Many years ago the Victorian Education Department would grant leave with pay to teachers who wished to observe religious festivals. Hardly any employees would have requested time off in respect of Diwali or Eid al-Fitr, so the regulation only covered a small handful, mostly Jews.
One year I scandalised an observant friend by suggesting that, since I wasn’t religiously inclined, I might ask for an alternative day off to do something other than visit the synagogue – maybe do a little shopping or go to the cinema.
“You simply can’t do that! For one thing it’s making a mockery of our faith, and for another it’s forgetting how hard our community lobbied for the right to observe our traditions,” she said.
Of course it’s different today, and time off for praying involves a loss of pay and there are limitations as to how often one may do this.
I’ve continued along this unorthodox path, not out of cussedness, but because for me family considerations trump religiosity every time.
We are a very diverse group: Jewish, part-Jewish, non-Jewish. The heritage resonates very strongly with all of us, but observances are rather in the ‘take it or leave it’ basket. We never miss being together each week for Friday night Shabbat dinner, but after the blessings for the candles, the wine and the challah, the talk is either cricket or footy. I don’t think any of us know traditional Sabbath songs. The point of it all is the family connecting, week after week after week; until I die – and then we shall see.
However, the festivals pose a whole set of different problems. Most of my children and grandchildren work: not in the kosher butcher or grocery store, and only one is involved with a Jewish-run community organisation. The others are out there in the big, sprawling Australian workforce: they get paid for fixing motorbikes, taking your cash at supermarket check-outs and writing computer programs. And two of them, my youngest son and his wife, are bakers, working for a large French bakery that provides bread and patisserie 24/7 x 365 days all over Australia.
I believe tolerance and flexibility are keynotes to family harmony. Waiting for the precise moment of sunset before lighting Shabbat candles is not my way; if I have to hold dinner until the bakers, tired and floury, arrive at the table, then the candles will remain unlit, the wine in the kiddush cups un-drunk and the challah will stay hidden beneath its embroidered cloth.
This year Passover and Easter happen to coincide; doesn’t always happen, everything depends upon the moon, and no, I can’t explain it for you. However, in 2019 (or 5779) the first seder night falls on Good Friday.
“We’ll be flat out with hot cross buns, Mum, we just can’t come to a heavy seder night and then get up at 5.0am next day to go to work again. Couldn’t we just give the whole thing a miss for one year?”
And I ponder the problem. In previous years I’ve simply moved our Passover celebration to a different, more accommodating day. It’s the thought that counts; as long as we tell the Exodus story it really doesn’t signify which day we choose – does it?
However, this year my options are diminished by the bakers’ rosters.
“There are special communal seder dinners organised by synagogues and old-age homes -” and my youngest son sees the horror and contempt in my eyes.
“That’s for people who have no family!” I tell him. “You are all here in Melbourne with me.”
Compromise is of course the only way. I write an email to each family member setting out my agenda for first night Pesach.
“I’ll mock up a little tableau of the Reed Sea with Texta to make the water blue, sand for the desert and some greenery from the garden to represent the vegetation along the banks of the Nile. And if I can find the little Lego figures as I did last year, we can line them up all ready for the waves to part and for the Children of Israel to walk across to the other side. Eli is only six, going on seven, and he will like it.
I’ll prepare a seder plate with all the symbolic items and I’ll remind you of what each one signifies. Say ten minutes.
All my children and grandchildren will sing Ma Nishtanah (Why is this night different?) n.b. translation and transliteration attached hereto. Say ten minutes.
The four question: we shall tell the stories of the four children, the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one and the one who is too young to ask. Say ten minutes.
We can end with a reminder about tolerance and freedom, ‘once we were slaves but now we are free’ and the piece about welcoming the stranger, ‘let all who are hungry come and eat’ … Say five minutes.
And then we can have dinner.”
Afikomen is a Greek word that means ‘that which comes after’ or dessert that concludes the meal. A piece of matzo carefully hidden in a bag must be found before the reading of the Haggadah can be resumed. Some smart rabbi in the past must have realised that kids get very fidgety and searching for the little bag is just the ticket. And of course there’s a prize to be bargained for; one dollar is the going rate. My grandson has made me an Afikomen bag at school, so we’d better remember that ceremony too.
The years are passing very quickly now and maybe next year we shall have a proper seder again: tell the stories, read the poetry, sing the songs and stumble over the Hebrew as we usually do. And then maybe not. I think it’s time I gave each one of them their own copy of the Haggadah, rather than keep them in a pile on my bookshelf. Time for responsibility.