This is a story I told that was adapted in Alan King's book "Matzoh Balls for Breakfast and other memories of Growing Up Jewish" and also used in the introduction of my own book, "Telling the Story: A Passover Haggadah Explained."
My family was not very religious.
I had a "Tijuana Bar Mitzvah." I was given a crash course education with Hebrew lessons less than a year before my Bar Mitzvah. I remember thinking at the time that it was a meaningless exercise and in a way it was because it had little meaning in my family's life. We knew we were Jews but never went to synagogue and did not celebrate the holidays.
One year I decided I would fast on Yom Kippor. I remember my Grandmother trying to feed me her home made Matzoh Ball soup—her sense of Jewish identity. My Grandmother was a free-thinker, rebelling against the orothodoxy of her own Mother and like many of her generation, happy to assimilate into the great American culture.
My Grandmother told me a story that her father, Louis, used to tell about God giving the Jewish people religion. "It’s really not such a hard religion," God said. "Here, I'll write it down for you. You try it for a while and if it doesn’t suit you, bring it back." So the Jewish people tried it and found it was too hard. For days, caravan upon caravan stretched across the desert carrying haftorahs, mezzuahs, yarmulkes, prayer shawls, commentaries and prayer books. God looked out at the caravans that stretched to the horizon and said, "What's all this? All I wrote down for you were ten simple commandments."
Of course, I later realized there is more to Judaism than ten commandments. The full story is actually many, many stories-rich with history, irony, and lessons for our own lives.
And stories shape our lives.
When I was in college I began taking classes in Jewish literature. I read the Yiddish poets and short story writers and read the later American Jewish writers. They all had one thing in common: they were writing secular works and were rebelling against the strict orthodoxies of their religion....but the values of their religion kept creeping into everything they wrote.
Then I found the Hassidic story that really had resonance for me: Years ago, a Rabbi in Eastern Europe saw that his village was about to be destroyed in a pogrom; he went to a certain part of the forest, lit a fire, and said a special prayer and his village was spared. A generation later, another threat was upon the village and another Rabbi went to the same place in the forest and lit a fire...but he did not know the prayer... Still later, another Rabbi, in order to save his people once more, went into the forest. He did not know the prayer-or even how to light the fire. Finally, there was another threat and another Rabbi. He was unable to light the fire, he did not know the prayer; And he couldn’t even find the place in the forest."
As I read that story, I realized that with each passing generation, my own family had lost more and more of what had gone before and I was about to be the last link of that chain. I realized that without a deliberate effort-my Jewish heritage would be so diminished that soon...no one in my family would be able to say the prayers, light the fire, or find our place in the forest.
Years later, I promised my kids-twins-that when they came to synagogue for services, I would never just drop them off, but would join them in the sanctuary. At their b’nai mitzvah on Rosh Kodesh, I watched them read Hebrew and chant from the Torah.
Rosh Kodesh celebrates a new month in the Jewish calendar...and a reminder to us all that life is fleeting. We are taught to use each precious moment wisely so that no day will pass without bringing us closer to some worthy achievement. I reminded my children that a mitzvah is a commandment...but the word also means a good work-an ethical deed. As my own children entered into adulthood, I hoped they would do well..and asked each of them to also do good.
Barry Louis Polisar, Silver Spring, Maryland
I was brought up in a traditional Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. The entire family lived in one building at one time. My Grandmother had a one bedroom apartment in the building, and every holiday, a huge table would be set up in her living room to accommodate everyone. I still cannot understand how she did it. She spent a week cooking. I will never forget her stuffed prunes for Passover. They were huge, were stuffed with nuts and other fruits, and dipped in honey. Her matzo balls were fantastic...light and fluffy. The chicken soup that they went into was delicious. We were so many people, I don't know how she accomplished what she did.
While my Mother was alive, she always made Holiday dinners. When I married, I continued the tradition in my home for the Family. Our children did learn tradition.
Now that I am an old woman, I realize all the enjoyment that we had through the years and the closeness of the Families.
