Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: What Kind of Book Is This and Who Is It For?
Pesach is a very important holiday for me. Every year, I lead a seder with a haggadah I have been working on for twenty years. Mostly the same people come from Boston, from New Jersey, from Arlington, Massachusetts, from two miles away, and from a quarter of a mile—we all gather gradually in my small Cape Cod house. Over the years, a couple and their children moved to Chile; some people tried it and it was not their kind of seder. One young woman grew up and now brings her husband. Children have been born and joined the seder. But basically we’re pretty much the same core group year after year.
Like many Jews, Pesach is my favorite holiday and the one where I find the strongest personal meaning. I came to studying it earlier than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, perhaps because it is preeminently a holiday to share with family and friends. In this little book, I will make my way through the ritual one item and one practice at a time. I am looking for a significant contemporary interpretation, rather than an emphasis on what is strictly “correct” or traditional. I want to encourage you to fashion your own seder in a way that speaks honestly and powerfully to you and your circle, whoever they are—family, friends, an organization.
I often provide a historical perspective to help you choose or create a ritual that works for you. Much of what we may have been brought up with in modern Judaism in siddurs, in customary rituals of brit or bar or bat mitzvah, in holiday services or activities, was invented, worked out, haggled over, revised over many generations. You can borrow or create or combine to make a seder that works for your own group—whether family or friends or community. Try out new things every year. Keep the parts most people love or respond to and remember. Work on the parts that seem to put people to sleep.
The book is not aimed at the Orthodox, but rather at providing an entrance for secular and religious Jews with a modern slant into a more satisfying and meaningful way to celebrate our most common celebration, the one that just about every Jew partakes in, often twice with first and second night seders. Increasingly in recent years, Jews are putting together our own haggadahs or searching out material from other haggadahs to incorporate into our own ritual. There are literally thousands of haggadahs.
Many of us remember seders of our childhood where the haggadah was read mostly or entirely in Hebrew as fast as possible, usually by the patriarch of the family or some older man assuming that role. It had the emotional content of the directions for installing a DVD recorder. For many of us, that something has “always” been done a certain way does not mean that is how we want to do it or the way with the most meaningful content or spiritual resonance. Furthermore, Judaism is always changing. The way we celebrate Shabbat, the various parts of the services for Friday night and Saturday morning, the expectations concerning the holiday services, every piece of what “always” has been or what is “supposed to be” was started sometime in our history and kept because it worked for people. Other usages were gradually altered or dropped. The traditional haggadah has been evolving over centuries and adding some passages while dismissing others.
A commonly repeated statistic is that 90 percent of American Jews—no matter whether they are bagels and lox Jews or religious in some fashion or just in search of some sort of spirituality—attend at least one seder every Passover. That seder may be the only Jewish ritual a person engages in all year long and therefore the one experience that can confirm and give meaning to that person’s Jewish identity. I am attempting to make elements of the haggadah and the seder rich with contemporary meaning so that the bored or deracinated adult would have an answer to, Why do we go to all this bother every year? or, Why do I feel bereft if I have no seder to attend?
Some people come to the seder wanting a spiritual experience. They want, not rote prayers or muttered blessings, but words and practices that move them, that awaken something in them that connects them to a sense of holiness and community. Some people come to the seder wanting to reconnect with a sense of the history of our people and to find something pertinent and engrossing in our identity as Jews. Some people come to the seder wanting to link up with the tradition of liberation in Judaism. Some people come just to eat, and that’s okay too, as there is plenty of food for the stomach as well as the spirit. At Pesach we rededicate ourselves to what we cherish and what we find meaningful in our Jewish identity. We see ourselves as part of a people, historically and in the present. It is a time to remember that we as a people were once slaves and that people are enslaved in all eras and in many different ways. Slavery, whether literal or metaphorical, is very much with us today.
