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Passover’s Perennial No-Show

At the Seder, we open the door for Elijah. As a child, I thought he’d actually appear. Then I grew up, and anticipation faded into resignation.

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I was only 17, but suddenly I felt old.

It was the night of the Seder, three years ago. I stood by a wide-open door, a door that had not been knocked on, by a threshold that was unmistakably empty, and wondered whether the person I’d hoped—maybe even expected—to appear had been a figment of my imagination, a fading piece of the naïve child I had been.

The weeks before Passover that year had found the Orthodox Jewish world buzzing, more than usual, with talk of the Messiah. The Iranian nuclear threat, the growing anti-Semitism worldwide, Israel being torn to pieces by the media—It only leads to one conclusion, the old men in synagogue exclaimed and the schoolgirls whispered. We are now experiencing the birth pangs of the Messianic era. Any day now, he’ll come on a magnificent white horse. Students were told to do more good deeds, to give more charity, to refrain from slander. We women were encouraged to learn more Torah, wear longer skirts, pray more; according to the Sages, after all, it is in righteous women’s merit that the Messiah will come.

Even Brighton Beach’s expatriates from Odessa and Kiev had heard of the rumors.

My Ukrainian-born grandmother had called several days before the holiday: “You know what I just heard a rabbi say on the Russian radio? According to the Jewish calendar, this year the sun lines up in the same position as it had during Creation. This happens only once in 28 years!”

“It’s the year of birkat hakhama,” I said. The vernal equinox, the completion of the solar cycle according to Talmudic literature.

“But this year’s position is the same one as the year of the actual Exodus from Egypt,” said my secular grandmother. “It has all these energies. Of freedom, miracles, you know?”

Even my Soviet-educated relatives, the ones who’d pile into small Toyotas and drive in from Brooklyn to join us on Seder nights in New Jersey, were wondering about what might happen on Passover. The Russian rationalists were careful to check the family passports’ expiration dates. Who knows? Maybe Elijah the Prophet will come this year and will take us to Jerusalem; it would be a shame if our papers were out of order.

My younger sisters, too, were making plans for the impending Redemption and checking Israeli real-estate websites for pretty villas. Mili, then 7 years old, announced that she was keeping a packed bag under her bed, in anticipation of a sudden journey to Jerusalem. I had laughed and patted her shoulder.

Yet despite my laughing, I, too, found myself anticipating. I’d lie in bed, look at my posters of the Galilee and the Mediterranean, and wonder how it was that I could be such a worldly 17-year-old, a reader of Chekhov and student of calculus, and still, secretly, fervently, believe in a Messiah. How was it, I wondered, that I found myself setting an extra seat for Elijah, just in case he needed to sit down and eat some of my mother’s chicken de provence before continuing to the next house?

I was sure that his arrival was imminent. Even when, during the first Seder that year, my father rose from the table to open the door for Elijah and ask God to redeem us, to pour out His wrath upon the nations that know Him not, upon the kingdoms that did not call upon His name, for having consumed Jacob and for having laid waste his habitation, and for Petliura’s crusades and Stalin’s purges, for Babi Yar and for that Iron Curtain, too. All of history raining down on us, until we’re forced to throw our doors open and demand justice. Pour out Thy rage upon them, let Thy fury overtake them.

But I sat in dread, because suddenly I realized that there was no justice. The other side of the door would be empty, as it always is, only a slight mocking breeze, a wet street with street lamps in pools of yellow light.

We stood at the table quietly as Papa recited the prayer by the empty doorway.

As a child, I thought that the longer that Papa lingered by the door, the greater the chances that it would happen: that Elijah would come running up our front path, panting and out of breath, his embroidered robes flying. Wait, wait, Doctor Dovid, son of Leib! I’m late, the neighbors held me up! And each year that would pass without Elijah’s arrival, I learned to nod and insist that he’d undoubtedly come next year.

According to our tradition, Elijah’s wine glass would be left out overnight on the kitchen counter, in case he decided to show up later. Growing up, I used to jump out of bed on Passover mornings and check the glass and, when noting that the wine level had dropped by a hundredth of a millimeter, conclude that Elijah had indeed stopped by and taken a sip.

But that night, facing that open door and that invitation that once again went unheeded, I stopped expecting Elijah; he became the friend that always canceled last-minute. I understood that he wouldn’t come during the Haggadah reading, not when we opened the door for him, not while we slept. Not even on a night when the sun’s position was in the exact same place as it had been during the Exodus.

My father’s walk back to the table from the front door was slow, steady. “Well, let’s proceed,” Papa said, looking to my mother and turning a page in the Haggadah. But our disappointment in God and in peace and in destiny didn’t have time to settle—the younger kids had finished preparing their annual Passover performance.

They came trumpeting down the stairs, holding boxes of stage props, shouting for the grown-ups to be quiet already—they were just about to start their Pesach show. Years before, as the eldest, I had been the director of the holiday performances at family gatherings; I’d write the script several days in advance, boss the younger kids around, and scold them for not remembering their lines. Now I sat and smiled demurely at the adults’ table, but it felt like yesterday that I had stood there, too, in biblical robes, stepping carefully through an imaginary Red Sea into a Promised Land.

