Ghosts of Passovers Past

I have never quite gotten used to celebrating two seders.

After doing only one seder for each of the nine Passovers I was in Israel, the second night now seems like religious deja vu, a "Groundhog Day," where I’m setting the table yet again, rereading the haggadah and singing the same songs, thinking that if only I get it right this time, I won’t have to relive the night once more.

In my life, I figure, I’ve been at almost 50 seders — 60, if you count the whirlwind week in Ukraine when we led them daily for the locals — and looking back through the years, I can chart the course of my life: location, family status, relationships, religious level, political affiliations and — thank God there were no photographs — some embarrassing fashion eras.

My first 17 Passovers, I did two seders in Brooklyn with the five members of my immediate family, plus guests. For me, the highlights of both nights focused on the afikomen ritual. The hiding of the second matzah somewhere in the house was accompanied by an intricate set of clues, which my father dispensed sparingly throughout the long night. So what if the clues weren’t always historically accurate ("Give me liberty or give me death" = Thomas Paine = windowpane = on the windowsill), the game served its purpose: it kept us awake, children and parents alike. Back then, it seemed to be about the prize we’d receive if we negotiated well (you can’t complete the meal unless you eat a piece of it), but now I see it was about engaging us, connecting us to a tradition that was partly sourced in the custom, partly personalized by our own eclectic families.

I was 18 when I spent my first Passover away from home in Jerusalem on vacation from yeshivah. As learned and religious as I was at the time, it was a disappointment to find myself at a fast-paced, no-nonsense, no-time-for-commentary seder. It was a surprise, really; I had no idea that all seders weren’t like mine — with various degrees of fighting over how many sections you could expound upon or how long you could drag the songs out.

This Israeli modern Orthodox family did a rat-a-tat reading around the table (one which I would long for in later years), and I had to stumble over my paragraph in embarrassingly accented American Hebrew. Alas, there was no afikomen search! But praise the lord, there were presents. In an odd custom I have yet to see repeated, when the cup of Elijah was filled and we opened the door, a secret Santa had left a bag of goodies outside, wrapped and ribboned, with our names on them.

Since that seder, I have seen many different customs, from the children hiding the afikomen from their parents, to the different types of must-have seder night foods. When you aren’t at your own seder, you are forced to adopt other people’s customs ("I hope you eat kitniyot," my Conservative friend said the year I was out in Rosh Ayin, which was the beginning of my adaptation of Sephardic custom on Passover) and take on other tunes (by the end of one potluck seder my friends and I were so tired of fighting for our own melodies that everyone just cacaphonously sang out loud the last song simultaneously in their own favorite tune).

But it wasn’t all fun and games. For many of the seders, I had meticulously prepared something meaningful, though what was meaningful, I see now, changed along with me. In my early 20s it was Torah insights on the text. During my years living in Israel, it was Zionist-type commentary, and as I got older, I related the text to contemporary issues: feminism, human rights, the meaning of freedom.

In 1998, I went with Hillel students to the former Soviet Union and conducted seders for both the elderly, who remembered forgotten tunes from the years before communism, or for the younger ones, who could hardly grasp the concept of religion but sure could understand freedom.

People find freedom in the most unlikely of places, such as prison (see page 10), the holy breaking of the waves, the state of Israel or the original Exodus. "In every generation let every man look upon himself as if he came forth out of Egypt," is the Passover commandment that stresses the quest to turn the journey into a personal one.

From New York to Miami to Kiev, Jerusalem and California, all my seders were different — yet all had some elements that were the same: not just the wine, the matzah, the fight over seating arrangements or the falling asleep at the table, but the sense of connectedness to each other, to our past, to our future.

At a time of great fear for Israel, for Jews everywhere — for humanity — Passover is here to teach us that we may not share certain traditions, interpretations or opinions, but as Jews we share a common past and a cojoined destiny.

Happy Passover.