garin Re’em (Rishonim el Matzuba) was fulfilling their army service on my kibbutz and, being close to their age, it was natural for me to connect with them. Ariella had wild afro-like hair, dark olive skin and beautiful green eyes. Her English was weak and our friendship was conducted solely in Hebrew. She was my first “Hebrew” friend. As Passover approached, Ariella invited me home to Holon to share the holiday with her family.

Walking into her aunt’s home, the table looked different but vaguely familiar. The ornately decorated kiseh eliyahu (Elijah’s chair) stood out among the other mismatched chairs. The seder plate had all of the recognizable spaces but they were overflowing with different elements. The smells coming from the kitchen were completely foreign, more piquant than anything I had known but wonderful nonetheless. The seder began with chanting in Hebrew, Moroccan Arabic and French as the story of our Exodus was recounted. The traditions at the seder were new and some honestly seemed a bit bizarre. When one of Ariella’s uncles started shaking onions over my head I felt a bit like I had been cast in a Disney movie and somehow ended up in a Fellini film.

The seder went on with lots of noise, lots of tumult and most importantly, lots of love. Dish after dish emerged from the tiny Israeli kitchen version of a clown car. I was urged to try each one and felt it would be rude to decline. I burned the hell out of the inside of my mouth on the gefilte fish…quite literally stuffed inside the fish… eyes and all… and savored the sweet dishes filled with dried fruit and honey.

I never again was able to join Ariella’s family for Pesach, but 35 years later we have shared weddings, births and even a pumpkin carving together. Each year as I sit down for my own seder, I recall that first Israeli seder and my personal relationship with Israel that began on that Northern Galilee kibbutz and in that crowded Holon apartment.

Chag sameach!