Alan, Black Jew, Carl, CMU, East Liberty, Easter Sunday, Hypocrisy, Identity, Jeff, Judaism, Manischewitz, Mogen David, Passover, Pesach, PhD Dissertation, Point Breeze, Raw Horseradish, Redemption, Seder, Self-Reflection, Spencer Foundation, Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship Program, Susannah, Whiteness
Like most of my posts, this is a story of irony, sarcasm and identity. It may be a bit out of time, since the first night of Passover and Easter already occurred last weekend. But it’s still Passover week for those who do more than eat matzos and chicken liver paste with a glass of Manischewitz on the first night.
In all, I have been present, prayed, dined, wined and whined at four Passover Seders. Three of them were during the Hebrew-Israelite years, 1982, 1983, and 1984. All of them involved a roasted leg of lamb, bitter herbs, and chewing down raw horseradish while chugging super-sweet wine to chase away the five-alarm-fire in my mouth, throat and stomach. Endless praises to Yahweh, too many exhortations of Moses, and awkward snorts toward being strangers among strangers in a strange and oppressive land. That was my Passover experience in a lifetime and timeline determined by my Mom and idiot stepfather Maurice, before I turned to Christianity, before I gave up on the idea that I could be from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel.
My fourth Seder, though, came eleven years later, in mid-April 1995. I’d been a Christian for as long as I hadn’t commemorated Passover as part of my religious birthright. I wasn’t sure about the idea of attending this celebration, as it wasn’t even at sundown on that year’s first day of Passover, Saturday, April 15. My friend Carl and his/our respective Carnegie Mellon history grad school mates Alan, Jeff, and Susannah were holding their little Seder on Easter Sunday, April 16, as the first two rented a house together in the Point Breeze (really, the White end of Homewood-Brushton, which asked for a race-based divorce in 1961) neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
They had invited me a week earlier, a few days before my Spencer Foundation Fellowship application went from no-go to a go. I thought about saying no, but generally, I didn’t do anything on Easter Sundays, anyway. Even as a member of Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, the one Sunday I didn’t attend church was Easter Sunday. It the holiest of days, like Passover, and for so many people, the only day all year they attended church. For so many, it was show-off-my-new-spring-clothes day, not Jesus’ Resurrection Day. I didn’t like the overcrowded-ness that came with an Easter Sunday or Christmas service. It smacked of hypocrisy, my own included.
So I decided for one Sunday to attend a Seder prepared by folks who’d only known themselves as Jews both ethnically and religion-wise their whole lives. Except the stern, orthodox, full of bitterness and tears, joy and triumph that were the Seders of my Hebrew-Israelite days was a lighthearted affair. It was as unorthodox a Seder as could’ve expected, with lots of conversation about grad school, about my dissertation fellowship, about life and sports and music in general. No raw horseradish, but lots of chicken liver paste. No Manischewitz, but some Mogen David, along with more traditional red and white wines, and an empty seat for Elijah.
Carl and Alan, of course, expressed surprise when I did ask questions or make comments. Like about the kosher-ness of eating mashed-up chicken livers, or the differences in taste between the traditional Pesach beverages, or how peanut butter and jelly went well with matzo crackers. Alan, about to be a one-year-and-done CMU history doctoral student, did ask me, “Where did you learn about Passover?” I said, “This is my fourth Seder.”
I knew better than to fully unlock everything I knew about Pesach, Judaism, Jewish history, the Ten Lost Tribes, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and the racial privileging that I had observed growing up in Mount Vernon between “real” Jews and us “weird” (read “not White”) Jews. For a few hours, though, I had to confront a part of my past that I’d all but locked away by the beginning of ’90. Not just locked away. I’d taken everything from between April 13, ’81 and July 23, ’89, wrapped it in Saran Wrap, put that in a Ziploc bag, thrown it in a safe, locked it, and then built a force field to keep out intruders.
I was relieved when I finally left Carl and Alan’s Easter Sunday/Passover Seder and walked back to my apartment in East Liberty. I wasn’t ready yet to take a look back at what I lived through during the Reagan Years. I was all about moving forward, and the previous days and weeks of dissertation research followed by a major-league dissertation fellowship made me feel like the completely different person that I believed I actually was. At least ninety-five percent of the time.