The Common Good
March-April 1997

A Circle of Faith

by Joyce Hollyday | March-April 1997

I live encircled by an eruv—though for weeks it was invisible to my eyes. I would not have known what I was seeing, had I noticed it.

I live encircled by an eruv—though for weeks it was invisible to my eyes. I would not have known what I was seeing, had I noticed it. I was simply living in a neighborhood I had chosen because it contained one of the few affordable houses for rent in Atlanta during the pre-Olympic profit frenzy of the summer of ’95.

My unobservant eyes were opened in October, when simple structures made out of plywood, covered in branches and decorated with small lights of the sort we Christians put on Christmas trees, appeared virtually overnight in most of the yards. For a week my Orthodox Jewish neighbors observed Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths. It is a harvest celebration, and a reminder that ancient ancestors lived in temporary shelters during their years in the wilderness after the escape from Egypt (Leviticus 23:33-43).

I became more watchful then, observing the parade of neighbors in large hats and long, black coats walking to the nearby synagogue every week on Shabbat (Sabbath). Hannukah brought bright menorahs to all the living room windows, and large gatherings around meals. I walked up and down my street often at night, watching from a distance, filled with a mixture of fascination and envy. I’m drawn to the sense of ritual, to the stability that seems evident, to the strong ties of tradition, family, and community.

My housemate Elizabeth and I have befriended 9-year-old Merissa from across the street, who helps Elizabeth with her seminary Hebrew homework. Merissa especially likes Purim, the festival of Esther, with a big costume parade every March. Last year she wanted to dress up as the Easter bunny. Her parents explained the problem with that, but allowed her to wear what she wanted and dubbed her the "Esther Bunny." It was a creative response, I thought, to the inevitable tension that arises between Jewish tradition and the surrounding culture.

LAST APRIL the Gluck family at the end of the street invited me to their Passover Seder. I was only vaguely familiar with the rich symbolism of the special meal commemorating the Exodus. "Every Jewish home becomes a sanctuary, every table an altar where gratitude is expressed to God, the Author of liberty," states the Haggadah, the Passover ritual.

Young Jacob, Elon, and Benjamin gave pillows to all the guests: The Seder meal is celebrated in a reclining position, indicating that the Israelites, who as slaves ate standing up or squatting, could in freedom recline like nobility. Before us their mother, Beth, had laid wine, the symbol of joy; parsley, a sign of spring and hopeful renewal; horseradish as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt; haroseth, a sweet mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine that symbolizes the mortar and bricks with which the Israelites built cities for Pharaoh; a shank-bone and egg, symbols of the Paschal Lamb and new life.

We prayed and feasted and remembered as we observed the three-hour ritual. The boys went in search of the afikoman, a piece of matzah their father, Richard, had hidden according to custom. When they returned, we opened the door and poured a cup of wine for Elijah—prophet and champion of the oppressed—who is said to appear at every Seder. Then we paused to remember the Holocaust.

All eyes turned to the gray-haired gentleman beside me. Matt Nesbitt had been in the Royal Air Force during World War II and was one of the liberators of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He told a heart-wrenching story of sifting through piles of bodies, looking for survivors. With great emotion, he described being approached by a woman many years later, after a speech he gave about his experience. With tears in her eyes, she thanked him for saving her life. She and her sister had been in the camp, near death, and she still remembers him saying, "Give those two women sitting under that tree water, but only in small amounts until they can take more."

Given this history, I was most moved in the Passover ritual by the "rising crescendo of thanksgiving" called Dayyenu. The word defies translation, but it means essentially, "It would have been enough for us." God’s acts of mercy and provision are recounted one by one: the parting of the Red Sea, the sustenance in the wilderness, the giving of the Sabbath and Torah, the building of the temple. After the mention of each act, "Dayyenu" is proclaimed. Each deed alone would have been enough, but God is gracious beyond our imaginings.

The Seder ends with the proclamation, "Next year in Jerusalem!" It is an affirmation of a home, understandably born among a people who have suffered centuries of wandering, persecution, and diaspora. I thought of those words in recent weeks as I followed events in Hebron, in that part of the world where Jews and Muslims still struggle toward a tentative peace. The globe is filled with clashing cultures and competing claims. I am mindful of how easily we resort to divisions and separations; of how much violence we do in the name of religion.

It is worth noting that these first months in our calendar year encompass Ramadan, Passover, and Easter. It would be naive to believe that simply sitting at one another’s tables and sharing in one another’s traditions would cure all our divisions. But it seems like a start.

The eruv is a sacred, protective cord, secured from tree to tree around my neighborhood. Every Friday, just before Shabbat begins at dusk, neighbors go out and check to make sure it has not been broken. Though I remain an outsider, I am glad to live within the eruv. And I’m grateful that my eyes have been opened.

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a Sojourners contributing editor, is in the master’s of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

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