Passover in Detroit

by Chavi

Written for my school newspaper and published here.

Home is Detroit. More specifically, a suburb right outside it, just past the long, empty stretches and vacant buildings visible from the freeway, past the soiled gas stations that are mostly out of order, and past 8 mile, where a Metro PCS is hawking cell phone service for only $40 a month.

Spring hasn’t come yet to Detroit, despite a brief heat spell a few weeks back. The trees are still bare, waiting nakedly to show off their green, and the skies are still gray over the one-story house where I grew up.

Spring break conveniently fell on the same week as Passover this year, so I was able to spend the Passover holiday with my family.

Over the course of the eight days of Passover, Jews commemorate their exodus from Egypt, where they were slaves to the Egyptian population thousands of years ago, with festive meals, ancient rituals, and special prayers.

In my case, there were also family members to fight with and reunite with.

Family for me, as it does for many, brings about mixed feelings. I’ve changed since I’ve moved to Los Angeles. Seeing the familiar house, watching my father make himself a cup of coffee, hearing my mother’s laugh, listening to my brothers say the things I used to say and no longer believe–I’m suddenly reminded that I might be more a stranger here than I’d like to admit.

The last day of Passover, I’m in the synagogue listening to the priestly blessing, when the priests bless the congregation in the name of G-d. In the men’s section, the men stand in clusters with their children, each family covered with a prayer shawl.

I remember the first time I was too old to stand beneath my father’s prayer shawl and stayed upstairs on the balcony with my mother. From that vantage point, all I saw were the white shawls dotted throughout the red-carpeted sanctuary, moving to the tune of the prayers. I thought they looked like angels.

Standing there as an adult next to my mother, the familiar words roll easily and I stride through most of the prayers this way, letting their familiarity take over, and listening to it take me over.

Passover is not supposed to be just a commemoration of a historical event, but an opportunity to relive those events.

Everyone has something that is holding them back—bad habits, insecurities, a sense of entitlement, a feeling of resentment. Maybe it’s a wound, a fear, guilt, or self-talk they’ve repeated so many times they’re now trapped by their own identity.

Passover is the chance to both escape and embrace opportunities. It’s a time of rebirth and freedom from the past.

I’ve heard this message, or a version of it, so many times that I usually ignore it. The promises of rebirth are tantalizing but ultimately disappointing. I will always be me, with my genes, my insecurities, my family drama, and my emotional baggage.

I will always be the ugliest of the four sisters, the awkward kid who was too smart for her own good. I will always be the one who wanted too badly to please, who grew up with the values of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic household, and who is the middle child of nine.

So who am I fooling, trying to believe that I can break through?

But then the voice of innocence intercedes again, begging me not to be so cynical, and to believe in the future. And for a moment, while the cantor chants, and my mother in the seat beside me adjusts her glasses, I do.

When the prayers are over I say hello to all my mother’s friends who have always seemed old to me. Now they seem older.

That afternoon, my father and I sit at the dining-room table, mulling over a 200-year-old text and discussing free choice. He sits across from me holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand, his seventh or eighth that day. He says that a humble person recognizes that even his accomplishments are thanks to G-d.

If you can’t take credit when you do the right thing, then you can’t be accountable when you do the wrong thing, I counter.

We go back and forth for a while, evenly and rationally, without getting very far. What I truly want is for him to assure me that people can change, that we are not predetermined, and that the Passover message of breaking through limitations is true. I never do get him to say it.

But back in Los Angeles, I’m not ready to let Passover go just yet. I know that despite the layers of frustration and resignation, I really do believe in the power of change. If not, how did I get here, where the sun is rarely discouraged and the people say “amaaazing,” from the corner house in a wilting suburb of Detroit?

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