September 23, 2019

Bringing Seders to Life

The difficulty with Passover — all that hard work aside — is that most of us come to it with such a bundle of expectations.

We want authenticity, which I suppose means some connection to the idea of Passover itself (i.e. the haggadah: the recital of our heritage, a link to our past, the symbols and the story all coming together in a way that is both spiritual and affecting).

All too often we stumble along the way. Some among us are unfamiliar with the text; a few are uncomfortable with its length. After all, there’s a dinner to be consumed and we’re all hungry. And then the readings themselves — I leave out the very notion of singing — are in several instances stilted or forced or else just plain read badly, with little feeling and only simulated meaning. It’s a play in which we are all featured, but, sad to say, sometimes we the actors are only going through the motions. What’s missing is belief. And authenticity.

There are also seders I’ve attended where some who have assembled want to connect the drama of our escape from bondage with our present political realities. Kosovo or Blacks in America; the fate of the Iranian Jews or Deborah Lipstadt’s triumph in the British courts this past week; or even, as Rabbi Steven Jacobs writes in this issue (see page 66) the plight of L.A.’s janitors. But this last — contemporary politics, particularly as it touches on the lives of non-Jews — is not, in my experience, necessarily what everyone present at the seder wishes to hear. The more disparate the group (or, to put it another way, the less tightly bound with one another as members of an extended family) the more uncomfortable are the silent voices in the room.

At some seders the likelihood is that several men and women sitting around the table will tend to be particularistic; or just plain parochial. Passover is about the Jews, they will tell you, not Black slavery or displaced, tortured Muslims. Nor, they will add when pressed, Rabbi Jacobs notwithstanding, does it have anything to do with striking janitors.

Meanwhile they usually remain quiet and hold tight to a thin displeased smile. But they, and maybe others as well, are thinking: Please, just stick to the ritual itself. And, if that has fallen victim to popular culture’s fast rhythms and demands, has become dry and distant for lack of commitment and passion, then concentrate on the food, and the fact that our family and friends have gathered under the same roof one more time, one more year, to celebrate Passover. That is not something to take for granted; nor to dismiss with a careless wave of the hand.

My favorite Passovers all occurred when I was a child, before consciousness and expectations, and even notions of authenticity, came into play. Though even then I could recognize false gestures, as can most children, without necessarily knowing the words to describe them.

Our Passover was restricted to family and a few close friends. It was always conducted in my grandparents’ home and it was my grandfather, the patriarch, who presided. He was a cantor with a wonderful light tenor voice; he was also an orthodox Jew. But very open to experience, new ideas and, I realize now, filled with a great zest for life, even when it led to unconventional thoughts or conduct.

Music was one of his passions and so all his children had become quite accomplished performers. My oldest uncle, Henry (the first born), was a musician, a classical violinist who would skip through the seder with witty, playful and, at times, irreverent musical pieces. I was a special favorite of his and so one melody would always be chosen by me and, it seemed then, played expressly for me.

It should be added that my Uncle Henry was also a dedicated, card carrying communist, disdainful of religion, particularly orthodoxy, and always at our seders there was a moment of challenge to my grandfather — about politics, religion, tradition, the son against the father — which was accepted with grace and humor… and then deftly set aside. For all his scorn, my Uncle Henry never missed a seder. He took great delight in the occasion and, when my grandparents died, it was he who tried to carry on the tradition.

My mother was a skilled pianist and she presided at the piano — for singing, accompaniments, and just plain playing. The look of pleasure on her face, lost at the piano, was for me the sweetest moment of the seder. I found myself gazing at her with a look of wonderment.

As you can see, we sang, we laughed, we even argued. We were a family celebrating a rich moment in all our lives — at a time when life was hard, and not particularly free for Jews in America, let alone in the rest of the world.

I was too young to contemplate meta-issues. I knew that I was the favored grandchild, the one who always searched for, and found, the afikomen; who opened the door for Elijah; who would confide to my grandmother all the special dishes that I liked, knowing they would find their way to our seder table; for whom family life blazed with light and music and talk that I could only vaguely understand. But when asked if I wanted to have a seder every week (I was about 6 or 7) replied seriously that, no, it was too special, every week would maybe ruin it, for I liked the sense of looking forward to Passover each year.

Sometimes I sigh with regret at what has been lost, has passed out of my life, though not out of my memory. My grandparents are long since dead; as are my parents; and all my aunts and uncles; and of course my own childhood. But then I look around the table and see all of us, former 6-year-olds, making the moment itself, the seder and the idea of Passover, come alive for all the children in the room. — Gene Lichtenstein