While most Christians in the Clovis area are preparing to celebrate Easter, a few area residents observed the far more ancient Jewish festival of Passover on Monday night and Tuesday.
“In the Jewish religion, family is intertwined with the religion. There really is no separation of the religion from the family,” said Capt. Mike Nachshen, who was a Jewish lay leader at another military base before coming to Cannon Air Force Base.
“Tradition is the other portion of it; it is a chance to basically tell the story of the exodus, which is thousands of years old and dates back to the time when God brought the Jews out of slavery in Egypt,” Nachshen said. “Since that time there has been the Passover observance.”
“Obviously there is a change in the language and the customs, but the core of the Passover, remembering the exodus from Egypt, that has not changed,” Nachshen said.
Nachshen said maintaining a sense of tradition is very important to Jewish families.
“This is amazing — how many other customs have survived this long?” Nachshen said. “Maybe one or two other cultures have survived this long, and through the face of such adversity through the crusades, the holocaust, the destruction of the temple, it is a bond with the people of the past and strengthening the family ties.”
The central purposes of the Passover, Nachshen said, include teaching the meaning of the Passover to young Jewish children. The youngest child present at the Passover meal, known as the seder, will recite four questions from the Haggadah — the Jewish order of service — usually doing so in Hebrew.
“What makes this night different from all (other) nights?” the child asks.
Then the answers are given, in order:
“On all nights we need not dip even once, on this night we do so twice!”
“On all nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, and on this night only unleavened.”
“On all nights we eat any kind of vegetables, and on this night bitter herbs!”
“On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline!”
The meaning of each of those customs is taught to Jewish children, helping them understand the purpose of the event.
“The traditional seder emphasizes the role of the family. Everybody in the family has a role to play,” Nachshen said. “I can remember the four questions by heart in Hebrew; my father taught them to me. The youngest person, I was five years old at the time, was incorporated into the act led by my grandfather, the oldest person.”
While the basic meaning and purpose of the Passover remains unchanged, Nachshen said the person leading the observance may be more or less traditional in determining how it is led.
“Seder means order, and there is a definite order to how you do things, but different people have different ways of doing things,” Nachshen said. “My grandfather runs a very traditional seder with a lot of reading in Hebrew and when my mom ran the seder it was very different and a very special experience.”
While serving in the military means he usually has to be far away from any large Jewish communities, Nachshen said he has been pleased to be a member of the Air Force. At Cannon there are only a handful of Jewish airmen and officers, and there usually aren’t enough people to have the required minyan or quorum for Sabbath services.
But Nachshen said he is glad to be able to observe Jewish traditions at home.
“I think I feel if anything the military is really a great place to be Jewish,” Nachshen said. “ We are a cross-section of America. When people ask what my religion is and I say, ‘I am Jewish,’ they say, ‘Wow, that’s cool, I don’t know much about your religion.’”
While Clovis doesn’t currently have a sizable Jewish community, Shirley Rollinson of Eastern New Mexico University said the frontier communities of New Mexico once saw a number of Jewish families passing through as merchants. One of Clovis’ streets — Vohs Place — was named for a Jewish family, she said.
“In thinking about the early days of the state, the Jewish traders, the merchants were the ones willing to get up and go and leave traditions,” Rollinson said. “Just to move to the West would be leaving family and tradition behind, so to them observances like Passover became very important.”