Tuesday, 3 April 2012

May the Taste of Honey Linger


The Registrar has just been launched as a paperback. It's very exciting and I should probably use the occasion to blog about book covers, marketing etc, but instead I'm going to dedicate this post to Passover Seder, the feast that celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The reason being that:

a) I'm going to my fourth Seder on Friday, thanks to my boyfriend's family

b) I'm finding it hard to write (or think) about anything that isn't related to the Great Rewrite; and Passover is sort of related, in that there's a Seder scene in the new book that I must have re-written about fifty times. 

Passover is one of my favourite religious holidays, and it's one that's particularly accessible to outsiders like me because it comes with a manual, the Haggadah. I'll never forget the enormous sense of relief I felt when I sat down for my first ever Seder, opened the Haggadah and realised all I had to do was follow the instructions (oh, and keep an eye on the other dinner guests to make sure my timing was ok).
It's all in there: the story of the Exodus, an explanation of why it's important, and a detailed series of steps you must take to commemorate it, from reciting prayers to spilling a little wine to show pity for the Egyptian victims of the plagues. It's a precise choreography of remembrance, and perhaps that's why I find it so moving and poignant.

Easter, by comparison, is a much more disjointed affair: there's Jesus, there's Easter bunnies, there's painted eggs. Some of the spiritual and comestible elements link up to form a narrative, eg crucifixion/Hot Cross buns. Others don't, eg resurrection/eggs. Of course they all fit the Spring/rebirth/renewal theme of Easter, but there isn't the kind of precise connection and deep tradition that you get with a Seder.
As Joan Nathan, one of the New York Times' food journalists, wrote recently, describing Passover at her house: "We may not 'eat the flesh that same night, roasted over fire', as the Book of Exodus says, but we still eat unleavened bread (and) bitter herbs."

I'm in the process of re-writing my own, fictional Seder scene once again; let's hope that this re-write will be different from all other re-writes. Maybe a second helping of stuffed artichokes (we're on the Sephardi side of the artichoke/chicken soup divide) will give me an extra creative spark.

In the meantime, I'd like to share this beautiful poem by Adrienne Rich, who died last month. It's about Jewish New Year, not Passover, but I find that it somehow fits the occasion; and it went straight into my heart the way great poems do. Thanks to the New Yorker for re-publishing it:

AT THE JEWISH NEW YEAR

For more than five thousand years,
This calm September day
With yellow in the leaf
Has lain in the kernel of Time
While the world outside the walls
Has had its turbulent say
And history like a long
Snake has crawled on its way
And is crawling onward still.
And we have little to tell
On this or any feast
Except of the terrible past.
Five thousand years are cast
Down before the wondering child
Who must expiate them all.

Some of us have replied
In the bitterness of youth
Or the qualms of middle age:
"If Time is unsatisfied,
And all our fathers have done
Can never be enough,
Why, then, we choose to forget.
Let our forgetting begin
With those age-old arguments
In which their minds were wound
Like musty phylacteries;
And we choose to forget as well
Those cherished histories
That made our old men fond,
And already are strange to us.

"Or let us, being today
Too rational to cry out,
Or trample underfoot
What, after all, preserves
A certain savor yet -
Though torn up by the roots -
Let us make our compromise
With the terror and the guilt
And view as curious relics
Once found in daily use
The mythology, the names
That, however Time has corrupted
Their authenticity,
Still burn like yellow flames,
But their fire is not for us."

And yet, however we choose
To deny or to remember -
Though, on the calendars
We wake and suffer by,
This day is merely one
Of thirty in September -
In the kernel of the mind
The new year must renew
This day, as for our kind
Over five thousand years,
The task of being ourselves.
Whatever we strain to forget,
Our memory must be long.

May the taste of honey linger
Under the bitterest tongue.

- Adrienne Cecile Rich.

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