Our fortieth anniversary celebrated a marriage that had survived 429 tubes of toothpaste squeezed from the wrong end, three children and three sets of braces, five dogs and four homes, 2,583 arguments and just that many reconciliations, one bout of prostate cancer, one near conversion to Judaism, one near divorce, a few months of perfect hate, and forty years of love. We celebrated our forty years of marriage with a three-week trip to South America.
We were in Cusco, Peru, a charming colonial town and the departure city for travelers bound for Machu Picchu. It was Passover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc).. For twenty years, since those early days when I’d studied Judaism and nearly divorced because of it, I’d celebrated Passover. Even when, for the sake of peace in the family I’d given up my dream of conversion, I’d celebrated the sacred feast in my own way. On the night before Passover, I would take a walk in the full moonlight. Each Lit. Evening Jewish holidays begin in the evening. Hence, Erev Shabbat is the eve of the Sabbath. Passover, I remembered how God had rescued me from feelings or behaviors that had threatened to enslave me – and I thanked my God for mercy. This Passover, I was especially grateful – not only for my marriage but also for my decision to return to Judaism – and for my husband’s understanding and support. As night covered the city of Cusco, I realized that I’d not be able to see the moon from our hotel.
“Would you mind if we walked to the town square,” I asked my husband Joe. “It’s Passover. I need to pray.”
“Sure, I’d love to,” he said.
We walked hand in hand past buildings constructed by Incan natives, appropriated by Spanish warriors, and converted by New World settlers to churches, government houses, and villas. When we reached the square, the large open space allowed a perfect view of the Passover moon. Joe and I stood on steps in front of a large building. I gazed at the full moon and I tried to pray.
Suddenly, I felt uneasy, fearful. What was wrong? I was safe. Joe was at my side. Still I felt discomfort. I tried again to pray. Fear, this time stronger. What was going on? We’d been to foreign countries on Passover before. This had never ever happened. I tried to pray again. No. Instead, little scraps of terror.
“Joe, this isn’t working,” I said. “I can’t pray. Let’s just go back to the hotel. I’ll do my Passover tradition tomorrow night.”
“I don’t mind staying a little longer,” Joe said.
“No, I really don’t want to. I don’t know what’s wrong. I feel afraid. I don’t know why. I know one thing for sure though, I can’t pray.”
We turned to walk back to the hotel.
“Oh my God!” said Joe.
“What?” I said.
“I know why you can’t pray.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the building we’ve been standing in front of,” he said.
I turned around. I looked at the building, and then at the words inscribed on the stones.
Locale de la Inquisition. Place of the Inquisition.
Joe put his arms around me and led me back to our hotel.
The next morning I asked our guide.
“Ah yes,” he said. “250 years ago many Jews were murdered on that spot.”
Locale de la Inquisition. In my imagination, I saw 537 men tortured for their faith and 463 women stripped of their dignity. I saw 10,000 tears fall from the faces of Jewish children as their parents passed by. I saw my spiritual ancestors burned for the faith that I hold dear.
How was that night different from all other nights? That was the night I knew that I had passed over. To the core of my soul, I knew that I was a Jew.
Rabbi Nadyne Eliana Lee is a Vatika/Sage-ing® Mentor, a Spiritual Director, author of several books, including Funerals for Interfaith Families, and co-creator of Recipes for a Full Life. Nadyne is a retired pediatric nurse practitioner. She lives with her husband, Joe in rural Kentucky.