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My lockdown mission: learn to read Hebrew for Passover

Oscar Kaspi-Crutchett
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Published: 7 May 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Isolation gave Oscar Kaspi-Crutchett time to reconnect with his Jewish heritage around the Seder plate

STIR-CRAZY FIRST WORLDERS seeking to keep boredom at bay have spearheaded an unprecedented revival of domestic rituals. In some households it’s been bread baking, in others, reading classic literature. In my house, it’s Judaism.

I’ve never had much time on my hands. I am a compulsive hobbyist and in true Jewish fashion, very invested in my studies and work. Before coronavirus colonised daily life, I juggled a frenzied, headache-inducing schedule, jumping on trams, buses and bikes to squeeze in work, university and whatever passion projects were on my mind. I was a dedicated disciple of the cult of productivity.

In late January I first encountered serious talk of a quarantine. The nebulous phrase “social distancing” began to rear its head, slowly at first and later daily. Soon the prospect of a long pause to my industrious routine became very real.

I was, and still am, in two minds about this new life at home. There was, of course, discomfort about being trapped. I thought: “How on earth will I get anything done?” But there was also a sense of relief. I could finally stop and breathe, and I wouldn’t have to feel guilty, because it was my civic duty to stop and breathe.

Suddenly, I had more empty days on my hands than at any point since the sleepy summer holidays of high school. There is little to be grateful for when it comes to an international pandemic, but for this I was. The unhurried and organic pace of the day, the late mornings, the halt of impulse consumption, the contraction of life’s noise and bustle - it helped direct my attention to what I really valued and what I really wanted to spend my time doing.

With the tyranny of deadlines lifted, I embarked on a leisurely endeavour to reconnect  with my roots and do something meaningful.
The slower rhythm of these past few months hasn’t all been rosy, but it has given me an opportunity to reconnect with my culture.

Jewish culture has always been part of my life. Hebrew was my first language, my family made periodic visits to Israel and we celebrated most of the high holidays. It was never close to strict observance, but from a young age I enthusiastically identified as a Jewish-Australian.

With time, my identity muddled and morphed as every year ushered in fresh influences on my self-perception. First sexuality, later my nationality and finally my social class. My Hebrew grew rusty, I spent more time at protests then in synagogue and after my grandmother passed away, I had no more close relatives in Israel.

There was always a nagging sense of mourning and failed obligation. I so wanted to be more engaged, to get back in touch, to honour my proud ancestry that had survived so much.

This year that nagging finally translated into action. My mission was set, and it was typically ambitious to the point of fanciful - but unlike many other goals and side interests, I was determined to get this done.

I set myself the goal of learning to fluently read and write the Hebrew alphabet, which I had never learned. I wanted to be able to read Hebrew texts, and even more, to create them. On top of that, I sought to host my own Passover Seder with my housemates and to brush up on my knowledge of Jewish history.

Using Duolingo,  a very long audiobook,  and a WikiHow page titled “How to Set up a Seder”, I have set out on these objectives and the outcomes have given me a newfound sense of appreciation for the culture I’ve come from.

Regular bilingual phone calls and writings with my Israeli-born mother have honed my skills and encouraged me to carry on. The enthusiasm and interest from my non-Jewish housemates also keep me motivated.

When Passover finally came, I had the pleasure of introducing four young inquisitive people to my favourite Jewish holiday. We told the oddly relevant story of the Ten Plagues, discussed the intricate symbolism of the Seder plate and pondered over the significance of freedom in our lives and what we could do to further it.

By the end of the evening, “l’chaim” and “next year in Jerusalem!” became household phrases and my friends thanked me kindly for the experience. I reflected on how affirming it felt to participate in these ancient traditions, so rich in complexity and teeming with hereditary wisdom often more applicable to our lives in the 21st century than we care to realise.

The slower rhythm of these past few months hasn’t all been rosy, but it has given me an opportunity to reconnect with my culture. I look forward to next Passover, when, I hope, we will all be free to move about as we please, and can again come together in celebration and learning about this wonderful heritage I am so lucky to have inherited.

 

About the author

Oscar Kaspi-Crutchett

Oscar Kaspi-Crutchett is a journalist and political commentator based in Canberra. In 2017, Oscar founded and directed Students for Marriage Equality Australia. He currently works in the Commonwealth Parliament and is completing a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at ANU.

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