Unfortunately, as time goes on, each generation seems to do less. The children do not live near their parents, the grandchildren are scattered all over the country, if not, out of the country, and we are getting too old to travel too often to them.
We live in a warm climate, and cannot withstand the harshness of the cooler climates. We belong to a Club here, but, do not go on Holidays, because we miss the children even more. Only when some of them can be with us, do we fuss.
However, life goes on. Our children have their lives to live, and so do our Grandchildren. If they are happy, so are we!
Phyllis, Boca Raton, Florida
I was raised catholic by my parents, however as I grew older I found the Jewish way to make so much more sense. The last four years my family and myself have created a new tradition or I should say we have shared in another family's Jewish holiday traditions.
There are two people that came into my life four years ago whom have made a huge impact in my life. I enjoy every day I have them in my life. The holidays I spend with them are ones that will stick with me the rest of my life. Passover dinner and traditions are the most beautiful traditions I have ever seen.
From listening to the readings by Bill, singing by Myrna, the wine, the food. The biggest thing that sticks in my heart is to watch Bill as he reads the words of his forefathers struggles and fight. Bill gets choked up and a tear comes to his eye, he takes a deep breath and his chest strong with pride he reads on. I get such a feeling in my soul and say to myself his ancestors would be so proud of Bill's honor and pride he has in his traditions.
It is on the Jewish holidays I truly feel the meaning of family and hope to continue these traditions with my family for years to come.
Annmarie, Scottsdale, ARIZONA
Each year, my family has a huge Passover Seder. There are usually over forty people, with at least four generations in the room. My Grandfather of blessed memory, and his two brothers would lead us through the Haggadah, while Mother and her cousins, and I and my cousins, would whisper to each other and catch up on the year. We always have a great time, and the wine flows freely. As my Grandmother says "The book says to lift the glass, but it doesn't say if you should drink or not! So I do, just to be safe." Each year one of my aunts gets up and shouts over the whispered conversations "You're all too noisy! Show some respect for those leading the Seder," but she never stays angry for long. We all just love being together.
Anyway, one year the wine flowed a little too freely, and my Mother gets hot when she has too much wine, and with 57 people in a room together, who wouldn't. Anyway, it gets to the part where we open the door for Elijah, and Mom offered to go get the door. So we're all standing there really solemn, singing Elijahu Ha-Navie, and then, just at the end of the beautiful song, when there was the first moment of silence all night... my Mom rang the doorbell. For about a quarter of a second, we were having so much fun and we were all so happy from spending time together, that we actually believed Elijah had come to join us. And then, in that next quarter of a second, we started to laugh so hard that our sides hurt.
This is the year that we started offering grape juice at the table, and insisted that the homes that we hosted Seder in had air conditioning.
Michelle, Arlington, Virginia
The largest large-mouth bass in the lake
My grandfather, Max, had a twin, a Chesterfield cigarette hanging at all times with a slightly wet end. He loved to go fresh water fishing at the waterworks reservoir known as Lake Smith. This was in the late 40’s. He was a good fisherman in fact I understand that at one time he held the record for the largest large-mouth bass in the lake.
Once caught, Max would run a line through the gills of the hapless fish and secure the line to the boat. In this way the fish stayed in the water until it was time to leave. Then, the day’s fishing was done, he would rush the fish home and put it in the bathtub. Some of my early memories were of coming up the stairs to the bathroom and encountering a five or six pound creature long enough and wide enough to engulf my arm.
One thing for sure, when we had fish, it was FRESH, just like in some of the Asian markets, today. I have always assumed that this practice had its origins in his town Poland.
Robert, Tucson, Arizona
The Frisco Kid
The most beloved movie in our family is "The Frisco Kid", starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford. Wilder -- who as you may know, is Jewish -- plays a rabbi who has to get from Poland to San Francisco to bring a Torah to a synogogue and become their rabbi. Harrison Ford (who, in real life, has a Jewish parent as I recall) plays the cowboy who volunteers to get him there.
If you haven't seen it, you can check out the details here:
Marvin, San Francisco, CA