Whilst I was born Jewish, I grew up in a Post-Holocaust Era when many British Jews decided that it was a disadvantage to publicly demonstrate any adherence to this ancient religious grouping.   My father was one of those people.

Immigration to South Africa

My nuclear family of mother, father, brother, sister and myself immigrated to Cape Town, South Africa in 1947 at the conclusion of World War 2.   My father decided to send me to an Anglican School and stated my religious denomination as Unitarian.   I grew up pretty confused about my true religious identity as it was a taboo subject in our family. It is only now as an adult that I realise this state of affairs existed for many Jewish families at that time because of the horrific treatment experienced by the Jewish population of Europe.

I still have recurring memories of the phrase, “If the Germans come into this country, then all the Jews will be sent to concentration camps.”   During the war years, I was a youngster who did not understand the horror perpetrated by the Nazis, but I did grasp the concept of their treatment as being even worse than a death sentence!

Rationale

I now realise that it was as a consequence of this reality that my father did not consider it to be a good idea for any of his three children to marry members of the Jewish faith.   In addition, as a self- made businessman, he did not have much respect for the professions, more particularly the medical profession.   He supported his family as an astute property investor and developer.   As it happened we all married Jewish men of the medical profession, my sister married a dentist, my brother a paediatric doctor, and I married a General Practitioner.

As a mother I needed to learn how to integrate myself into both Jewish rituals as well as the cultural and social life of my co-religionists, whilst familiarising myself with the history of the Jewish Nation, a knowledge of Zionism, the concept of Israel, the indignities of Ani-Semitism, and the joys of Jewish music, art and literature.   The manifold expectations for a Jewish wife and mother were learned through experimental trial and error, whilst feeling a bit of an outsider amongst a culture which I had been denied to me during my childhood.

Commemorating Passover

The first night of Passover is commemorated with a multi-course festive meal, as well as the telling of the story of the Exodus combined with manifold customs and rituals which are all laid down in the Haggada.  The Haggada is the name given to the book which describes and rituals, songs, questions, eating patterns and procedures as well as the wine drinking which make up the Passover Meal.   It was first published in the 15th century and thousands of editions in many different languages have been printed over the years.

Whilst Orthodox Jews will continue to read from the more accepted versions of the text, progressive members of the faith value a more up to date and less traditional version of the story.    The traditional texts use biblical language with which I find it difficult to relate and it was in 1998 after 30 years of marriage that I decided to produce a family copy for the Seder or ritual meal which was conducted annually in our home.

Updating the Haggada

That was 30 years ago when photocopying was a comparatively new facility and it was with great excitement that I reviewed multiple editions of Haggadot in order to cull parts of the ritual and use contemporary language to tell the story.   Subsequently, newer additions of this adaption were printed and have served the family faithfully for the past 30 years.

Now technology was escalated.   The possibilities of creating a more contemporary version of the rituals are manifold.   Go to www.haggadot.com and you can choose from The Greatest Hits Haggada, the Liberal Haggada, The JQ International GLBT Haggada, and The Haggada 2019.

A more traditional rendition reads like this, “In every generation, every Jew must regard himself as though he personally were brought out of Egypt; as it is said: “And you shall tell your sons on the day saying:  It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt……………………….

I am not too sure about how the child of today reared on the shorthand of technological iterations would relate to this story.   But let us now go to a more contemporary reading!

“As human beings today, we reflect with great distance on the hardship of our ancient ancestors but with the great commitment, we spend a significant amount of energy retelling and remembering their suffering and story of perseverance annually.   As we make great efforts to celebrate and commemorate, we also turn and look at our recent history and the stories that surround our collective struggle to bring equality…………”

A central requirement of this tradition is to have the children participate and to ask questions.    The children ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights”

Remaining Relevant

This is just a taste of the full text and ritual of commemorating the Exodus from Egypt.   It made me think afresh about how the role of religion has changed over the years, and how religious customs adapt to maintain their relevance for each generation.   I find it refreshing that continuing with these customs help young people to develop an identity of a people who have maintained their lifestyle for 2000 years.    In an era when identity can be so peripheral, I felt grateful that I was in a position to modify both the words and the order for the Passover ceremony so that an ancient tradition could be commemorated in a meaningful way by friends and family.

 

 

 

5 replies
  1. Len
    Len says:

    fascinating to hear about your family history and attitude to Judaism.
    The quote from a ‘progressive’ Haggadah moving away from associating yourself with those who were slaves in Egypt,doesn’t work for me. I have no difficulty pushing myself to remind myself over and over again that we were once slaves in Egypt.

    Reply
    • Grace Smith
      Grace Smith says:

      Thanks for your comment Len. Let me reassure you that I have not moved away from the main theme of being grateful to be liberated from Slavery. At our Seder this year we had a refugee from the Congo around our table and I made the point of reminding those present of the commitment to include outsiders at the Seder.

      Reply
  2. Nikki Viljoen
    Nikki Viljoen says:

    Thank you for sharing this Grace.

    I too had a somewhat confusing religious relationship as a child. My paternal grandmother was the matriarch and ruler of our family. She was a very strong woman who was the eldest girl child of 12 children and who was tasked to look after the other children as and when they arrived, at a very early age.

    This leadership role she continued as the ‘head of the family’ until the day that she died.

    Her father was a Dutch Reform Dominee and from what I can remember he was full of ‘fire and brimstone’ in his religious teachings and she decided to follow what she termed as a more ‘enlightened’ gentler way and joined the Catholic church.

    My first experience of this was when I was 4 1/2 and I was bundled off to boarding school about a 4 hour drive away to the convent. Her experience with the Catholic Church came to a very abrupt end (as did my convent schooling) when she discovered that all the kids (black, white, brown and yellow – not sure if there are any other coloured kids 🙂 ) bathed together or showered together and her sense of ‘morality’ was severely challenged when she came to fetch me for a long weekend and discovered me in the ‘footbath’, with all the abovementioned kids and some of them had very visible ringworm.

    I never went back but instead was sent to boarding school at another school 4 hours away in the opposite direction and there my religious instruction came from the local Anglican church.

    It was extremely confusing for me at the time.

    In later life when it was time for me to choose my own path (after the death of my grandmother) I opted not to follow any specific brand of religion but rather to look at the wonder of the universe for my spiritual guidance and that remains true for me to this day.

    That said both sets of my Godmothers are Orthodox – one Greek and the other Yugoslav and on a visit to Russia in the early 2000’s, I spent a great deal of time wandering through some of the most beautiful Orthodox churches in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. I have also been fortunate enough to go to a Greek Orthodox church on the little island of Karpathos (where my late Greek Godmother was born) as well as an Orthodox Church in Dubrovnic in Croatis , (where my late Yugoslav Godmother was born). Both were are beautiful and as memorable as they had described them to me and I was truly humbled.

    Reply
  3. Grace Smith
    Grace Smith says:

    You certainly have had many varied experiences and visited a wealth of different places of worship. You have indeed wisely made your own choices.

    Reply
  4. Danny Bloom
    Danny Bloom says:

    Grace, I am 70 years old, Jewish American, deep love for my culture and history and when i found your blog and photo I KNEW IT FROM Your PHOTO …you LOOKS LIKE MY MOM TOO…syliva epstein bloom …are you from LITHUANIa stock? – re . ”Whilst I was born Jewish, I grew up in a Post-Holocaust Era when many British Jews decided that it was a disadvantage to publicly demonstrate any adherence to this ancient religious grouping. My father was one of those people”

    Reply

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