Passover came and went this year and I not only observed the holiday but barely noticed its existence.
Saying this feels cold, considering how many friends and relatives of mine are very sick right now and/or—it hurts to write this — have recently died. Of all the years in which to observe holidays both glad and solemn, holidays that draw loved ones and even strangers near in song and spirit, holidays for which we set aside our labors, quotidian frets and differences to welcome the warmth, depth, and wonder some call God — it would be this year.
Of all the years in which to practice rituals I was taught long ago, their words and gestures steeped in memories as the cakes and fruit were steeped in syrup and wine: not just our memories, my parents said, but memories expanding like a hall of mirrors down the centuries. Of all the years, it should be this.
I observed the main Jewish holidays as long as my last parent was alive. Mom and I shared this, despite living half a state apart. And since we seldom spent those days together in the flesh, I could have bailed totally on the holidays and lied and she would not have known. But I am bad at lying — ha ha ha, because when I was small she always told me she could read my mind — so it never occurred to me to try.
But all that time, until six years ago, I shunned chametz for the eight days of Pesach as I always had, as she had, as her parents and their parents (in villages now wiped off the planet) had. I shunned chametz, ate matzoh (which Mom often mailed me — needlessly, but that was sweet) and pondered ancient Hebrews fleeing their oppressors across Egypt, rightly too panicked to pause along the way and bake real bread.
But then it stopped. She left this world, and she and I never observed those holidays again.
This was not because it hurt too much to observe them without Mom, but because they had never meant that much to me. Clearly — because I dropped them oh so easily — they were only an annual vestigial bond between parent and child. Which is not nothing, but without the parent — poof.
I could go the self-loathing route and proclaim: I am a bad Jew. I could get sociopsychological and say: I had no Jewish education as a child, only arts-and-crafts classes in which we made kiddush cups. Beyond — and while — observing holidays, my parents told me just that Jews were different, Jews were few, and Jews were hated wherever they went, including our own town.
Also, back then, holidays brought my cousin to our house. He called me names and broke my toys.
Which is to say (see, this is not all about me) that holidays, even entire faiths, can mean for children not what they are meant to mean or what they mean to millions, but instead, mean very personal, unpleasant things.
Some of us were soured, early in life, on certain faiths through trauma large and small but also through mis-teachings, bad associations, random other people's issues that resulted in our missed chances for bliss.
Those of us to whom this happened often blame ourselves — denouncing and de-sanctifying ourselves as bad Jews, bad Christians, bad whatevers. Sinners. Tradition-smashers.
This makes us punish ourselves by shutting down — denying ourselves all those moments of reunion, transformation, magic, mercy, connection and light that holidays can bring.
I am not asking you to re-embrace the faith you left behind and might never have known, nor to embrace another simply for the sake of giving yourself more hoops to jump through.
I ask only that we find — craft, research, and/or invent — holidays all our own. These need not be the famous ones linked with organized faiths. They need not happen on the same day every year, nor need we celebrate them more than once. They need just mark whatever (or whomever) matters most to us, right now or always.
We deserve those moments, even if we never attend midnight Mass or eat matzoh again.