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Mah Nishtanah: Why is My Passover Different from All Other Passovers?

Mah Nishtanah: Why is My Passover Different from All Other Passovers?

Mah nishtanah? The familiar words echo through my mind, and yet, for me, they now ask a new question: Mah nishtanah, why is my Passover different from all other Passovers?

The answer comes from deep within my soul: because I now approach Passover as someone whose life has been changed by cancer. Two months before Passover last year, I was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer, a diagnosis that changed my life. Between then and now, I have experienced a battery of tests, doctors' visits, chemotherapy, a mastectomy, radiation, physical therapy, and, finally, remission.

Early on, I realized that my journey with cancer, as a Jewish woman, seemed to be my own Passover journey. Enslaved by cancer, as the Jewish people were enslaved by Pharaoh, I yearned to be free. This understanding led to my desire to create a special Haggadah for those whose lives have been affected by cancer.

Mah nishtanah, How would this Haggadah be different from all others?

I have participated in many different types of seders throughout the years: family seders, women's seders, those geared to children, chocolate seders, temple and community seders, interfaith seders. I have also used a variety of haggadot - the free ones in the supermarket, traditional ones from a temple or Judaica shop, womens' haggadot, ones designed for child-friendly seders, even the two-minute haggadot. Each of these told the Passover story in their own way, adapting to the needs they served, mentioning the symbols of Passover, the Four Questions, the Four Children, the four cups of wine, and following the familiar order. Some added new prayers and variations on the 10 plagues, Four Questions, and seder plate.

I felt that a Haggadah paralleling the Passover story with the journey experienced with cancer would be helpful for me and others dealing with this disease. I think the need for and symbolism of this haggadah reaches beyond the Jewish community to cancer patients, survivors, and their families of all faiths. As someone fighting cancer, I offer new thoughts on the Four Questions and an unusual variation on the Four Children, tell of the 10 plagues of cancer, and give new meaning to the Passover foods and symbols, the fourfold promise, the four cups of wine and some of the songs and blessings.

Mah nishtanah, what are some of my differences?

In the beginning, I was enslaved in my own way and had to go on a journey to freedom. So let me start with the fourfold promise made to Moses: "I will bring you out, I will save you, I will deliver you and I will take you." As a survivor, my additional fourfold journey is diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and remission/survival.

Rather than the Four Children, I see the four sides of oneself: the wise self, who has done research and written down questions to discuss with doctors; the frightened/wicked self, who believes (s)he has done something to deserve cancer; the simple self, who asks what all this means; and the overwhelmed self, who feels in shock and does not know what to ask. At times, I have been each of these four and know most cancer survivors feel the same way.

Mah nishtanah, how would my seder plate be different? Many women's haggadot place an orange on the seder plate, as "an orange on the seder plate belongs as much as a woman on the bimah." I would put a pomegranate on my seder plate, both to represent the strange idea of speaking about cancer at a seder and because the many seeds inside are representative of the myriad emotions anyone dealing with cancer experiences. The shank bone, as well as reminding of the ancient festival offerings or the paschal lamb, is a reminder of the strength and sacrifice one goes through during cancer treatment. The roasted egg represents the possible loss of fertility in young cancer survivors. Bitter herbs show that just as slavery to pharaoh was bitter, so too is the bitterness we feel when enslaved by cancer. The charoset represents how we must learn to "rebuild" ourselves. Saltwater is for the tears shed as one fights cancer and in memory of those who have lost this battle. Finally, karpas represents the promise of survivorship - the "spring" of this disease.

Mah nishtanah, how do I see matzah differently? We are taught that in the haste to flee Egypt, the Jewish people could not wait for their bread to rise, so they took it from the oven while still flat; we now eat matzah the bread of affliction. For me, matzah takes on several new ideas. The shock of hearing the words, "You have cancer" made much in life seem flat and made me want to flee. Time also changes for anyone dealing with cancer: We rush to be free from the enslavement of this disease, often feeling that it pursues us. Cancer made me aware that life can seem too short, that even as a survivor, there are times when it seems we cannot wait for the bread to rise. We need to learn to savor every moment, and taking time is part of our liberation.

Mah nishtanah, how is my Elijah different? Near the end of seder, we open our door for Elijah the prophet to join, us hoping that on the day this happens, there will be an end to slavery and peace brought to the whole world. My Elijah brings a cure for cancer, so that not one more person may have to suffer this disease.

Traditionally, we conclude a seder with the words, "Next year in Jerusalem," a promise of continued freedom. I would like to end with, "Next year, in a world without cancer," a prayer that in our lifetime, we will see a cure.

As we continue our journey through the coming year and begin imagining next year's sedarim, I am gathering ideas to create a Haggadah of meaning for all who living with this serious illness. If others share my vision and see the need for this Haggadah, I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has dealt with cancer, whether personally or through family and friends, and would like to contribute writings or share art and illustrations. Shalom and chag sameach!

Erin Goldstein is a member of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.

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