By Claudia Apfelbaum
Passover is the big Jewish community event each year.
Yes, there is also the gathering at the break the fast at Yom Kippur, and there are gatherings under the sukkah and other gatherings here and there throughout the year. But the Passover meal is a time of family and communal gathering like no other in the Jewish calendar. Emails fly. Invitations abound. One feels in or out.
I am one of the Jews who feels “out.” And I know I’m not the only one.
I have lived in Philadelphia since 1975 and have held numerous seders at my house over the years, gathering dispersed Jews and non-Jews to my table each year. And each year I wonder why I have not been invited to someone’s first night.
It is true that for a period of time my mother-in-law invited us, but that stopped quite a while ago. Inviting people each year is no easy process and each year my feeling of despair has deepened. Each year, I wonder why no one has invited us, Why are we not a part of a regular group of friends? What are we doing wrong? Is there something wrong with us?
This experience reinforces my feeling of outsider-ness, which I carry inside of me anyway.
I am a first-generation American Jew. I grew up in a family where our Jewishness was a key part of our identity, and yet we were pretty alone in our neighborhood, our schools and our life. There were no other Jewish kids at my elementary school, and our neighbors were Protestant and Catholic. My two sisters and I were daughters of people who had survived the Holocaust, each in their own way and for whom being Jewish was not an easy relationship.
Our home was decidedly Jewish. There was intellectual inquiry, curiosity and openness to the world, “a wandering Jew” quality, artistic creativity, reflection, reading and much recollecting about the Holocaust on my mother’s part — mostly about her life in France, about leaving France, which she loved and which she had not wanted to leave. Yet we did not belong to a synagogue nor did we children know about most of the Jewish holidays.
I could say that we were basically divorced from Jewish community, having only friends who were Jewish who lived here and there across our city. And yet, there was this feeling of identity and connection.
As Freud wrote to his fiancee, Martha Bernays, “And as for us, this is what I believe: Even if the form wherein the old Jews were happy no longer offer us any shelter, something of the core, of the essence of this meaningful and life- affirming Judaism will not be absent from our home.”
So here I am today. The identity of being Jewish is strong within me. I look like a Jew. I feel like a Jew. I can feel when other people around me are Jewish. And I have joined two wonderful, progressive synagogues in an effort to be part of Jewish community.
But being a member has not helped me much, as I don’t feel that at home or seen in this environment. And I have lots of Jewish friends. In fact, most of my friends are Jewish and this is not a joke. But at Passover, I feel like an outsider.
So I wonder, how do I transcend this outsider-ness? How do I get invited by someone I like and am connected to? How can I remind them that I do not have family here and want to be a part of their family on a regular basis? And, most importantly to me, how can the community I am part of (my extended Jewish family) make me feel a part of it?
It is true that each synagogue is helping people who don’t have a place to go to join someone’s seder and that is nice, but it doesn’t solve the puzzle for me as to why I am not already invited and part of someone’s seder.
Am I that different, having grown up as an unaffiliated, first-generation Jew? Is it that friends simply don’t think about me or possibly think that I am so well-connected that I don’t need an invitation from them?
Whatever it is, I know I’m not alone in my experience. A friend in Massachusetts wrote to me with some anxiety that she was “sort of moody all day … wondering what I would do for the holiday.”
So many of us yearn for acceptance in the Jewish community. I wonder what can be done to change the dynamics of this experience.
Claudia Apfelbaum is a licensed clinical social worker who lives and works in Northwest Philadelphia.