Lord of the Rereadings

The story of Passover, which starts tonight, is about many things: the evils of slavery, the horrors of matzo, the strange utility of lambs’ blood.  It’s the story of a journey through the desert to find a peoples’ identity, of golden calves and parting seas.  It is a mythos so grand only Cecil B. DeMille could do it justice.

Now, the story of the War of the Ring is also about many things: the evils of, um, evil, the horrors of lembas bread, the strange utility of hobbits’ courage.  It’s the story of a journey through Middle Earth to save a peoples’ identity, of golden rings and parting companies.  It is a mythos so grand only Peter Jackson could do it justice.

What is the Haggadah but a Tolkien-esque description of a feast?  What is Tolkien’s expository prose but a biblical description of lineages and rules?  Gandalf may as well have returned from his battle with the Balrog on the peak of Zirakzigil with two stone tablets inscribed with commandments (though number 1 would probably read “Thou shalt not pass”).

The parallels are not usually too obvious to me — or fine, to anyone — but today’s the first night of Passover and I happen to be pretty much smack in the middle of rereading The Lord of the Rings (Faramir has just captured Frodo and Sam, for those of you who care about chronology).  I think the last time I read LotR, I was about to be bar mitzvahed — which happened a mind-numbing twelve years ago yesterday.

Twelve years is a long time between sojourns into Middle Earth, and rediscovering the books is really more like reading them for the first time.  I almost never reread books (the exception here being a period of my life between ages 12 and 18 when I spent an inordinate amount of time with a boy whose name starts with “H” and rhymes with “Larry Dotter”).  There are always too many other things in my queue, too many other worlds and words to visit.  I have a bookshelf full of novels I love, but I can be sucked back into that feeling just by glancing at the titles and covers: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay drops me in my Stanford apartment right after sophomore year, sweltering in the summer heat after my day in lab; Lolita puts me on the U-Bahn in Berlin, eyes jumping up and down the page with the bumps of the train; Cat’s Cradle whisks me back onto a plane, squinting against the economy overhead light as we hurtle towards Korea.

So I’m surprised, this time through, that The Lord of the Rings is so different than I remember it.  At 13, I couldn’t stand Tolkien’s page-long descriptions of the flowers growing in Ithilien, or the reflections in the Mirrormere — and now I marvel at his descriptive powers.  In junior high, my favorite character was Aragorn (and not the Viggo Mortensen conflicted-hero weight-of-the-world am-I-truly-fit-to-rule Aragorn, but Tolkien’s I-am-the-lord-of-men fear-the-flame-of-Andúril no-fucks-giving Aragorn) — but now I see much more of myself in the pensive eyes of Faramir or the impetuous hands of Boromir.  The landscape is the same, but my mind has shifted.  The world has changed, as Galadriel would say, I feel it in the water.  I feel it in the earth.  Much that once was is lost.

I feel the same about the story of Passover, and here’s where the real connection begins, beyond the kitschy references to common story-telling tropes.  The Haggadah is the same every year: the same story, the same centerpiece, the same prayers, the same songs, the same order.  Part of the observance of Passover is rejoicing in that structure and order, over and over, the same repetition and the same celebration through generation and generation until it lands on your table again, unchanged, as your grandparents and their grandparents and their grandparents knew it.

The landscape is always the same.  But the day is always different.

Passover today is missing the things that made it Passover to me when I was younger: my grandfather’s brisket, my great aunt’s jello molds, the hazy late-afternoon light in that Encino condominium now so many years removed from the Winger family.  The story, the ritual, the seder plate — they stand tall and constant, like a pillar of rock in a turbulent sea, as the waves of generations ebb and flow and crash around them.

Much that once was is lost, the quote goes, for none now live who remember it.  The comforting thing about tradition — and, thanks to Peter Jackson’s indelible film trilogy, Middle Earth — is that it’s easy to remember, easy to fall back into familiar melodies and recipes, even if the last time you thought about them was a year or more ago.  To me, Passover and all these Jewish holidays aren’t a particularly religious experience.  They’re not even historical, though that facet appears, too.  They are, instead, a deeply personal remembrance: remembering my grandfather leading the seder, recalling my mother teaching me the four questions, summoning the things and people once dear to me that have faded into myth, into legend, into a land across a sea and far away from home and hearth.

(Not, of course, literally summoning them in some sort of Aragorn-commanding-the-Dead-Men-of-Dunharrow way.  I’m done with that metaphor.)

I realize as I type this it sounds dour, but I don’t mean it that way.  I’m glad to have some checkpoints throughout the year that make me stop and think about the past — it’s far too easy to get trapped in the present.  So, this Passover: l’chaim, to life, to past, to future.  Here’s hoping yours is filled with joy and laughter — and great food, with just enough matzo to remind you how good real food is.

…And here’s hoping I wait another twelve years before rereading these books again.  They’re really goddamn long.