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Monday, April 21, 2008

Passing on Passover

Tell your children of it and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

As it turns out, I'm Jewish. This past Saturday night marked the beginning of my favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar: Passover. One of the primary reasons that I love Passover is that it is a holiday centered around storytelling.

On the first night of Passover each year, Jews gather to have a ceremonial feast called a seder, during which a story is retold, taken largely from the section of the bible called Exodus. It is a story of liberation, beginning with the Jews living as slaves in the land of Egypt and ends with their dangerous late night escape to freedom.

Particular importance is placed on telling the story as if it were experienced first hand ourselves, reliving the pain and bitterness of slavery, and the joy of redemption. We tell the story as if it happened to us. This is about when I was a slave in Egypt. Personalizing the story makes us appreciative of the freedom we enjoy, and grateful to our ancestors who came before us.

As Jews have survived persecution through the years, storytelling has only increased in importance. Memories of the Nazi holocaust are carefully recorded and repeated with the hope that passing it on to each generation will keep us from allowing history to repeat itself.

While storytelling in this way is not unique to Judaism, it is worthy of our attention, especially as writers. Oral traditions - stories passed on from generation to generation - are really how writing began.

What's beautiful about traditional storytelling, like the story of Passover, is that it reminds us of and connects us to who we once were. Whether that's in the context of a religion, a country, or even a family. Telling stories of our past reminds us that we are all a part of an ongoing story.

The quote I began the post with is written on the opening page of my grandfather's memoir, his self-published life story about his childhood in a Polish shtetl, fleeing the Nazi holocaust, being imprisoned in Russia, his marriage to my grandmother, their journey to Israel, and eventually settling in the United States. In many ways, this story that he has told, and preserved, is the beginning of my story. In many ways, his story is my story.


stu said...

Ah yes, passover. A friend of mine spent much of Monday night trying to find something that was all right for her to eat, it being about the only festival she takes seriously.

One slight thought about oral history. It might reflect on who people were, but like all history, it reflects at least as much on who people are when they're telling it.

eloise said...

What a beautiful post. Passover is one of my favorite holidays too, but I never thought about it that way. Thanks for sharing your insight. It is a lovely way of thinking not only about Passover, but of history in general.

Stephanie said...

Stu, you're quite right, as usual. When I first read your comment, I immediately went back to check my post, because I was surprised I hadn't said that myself. Apparently, I thought it, but didn't quite get it in there. Thanks for bringing it up!

Eloise, thank you!