There is a crescent stretch of beach and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There is a two-hour wait at customs to get in, and swarms of mosquitos that move into the house you’ve rented at dusk. God help you if you tarry too long on that beach, admiring that sunset, if you’ve forgotten the Skin So Soft, ordered via Amazon Prime, two days before you made the trip.
“How can you have a seder in Jamaica?” my daughter, Anielle, had asked before we landed.
A good question. One we had only begun to wrestle with, one the ancient writers of the Haggadah, parsing the contours of freedom, might have appreciated.
Passover on an island where the legacies of slavery glare? What’s more, the house we had rented came with a staff: two women, two men, who changed our sheets and cleaned our toilets and created fresh squeezed coconut milk and black bean stews, initiated us in the arts of aloe balms, plantains smoked on the grill, and everything jerk.
The first time our family journeyed to the villa in Runaway Bay, nearly a year before, troubled by Jamaica’s history and America’s, too, we had resisted the staff’s efforts. We could make our own meals, scramble our own eggs, cut our own papaya chunks. But Cheryl, the gentle-voiced house manager, took me aside on the first day and assured me that this was our vacation, and they wanted to “take good care” of us. And so, we acquiesced, feeling the guilt, mixed in with delight: how good it is to be taken care of, what a rare thing that is in our harried New York City lives.
Janet, Oliver and Cheryl did much of the cooking, all the linens, all the grilling. But each of us wandered into the kitchen at various hours of the day: chopping kalaloo, sautéing curried rice, frying onions, swatting mosquitos. And conversations emerged; ones that chipped away at some of the barriers that separate us.
Anielle pointed out that our family would benefit from Jamaica’s dependence on tourist dollars to make its economy run. But was that a good enough reason to avoid Jamaica altogether? Wouldn’t our stay ultimately serve, at least, the handful of people whose lives we touched?
At nearly sixty, I reside in a more mottled and messy version of the world than my daughter does. Within the shading, the ambivalence, and the discomfort. And some part of me was probably hoping we might begin to strip away the layers of racism that had accrued in all of us. I wanted to take on what James Baldwin, a more recent prophet of liberation, calls, “our system of reality” and some of its assumptions, too.
Another family, one that had been performing the seder ritual with us for the past 25 years, would join us. The other father was a rabbi, but I coordinated the second seder night, inspired by the women’s seders that had sprung up years ago. I had stumbled onto the notion that the seder is about locating the narrow places of our own psyches, as well as those of the larger worlds we live in. The seder is about connecting internal strands to the larger Jewish and human story.
It isn’t only about plagues that happened thousands of years ago in Egypt. It’s about us. In the early years, our two families had all sat on a Miami beach, Haggadah-less, on the second night. We retold the story. With the roar of the ocean behind and a luminous moon above fueling our imaginations, we could be—for a brief time—an enslaved people journeying from Mitzrayim. When the kids grew older, we did the telling communally, each of us trying to locate a particular plot point that we identified with.
One year, as a young mother of three, I found myself in the midst of the Crossing of the Sea, flailing, fearful, overwhelmed. Another Pesach, I was Moses standing before the burning bush, inspired and daunted by the immensity of the freedom project looming ahead. To do seder this way allowed all of us to connect more deeply with the psychic truths of the story.
But in the past few years, our two families had outgrown the cramped Miami apartments. The children, now in their late twenties, one with his own family, wanted more space.
And so, a weighted decision: Jamaica.
When we alighted from the van at the villa, Janet, the cook I had chopped kalaloo with the year before, greeted me with a hug. Her eyes welled in recognition. “You came back,” she said. Janet had fallen hard for my son Micah, who has put in time as a chef at Gramercy Tavern. He spent whole hours in Janet’s kitchen last March, learning jerk seasonings and a decidedly 1950’s method of cake baking featuring their secret ingredient: The Duncan Hines box.
He was the main reason we had come to Jamaica. He had been quoting Bob Marley to us since his teens. “So if you are a big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down.” He had wanted to make a pilgrimage to Marley’s grave, and so that first time, we had asked the real estate agent about a house somewhere near that site. “Please find a place that partakes of the real Jamaica, beyond the confines of tourist hotels,” we asked.
Hence, this stretch of beach on Runaway Bay, a beach so breathtaking that Jamaicans drive some forty minutes to get to it. And real enough that, 40 paces down, there was a jerk bar where the locals gathered, a public beach where a dozen women held water aerobics classes at dawn, where, on Sundays, an entire school of karate students ranging in age from four to seventy, met, wading into the waters to practice their jabs and kicks with the weight of the Caribbean against them, karate gi’s dripping.
You had to walk a half mile down to come anywhere near the tourists—there a massive all-inclusive lurked. But in between, there was a public park, wooden shacks where Jamaicans sold woodcarvings of angel- fish and giraffe, and a dozen or so guys offering ganja.
By the third day, as my silver-haired husband, Carmi, and I strolled past the young men, they no longer wanted to sell to us. “Hello mama, hello papa,” they called.
