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By Sam Goodman
Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom?
We’re currently in the middle of one of the most widely-observed Jewish holidays, Passover. One of the Shalosh Regalim, or three pilgrimage festivals (literally “three legs”), in ancient times Jews throughout the land of Israel would gather and make sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and is one of the few holidays mentioned in the Torah. In modern times, it is observed by abstaining from the consumption of items with leavening (e.g. bread, cake, beer), and with a festive meal on the first two evenings, which is called a seder.
When I was growing up, we would have the first night seder with extended family. Between grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my nuclear family, there would be about fifteen of us crowded around the table, hearing Poppop recite the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. It was always fun running around with the cousins, searching for the afikomen, and staying up way past our normal bedtimes. We still meet at my uncle’s place every year on the first night, and although lately we’ve had a couple faces missing from the table due to cousins living abroad, or away at college, usually at some point we would Skype them in. Also, as some of the older cousins have become involved in serious relationships, there have been new guests at the table – including, for the past three years, Anne.
The second night seder had a very different tone than the first night while I was growing up. My two sisters and I would each get to invite one friend, and beyond these three friends, it would just be our nuclear family at the table. We lived in an area that had very few Jews, so most of our school friends had never been to a seder before. At the beginning of this seder, we would start by explaining the symbols on the table – the matzah, different items on the seder plate, Elijah’s cup, etc. Diana, my youngest sister, would start the explanation; Stacey, the middle child, would add things that Diana had forgotten, and provide additional layers of meaning behind the symbols; and I would continue with the things both sisters had left out.
This year, we invited Anne’s parents and siblings to our second-night seder. As an added twist, my Dad had asked me a few weeks ago if I could lead our seder. My father, an accountant, was a *bit* exhausted by the night of the second seder, which fell this year on April 15th. After a few weeks of reviewing the haggadah and the Passover story, I had committed as much as I could to memory, and felt prepared for what was to come.
Anne and I arrived at my parents’ house around 5:30, about half an hour before the seder was to begin. I wanted some time to settle in, and do some last-minute reviewing of my notes and the biblical Exodus story. Thanks to some heavy traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, I ended up having quite a bit of extra time – Anne’s brother Chris showed up around 6:15, and her parents and two youngest siblings didn’t arrive until nearly 7PM. After some brief greetings, we sat down at the table, and the seder began.
We began with my retelling the story of the Exodus, beginning with Joseph’s trials and tribulations, culminating in the arrival of the Hebrews in the Promised Land, and hitting all the major high points along the way. Unfortunately, due to my nerves, I ended up hitting many of the minor points as well, resulting in a retelling that felt as long as Cecil B DeMille’s epic film. In reality it was probably only 15 minutes, but it felt much longer. At least nobody could say I missed anything important!
After my retelling was complete, we began reading from the haggadah. After the first cup of wine, my nerves (finally!) began to ease up. We went popcorn-style around the table, each person reading a paragraph. As we reached the Four Questions, we broke our order and had Theresa, Anne’s youngest sibling, read them. We continued along, with Anne’s parents and siblings asking questions as we went. What foods do we “dip”, as mentioned in the Four Questions? What’s the egg for? Why is the shank bone, rather than another part of the lamb, used to symbolize Passover offering? Is that really a lamb’s shank bone, or just a chicken bone? When do we drink more wine? In some cases, the answers were literally on the next page of the haggadah, but I was able to field most other questions without significantly affecting the flow of the service.
Finally, it was time to eat the main meal. Anne had prepared eggplant dip, chopped liver, and potatoes, and my mom cooked up some beef brisket, chicken, and fruit kugel. Everything tasted delicious, though it certainly helped that we were having a very late dinner. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go through the post-meal portion of the seder due to a confluence of the delayed start time and Anne’s youngest siblings’ bedtimes (the following day was a school day, after all).
