#blogExodus 6: Tell

#blogExodus 5775 topics“Tell me a story.”

That’s what we’re saying when we sit down at the Seder table and open up our haggadot. Whom are we asking to tell us that story, though? A Seder is not a recital, with a performer on stage and a quiescent, politely attentive audience there to listen only. Passivity has never been the watchword of the evening at any Passover Seder I have attended.

If we want to hear the story of our ancestors’ liberation from Mitzrayim, from their narrow places, we must listen to our own voices telling it. Sure, other guests will take turns reading this section or that aloud, in confident Hebrew or soft English, so our vocal cords don’t wear out before the last cup of wine and the final verse of “Chad Gadya.” Even when it’s not our turn to speak so the whole table can hear us, we could be as invested as if we are telling the tale. When it’s our turn to read a passage, we could try to hear our own voices with the anticipation of a child for her favorite bedtime story. We are tellers and listeners at every moment.

At the Seder, we are each of us asking something within ourselves to tell us a story, and that inner something obliges.

#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.


#blogExodus 5: Hide

#blogExodus 5775 topicsHave you ever taken steps to hide your religious identity? Was it because your physical safety was at stake if the wrong people found out?

My husband is a Naval Aviator. Due to the location of forward logistics sites for his fleet squadron’s detachments, he chose to keep the fact that he was a Jew hidden while he was deployed. I talked with him a little about his experience with flying under the religious radar.

Thanks for this exclusive interview, honey.

[laughs] You’re welcome.

When was the first time you considered that you might have to hide that you were Jewish?

The mighty C-2A Greyhound, also known as the COD for its Carrier Onboard Delivery mission. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Gregory A. Pickett II/Released)

The mighty C-2A Greyhound, also known as the COD for its Carrier Onboard Delivery mission. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Gregory A. Pickett II/Released)

It really was preparing for a COD deployment… realizing that my base of operations wasn’t going to be with a bunch of other military personnel, it was going to be living out in town in an Arab country, not on a secure base. It was just a regular hotel room. It’s sort of a different thing than being on a forward operating base where you and all of your closest friends are carrying rifles. We were guests in a country that is by and large friendly, but the fact is there were some people there who might have actual, serious, no-kidding problems with Jews. I had no way of knowing who might hold these feelings and who might take it far enough to act on them if they found out I was Jewish, so I kept it quiet.

What were the steps you took to obscure your religious identity?

I got a set of dog tags that said “No Preference” instead of “Jewish.” I went through the luggage I planned to bring and made sure that I hadn’t left a kippah or other piece of Judaica in there… I kind of sanitized it. And when I gave out the FPO address to friends and family, I asked them not to send me anything for the Jewish holidays.

That last part bothered me more than I thought it would. It seemed like everyone else had all these cute ideas for care packages for Easter or whatever, and it didn’t even occur to them to worry about it.

Well, probably it was assumed that if service members were American, they were Christian. That didn’t necessarily add any additional animosity on top of just being American.

In fact, I had a friend who got sick and was stuck out in a hospital out in town. He’s Christian, but he happened to have the middle name “Abraham.” He was asked point-blank by his [local] nurses, “Is that the Muslim Abraham or the Jewish Abraham?” He definitely got the sense that the “wrong” answer would have created problems.

Did you feel like you were missing out by hiding your religion while deployed?

It felt like I kind of turned off being Jewish for a while. It’s not that I didn’t get to celebrate Passover, but I had to get myself into a safe place — either inside the gates aboard the American base or, as I did for my first deployment, out to the aircraft carrier at sea. Even something as simple as bringing my own kippah — I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring a prayer book or anything. I honestly don’t know how often I would have cracked it open, but there was no question, it wasn’t an option.

It wasn’t strictly about my safety. It might have made the people around me bigger targets, as well.

It did make me sad, because I thought about some of our forebears who went and fought in WWII and asked themselves the same question, Most of them kept their Jewish preference on their dog tags. But, the threat that they faced was a little different. I was in a friendly country, just with the understanding that a terrorist-type attack on Americans could happen. The ones who went overseas in WWII knew that they were going into hostile territory, and their plan was to get into a fight.

So, would it have been easier if you were on the carrier the whole time?

For the sake of getting to have a Jewish identity while deployed? Yes. I would have been able to bring whatever Jewish items into my stateroom that I needed, and I would have been surrounded by friends.

I should hasten to add that everything else about living out in town was way better. There were many wonderful restaurants, which meant that when I wasn’t flying, I got to eat delicious meals instead of being stuck with Boat food. There were great businesses run by really nice folks. I enjoyed talking with them, but they didn’t need to know I was Jewish.

How did you feel when you got home (other than thrilled to see me, of course) and could be “out” as a Jew again?

Getting home really made me appreciate the wisdom of the founders of this country. Separation of church and state helped to make a space where people of a wide variety of beliefs actually could live together in harmony, and not by one group completely hiding who they were to fit in with the rest.

