‘You are Louis Theroux’ I told my reflection as I placed the black woollen yamaka on my head.
I was brought up Christian. That is to say I was christened and then never practiced any religion whatsoever. Much like the majority of the kids I knew.
Christmas was always the big thing growing up, much less due to Jesus’ origin story than the new videogames that might be waiting for me under the tree. Easter was also a big deal to me as a kid; much less due to Jesus’ demise story than how many chocolate eggs I could stuff down my throat.
Another aspect to the Easter story that fascinated me as a kid was the question: when Jesus comes back to life, is he technically a zombie?
As an adult Christmas is still the big thing, still about the videogames under the tree (even if I do put them there myself now), but Easter is more about having a Friday and Monday off work.
Even so this Easter weekend was a massive departure for me. This Easter weekend I observed the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Passover is celebrated at a Seder; a meal during which everyone basically gets pissed.
Someone reads (the story of the emancipation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery) from a book called a Haggadah and at regular intervals says, ‘Now everyone must drink’. Brilliant. This year I was going to a Seder held at a successful Jewish anaesthetist’s house, and I was to be the only non-Jew present.
Never having been to a bona-fide Seder before, I entered into it with the mindset of an investigative journalist; ‘You are Louis Theroux’ I told my reflection as I placed the black woollen yamaka on my head.
I had the balancing act of trying to be social and conversational whilst at the same time respectful of the ceremony and tradition. To represent us gentile folk in a positive light was my goal for the evening.
As a ‘Christian’ I have pre conceived ideas about religious ceremony. I can’t help but picture half empty churches where everyone is afraid to make the slightest sound, their muffled coughs echoing off the cold walls and threadbare carpets, and where there’s always a child wailing at the back encapsulating the abjectness of it all. Naturally then I was wary of having to endure the same kind of thing at this Seder.
But I needn’t have been concerned. The anaesthetist’s home was a warm place. His jolly, bantering demeanour infected everyone around him and cultivated a loud, boisterous atmosphere. ‘We have a special kind of Jewish torture prepared for you tonight,’ he says to me, ‘we show you all this wonderful food and then make you sit through a long boring story before we let you eat it.’
Except it wasn’t boring. It wasn’t even long; some of the pages of his Haggadah were stuck together meaning he skipped a bit but when someone pointed it out they were shushed so that the wait for the food was shorter.
At a certain point in the story reading duties were shared, passing in a zig-zag across the table. Some of the men read their bits in singsong Hebrew. All the while everyone sipped away at their sweet wine in between the ordained scullings, getting evermore drunk, drop by drop. ‘Now everyone must drink,’ someone says. But I have been the whole time, I think.
I read my bit, ‘…and I passed over you and saw you downtrodden in your blood and I said to you: Through your blood shall you live!’ and everyone laughs. ‘What’s so funny?’ I ask. ‘The way you say blood: blud. That’s the first time anyone’s ever said blud at my Seder’. Ah yes, my northern English accent, I’d forgotten I was thousands of miles from home.
There’s a bit in the story about God inflicting ten wicked plagues on the Egyptians for being cruel bastards to the Israelites. ‘But the thing is about Jews,’ someone says to me, ‘is that we feel guilty about this. So we sing a song to make us feel better about it.’ And they do. It’s this joyous, bouncing rhythm, sung in Hebrew that clarifies to God that; look we appreciate you freeing us and everything, but you know, you didn’t really need to do all that stuff to them. Just saying. But thanks. ‘Jewish guilt,’ someone else says with a knowing nod.
At a certain point you have to wash your hands and after doing so you’re not supposed to talk until a prayer is recited and you’ve eaten a bit of unleavened bread called matzah. This is literally the only quiet moment of the night and even this is peppered with the sound of people humming to each other, communicating any way they can within the boundaries, indeed stretching the boundaries, having fun with them.
These are people with a deep and poignant connection to their traditions but who are not constrained by them.
Back home it was Good Friday and kids across the nation would’ve been gorging themselves on chocolate eggs but it was easy to forget this, such was the welcome I’d been given by the anaesthetist and his family. By the end of the evening I had become inadvertently and pleasantly immersed in the whole thing.
The following evening another Seder took place. This is a party that lasts all week, eight days in fact. Jokes about the quality of Passover food flew around; jokes about Jewishness in general flew around. ‘You know bacon goes really well on matzah,’ the host for this second night jests, earning a hearty laugh from his guests and a smiling reproach from his wife.
Everyone got drunk again. Everyone ate too much; another ‘tradition’ of Passover so I’m told. Everyone laughed.
The only thing Christians do that is remotely like a Seder is Christmas dinner. We ‘eat, drink and be merry’ as is ordained by the TV ads but there is something authentic about this Passover stuff that our Christmas can’t quite reproduce.
Do yourself a favour next Easter and bag yourself an invite to a Seder to really kick your long weekend off.