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Divine Providence, Rhode Island
A Passover reflection on traditions and transitions
And when we depart from thy friendly protection
And boldly launch out upon life’s stormy main
We’ll oft look behind us with grateful affection
And live our bright college days over again.
— James Andrews DeWolf,
lyrics to the Brown University Alma Mater
There’s something about Passover that always makes me get philosophical.
I’m not a particularly religious Jew, or even at all a religious Jew, but the story of the Exodus never fails to resonate with me with its prescient commentaries on the modern world. In 2020, we were all learning what it was like to live through an Old Testament-style plague as the country shut down for COVID-19 shortly before our Zoom Seder. The following spring, the holiday coincided with the advent of the U.S.’ general-public vaccine rollout, giving us a chance to experience a sort of freedom-granting miracle. (True to the metaphor, this was followed by years of the public-health equivalent of wandering through the desert.) Last year, I wrote about how the Biden administration’s lack of ambition embodied the tension between dayenu — the ritual proclamation that any one of the holiday miracles alone “would have been enough for us” — and the Haggadah’s call to fight against injustice in all its forms. And of course for many years one could find an obvious modern parallel in a cartoonishly temperamental anti-Semitic ruler who’s obsessed with border control.
For me, Passover’s personal poignancy peaked when I hosted my first Seder in 2017. Philadelphia was starting to feel like my true adopted home. After moving six times in the two years following college, I had built a life for myself and found a community of people in my not-so-new city. I finally felt established enough to host my first holiday.
Yet for all the ways I had achieved stability, 2017 was the worst year of my life. To make a very long story short, the events that led to my estrangement from my dad kicked off in January. By the time Pesach rolled around that April, it was apparent that my family’s holiday traditions as I had idealized them were gone forever. If I wanted to keep some semblance of them alive, I would have to do it myself.
I remember feeling very silly when we sat down to the table. Here I was, a Jew so secular that I was never bar mitzvahed, someone who’d never particularly liked Passover for most of his life, leading a Seder. Stranger still, all my guests were gentiles. Most of them had never been to a Seder before. They weren’t there because they felt called to celebrate the redemption of the Israelites, or because they really wanted to try matzoh. They were there because, surprisingly and uncharacteristically, commemorating the Passover meant something to me.
Indeed it was awkward as we huddled around the couple copies of my family’s Cold War-era Haggadahs that I had snagged. But my goyim guests were game. (The Manischewitz probably helped.) We told the story of the Exodus and ate our way through the Seder plate. We kept “Dayenu” slow enough that the rookies could at least sort of hum along. We learned all about the current legal status of matzoh in the USSR. By the end of the night, we were all excited to proclaim the famous next year in Jerusalem, or at least again in South Philly.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the Seder is designed to tell a story. There are entire sections of the Hagaddah about how to introduce the tales of the Exodus to younger generations. I’ve always thought that the most poignant symbolism of opening the door for Elijah is not the promise of messianic redemption but declaring that are all welcome at the holiday table. Including new folks in the Passover celebration is in itself a profound act of sharing one’s tradition and nostalgia.
If you’re reading this, you likely know that we are moving to Rhode Island soon. I loved the four years I spent there in college, so when my wife first got into grad school in Providence, I was thrilled about moving back. Providence is at once big enough to feel like a real city yet small enough to be homey and keep the cost of living to a relatively reasonable level. We’ll be closer to friends, family, and some great breweries in New England. It’s a manageable drive or train ride back to the Delaware Valley or anywhere along the Northeast Corridor. Of all the places where we could have moved when my wife started applying to schools, Providence was at the top of my list.
Then I got hit with an intrusive thought: What if I couldn’t learn to reset my perspective on Providence as the place I’d lived as an undergrad before we moved?
I really found myself in college. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to go to my dream school and have it be everything I had hoped for. By the end of my junior year I was already waxing nostalgic about my very-much-not-over time as a student. When I’ve gone back for a reunions or to visit friends, walking around campus puts me into a trance. It’s not that I have any desire to go to a frat party or see how many cafeteria chicken fingers I can still eat in one sitting. It feels like a pilgrimage. Like there is some grand purpose pulling me back towards my touchstones of a decade ago.
In our recent trips to scope out our new (my old) city, we’ve made a point to stay away from College Hill. But Rhode Island is famously a small place. Basically anywhere you go in Providence is within walking distance of Brown’s campus. Tripadvisor’s top-rated restaurant in the city is a stone’s throw from my freshman dorm. In planning for a recent househunting trip, we found a listing that looked great until I noticed it was literally across the street from my senior-year apartment. It was hard to feel like I could escape the SciLi’s shadow.
Until one night a few weeks ago, when I suddenly flashed back to the night of my first hosted Seder. I remembered how self-conscious I felt about indulging my nostalgia. I remembered the voice in my head telling me it was stupid to not let go of my impulse to keep my memories alive. And then I remembered how I glad I was that I had followed my heart and let my people go down the ritual rabbit hole with me.
Maybe it’s okay to acknowledge that I still have a residual love for Providence in a very different context than the one I’ll be living out soon. After all, in the end, it indeed felt important that evening in 2017 for someone to answer why this night was not like other nights.
This week’s Seder is the last holiday party we’re hosting in South Philly. Seven years in, our literally and figuratively unorthodox Seder has become its own tradition. The same friends still come if they’re in town. We’ve even added a couple other Jews to the table. The ceremony changes a little every year — a new Haggadah supplement to drag the text into the modern day here, a different Chopped-esque attempt to fit as many symbolic foods into a single dish there — but the ritual remains. We light the candles. We read the aside about the ancient rabbis who accidentally stayed up all night reveling in the miracles of the Exodus. We open the door for Elijah, and our dog barks at the ghost of our redemption.
The best part about having traditions is that you can share them — and make new ones — with the people you love. Next year in Rhode Island!
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