We are currently celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew). This remembers the exodus from Egypt, when the Hebrews were led out of slavery by Moses after Pharoah had refused to let them go, despite G-d having sent the ten plagues. The slaves left in a hurry, under cover of night, and did not have time to let their bread rise. In memory of this we celebrate the eight days of Pesach by abstaining from all food containing yeast and other raising agents for the duration. On each of the first two nights of the festival, we have a special meal at home, the Seder, during which we retell the story of the exodus and eat symbolic foods. The Seder ends with a song in which we express our hope that next year we will celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem. This is shorthand for the hope that in the next year the Messiah will come, as we believe that he will bring us to Israel where we will rebuild the Temple.
This year, Pesach is proving particularly poignant. There is the obvious reason – looking forward to “next year in Jerusalem” is hard when there are no guarantees that I will still be around next year. And in lots of other ways, Pesach is serving as a reminder of what I am fighting for, of how high the stakes are. First – the physical. Traditionally, celebrating Pesach doesn’t just mean avoiding unleavened foods. It involves a deep clean of the entire house to remove any leaven, changing over all the cutlery, crockery and cooking pans and utensils to ones specially saved for Pesach and cooking a whole load of food as shop bought food is not an option for the duration of the festival. It is a mammoth effort, particularly as the festival only lasts for eight days. It is exhausting. And for that reason, I have not been allowed to do any of it this year. Instead, we have all decamped to my parents’ house up the road and my darling mother is doing it all for us. Whilst it is lovely to be with my parents and to spend so much time with them, I feel very sad that physical limitations have prevented me from celebrating in my own home. Not only that, but every time I go to help, I am told by several people in no uncertain terms to sit down. I feel like an invalid. I appreciate so much that people are looking after me, but it is somewhat depressing to be treated like an old lady. Everyone wants me to concentrate on fighting the disease, on getting better. But I’m not sure if anyone truly appreciates that part of my fight is mental and not physical. Part of it is about feeling normal, about feeling able to do normal things, about feeling like a 38 year old not a 98 year old. It’s a tough one.
Being in my parents’ home and being treated like a sick person has made me think a bit more like a sick person. Physical down time has given me a lot of time to think. Not all of my thoughts have been positive. I have found myself considering the end. And amongst those thoughts has been this – if I lose the fight, should I come here to die? Would it be better to die in my parents’ house than in my home which would leave my husband and kids with a constant reminder of what happened? Would it be better for my mum to look after me at the end than my husband? They say that losing a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a parent, but I can’t imagine that it is any worse than losing a spouse or a mother when you are young. I have been wandering through the bedrooms here, wondering which bed would be the best if I am in palliative care. Where would there be room for the monitors and drug paraphernalia? Which bed has the most space around it? Apparently, the vast majority of people in the UK want to die at home but most people end up dying in hospital. I am determined that that will not be me.
All that said, I feel an overwhelming need to survive for a good deal longer so that I can experience many more Pesach celebrations with my family. Age seven, Natalie is really aware of the festival, and it is possibly the first time that she has truly thought about it and what it means. Just before the festival started, we had a deep and meaningful conversation about why we are celebrating it and what being Jewish means. She got upset that we have to do things differently from her non-Jewish friends. I explained to her why I find it really important to be Jewish. The tradition and history of the religion, the survival of the Jewish people despite centuries of persecution, the Holocaust, the sense of community – these are just some of the reasons that it is important to me to pass on my religion and culture to my children. Natalie listened carefully and took it all in. She asked some really clever questions including some that I couldn’t answer – for example, why do we not live in Israel given that we believe Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people? She participated fully in the two Seders and at the end of the second whispered to me that she really quite enjoyed it now that we had done it twice. This gave me so much pleasure. I want to do it again and again with her, watching her learn and grow and watching Joey do the same when he is old enough to take part. It is a really funny thing. As you know, I am not observant but I am traditional in my faith and practices. I feel that passing this on is a really important thing for me to do as a parent. I’m not entirely sure I understand why, but it is. I feel that the longer that I am around the more likely it is that my children will understand this and will take on the traditions and beliefs as their own. I certainly don’t intend to brainwash them, but I believe that my tradition and religion have so many positive aspects that I want them to share, understand and appreciate.
So I continue to fight. In hopeful anticipation of being better next year, I have promised my husband this – that rather than my usual practice of avoiding certain foods which Ashkenazi (northern European) Jews do not eat on Pesach, we will enjoy them next year as Sephardi (southern European and Middle Eastern) Jews do. These foods – “kitniyot” – are not prohibited by the religion but different traditions have different views on whether or not they should be eaten at Pesach. They include pulses and leguminous vegetables as well as rice. The Ashkenazi tradition is to avoid them at Passover because they rise when cooked – like bread. The Sephardi tradition is that they are permitted. I am from the Ashkenazi tradition, my husband from the Sephardi. So far in our marriage I have refused to cook kitniyot at Pesach. But now I feel that should I be lucky enough to be up to making the food for the festival next year, we should be celebrating that fact. Therefore I have no issue in following my husband’s tradition next year rather than my own. It seems such a small matter when compared with the big picture of the fight that I am currently engaged in.
My final thought on the festival is this. We spend a lot of time at the Seder and in the synagogue thinking about when our forefathers were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. The concept of slavery horrifies us in the modern day. We cannot imagine the physical and mental oppression that it must have involved. And yet the Hebrew slaves survived. They were brought out of Egypt and given the Torah, at which point they became Jewish. Since then, Jewish people have suffered all sorts of forms of oppression. Still we have survived. Many have fallen along the way, many have turned away from the religion, but there is something that is seemingly indestructible about the Jewish spirit. I take great strength from this. This Pesach I may well be a slave to my fight against Genghis. But I have hope that, like my ancestors, I will find a way out of the slavery and be able to flourish. If Pharaoh did not destroy us, if anti-Semitism has not destroyed us, if the Holocaust did not destroy us, then I am damned if my own Genghis is going to destroy me.