In an ever-secularising world, I often wonder what it is about Jewish festivals that allow them to remain so constant and significant. To an outsider, an occasion such as Pesach might seem strange and weirdly culty; “Yeah, you drink four cups of wine but only when we say you’re allowed. This paste represents the cement that we used to build the pyramids, and this salt water is the tears of the Jews. And you have to eat it.”
Whilst this ritual seems almost like a bizarre game of Dungeons and Dragons, or the Eucharist gone wrong, it is something familiar and even anticipated to many Jews across the religious spectrum. So, why do the Rabbi and the non-religious anticipate Pesach with the same vigour? The answer lies in Judaism’s experiential nature; Pesach is about what you can see, hear, taste, touch and smell. It is about eating horseradish until your face goes scarlet, feeling the crunch of matzah between your fingers as you finally locate the Afikomen between the cushions of the sofa, hearing the stifled sobs of cousins who swore they found it first. The squeals of indignation from the relative who is cast, all too appropriately, as the ‘simple son’. For me, most of all, it is the soaring first notes to Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz’s magnum opus soundtrack, of perhaps the most criminally underrated animated picture of all time; ‘The Prince of Egypt’.
Sofas pushed against the wall in a line to make way for the seder table, we sit wide eyed year after year in this makeshift cinema, often mixing-bowl-in-lap and brandishing a potato peeler, or folding origami frogs out of little scraps of green paper. The spectacle that often accompanies a child’s first encounter with biblical tales, such as the parting of the Red Sea, is replicated. For me, this is a film that is almost on par with ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in how it evokes such a sense of community and comradery, a reminder of the tininess of our people against the vastness of the wider world. This is a feeling that can be created as deftly in the home as it can in any synagogue. Being Jewish is not just about being deeply spiritual or pious, removing every trace of chametz from your house, or really meaning it when you say, “next year in Jerusalem.”
So then, what is it about? As a lifelong attendant of Jewish education, a Religious Studies A-Level student and a devout member of Habonim Dror, Judaism is something that pervades my everyday life, however I still feel unequipped to answer this question. My attempt to explain the importance of Pesach in particular is as follows; it tells the story of the birth of a nation out of oppression and against terrible odds, and highlights the necessity of teaching your children about their heritage. The Jewish emphasis upon family communication and the passing down of tradition and custom are what enable the community to continue to thrive with retained integrity. Judaism is sensory, portable and wholly accessible to whomever may desire to partake, hence it being so difficult for historical oppressors to rid of us by destroying our texts and places of worship alone. Wherever we may be, next year and beyond, tradition will follow, should we choose to take it with us. And, if Habo play their cards right, maybe next year I will be in Jerusalem?