Amen. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective with me and letting me put it up on the blog.

You’re welcome.

#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

Sprouting Spearmint

#blogExodus 4: Grow

#blogExodus 5775 topicsSpring is the season of sprouting, of tender new growth stretching toward the sun after dreaming beneath the earth through the darker, colder months. I think we are past the danger of a hard freeze here in the Florida panhandle, and all around us are blossoms and soft new leaves. Also, the weeds we call a lawn are greening right up, so the yard looks more alive than it has in months.

Tobacco Hornworm

Voracious little buggers, and devilishly hard to spot.

An experienced gardener I am not, but I managed to grow some cherry tomatoes and herbs out on the patio last year. There is something deeply satisfying about eating something we picked right outside our own back door, and I look forward to snipping basil and thyme for our cooking throughout the coming spring and summer. We will probably skip the tomatoes this year, as the constant struggle against hungry tobacco hornworms got pretty old last year. The daily search for gigantic freaking caterpillars as long and thick as my finger (I leave it to the reader to guess which finger) that still somehow manage to camouflage themselves almost perfectly in the foliage is something I can cheerfully do without.

Herbs, though, are low-maintenance and give excellent culinary bang for the effort. I was delighted to see that, in spite of a winter’s complete and utter neglect, my pots of spearmint and thyme survived well enough to put out a few tentative shoots for a new season. I may be a suburban modern for whom growing edible plants is a hobby rather than a subsistence necessity, but I still delight in the feeling of connection to the agrarian rhythms to which our forebears shaped their lives.

Sprouting Spearmint

Sprouting spearmint, making me dream of future pitchers of iced tea.

#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

#blogExodus 3: Cleanse

#blogExodus 5775 topicsI ought to be well on my way to cleansing my house of all traces of chametz, leavened grain products, but I’m almost assuredly not as far along in my religiously mandated crumb search-and-destroy mission as I could be. Better turn in my balabusta credentials before someone notices that I’d rather bake bread than obsess over the fact that enjoying such might leave a bit of floury evidence thereof in odd corners.

These days I’m more concerned about clearing out as much unnecessary stuff from our house as we possibly can before our next move. In over eight years of marriage and four different duty stations, we have managed to accumulate all manner of things we don’t need anymore: paperwork, old school notebooks, outdated clothes, small appliances we received for wedding gifts and never used, and hobby items we haven’t touched in years. I suspect the whole mass puffs up, like bread dough rising to peek over the top of its oiled bowl, when given time and inattention. (“Just throw it in the office for now. we’ll figure out where to put it later.” Surprise! We never figure out a better place for it.)

We have made some progress in clearing out a few things, such as a big pile of electronics that needed recycling, and it does feel good to reclaim the space — both mental and physical — it had ballooned up to fill. We have a ways to go before we’re ready for the mini-exodus that is military move, but given that it’s going to happen sometime between this Passover and the next, it’s not too early to look around with an eye toward cleaning out that which no longer serves.

#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

#blogExodus 2: Bless

#blogExodus 5775 topicsA couple weekends ago, I was doing rather a lot of the opposite of blessing. My husband’s squadron had decided that it was sending a gaggle of instructors and students out of town in an effort to find better flying weather. The issue is that the decision was made on Friday that the trip would begin on Monday, which meant that there was no time during the workweek for my husband and his colleagues to make the necessary lodging and other logistical arrangements.

Our weekend was interrupted over and over again by the buzzing of my husband’s cell phone as everyone tried to bring the plans together by text message. Each new message took me further along the path from “mildly annoyed” to “irked” to “cursing the OPSO, the squadron, and the Navy with remarkable relish and far-ranging creativity.” By Sunday night, I was irritated with my husband for having the gall not to join me in my excoriation of his superiors and minute, trenchant analysis of their shortcomings both personal and professional.

“You know,” I finally grated at him, “sometimes I just want to hear that you think the situation sucks, too.”

He continued folding laundry for a few beats before speaking. “I’m not thrilled about how this is playing out, either, but there is a limit to how much I can let myself think that it sucks and still be able to do my job.”

In that moment, understanding broke through my annoyance, and I was ashamed. What I had been telling myself was companionable commiseration over a crappy set of circumstances was being received as a shove off balance. I had, in turn, misinterpreted my husband’s need to maintain an even keel as a frustrating lack of acknowledgement of my efforts to vent “with” him, never mind that he never expressed a desire to vent in the first place.

Now I have an understanding that I didn’t have before, thus proving that there is still more to learn even after almost a decade of having a significant other on active duty in the Navy. Next time we run into one of these not-uncommon military inconveniences, I’ll know better, and that insight will feel like a blessing.

Baruch atah, Adonai, chonein hadaat. Blessed are You, Adonai, who graces us with knowledge.

#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.