Passover’s Perennial No-Show
At the Seder, we open the door for Elijah. As a child, I thought he’d actually appear. Then I grew up, and anticipation faded into resignation.
My father’s walk back to the table from the front door was slow, steady. “Well, let’s proceed,” Papa said, looking to my mother and turning a page in the Haggadah. But our disappointment in God and in peace and in destiny didn’t have time to settle—the younger kids had finished preparing their annual Passover performance.
They came trumpeting down the stairs, holding boxes of stage props, shouting for the grown-ups to be quiet already—they were just about to start their Pesach show. Years before, as the eldest, I had been the director of the holiday performances at family gatherings; I’d write the script several days in advance, boss the younger kids around, and scold them for not remembering their lines. Now I sat and smiled demurely at the adults’ table, but it felt like yesterday that I had stood there, too, in biblical robes, stepping carefully through an imaginary Red Sea into a Promised Land.
The adults laughed as my cousins and sisters performed their antics. Here were Moses and Pharaoh, in clothing made of bed sheets, badminton rackets serving as shepherds’ staffs. Two blue blankets were the Red Sea; the smallest cousins walked between them into freedom. And then, the conclusion, a look to the future: My youngest sister came out, riding a toy horse and wearing a long white beard—the Messiah.
We clapped and cheered on the little theater troupe. What a clever performance! And then we finished the Seder. I smiled weakly and sang the conclusion in Hebrew, the same words Jews have been singing for thousands of years: Next year in Jerusalem. I realized, with discomfort, that I was tired of it.
“Such a lovely phrase,” my great-aunt remarked. Yes, lovely. These enlightened Kiev-born engineers and Kharkov-born teachers, physicists and doctors, were now sitting at a Seder table in New Jersey, yearning for a bearded Messiah to come. They were suddenly somber when they remembered Jerusalem and her white limestone alleys. As I looked around, I noticed that there was something heartrending in their faces.
At 17, that Seder night, I went through the Diaspora Jew’s rite of passage. I silently understood the duality of anticipation and resignation; how to whisper breathily about the promise of peace, while glancing back at Jewish history, amused with my own naïveté. I learned to say “Jerusalem” with a millennia-old sigh and faraway eyes, just as my ancestors had always done. And when the relatives sat and drank tea, talked and laughed—not about Elijah or the future, but perhaps about politics and history and anecdotes, as they had always done, I learned to join them, behind a door left only slightly ajar.
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Rabbinical reasoning behind our pre-Passover search for hametz leads Jews through a theological maze, but everything is illuminated at the end