What I came to know, to learn, was a form of warmth; nurture that seems distinctly antithetical to the place I live and grow in now. The way Janet cooked for us, that taste of love and care in the food. The opposite of how my friend, Dana, and I usually cook for our two families for Passover—rushing to get it all done so we can get back outside, into the sunshine.
When I tried to chase Janet out at the tail end of the day, telling her that we could finish the rest, she’d say, “Oh honey, I just have to finish cookin’ the rice. I loves you people.” A cynic would say she was just doing her job. But it felt as if we had broken through to something real on this second sojourn in Jamaica, at Passover no less, something akin to what Baldwin talks about in “The Fire Next Time,” another Haggadah on freedom:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. Love not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
That grace that Baldwin speaks of was palpable among the people we came to know. When we would scurry around the villa, constructing elaborate plans for a day trip, Oliver, the house butler, would whisper, in a tone equal parts bemusement and chastisement, too, “There’s no place like ya’ar.” (no place like where you are.)
Oliver seemed to know some essential something that I didn’t, an integrity he’d earned through the deep and difficult circumstances of his own life, a life I only glimpsed when we rode by in our van on the way to a market or waterfall—the metallic shacks piled on a green hillside, the stray dogs and tumbledown houses and dirt roads. Oliver seemed to be able to see beneath the surface of things in a way I could not.
The “great spiritual resistance” that Baldwin sings could be felt here. Glimpsed in Janet, too, as we chattered away each day in her kitchen, chopping and sautéing onions, in what had become my afternoon ritual.
Janet had worked for years as a maid in one of the mammoth hotels. A chef there spotted her and asked if she wanted to learn to cook. She has been with the Jamaican owners of the house we rented ever since, for over twenty years. At the end of our last trip, she slipped us their phone number.
This time, before we said goodbye, when my husband pressed an extra set of bills into her palm, Janet told him she was saving money for her own house. She is 48, a grandmother who also has a five-year-old son at home. And the man she lives with, his father, refuses to marry her.
One day when we talked in the hot kitchen, she grew quiet. “I don’t know why he doesn’t want to get married,” she said.
I had treaded into that sticky place in the conversation where, in these later years, I am more willing to stay, going slowly, rather than backing out. I guess I wanted to comfort her, to provide a shred of the love and sustenance she had offered to us. Perhaps we could make a kind of subtle healing here, between the worlds, between the legacies of slavery and of privilege, too. But Janet wasn’t saying anything more. I had stumbled into the painful, real territory of her life. One she mostly put aside when she showed up for work each day.
“Does that happen here sometimes?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. Now I was certain we had come to one of those divides that could never be crossed in a one-week vacation. I live in a particular sphere of Upper West Side Jews, where men, at least for now, tend to marry the women they make children with.
My level of comfort with Janet, who traveled from the hills near Browns-town, a place some thirty kilometers inland, to work here each day, and who would not have her day off until Friday, when we left, was, this many days in, deep. But there were so many things a conversation could never fix.
I went over to hug her and then turned back to the green beans. “It’s different where I come from,” I whispered, “In America.” I said it as a kind of apology, for everything.
A few nights before, at a great wood table set on the veranda, our two families had looked into the narrows and widening spaces of our lives at a second seder. My son, Zach, who happens to be a rabbi, had added a wife and baby to our tribe.
Zach wanted to talk about the part of the story just before the Israelites leave Egypt, when God leaps over the Jewish houses and also strikes down the Egyptian firstborns. A troubling juncture, riddled with questions of responsibility, guilt, reward and punishment, the nature of good and evil.
Many have grappled with this ugly juncture—the death of the Egyptian firstborn, the idea that others had to be punished so we could emerge, triumphant.
Zach had no answers to these questions. Instead, he told a midrash about wandering the Brooklyn Botanical Garden with his newborn child asleep on his chest, and coming upon the bonsai trees.
“Bonsais are grown, always, off center,” Zach said, because “the Japanese want to leave that empty middle space for the Divine.” A place carved out and left unmarred—for the unexplained, for mystery, for widening possibility, for all the divides that can’t be healed and all the questions that cannot be answered. A place, maybe, for humility before the great mysteries. For acceptance, too.
Maybe that’s all the seder is, whether it takes place in a cramped hotel on the Miami strip, or here in Jamaica — of all places — a place to do the telling, to ask all of the bright and dangerous questions.
The seder is a time to sit together, and make space, to open something wider within, to think about the world and its stories and its experiences, and to try to take small steps toward redemption.
As I prepare for Passover this year, I think of Janet in her kitchen by the sea, which is not really hers, after all. What is it that allows her to open her heart so wide?
I think of the eyes of the women at the Browns-town market, surrounded by piles of cho cho and pyramids of mango.
I think of the too bright sunlight on Jamaican faces, young men selling ganga or wooden giraffes, children wading into the sea on Sunday mornings, karate gi’s straining against the tide.
I think of a far-off island filled with people who seem to embody freedom in their very gait, in their lilting rhythms, in their faces.
Shelly R. Fredman is an NPR contributor whose writing has appeared in Tablet Magazine, Best Jewish Writing and numerous literary magazines. She is at work on a memoir.