We’re having a Seder.
And I am about to be in charge of it.
It’s going to be different.
Different from what?
From the Seders of my youth.
Short-pants Seders, where my chin ascended barely above the table. Our Seders were presided over by my Uncle Irving (my late Dad’s younger brother). Uncle Irving could speed-read Hebrew. Or at least he could fake speed-read Hebrew, which is undistinguishable from the genuine article – rapid mumbling with an occasional “ch”. (A throat-clearing vocalization denoting the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.)
My earliest Seders were elaborate affairs – twenty-five or so members of my immediate family. My grandmother, “Bubby” Jennie, cooked the Passover dinner days in advance, freezing the traditional dishes, and then thawing them out before mealtime. Her timing was less than impeccable. When the chicken soup arrived, the matzo balls at their centers were still frozen. You’d try to slice them with your soupspoon and they’d go flying off of the plate.
The opening prayer of the Seder is called the “Kiddush”. Our familial habit was for every adult male (over the age of thirteen) to individually chant the “Kiddush”, in descending order based on their age, kindling playful disagreements concerning who was definitively older than who. (Emigrants from Eastern Europe did not always have birth certificates, relegating the final determination to the “Honor System”.)
This calendarial haggling expanded the “Kiddush” element of the Seder. Additionally, my Uncle Jack, an excruciating Hebrew reader’s rendition of the “Kiddush” felt agonizingly endless.
An hour into the process, we were still on Page One.
(And everyone knew – because we had all thumbed ahead – that we would not be eating until Page 37. By then, many of the children would be asleep.)
In the ensuing years, with the inevitable attrition of time, the Seder size declined to less than a dozen. My Uncle Irving remained at the helm, his Seder stewardship bubbling with competence, enthusiasm and fun. Plus, he read Hebrew like the wind, so we ate before we were unconscious.
When my older brother and I reached our twenties, Uncle Irving rewarded our active Seder participation with Tuero cigars, sheathed in cylindrical metal tubes, a cancerous (who knew?) Medal of Obligational Accomplishment:
We had traversed the Red Sea of the Seder, smoking tired but contentedly on the other side.
FLASH FORWARD TO TODAY
And now I’m leading the Seder. Though there is no diminution of love around the table, no one at our gathering can read Hebrew. (I myself am not actually reading; I am reciting from memory.)
It’s not the same.
I remember becoming a counselor after being a camper for numerous summers. My reaction to that abrupt elevation was “Me?” I felt distinctly… well, I guess “Me?” says it all.
I feel the same way about leading the Seder.
I understand the intended purpose of the Seder. It’s to tell the story to children so that they will someday tell it to their children and that story will remain eternally alive. I have a four year-old (step) grandson named Milo. Being an imaginative storyteller, I can transform the Passover narrative into a yarn about “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” for Milo’s age-appropriate consumption. (A “Superhero” aficionado since he was two, Milo has readily absorbed this Manichean dichotomy. Though he would not use those exact words to describe it.)
The thing is…
Uncle Irving and the family of my childhood – I don’t know if they were devoutly religious; my recollection is that few of them were – but they seemed viscerally connected to the “material” in a way I am unable to duplicate. It is not easy for a “non believer” to infuse credibility into a story where the “Propelling Character” may not actually exist.
And the Passover story itself? – the liberation of an oppressed people from bondage? I recall taking a course in Near-Eastern literature in college where I learned that both the Biblical flood and the Story of Esther had been “lifted” from earlier mythologies. (For the “Esther” story in particular, my reaction was akin to the young baseball fan learning that “Shoeless Joe” Jackson had deliberately “thrown” the World Series. “Say, it ain’t so, Esther!”)
I mean, if Purim and “The Flood” can be co-opted, what about Passover?
We’re doin’ it.
I wrote a song for camp once, capsulizing universal Jewish membership in the word “Togetherness.” To me, it feels…I don’t know… “right” participating an age-old tradition still practiced around the world.
I may lack the enthusiasm and conviction of my familial forbearers. I may be woefully deficient, compared to the All-Star Seder-running abilities of my Uncle Irving. But I am happily content to be a member of the team and humbly honored to perpetuate the tradition.
Happy Passover, everyone (who’s interested.)