Why Is This Night Different?
For Jews without close family ties, the approach of Passover can elicit the same gnawing anxiety that Thanksgiving does: While the rest of humanity gathers around tables laden with a home-cooked feast and lifts glasses of wine, you’ll be dining at home alone on leftovers in front of the TV.
Now that I look forward to the companionable routine of Thanksgiving with dear friends who live in my building (close enough in terms of both location and friendship that I can return the next day for leftovers), I can laugh at some of the more oddball Thanksgivings I’ve known: a vegetarian dinner for 80 people in a Manhattan ashram that was covered by Channel 2 news; hotdogs and ice cream sandwiches grabbed at a showing of “Crocodile Dundee” somewhere near Pomona, California (because a friend and I were starving just two hours after the perfunctory midday meal served at another friend’s retirement community, and we drove for miles without finding anything else open).
Passover has proven to be a bit more problematic. I’m not religious enough to have many close friends who observe it; the few who do are too far away, as “real” seders usually end well after midnight and the next day is almost always a work-day (if you’re not religious).
The first seder I ever attended in New York (in 1976) was at the home of Sylvia Straus Heschel, a pianist and the widow of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it was led by their daughter, Susannah. A four- or five-hour seder with copious feminist commentary, led by a young woman my own age, was nothing short of an eye-opener; my family’s seders had always been strictly “by the book” and led by my father.
A dozen or so years later, I was inducted into the rowdy Passover rituals of my next-door neighbor’s cousin, an actor and mask-maker, which included much wine-spilling and macaroon-hurling. Eighteen or so mostly theatrical types squeezed in around two tables pushed together; I recall that one year, we read portions of the Haggadah in “rap” style as we went around the table. The cousin’s marriage brought Passover decorum for a couple years; his divorce returned the proceedings to their usual mayhem. I eventually stopped going when it got to the point that I needed to head home at 11 before having eaten anything other than matzoh-ball soup.
In contrast, it was a disappointment to discover that another friend’s mother’s idea of a seder was a 20-minute dip into the Haggadah before serving dinner. Still another “seder” I was invited to actually left off after the first page! Where were the plagues, the pharaohs, the four questions, the visit from Elijah, the many rabbis with unpronounceable names? While everyone looks forward to the meal, it’s not the entire point; the word “seder” means “order” or “sequence.” Recounting the story of Passover and honoring the struggles of our ancestors (as well as those of people yet enslaved around the world) evokes a powerful sense of connection to generations of humanity. Jews have been sitting down to this annual ritual for thousands of years—and, in many cases, risking death to do so. How lucky we are!
While Passover is one of the few times that I crave tradition, I have come to embrace the expectation of something new most years. (After all, the Jews were facing the unknown as they hurried out of Egypt.) As a seder orphan, I turned to All Souls on the Upper East Side, and found the Unitarian Universalist seder to be a gracious balance between tradition and modernity. A few years later, I somewhat ashamedly found myself hinting broadly (just hours before the start of Passover) that I had no seder to attend that night, and was generously folded into a lovely gathering that included the four questions asked in several languages, as well as the Persian Jewish tradition of whacking each other with scallions before singing “Dayenu,” to remind us of the whips of the Egyptian slave-drivers.
Last year, unable to afford the seder at my own Reform temple, I was directed by a friend to another local communal seder that turned out to be attended almost entirely by elderly Russian Orthodox Jews who spoke minimal English. Rather than panic, I resolved to turn it into an adventure. What I remember most is the courtly gentleman to my right whose eyes lit up at the chance to practice his English. At one point, he laid his hand on my arm and leaned forward, signalling the readiness of a sentence he had spent several minutes composing in his mind: “I live in Moscow for 76 years, I never feel free. I live in New York one year, I feel free!” How can you beat that for embrace of the new?
The past year has brought its share of tribulations, and the deepening of new friendships as I face them. This Passover I was thoughtfully invited in advance by one of those friends and found myself once more enveloped in three generations of family, a treasured cross-stitched tablecloth beneath the seder plate and glowing candles. Three of the people I knew, four I didn’t—and all of us felt like good friends by the end of the night. With any luck … next year, again in Washington Heights!
Tags: Abraham Joshua Heschel, All Souls, family, holidays, Jewish holidays, Passover, rituals, seder, Susannah Heschel; Russian Jews, Sylvia Straus Heschel, Thanksgiving, tradition, Washington HeightsYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.