When I was 10 I spent a Seder in the Arizona desert, my first away from New Jersey. I know what you’re thinking: the desert, Passover―an anecdotal match made in heaven. And you’d be half right. There were, in fact, some parallels between the story of Moses and my family’s journey to Sedona, a plane trip taken with my parents and maternal grandparents during spring break. Like the Israelites’ 40-day trek, it was the farthest I’d ever traveled, although I went by plane, one that had an in-flight movie selection to boot. (I chose to watch Tim Burton’s Big Fish―fantasy suited a disconnect from the quotidian.)
Arizona is known for the Grand Canyon, of course, and Sedona has an energy field popular with the New Age crowd, but the details that caught my eye as a child were more about happenstance than locations on a tourist map. While I didn’t encounter a burning bush in Red Rock Country, I nevertheless marveled at the MacDonald’s arch―lit green rather than gold to limit light pollution―that guided our rental car like a prophetic beacon through the desert hush.
In addition to the arch, there was the roadside Judaica store where we picked up a few extra items for our family Seder: a box of Streit’s honey cake mix and some Maxwell House Haggadahs. Entering that shop with its array of ritual objects and tchotchkes jolted me with a wave of familiarity, one that I hadn’t expected to find under the Arizona sun. I had been in similar boutiques in South Jersey synagogues but I didn’t expect to feel aware of my Jewishness on this trip outside the space of the Seder. Since we could only take so many pesachdik provisions in our suitcases as we made our Southwest exodus, finding the store was the icing on the (matzo meal) cake. To me, Arizona was less about the Seder itself and more about being able to recognize–and feel–my Jewish identity far from the East Coast.
During my junior year of high school, I celebrated another Passover away from home, this time in Sarasota, Florida, the first Seder after my grandma passed away. Compared to the Arizona vacation, my Sunshine Coast sojourn hinged more on familial traditions than on biblical resonance. Beyond memories of sailing and lazy beachside afternoons, I fondly recall the dishes I cooked with my younger cousin. As we formed matzo balls and fried matzo brie in the kitchen of my grandpa’s girlfriend’s snowbird apartment, I thought back to the comforting rhythms of preparing holiday meals with my grandparents as a kid in New Jersey, of worn bowls and hand-written recipes for kneidlach and stuffed cabbage passed down from generation to generation. And I thought to myself, no matter how far you travel, no distance can temper the flavors of Jewish memory.
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Zoe Miller is Tablet’s editorial intern. Follow her on Twitter here.