Take this matza, it is my body

In Food and Drink, Religion
April 1, 2006

As a Jewish person living in a Christian country, I’m fascinated by how the patterns of life of the two religions twist around each other, touching intimately at some points, then suddenly distant. While we’re having Chanukah, a very minor festival, Christians are having their biggest celebration of the year. And yet, there are those eight days of feasting between Christmas and New Year, mirroring the eight days of Chanukah. At Sukkot, when we go outdoors, building huts in our gardens and decorating them with fruit, Christians bring the outdoors inside with harvest festival. Even the pattern of the week has a strange diagonal symmetry. At the start of the weekend, we sit around a table with our families and begin a meal by blessing the bread and wine. Towards the end of the weekend, Christians go to church and receive a ritualised version of this meal.

I suppose it makes sense. Christianity, after all, was created by Jews and it’s no surprise that they took their patterns of life with them. That’s a rather Jewish way of looking at it. Christians might say that the Jewish way of life simply prefigured the true and final revelations of the second Testament. This disagreement is where we come to grief, of course, so I’ll pass over it quickly. It amounts to the same thing – the origins of Christianity mean that it is tightly wound around Judaism, Jewish belief, Jewish practice.

We’re approaching the part of the calendar where, for me anyway, the simultaneous alignment and misalignment becomes most acute: Passover. Seder night is emotional blotting paper at the best of times – a powerful all-sense experience, it accumulates associations and memories like no other part of the year. (I suspect Christians feel the same about Christmas – another half-twist of the calendar.) Every approaching Passover reminds me of those that have gone before: the tantrums and door-slamming of my teenage years, the year when, a few weeks before finals, I put my hand on the hot electric hob, the year I spent without my family.

The experience of being an Orthodox Jew gives me a strange kind of empathy for Jesus and his disciples. I disagree with them about very many important issues but still, their lives were recognisably like mine. Thinking about Passover like this makes me wonder if the last supper really was the last, or if it just felt like that, if the power of Seder night made all the other meals that came afterwards seem utterly redundant. I suppose, as an Orthodox Jew I should add the suffix “that is, if Jesus really existed at all”, but it seems mealy-mouthed. Crucifixion and resurrection do nothing for me spiritually, but the lives depicted in that second Testament seem pretty convincing. And I imagine that if you’d seen your friend tortured to death, the last Seder night you’d spent in his company would engulf all other memory.

All of this is really a preamble to saying that I find, right now, that Christian life is mirroring my own in another of those strange distorting-glass ways. For Christians, it’s Lent. For me, it’s the countdown to Passover, which means that I’m doing much the same sort of thing. I took a look at my cupboards and freezer after Purim and realised that, if I was going to make any room in my kitchen for the Pesach, non-chametz food, I would have to get rid of a lot of what was already there. And, if I didn’t want to throw it away, I’d really have to make a concerted effort to eat it and, more importantly, not buy any more.

And it’s been pretty successful. Apart from fresh fruit and vegetables, I’ve bought almost no groceries in the past three weeks (a moment of madness in Harrods food hall aside). I’ve been using things up, baking bread with my stocks of flour, creating soups from my frozen veggies, finding interesting things to do with quarter-packs of barley and polenta. It feels marvellously parsimonius and, because I enjoy cooking, has also been good fun, like a permanent Ready Steady Cook challenge. I imagine that Lent has the same kind of satisfaction in denial.

At the same time, I’ve also been reading a wonderful book: Not Buying Itan account of the year the author spent buying only the bare essentials of life (she discusses in some detail how she decided what they were, and then repeatedly second-guessed herself). It’s full of insight into the consumer world we live in – every few pages she says something which makes me put the book down and think about it before continuing. She talks about the way that shopping gives us the momentary “dream of wealth”. We love being in shops because we look around at all these beautiful objects and experience the potential that they could all be ours. Until we make a decision, a purchase, in a sense they are all ours. We buy on a high, imagining that we can take that experience home with us, and so the dream of wealth ends up making us poorer.

But the author, Judith Levine doesn’t just preach abstinence from commerce. A year of living without buying anything but necessities gives her an acute consciousness of what she’s missing out on too. She says: “maybe the freedom to desire itself – the font of personal fulfillment, creativity, and democracy, to name just a few good things – is a necessity, too.” Total abstinence is no more of a solution than buying into the consumerist dream that happiness lies just one more purchase away.

I don’t say that religious periods of abstinence are a solution to this problem. But it seems to me that there’s some sense in having a time of year when you simply appreciate what you already have, the number of possibilities already afforded you. So, tonight I’m trying to work out what I could do with a tin of tomatoes, some salami, a butternut squash and a package of rice noodles. It’s not exactly a moment of spiritual clarity, but it beats going to the supermarket.

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