My friend Susie asked me to recommend a “goodhaggadah” for her seder. Tell me first about your guests, I said. Arethere many children? Grandparents? Republicans? Buddhists? Today,selecting a haggadah is a form of Rorschach test, a unique,personalized snapshot of you in the here and now, never to beduplicated again.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a simple andstraightforward tale of degradation, resistance and rebellion, butthese days, the prisms we see it through could not be more complex.There are feminist, environmentalist, Reform, Conservadox andReconstructionist rewritings of the story – not to mention thespecial Holocaust evocation written by Elie Wiesel. I could no morepick out a haggadah for you than I could choose your wedding dress.No haggadah today is one size fits all.
But it’s not politics and lifestyle alone thatmandate different strokes of the haggadic pen; the Passover sederis an entertainment worthy of A&E. On the Internet, there aredirections for how and where to procure locusts and frogs for aminiature “sound and light” show of real plagues, an interactiveExodus for the kids. The adults must be kept awake, too.
“It is no easy task to keep the seder experienceperpetually meaningful,” writes Rabbi David Blumenfeld and his eightco-authors in the introduction to “Keeping the Spirit Alive,” asupplement to the seder published by The United Synagogue ofConservative Judaism. The call of “when do we eat,” once a Passovertradition, is now an insult to the seder leader, an indication thathe or she has failed to ascend the ladder of spiritualinsight.
Picking out a haggadah and leading the seder was asimpler task in my grandfather’s day: there was the version we called”the whole thing.” Boredom was an expected part of seder, part of itsdelight.
But uniformity was not the whole story. Thoughthere were no choice in the matter of liturgy, interpretation wasanother matter. And this is as it should be: The haggadah says we aremandated to tell the story to fit the specific needs of those at thetable as the story of the Four Children implies. But like children,adults also want to be catered to.
I’ve been thinking about the seders long past, andsee them bathed in the glow of their specific eras. Not acookie-cutter seder among them. Here are a few:
A New Deal seder. Myparents were children of the Depression, and the seders of mychildhood were a cram course in Democratic New Deal-type politics,with a pro-labor pitch. Sure we Jews were slaves in Egypt, as theHaggadah says. Yes, Pharoah was an evil ruler. But there werecompensations. Somehow I had the distinct impression that buildingthe pyramids was one vast Works Projects Administration program. Atour seder table, unemployment was one of the Ten Plagues. And theclimax of the story was when the workers, er, slaves, organized andappealed to God for their freedom.
A post-Korean War seder. My uncle Bernie served in Korea, arriving after the UnitedNations cease-fire. Thus our seders in the late 1950s weremini-courses in American foreign policy. When he read “With a mightyhand and an outstretched arm,” my uncle clearly was indicating thatGen. Douglas MacArthur had a role in the Exodus and that Americanmilitary might helped part the Red Sea.
A civil rights seder. As a teenager in the 1960s, I went to Jewish summer campwhere Peter, Paul and Mary tunes of social action were part of thesong leader’s repertoire along with “Hatikvah.” At the seder tablethe following spring, I introduced “If I Had a Hammer,” with its callfor “love between my brothers and my sisters” of all races andcreeds. “Go Down Moses,” became a fixed part of our song list, rightafter “Chad Gadya.”
The dumbed-down seder. I was married now, and my friends and I had youngchildren. The seders were by definition short. I distributed crayonsand haggadah coloring books. The father of the youngest child readthe Four Questions. Soup was the main course and everyone was home inan hour. What was lost in detail we made up in passion anddirt.
Refusenik seders.The seders start to blend together now, as the tyrants come swiftlythroughout the 1980s. “In every generation” they rose up against us,first imprisoning Anatoly Sharansky in Siberia, the Chinesedissidents in Tieneman Square, and Nelson Mandela. But the times werechanging. My guests stopped relating to political enslavement, andstarted thinking of the psychological variety.
Creativity seders.During the years of feminist empowerment, I wrote my own haggadah,eliminating sexist language and avoided overt reference to God.Somehow the miracle of freedom occurred, because the Jews wanted itstrongly enough.
The spiritual seder.Today, our seder leaders reclaim Jewish ritual by going back to theHebrew. The seders that bored us as children are now filled withscintillating detail. We know 15 different interpretations of theword “Mitzrayim”– the Egypt of our enslavement that also means birth canal, thechannel through which all new life must flow. And chametz is not just the yeastedbread we can’t eat for eight days, but also a metaphor for ego, forambition, for the false idols which bulk up our lives. Many of uscan’t get enough of the sayings of Rabbis Eliezer, Joshua andTarphon.
Maybe next year we’ll be ready for the MaxwellHouse “unabridged deluxe” version – the “real thing.” In the meantime, the best way to enjoy your seder, is to be here now.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. She hosts a Thursday evening chat room on AmericaOnline at 8 p.m. EST. Keyword: JEWISH CHAT. Her e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org
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