Thus inevitably Pesach has a political underpinning as we deal with issues of oppression and freedom, of revolt, of daring to change. For some, it is a time to rededicate ourselves to tikkun olam, the repair of the damaged world. A time to remember our thirst for justice and equality and to be inspired to resume the great work that will never be finished. Because like all Jewish holidays, Pesach has a seasonal reference, seders can also touch on ecological destruction and rebuilding. There can be an environmental aspect to the seder. All the way back to the days of the Talmud, Jews have argued about which aspect of the seder is the most important, the theme of liberation out in the world, resisting oppression, becoming free and helping others in their struggles for freedom, or internal liberation, fighting the inner as well as the outer Egypt. Really, we need not choose, for one without the other is weakened.
I believe that what all of these various desires have in common is a desire for connection: to what is eternal or to our history or to our people or to those, animal and vegetable, with whom we share this earth, or to those who are suffering or to those who seek to make the world fairer and gentler and better. A seder can give a sense of connection—spiritual or activist or communal or simply sensual. The traditional haggadah tells us that each Jew should feel as if she or he (it of course said he) personally was freed by the Exodus and left Egypt that night—an empathy across history that every haggadah tries to make happen in each individual who attends. Martin Buber urged us to feel a connection through history back to that first generation that dared seek freedom.
Thus a successful seder can try to satisfy many yearnings in the participants, different perhaps for each. But as Judaism is a religion of a people, not of an individual, the seder is a communal experience. We make it together. We make it for and with one another. Our alienation can be healed at least during that evening. We can experience a true sense of community at the seder table, one not based on something ephemeral or manufactured, like the crowd cheering at a football game, but a feeling of commonality that arises from real values.
The seder is a night to examine self and community, to choose to undergo the experience, to choose to join again as a Jew with other Jews, to question the tradition and the rituals, to wrestle meaning from them for each of us and the others with whom we are sharing the evening. Erev Pesach is a night for each of us to question what it means to be a Jew and what we want it to mean. How are we to be free? How are we to free ourselves and others? There are far more than four questions involved in a true Pesach experience.
We also crave redemption. We see ourselves as flawed and the world as broken, aching, bleeding. This is a time when we call ourselves to account, not in the sense of the Days of Awe, but in a more social sense. What are we doing to fight oppression? What are we doing to make things better? There is no agenda. Each person should find the work of redemption that touches their innermost values and sense of how things ought to be as opposed to how they are. That is part of the story of the Exodus, the rising in revolt against what is unfair and painful and unjust. We remember our history on Pesach, but we also look at our present and contemplate the future we might want to make happen and the future we passionately want to avoid—for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, for all those beings with whom we share this earth.
My grandmother Hannah created the seders of my childhood. My grandfather Morris was killed before I was born, so I never met him directly—only through family stories. Among my early good memories are seders in her apartment in Cleveland, with several of my mother’s brothers and sisters gathered around a long table. Somebody was always missing, particularly during World War II, when two of my uncles were already dead, one of a plane crash (he was a stunt pilot in air shows) and one of pneumonia, and one was in the Merchant Marine, at sea. My two oldest aunts lived out in Everett, Washington, and during the war, Aunt Rose was still dancing, entertaining the troops, but there were plenty of us. My grandmother had borne nine children who lived into adulthood, five men and four women including my mother. They all had husbands or wives and some had children at the seder.
Grandmother Hannah was poor and Orthodox, like her father the rabbi, and she kept the laws strictly. She might not own a coat that wasn’t repaired and she might not have daily clothes that were not frayed and worn, but she had dishes only for Passover and a spotless tablecloth saved for good occasions. She had fine silver candlesticks brought from Lithuania where she had grown up in the shtetl. I don’t know what happened to them. Like so much else in my tumultuous family, they disappeared.
She lived with us for part of every year, sharing my bed, and I remember her lush long brown hair thatched with silver worn around her head in braids and then at night let loose so it cascaded down her back. I remember her brown eyes dimmed with cataracts, her back stooped with labor, her slightly husky voice telling stories from the shtetl and from women’s rich lore. She did not wear a wig because my grandfather had forbidden it, and after his death she kept faith with him.
In my childhood, she did not serve lamb for Passover but beef. It is a family tradition I maintain and my seder guests would be peeved if I made anything else. (Vegetarians, do not worry! There are many vegetarian recipes throughout.)