Gut Instinct: Passover and Out

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Even at six, I sensed something was squirrely with celebrating Easter.

During that prepubescent period, I resided in cosmopolitan Huntington, West Virginia, attending an elementary school ringed in barbed wire—whether officials kept students in or out, I’ll never learn. Come weekends, I’d head to our small synagogue for Sunday school, a scholarly endeavor that largely consisted of watching Yentl and Fiddler on the Roof. It was a pop-cultural introduction to Judaism, further muddied by my clan’s insistence on celebrating certain Christian holidays.

See, my ma was born with goyish blood. Upon marrying my pa, a smart-alecky Bronx Jew, she converted to the chosen people. But old habits and traditions die hard. Christmas fell first. My father, reared on crisp latkes and brisket slow-cooked in salty onion soup, would’ve burst a blood vessel if an evergreen stood in our living room.

“Santa doesn’t bring Jewish children gifts,” my father said, ever the fact-driven

Easter lingered. There’s a telling Polaroid of me at five, wearing my short-shorts soccer uniform, being clutched by a costumed Easter bunny to rival Donnie Darko’s demonic rabbit. In the image I’m grinning toothily, my wide, hazel eyes and pursed lips speaking volumes: What God did I offend to end up

Every April, driven by similar biological urges that drive salmon to swim upstream, my mother purchased rabbit-shape chocolates, gooey Cadbury eggs and a rainbow of jelly beans—all nestled in a wicker basket laden with plastic grass. At first, I relished this candy bonanza. It was Halloween in April, minus dressing as Chewbacca, ringing strangers’ doorbells and moaning, like a sad walrus, “arrrarroowwrrerr.” Candy is the easiest path to a kid’s heart—even the most inept parent knows that. Eventually, though, even sugar-clouded brains clear.

One early spring afternoon, in my sixth year of breathing, my mother was preparing an Easter goodie basket in the laundry room. It was a familiar scene, but my synagogue-conditioned brain now saw this as strange, like a cat on a leash. I posed my mom this logic-based riddle: “Mom, if we’re Jewish, why do we celebrate Easter?

“Don’t you like celebrating Easter?” she asked, arranging the eggs just so.

“No,” I said, my contrarian tactics already well honed.

“Well, if you don’t want to, we don’t have to celebrate it anymore,” she said, likely relieved that I didn’t ask her a tougher question: Why do bunnies, painted eggs and industrially produced chocolate symbolize Christ’s resurrection?

My family’s Easter forays ended the ensuing year, as did our West Virginia residency. We embarked to industrial Dayton, Ohio, where we celebrated Judeo-appropriate spring holidays such as Passover. It’s a fete with real appeal for this horror-movie addict. The wrathful highlights: To convince the Pharaoh to free enslaved Israelites, God sent down 10 gruesome plagues. Water turned to blood. Frogs and wild beasts overran the land. Hail pummeled homes. Buzzing locusts swarmed. And, most malevolently, Egyptians’ firstborn males (humans and livestock alike) were killed; the Israelites painted their doors with lamb’s blood so avenging angels “passed over”—also a nifty trick to frighten off fervent Jehovah’s Witnesses.

During the eight-day celebration, Jews ditch leavened bread for bone-dry matzoth and hold structured feasts called seders. I won’t drone on about a seder’s symbolic culinary foibles (eating bitter herbs to represent harsh treatment, dipping vegetables into salt water to evoke tears, etc.) and instead make this salient point: If I continued celebrating Easter, I could’ve become a different kind of -holic, one crazed for brown foodstuffs that melt in my mouth, not in my hands. But in lieu of candy, Passover requires, nay demands celebrants signify slaves’ struggle by consuming four glorious, sloshing glasses of wine.

In my early childhood, my father poured my siblings and me grape juice. He and my mom sipped fine syrah or cabernet sauvignon—molar-achingly sweet Manischewitz was unwelcome in our abode. But as eight begat nine, and 13 gave way to 14 and 16, my Welch’s was eventually replaced by adults’ favorite fermented-grape beverage.

“I think you’re old enough now to have a small glass,” my dad said, like a dealer offering that first tempting taste. He decanted a couple inches of purple liquid into my goblet. At the seder-mandated times I took a sip, a tiny one, then a bigger one. I savored the warm, boozy bloom coursing through my veins, staining my smiling lips red. While prayers and dinner continued—now novel and exciting—I relished taste after taste of a new and, befitting Passover, altogether more dangerous form of freedom.

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