The column | My own private Jerusalem

The worst idea I’ve ever had for Passover was spending it in Mexico — with a rabbi. She’s a good friend, not my keeper, but even so. Things I might have turned a blind eye to, or at least fudged, I couldn’t, not in her presence.

At least she follows Sephardic custom, as I have done in the years since I lived in Israel (as a convert, I’m permitted to choose my tradition). Corn tortillas? Bueno. Ditto the corn-and-tomato salsa, the nuts and legumes. The cerveza was a non-starter, however, and we won’t speak of the tortas I had to pass up.

That’s really the key: passed up. Passover, like keeping kosher, is not supposed to be a punishment. It’s meant to remind Jews of who they are. Jews don’t mortify themselves, in flesh or spirit, to please God. Even Yom Kippur, with its fasting, weeping and confessing of sins, ends with a triumphant closing of the Book of Life and a piece of rugelach.

So a Passover spent drooling over the out-of-bounds buffet table at a Puerto Vallarta resort seems to me to have missed the mark.

Sure, we brought our own matzah, which we fried up into delicious matzah brei every morning, enjoying it on our balcony overlooking the pool. (A pool filled with screaming children on Easter vacation, but never mind.)

Still, something felt off. I wasn’t where I belonged.

I’ve been in many different places for Passover. As a child, the seders were at my paternal grandparents’ home in New Jersey. It was always the same: We used the Maxwell House Haggadah, we skipped the part about the five rabbis staying up all night to retell the Exodus story, we children hid the afikomen while Grandpa had to find it (I’m still disturbed by seders where those jobs are reversed). There was matzah ball soup, gefilte fish with red horseradish, roast chicken, carrot tsimmes with brisket, Manischewitz macaroons and honey cake. The wine was sweet. The singing started strong and petered out quickly.

At 19, I experienced my first seder on a kibbutz. God was banished — the Israelites apparently freed themselves from bondage with their own outstretched hands. Everyone wore white shirts and blue trousers, and the long dining hall tables were laden with salads, chicken, matzah and freshly baked bread. Six hundred voices joined together in “Had Gadya.” It was tremendous.

I’ve celebrated Passover in Russia, Ukraine, France, New York and California, as well as in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and on two more kibbutzim. I’ve led a seder where I was the only Jew in the room, and I’ve watched in awe as a Chabad rabbi conducted a seder in Bangkok for more than 700 Israeli backpackers.

In each place, the final sentence of the Haggadah is read in the same declaratory tone: HaShanah HaBa’ah b’Yerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem!

Those words feel different when you’re at a seder in Israel. Of course you’ll be there next year, if not in Jerusalem, then within driving distance. What’s the big deal?

But what do those words mean when you say them at a seder outside Israel?

For centuries they were said with fervent hope and longing for the Jewish return to Zion. Now, since the establishment of the state, they can indicate one’s personal desire to make aliyah — to be in Jerusalem not just next year, but all years. Or, as Ron Feldman writes in his op-ed this week, they can signify the freedom contemporary Jews have to be in Jerusalem or not be in Jerusalem — freedom of movement, which is the opposite of bondage.

For me, the words “next year in Jerusalem” are aspirational — spiritually, not geographically. They mean, “May we at this table have the strength and the will to continue moving toward our personal dream.” My Jerusalem might be your medical degree or another person’s marriage and children. It might be the undocumented worker’s green card, or the Torah scholar’s study hall.

The Jewish story has always been one of movement toward a longed-for outcome. The Jews were the first people to posit history as a tale of progress, and even now, as our return to the physical Zion is accomplished, we continue striving for a better world, for that Zion in the sky.

So, next year, in Jerusalem!

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].