Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Passover, Easter, Judaism, Christianity

There is something special about starting one's blog on Passover. Passover is the holiday of starting afresh, the Jewish people leaving Egypt and finding their freedom in the Holy Land. This is essentially what happened to me when I left Canada in 1969. In Canada, your 'Jewishness' is defined by the Jewish community (which synagogue you attend, which Jewish school you attend) and by the non-Jewish community. In a small place like Ottawa in the 1950s and 1960s (about 250,000 people, with only 5,000 Jews) I encountered a lot of antisemitism, including people who had never met a Jew in their entire life. Antisemitism for me included having rocks thrown at you, being beat up, having a friend ask "How could you be Jewish if you're such a nice kid?", and most poignantly, being told by my best friend in high school that I was no longer welcome to visit their house, as his parents found out I was Jewish. There was also the following question asked by a neighbour of ours, whom I had babysat for years as a child: "How come you are such nice people, yet you killed Jesus?". I don't want to get involved in the question of who killed Jesus, as there is another Mel who thinks he knows all the answers to this question. But, other Mel, it was 2000 years ago, nobody I or you know was around at the time.

Back to Passover. Who knows whether the Israelites were in Egypt, whether they wandered around for forty years, and how they received the ten commandments and entered the Promised Land. Is it all that important to 'know' what cannot be known? But like millions of Christians and Jews around the world, I was brought up on these stories and I love them. I don't spend too much time pondering what actually happened. But anyone coming to visit me in Israel can visit the Jordan river, which is not "deep and wide" nor "chilly and cold", but rather a slowly meandering creek. In Canada, it wouldn't even merit a name.

Growing up as a semi-observant Jewish kid in Ottawa, we were not allowed to read the New Testament, learn about Christianity (or evolution), sing Christmas caroles (I once almost got thrown out of class for refusing to sing Christmas songs in Latin). How myopic in retrospect. The older I get, the clearer it becomes that Christianity and Judaism are practically the same religion. People with anti-semitic tendencies should remember that Jesus was a Jew, followed Jewish traditions, and preached among Jews. He never met a Christian his whole life. He celebrated the Jewish New Year, fasted on Yom Kippur, and I suppose he was circumcised according to Jewish traditions. As a boy, he played with Jewish kids.

My soul mate in Canada is Chris McCulloch. I will dedicate at least an entire post to this remarkable guy. He changed my life. While on sabbatical at the University of Toronto almost twenty years ago, Chris invited my wife to Easter mass. I wouldn't go , but my wife, having grown up in Israel and free of the teachings of Canadian rabbis, or fear of assimilation, went and enjoyed herself. Chris and I spent a lot of time talking about religion. It turns out that Christians are essentially people who believe the same basic things we Jews do, but have evolved some analogous rituals, observe a similar Sabbath on the next day, and celebrate Easter instead of Passover. Christians think that Jesus is the son of God, and will return someday. That's fine with me. But because I grew up in a Jewish household, I think that he was a rabbi. I don't know anyone in the living world who knows the answer to this one. So the point I'm trying to make is that people should live and let live. If believing in God makes you a better human being, great. If going to church or synagogue makes you a more benevolent person, wonderful. If celebrating Easter or Passover makes you a generous and loving mortal, wonderful. For me, that's what it's all about. By the time every one of us finds out if there really is a supreme being and/or an afterlife, it may be too late. So my recipe for all you Christians and Jews who have very similar beliefs and may or may not know it, is as follows: Live a good life according to the teachings of Jesus and Hillel. Treat thy neighbor well. Do good deeds. And when you die, one of two things will have happened. Either you'll have lived a decent and worthy life, without the angst of having gone against your upbringing, and will be justly rewarded by the Supreme Being, or you'll have to settle with the reward of having had a rewarding life. But to quote that song from Blood, Sweat and Tears, "I'll never know by living, only my dying will tell..."

So I try to be a decent person (not always successfully, I am ready to admit), I go on eating my Passover matzos and shunning leavened bread for a week each year, not knowing whether there is any truth in the Exodus story, but loving it anyway, and reliving it every year, with parents and kids.
Happy holidays, friends.

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