The adults laughed as my cousins and sisters performed their antics. Here were Moses and Pharaoh, in clothing made of bed sheets, badminton rackets serving as shepherds’ staffs. Two blue blankets were the Red Sea; the smallest cousins walked between them into freedom. And then, the conclusion, a look to the future: My youngest sister came out, riding a toy horse and wearing a long white beard—the Messiah.

We clapped and cheered on the little theater troupe. What a clever performance! And then we finished the Seder. I smiled weakly and sang the conclusion in Hebrew, the same words Jews have been singing for thousands of years: Next year in Jerusalem. I realized, with discomfort, that I was tired of it.

“Such a lovely phrase,” my great-aunt remarked. Yes, lovely. These enlightened Kiev-born engineers and Kharkov-born teachers, physicists and doctors, were now sitting at a Seder table in New Jersey, yearning for a bearded Messiah to come. They were suddenly somber when they remembered Jerusalem and her white limestone alleys. As I looked around, I noticed that there was something heartrending in their faces.

At 17, that Seder night, I went through the Diaspora Jew’s rite of passage. I silently understood the duality of anticipation and resignation; how to whisper breathily about the promise of peace, while glancing back at Jewish history, amused with my own naïveté. I learned to say “Jerusalem” with a millennia-old sigh and faraway eyes, just as my ancestors had always done. And when the relatives sat and drank tea, talked and laughed—not about Elijah or the future, but perhaps about politics and history and anecdotes, as they had always done, I learned to join them, behind a door left only slightly ajar.

***

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the point about messianism is the waiting. when the messiah comes the challenges life loses its bite.

Marnie Heyn says:

In my home, we have to actually go outside and ask all we meet, “Will you come and eat with us?” I’ve met the most wonderful people this way, and the best pay-off is two generations of children who respond to strangers by greeting them, “Come, eat.”

Charlie Seelig says:

But in a sense, having invited Elijah in, he is there, just in a way you were not expecting.

You write very nicely but what is the point….that while you feel an emotional pull toward the concept of a Messiah a part of you finds it one big joke?
.That would be a typical Tablet conclusion, leaving no room for faith, for mystery, for things we haven’t experienced that fail to conform to scientific theory but that have sustained our anscestors and if not for the overlay of hip cynicism should sustain us. I really hope that you don’t go off the derech. You sound like a sensitive young woman anda very good writer. Dont let your desire to be hip obscure your sense of wonder. Bigger people that you and I believed in the Messiah without feeling the need to smirk.

Only Partly a Troll says:

@Carol, the Jewish people were sustained not by mystery, but by faith and continued questioning (and answering) – perhaps you would call this ‘hip cynicism’. If it were not for our constant questioning of what we are taught, we would certainly have died out or conformed as other nations have.

Someone says:

Beautifully written. Great point.
For those who missed the author’s point, I believe her intention was to draw you in to the complexity we face as Modern Orthodox Jews. She highlights the difficulty in finding a balance between two conflicting worlds. She eloquently portrays what most of us feel, but cannot express, are scared to express, or live in denial of.
Yashar Koach!

I really like Marnie’s post about her tradition of inviting in strangers. Perhaps Elijah has come and you failed to see him, hear him or recognize him. The prophet Malachi promised to send us Elijah the prophet before (in anticipation of) the great and awesome day of The Holy One, and he would turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers, so that the land would not be cursed with destruction.

Judy Herscovitch says:

If Elijah doesn’t come, then who the heck is lowering the level of wine in his wine goblet? That was always a sure measure of his presence!

John 1:29-30
The next day he (John) saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’

Hamsa says:

This was a fantastic article. Very personal. I have to say that even with often inevitable resignation…your strength is that you dare to hope at all. Shalom.

Judy Herscovitch is right. Elijah always shows up at our Seders for my children, and the emptied wineglass is proof. And until the Messiah comes, he will continue to appear when needed.

Shmoo Snook says:

@Carol What is your major malfunction? Have people been disparaging you for your lack of hipness or something? You’ve mischacterized the nature and content of this piece. You hope she doesn’t “go off the derech”? What an arrogant and condescending thing to say. Bigger people than you or I have experienced “Moshiach fatigue,” and it doesn’t mean we’ve given up believing in Moshiach. The only “smirking” going on here is in your imagination, if not on your face.

Roalnd says:

Avital
It says at the end of the article “Avital Chizhik is a writer living in New York City and a frequent contributor to Haaretz.” and I thought “Avital, this is not the diaspora of yesteryear. For 66 years already you can just hop on a plane and in 9 hours be in Jerusalem, the dream of our ancestors for 2 millenia. Come home. Join us in Jerusalem before Shavuos. Leave the post Zionism of Haaretz behind in NY and help us make the Zionist dream a reality. if you will it it is not (just) a dream.”

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Passover’s Perennial No-Show

At the Seder, we open the door for Elijah. As a child, I thought he’d actually appear. Then I grew up, and anticipation faded into resignation.