Pesah Nostalgia

1st Day of Pesah | Saturday, April 23, 2016


A man comes to the rabbi with a problem. He says, “rabbi, I’m convinced my wife is trying to poison me!” The rabbi responds, “come on, she’s not trying to poison you. What makes you think that?” The man says, “I just know. I get the feeling she’s putting something in my food, and one of these days I’m going to eat it, and that’ll be it.” The rabbi says, “you know what. Let me talk to her. Let me see what I can find out.” A few days go by and the rabbi calls the man back up. The rabbi says, “Herb, I spoke to your wife to find out what’s happening. I spent three hours talking with her all about.” “Nu?” the man says. “What’s your advice?” “Take the poison.”

This classic joke was featured in the hit show Old Jews Telling Jokes, that I went to see, along with a few people in this room, just two and a half weeks ago. The show is exactly what it sounds like. Older Jews tell a series of jokes about all the issues they face in life. I’d like to think that the show is funny for everyone, not just the “Old Jews” of the title. But from looking around the audience that evening, Naomi and I definitely brought the average age down a fair amount.

A few days later, we had a similar experience. This time at the Florida Theatre, we were there to see “Let It Be: A Celebration of the Music of the Beatles.” This too, was exactly what you think it was. A Beatles tribute band recreated 20 years worth of Beatles hits. They looked and sounded the part, from their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, to Sgt Pepper’s, to their rooftop concert. They were able to take us back in time to experience the thrill of that Beatles era. There too, Naomi and I brought the average age down considerably.

So what does this tell us? Well first, maybe Naomi and I need to start making some more youthful entertainment choices. Somehow I think this will even itself out when Amy Schumer comes to town in a few weeks. (And if you don’t know who Amy Schumer is, thank you for proving my point.) But beyond that, something struck me while watching people dance along to the cover of Twist and Shout. Yes, this was great music, that you almost have to dance to, but also for many people in the audience, they were dancing to the same songs they danced to many years ago. The screaming teenage girls at the Shea Stadium concert in 1965, are now, 50 years later, dancing to the same hits at the Florida Theatre. For them it was not only great music, but also a strong feeling of nostalgia. This was the same effect with Old Jews Telling Jokes. Yes the jokes are funny and can always make you chuckle, but for many people in the audience, there was also that sense of nostalgia for hearing those jokes in the Catskills many years ago.

But there Naomi and I were. Singing along to the same songs, laughing at the same jokes. Yes, we enjoyed and appreciated the entertainment, but could we also be nostalgic about them? Can we fell nostalgia for something we never experienced?

One of my favorite contemporary writers is Chuck Klosterman. As an author and essayist, he writes primarily about American pop culture. Things like, the lessons Saved by the Bell can teach us about becoming cliche, or why laugh tracks on TV shows have contributed to the dulling of the american mind, or even how different offensive strategies in football can tell you everything you need to know about conservatism and progressivism in America. Not surprisingly, he has a fair amount to say about the idea of nostalgia. In an essay from 2011, (weren’t those the good old days,) Kolsterman wrote:

“If you unconditionally love something from your own past, it might just mean you love that period of your own life. In other words, you’re not really hearing (a particular song,) what you’re hearing is a song that reminds you of a time when you were happy, and you’ve unconsciously conflated that positive memory with any music connected to the recollection. You can’t separate the merit of a song from the time when you originally experienced it.

People enjoy remembering things, and particularly things that happened within their own lifetime. Remembering creates meaning. There are really only two stages in any existence — what we’re doing now, and what we were doing then. That’s why random songs played repeatedly take on a weight that outsizes their ostensive worth: We can unconsciously hear the time and thought we invested long ago.”

So once again, nostalgia brings us back to good moments in our lives. It helps us remember the moment, and recreate the feeling we experience when we first heard a song. For me, any time I hear the Backstreet Boys “I Want it That Way,” I am instantly transported back to USY on Wheels, in 1999.

But again, this still does not help with lack of personal memory of Beatlemania. Sure I heard plenty Beatles songs when I was a kid, but I was not there for the whole “Beatles Experience.” Can I feel nostalgia for that?

This in many ways, is the beauty of Passover and the Seder. It lets us feel nostalgic for something we never experienced ourselves. What’s the central point of the Seder?

בְּכָל-דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת-עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרַיִם. לֹא אֶת-אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא אוֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשָׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ.

In each and every generation one is obligated to regard themselves as though they personally came out of Egypt, as it is said (Ex 13:8), “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth of of Egypt.’” For it is not only our ancestors whom the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed, but He redeemed us with them, as it is said (Deut 6:23), “And He took us out of there in order to bring us in to give us the land about which He swore to our ancestors.”

Whether or not we were personally there to come out of Egypt, we weren’t, whether or not the Exodus happened as described in the Bible and Haggadah, it may have, regardless of any of these factors, we are to imagine what it was like to be there. Because if we can understand what that moment was like, if we can associate enough feelings with it, we can create that feeling of nostalgia, to give us that added appreciation of the magnitude of the moment itself.

And how do we do this? Not just by telling the story, but by creating another moment itself. By including songs and skits, sites and sounds, tastes and smells. We do everything we can to re-create that moment, by creating this moment. When we first dip the karpas into the salt-water, the flavor is so uniquely Pesah, we cannot help but taste the tears of our ancestors and be reminded of Pesahs past. When we smell the maror, we instantly make that bitter face creating new memories once more. When we sing the Pesah songs, when we taste the Pesah tastes, when we feel the Pesah feels, all of this helps us build news Pesah moments.

If we fill our seders with enough moments today, we can create the nostalgia of tomorrow, that will help us recall our collective history of yesterday.

One of the most popular parts of the Seder is the description of the Four Children. The Wise, the Wicked, the Simple, and the child who does not know how to ask. What is it that makes the wicked child so wicked? The Haggadah tells us, לפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל, כפר בעקר. Since he excludes himself from the community he denies the main principles of the holiday. He does not consider himself as having experienced the Exodus. He has no nostalgia for this moment. He focuses solely on his personal memory, and not our collective memory.

This in many ways is what Pesah is all about. Our collective memory of and collective nostalgia for Yetziat Mitzrayim, our Exodus from Egypt. Not our personal recollections of those events, but our collective memory. To paraphrase Klosterman from above, if we unconditionally love something from our own past, it might just mean we love that period from own history. It does not matter if we weren’t there to experience it ourselves, what matters is our collective understanding of that moment. Through that understanding, our appreciation, our affinity, and yes our nostalgia grows.

At that “Beatles” concert two weeks ago, it didn’t matter that Naomi and I weren’t around to experience Beatle-mania ourselves. It didn’t matter that I didn’t actually know the name of the man who was playing Paul McCartney. When he sat down and started playing Hey Jude, we were there. Our nostalgia for a time and moment we never experienced was out in full force.

So too it is at our Seders. It doesn’t matter that it was 3,000 years ago, it doesn’t matter that we weren’t there. What does matter is that we imagine ourselves as having been there. And through that imagination, through our collective memory of those events, our appreciation and yes, our nostalgia is there too.

It’s my hope that we keep this feeling with us, so that we can always hold on to this special Pesah Nostalgia.