Leslie and I interviewed Alla and Vera for countless hours (trust me, we didn’t count and we should have). One of the most poignant moments for me was Alla’s memory of preparing for Passover. I can still feel the distress and ache in her voice when she told me, “We were around the table and we knew why, but we couldn’t recite the prayers. We didn’t know the words.” (Jewish Luck, p. 86) She counted her first “real” seder as the one at the doctors Einhorn’s table in Stockholm. As Alla recounted her grandmother’s devotion to preparing a seder in Soviet Leningrad no matter how many obstacles piled in front of her, I thought about how Alla’s family was struggling to be free and live the Passover exodus story no matter how many evil decrees the Party enacted. And Alla’s family seder, imperfect though it may have been, tethered her to her Jewish tradition.
Last year when we burned our hametz (the leftover bread products) the morning before the seder, I was struck by the words of the pronouncement:
“All hametz in my possession, whether I have seen it or not and whether I have removed it or not, shall be nullified and be ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
In other words, we have tried our best to clean every last particle of hametz, but if we failed, it’s okay. We’re imperfect.
This will be the 44th year I’ve cleaned for Pesah. This was not part of our growing up experience so I had to learn quickly after I married. Even in a small apartment, it seemed like an enormous task. And I didn’t have to even make the seder the first year I cleaned. I would think I was finished and then hear of someone who used a toothpick to clean the seam between the formica and the sink. Or someone else would talk about taking down the curtains and washing them—really? Do curtains have crumbs? Things only became more difficult when we moved into a house and had children. They were mobile crumb movers. You could find a Cheerio in any location in the house. It takes me about a month to gear up for the cleaning mania. Now that children only visit (and they are so well-behaved they never carry snacks out of the kitchen), actual crumbs are relegated to the usual places but, still, the entire house gets a thorough cleaning.
This year I put together Alla’s distress about her improvised Leningrad sedarim and my cleaning mania and realized neither of us should be in mitzrayim (which is the Hebrew both for Egypt and for dire straits). We both can acknowledge we’ve done the best we could under the circumstances.
Alla and Vera adopted that philosophy in their business practices. They always strove to be perfect but forgave themselves if they fell short, stood up, and jumped back into the fray. I am awestruck that our formulaic statement before burning the hametz sets the same tone for the seder. Let’s all sit at the table and dive into the reliving of our exodus from Egypt and forgive our own imperfections. Our story,after all is not about a perfect people, but about a whiney and doubting mass of humanity who trudge through the desert. And we’re still here, still trying our best.