Theres room for everything on my seder plate

Thirty years ago, my parents and I fled a hostile land ruled by a vengeful pharaoh. We left in haste, dragging behind us four suitcases filled with socks, underwear, shoes, clothes, toothbrushes, a hot plate and $50 per person.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society came before us like a pillar of fire, paying our transportation and living costs and arranging paperwork. Soon enough we arrived in San Francisco. Like so many generations before us, we came seeking opportunity, liberty and equality. We did not, however, come for religious freedom, since we didn’t know from religion. We were Soviet Jews.

In an attempt to remedy my lack of religious or cultural awareness, the nice folks at Jewish Family and Children’s Services got me a full scholarship to a Conservative Jewish day school. In principle, this was a good idea. In practice, I had more pressing problems: one outfit to my name, a knowledge of English limited to the numbers one through 10 and a couple of basic words, all of them nouns.

Needless to say, the welcome I received from my fourth-grade colleagues was lukewarm at best. Worse still, I showed up at the school right before Passover. My family and I didn’t know from Passover. We were strangers in a strange land, surrounded by words we did not understand, words that wrenched our Russian tongues. Cookie. Insurance. Carpool. Now new words materialized — haggadah, seder, charoset — written in an alphabet even more incomprehensible than English.

The Passover seder rests on four questions, but I had thousands more, and my ignorance was comprehensive and far-ranging. I got in trouble for bringing a roll for lunch (we didn’t know from chametz); a teacher yelled at me for sniffing a sprig of parsley on a seder plate that the class had put together. I came home from school every day and cried into my pillow. I hate it here, I sobbed. I was never, ever going to learn to speak English. Ever.

Predictably, I became an English major, but my Jewish education remained haphazard. My parents did not celebrate Passover, so we celebrated elsewhere. At one seder, we didn’t eat until after midnight. At another, the hostess plied us with cookies she said were indistinguishable from regular cookies and cake that was indistinguishable from regular cake. My parents raised their eyebrows: We didn’t know from “kosher for Passover.” My senior year of college, one of my college roommates — not otherwise observant — went on a pre-Passover rampage, threw out all the cereal and covered the counters with tinfoil.

I didn’t really get Passover until I came face-to-face with the Book of Exodus as a teaching assistant for a humanities course at UCLA.

The professor who taught the class argued that the Hebrews fled Egypt under the aegis of a God who had promised to transform them from a bunch of ragtag tribes into a great nation. Everything about the Passover ritual was rooted in that story and designed to inscribe and commemorate the separation between the Jews and everyone else. The Jews were different because they marked their doorposts with blood, because they ate unleavened bread, because they dipped parsley into salt water, because every year they enacted the rituals that made the story come alive over and over again.

My husband and I love the story and the ritual, but we observe Passover in a decidedly eccentric way. At our house, pretty much anything goes. We make room in the pantry for the boxes of matzah; they sit right next to the cereal. We won’t eat bread, or rice, or pasta, or corn, but we won’t scour our house or peruse labels for corn syrup, either. And we flat-out refuse to buy kosher-for-Passover cake mixes, since my husband maintains that the Hebrews did not flee Egypt with boxes of Manischewitz brownies.

When our children were small and we hosted our first official seder, we wrote a cheesy Passover play inspired by our many summers as camp counselors. Mara, the 4-year-old, was Moses, and Noah, the 6-year-old, was the pharaoh. At one point, Mara was supposed to petition Noah to release the Hebrews. “Let my people go!” she squeaked. “Hmmm,” said Noah, dramatically stroking his chin, “No!”

And Mara said, “Fine then, I love you,” and tried to climb into his lap while the mortified pharaoh tried to push her off.

This was not in the script, but that’s Passover at our house: history and tradition side by side with improvisation, Cheerios next to the Streit’s. We can choose to eat both, or neither, or one and not the other, and that is what I value most about our journey to America: the freedom to know, and the freedom to choose.

Irena Smith lives in Palo Alto and is a lecturer in literature and a college admission consultant in Palo Alto.