As tonight is the first night of the Pesach (passover) holiday, I thought that I would try and recall some memories of the festival over the years.
Don't remember much about my baby days
But I've been told
We used to live on Willow in the Garden district,
down by the Sugar Bowl
(Randy Newman, "New Orleans wins the war". As Newman points out, Willow is not in the Garden district; this was a family joke).
I don't remember much about the Pesach service ("Seder") and the following week in the years when I was a child, except for the fact that I loved the special biscuits that my mother would make. I suppose that for me as a child, Pesach was the taste of matza along with coconut and chocolate cakes.
The first distinctive Pesach that I can remember was when I was nearly 13, in 1969. That year in school, we had been given French penfriends (those were the days when people wrote letters) which greatly improved our fumbling French. The letters were half in French and half in English, for of course, our correspondents weren't interested in learning their mother tongue but instead wanted to improve their English. My school was an all boys school, as most of the direct grant schools were at the time, so we were all mildly excited to learn that our penfriends were from a normal, mixed school. I was one of the lucky ones who received a girl penfriend. Not only that: she was also Jewish, which was a remarkable coincidence. Of course, I don't remember now, but I'm fairly sure that there were more Jewish pupils at her school than there were at mine (myself and one other boy with whom I didn't get along with much, despite his being my age).
That same year, along with some of my schoolmates, I took part in an exchange scheme with French schoolchildren; we went to France for three weeks during the Easter holidays and they came to stay with us for three weeks in the summer. As usual, Pesach fell during the holidays, meaning that I would be in France for the Seder. As a good Jewish boy there was no way that I was going to stay with this French family, who went snail hunting every Saturday and church praying every Sunday. So it was arranged that I would stay with my French penfriend for the first few days of Pesach, and of course celebrate the Seder with them.
I am ashamed to say that I remember nothing of the Seder itself, although this is not too surprising, as basically it's the same every year, all over the world. We are commanded to tell our children the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and how every Jew should see himself as one of those who left Egypt. The liturgy is almost part of our DNA and most of us know significant portions by heart, having heard it so often. What I do remember is that I found this family much more congenial than the family of my exchange scheme, and was very unhappy to leave. I have a memory of hiding from everyone, trying to delay the inevitable and so disappointed at having to return. This incident coloured the rest of my stay in France and inevitably cast its shadow when the exchangee came to stay in the summer. I also lost contact with that nice Jewish girl Natalie (see: after over 40 years, I still remember her name, whereas I can't remember his).
Outside of Israel, the Seder is celebrated on two consecutive nights whereas in Israel it is celebrated only once. In my youth, we had the first seder at home and celebrated the second as a communal seder with most of the Jewish community in Cardiff or Bristol. Fast forward a few years, and I receive an invitation from the Habonim group in Birmingham to celebrate a seder with them. Our youth movement had a tradition (of which I was unaware at the time) of holding a third seder, in which they would read from a haggada (the Pesah liturgy) which they had compiled themselves. Like the official haggada, the first part occupied itself with the struggle of Jews: against Pharoah or against Hitler or Stalin, whereas the second part was more fun and contained songs and jokes. I must have travelled on the train from Bristol to Birmingham to get there and returned the same evening. I enjoyed myself very much and repeated the experience the following year (this must have been 1972/3).
Again I don't remember the Seder of 1974, when I was in Israel for a year, but it must have been very significant for me because the Seder became very important; as far as I was concerned, it was the most important of all the festivals.
In 1975, I was in London, and celebrated the first seder with relatives. Presumably some family invited me to their second seder, and we, as Habonim, celebrated the third seder together. That was the year that British Habonim hosted a European Seminar, in which youth from all over Europe (I remember French and Dutch groups, there may have been more) came together for a week. The first few days of the Seminar coincided with the last few days of Pesach, so we had to order kosher food and make sure that all the cooking utensils where "kosher for Pesach". I remember washing most of those cooking utensils.... The food was ordered from an Israeli supplier, but they gave us containers of food along with stickers saying "kosher for Pesach" - after the seminar, we stuck leftover labels on anything we could find, such as the bread basket.
That seminar was held in a college situated in Hatfield; as I had become enamoured of the music of Hatfield and the North a few months earlier, this location was quite special for me. It should be noted that the group actually had nothing to do with Hatfield itself; the joke was that as so many roadsigns from London were labelled "Hatfield and the North", they were getting free publicity. As I say, a joke.
Normally, Pesach coincided with the Easter holidays [this is because the Last Supper was actually the Seder night], so I was normally at home during the festival, and my eating habits were not subject to public scrutiny. This didn't happen in 1976, and I remember eating my matza sandwiches under the questioning eyes of my fellow students. 1976 was also the year when I managed to go to five different Seders: the first two were traditional, and the other three were third sedarim organised by different Habonim groups in London.
During the years 1978-1989, I lived on Kibbutz Mishmar David, and almost every year celebrated the Seder there. Most years I would be one of the musicians (and some years, the only musician) who would accompany the songs throughout the service, so my memories tend to revolve around the music and not the atmosphere. In 1989, we had decided to leave Mishmar David, and the final six months there were very sad. We (my wife and baby daughter) spent the Seder night with my parents who were then living in Rehovot. It was a very quiet and sad Seder, with my wife and I sharing reading the Haggada and singing the songs.
In 1990, we celebrated Pesach for the first time in our new kibbutz, Tzora. The kibbutz held the seder (with maybe 1000 participants) in a huge tent, and I was one of the few musicians who played. Everything about Pesach is tradition, and Tzora had its own traditions about Pesach, mainly regarding the songs, some of which were sung to different tunes than to those that I knew. Each song is sung every year by the same person, which is ok if you're one of those people, and not so ok if you're not. There have been years when I have accompanied all the songs (sometimes the sole musician), but in the past few years I have been relegated to playing only one song, a lovely little number with very strong harmonies and chord changes on almost every beat (most of the other songs are harmonically simple, although some are a bit weird).
I wrote earlier that Pesach had become for me the most important festival of the Jewish calendar. That changed in 2002. My mother had been taken into hospital a few days before Pesach that year; the doctors seemed optimistic about her prognosis, but I wasn't. I visited her on the day before Pesach (the equivalent to today) and spent several hours with her. She was unable to speak (for reasons which were never established), and we communicated by me talking and she writing notes. I still have those notes though have only rarely looked at them since. My father and I came home at about three or four in the afternoon, and I remember sitting down at the computer in order to write a eulogy. I wanted to do it while I was in a balanced mental state and not when I was grieving. We went to the Seder in the evening; I played the one song which I play every year, and tried to keep a happy face even though I was churning inside. When we came home at night, I phoned the hospital to check on my mother's progress. They said that she was sleeping peacefully.
The next morning, my father and I went again to the hospital; there wasn't much traffic on the roads and we probably arrived at around 9 am. We went to my mother's room; she was sleeping and we could hear her breathe. We sat, waiting for her to wake up (I was reading David Lodge's "Paradise News"). Her breathing got slower and slower until there was no breathing. My father looked at me, and I went to summon a doctor who ushered us out of the room while she examined my mother. After a few minutes she called us back in and said that she was sorry, but that my mother was dead.
[two paragraphs excised, not because I wrote about this before but because it's too painful]
Anyway, since then, Pesach has been happiness mingled with sadness. In a few hours, we will go to my mother's grave and say kaddish (the mourning prayer). Then we will change our clothes and go to the tent in order to remember how our ancestors left Egypt. I will play my song. We will come home and eat matza for a week.