I’m certainly in no rush to lead my next seder, a responsibility I hope continues to be held by my healthy father and grandfather for many years. However, it was a lot of fun studying the details of the seder and the Passover holiday while preparing to lead it. Also, I’m extremely grateful that Anne’s family is open to learning about the customs and holidays of my faith. While we certainly differ on quite a few theological matters, I appreciate that Anne’s parents are willing to join my family for holiday celebrations. It displays both a confidence in their beliefs and an acceptance of my ability to practice my faith.
On a completely unrelated note, I listened to this song on repeat while writing this blog.
Before meeting Sam’s extended family, I had met his parents very briefly for a slice of mid-afternoon pie. I was very nervous about meeting his parents—I think it took me over an hour that day to figure out what to wear! This meeting was so brief, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about much, therefore the topic of faith didn’t come up. I was (and still am) very amazed at how sweet and genuinely nice his parents are! I don’t remember when the topic of faith first came up around his parents, but they knew that I wasn’t Jewish when I attended the Passover Seder.
Sam first invited me to join his family Seder a few months after we started dating. I had only been to one other Seder before, five years prior. The meal was slightly awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t understand what was being said, nor did I understand the traditions around what was being done. Also, because I was the youngest person there, I had to say some of the prayers, find the Afikomen and open the door for Elijah. I was nervous that the Seder with Sam’s family would be equally awkward and uncomfortable. Sam reassured me that most of his family’s Seder would be in English and that I wouldn’t be the youngest person there.
In the weeks leading up to the Seder, Sam re-emphasized that the youngest people there would be his cousins, who were growing up in interfaith households. Both of his dad’s siblings were in interfaith marriages and their children (Sam’s cousins) celebrate both sets of holidays. This calmed my fears a little, but I still thought it would be awkward and uncomfortable.
The awkwardness started when I arrived empty handed because I was told not to bring anything. Whenever I go to a fancy dinner party, I try to always bring a dish or something. I asked Sam what I should bring. His answer was, “Nothing. There are very specific foods and everyone has a specific dish that they always bring.” This didn’t satisfy me, so I asked Sam repeatedly only to receive the same answer over and over.
On the day of the Seder, I put on my fancy clothes, my best behavior and attended the Seder empty-handed. There were 13 people there (a normal crowd for me), and the topic of my faith wasn’t brought up. We talked a lot about my family and what dish I could eventually bring to future family dinner parties. There was no awkwardness nor discomfort, only really nice people with a lot of funny stories to tell.
We began the prayers and rituals surrounding the meal. After getting used to the way the Haggadah was read (from right to left), I sat back and listened to his Poppop tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. During his story, his little cousin, Jason, started singing and the escape to freedom became a musical! We even Skyped Sam’s sister Diana, living in Israel at the time, so she could chant the Four Questions. After the prayers were said, it was time for the holiday meal.
This particular Seder fell on Good Friday. It is a Catholic ritual to fast and not eat meat on Good Friday. Catholic fasting means eating only one full meal during the course of a day. I had refrained from eating all day, which would allow me to eat the Seder meal. While I was helping to serve the Matzah ball soup, with Sam’s aunts and female cousins, Sam made up a plate of food for me. When I got back to my seat, he had served me a little bit of everything- including the beef brisket. This was the biggest internal conflict of the night: do I eat the meat because it’s on my plate, or should I put it back, risk being rude and interrupting the flow of the meal? I saved the beef brisket for the last thing to eat to prolong my decision-making. I ended up eating the meat, justifying to myself that this was the right thing to do in this particular case.
This Seder meal was not like the one that I had experienced five years prior. It was neither awkward nor uncomfortable. Everything seemed natural and everything somehow magically “fit”. Although this was the first time that I had met his extended family, I remember his Mommom telling me that I fit very well into their family. I think that my response was telling her that my cheeks hurt from laughing & smiling too much!
I still don’t fully understand the symbols and rituals behind the Seder meal, but I have the rest of my life to learn about all of the Jewish customs.