essays kaddish in two-part harmony tzaddik stories

bondage, sephardi style

I have heard this bit every single Pesach of my life when my mother has been present.  And when she wasn’t, I’ve taken it upon myself to tell it myself (albeit a short short version).  All my stories are the short short version, in case you haven’t noticed.  Mrs Tzaddik is much better on detail.  So, to her, I am sure, I will not do this piece any justice at all.

The tzaddik, surprisingly enough, was always right-up-to-the-minute with his Pesach parables.  He brought to our seder table the suffering of human populations  in the most tangible way, right out of the most recent New York Times articles of contemporary conflicts.  Pesach, for him, was a yearly reminder of the link between ancient and contemporary cruelties and oppressions.  And he would generate a lively discussion on the troubles of the world.  What I loved most was his compassion for Arab and Palestinian suffering that would frequently suffuse our Pesach discussions.

For Mrs Tzaddik, it was always a bit more abstract.  Less the actual physical conflicts on the global stage, and more the larger, more elevated point.

Maror has always been without question Mrs Tzaddik’s favorite part of the Passover Seder imperative.

On the Sephardi seder plate there are some differences from the Ashkenazi offerings.  Our charoset for example, so puts that apple muck to shame that it deserves a post of it’s own.

But maror.  This you wouldn’t expect.  It’s not just the what of Sephardi maror, it’s the why of it.

Sephardim use lettuce as our ‘bitter herb.’

Sounds ridiculous, I know.  When there are all those wonderful Ashkenazi horseradish variations that could put hair on your chest.  But no.  We use lettuce.  But not just any lettuce.  It has to be Romaine.  And you have to chew it very very slowly.  Gobbling it down misses the larger lesson.

The Sephardim, says Mrs Tzaddik, teach a lesson the Ashkenazim do not know.  The Ashkenazim think that the bitter herbs represent the bitterness of forced hard labor — slavery — that the Jews withstood in Mitzrayim.

Well, that’s just crap, she says, using a quite different set of words to make her point.  And Ashkenazi maror is really way too fast.  One taste, and you feel the bitterness of bondage.

Well, that’s not how it goes, she says.

Bondage is not bitter.  Bondage is very very sweet.

With bondage, all the hard work of making decisions for yourself are taken from you.  You can follow orders — and following orders is easy.  With following orders, you relinquish your responsibility to your task master.  It’s not your fault, whatever happens.  Bondage is easy.

More than this, she says, when first it starts, people don’t recognize the bitterness of their predicament.  Here’s where the Romaine comes into play.  When we first take a bite of Romaine it tastes sweet.  We think, this is great.  I can do this.  I even like it.  But if you stick with it, the longer you keep it in your mouth and keep chewing, the more bitter it gets.  If we find bondage bitter, this notion took a very long time to realize.  It’s a lot like marriage, in other words.

We think we’re okay.  Then something tastes a little off, but we ignore it.  In bondage, we don’t realize the terrible trap until very late in the game, if at all.  And then — and this is the point — it’s just easier to stay.

We swallow the Romaine.  We don’t spit it out.

No.  Says Mrs Tzaddik.  Maror does not stand for the bitterness of bondage.  It stands for the bitterness of freedom.

Freedom is hard.  Freedom requires recognizing bondage and taking action.   It requires a kind of bravery that is more rare in the world than you might think.  Taking action.  Making that decision to say enough is enough.

Think about Egypt today.  On this very Pesach.  It’s the Mitzrim themselves, and not the Hebrews, who are clamoring bravely for freedom  The Tunisians.  The Libyans.  Yemenis.  And on and on.  And it’s hard.  And it’s a terrible and dangerous sacrifice, this quest for freedom.  And like chewing that Romaine lettuce as maror, it’s taken bloody forever to seek the road to freedom.

So.  Review.

Bondage.  We don’t even notice it.  And then, when we get a glimmer, we don’t do much about it.  Until, at long last, we taste just how bitter it really is.  And by then we’ve gotten used to it.  It’s just easier that way.

The really bitter part is freedom.  Freedom requires hard choices and courage.  It requires agency and activism.  A sense of rightness and righteousness.  Being able to put a name on exactly what’s wrong.  Knowing what’s needed and what’s in the best interests of all.  Freedom means more than rocking the boat — it requires tipping the boat over or jumping out and swimming to shore.  Freedom is recognizing an entirely new paradigm, a new vision.  And working to make it happen.

Exhausting.  I know.

All that in a bite of Romaine at the Sephardi Passover Seder.   And that’s just the maror.




By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

5 replies on “bondage, sephardi style”

The first time your mother said that, it took my breath away and I never forgot it. After that, the idea of the ‘sweetness of slavery’ informed many a provocative discussion with my students.

Your Pesach celebrations: the wisdom of your father presiding over the table, bringing in the real questions of our time; extracting thoughts from the youngest, gently guiding us through our avoidant surface giddiness to soulful depth. Your mother, hilariously arguing with him over the fine points, like some Jewish sitcom. “No! That’s not what it meant at all…” Writing this now, I am nearly in tears over the poignancy. For me, being part of this ancient ritual — which is my heritage too in my body but not in my upbringing — these times felt oddly congruent, like coming home. Thank you for sharing your family; for letting me also be, in a way, one of the Tzaddik’s wide-eyed children. That is even worth being tormented a bit (like another daughter) by your wise, imperious mother.

Yes, almost in tears. Neither of them will be at Pesach this year. Just as they were not present last year. My dad is gone gone. And my mom is just not well enough to come. And so — that leaves me. To try to make Pesach really stand out as a time to think about all this. To carry on. But I’m not either of my parents. I get grouchy about the Haggadah. I fight with it, struggle with it. (Very Jewish of me, I know). The one think I cannot do is simply read the thing and say okay, let’s eat.

This year is a miraculous year for Pesach — when the Egyptians finally arose with one voice and one purpose in the pursuit of freedom. I don’t have much hope that they will achieve any more than an oscillation of elites. But still. This is a miracle. And Pesach is exactly the time/place to contemplate miracles such as these. And commemorate them.

I love you, Tinaleh, sister of mine. Reborn daughter to my mother, yes, torment and all. This was her call. I simply picked up the phone. I am so happy to break matzah with you this and every Pesach.

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