Remembering on Passover

“If you stop remembering, you forget…”

File Under: Holidays

One of my favorite movies of all time is the Barry Levinson film Avalon. The film chronicles the story of three generations Krichinsky family and their assimilation from Polish immigrants to Americans. It is a moving and heartbreaking depiction of what gets lost in the name of progress and how without any malice or ill intention the strongest of family traditions can slowly fade away.

This year as I sat between my two sons at our Passover table for five I was struck by the memories of all of the Passovers of my childhood and a yearning to return to those places and times.

For my family, Passover was the family holiday. In my memory, no one missed a seder. Our family wasn’t strict about the night on which it was held. It was more important that everyone
attended. As a child, it felt like there were hundreds of people crammed into my aunt and
uncle’s house. There was the great uncle who would give you money for finding the afikomen, the great aunt who insisted on bringing a sponge cake that may have been made with actual sponge, the cousins who made me feel older and cooler by having me sit with them, and the parade of new girlfriends, boyfriends, and fiancés being brought around for approval. So many memories of relatives long-gone take place around a bowl of matzo ball soup and gefilte fish (with a carrot slice on top).

Those large seders were so long ago that as I sat at our small table it is hard to be sure that they ever really happened in the first place. That’s the problem with memory.

Did everyone always come to the seder? Did we even go every year? I honestly don’t know, but does that make the memories any less important to me? As I get lost in the heavy fog of nostalgia, I find an undeniable pleasure and joy in telling the stories of these moments to my children, after all, isn’t that exactly what we are commanded to do during the seder? In his song “Lithuania” the songwriter Dan Bern talks of all of his father’s relatives that were lost in the Holocaust he says “my only link to them is my dad, he knew them, he knew me, now he’s gone too.” There are so many relatives that my children never met, but they will know the stories because I will tell them. I will make sure that while the physical traditions may no longer be there, that distance and life has made those large gatherings much more difficult, the stories that are part of my narrative fabric will become a part of theirs.

In one of the most poignant moments of Avalon, Armin Mueller-Stahl’s character tells his son, “If you stop remembering, you forget…” So just as we are commanded to retell the story of our freedom from bondage let us also tell share our stories so that every generation can hold them as their own.

Joel Swedlove

Joel Swedlove currently serves as the Director of Youth Programs and Informal Education at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. Prior to arriving in Texas, Joel lived in Las Vegas where he worked at the Adelson Educational Campus as a Jewish music teacher, athletics assistant, and coach. Joel has gained significant experience in informal education having spent his summers as a song leader, unit head and program director for Camps Alonim, Hess Kramer and JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, respectively. Joel grew up in the Reform movement from his early summers at Camp Swig and Newman to serving as Religious and Cultural VP on NFTY Southern California's Regional Board. Upon graduating high school he served as youth group advisor and director for congregations throughout Southern California and Las Vegas. He has a deep love of movies, comic books and sports. Joel and his wife, Stephanie, are the proud parents of two boys, Ethan and Alexander.