August 7, 2006
In early spring eight years ago, my partner Daphne and I bought a dining table for our new California house. We inserted the leaves.
"We can have a Passover seder (ritual meal) for twenty," I said.
For me, a Jew by birth, Passover is a family holiday that connects me with my communal Jewish past. As I kindle the festival lights, I feel kinship both with modern Jews around the globe and with Jews throughout history who have chanted the same prayers.
For Daphne, born Greek Orthodox and, at the time, preparing for conversion to Judaism, the seder meant an opportunity to further her Jewish studies, to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of telling the Exodus story, and to step out of the synagogue into a home-based ritual.
We composed a guest list. Since relocating from the East, where our families live, we'd built an eclectic family of friends. There were Jews, observant and unaffiliated, by birth and by choice. Non-Jews, including a former nun and a woman from a pan-religious home, both of whom had attended seders. Interfaith couples, children. This is our family holiday, we decided. We will invite them all.
We looked for a haggadah (seder prayerbook) accessible to everyone, but had trouble finding the transliterated Hebrew, gender-neutral God language and universal themes of oppression and freedom we wanted. So we compiled our own that included a mix of prayers, readings and secular poetry.
Then we constructed a menu. Matzah (unleavened bread) ball soup and potato kugel (pudding or casserole), we decided. Afterwards, a medley of cakes made from nuts, matzah meal and egg whites.
The eve of the seder, Daphne and I sat at opposite ends of the table. I assumed I'd be the service leader.
"Do you want to light the candles?" I asked Daphne.
She recited the blessing. I opened my haggadah, but Daphne continued.
"There are fourteen steps to a traditional seder," she read, looking around the table. She told us we would drink four glasses of wine or grape juice. She asked the woman next to her to describe the ritual items on the seder plate.
"Maror," our friend began softly, tripping over the transliterated Hebrew, "bitter herbs." We coached her. By the time she concluded, "Zeroa, shank bone symbolizing the lamb's blood that marked the Israelites' doors," her voice was loud and strong.
We took turns. When we read about the Israelites' escape from Egypt, someone compared it to the end of South African apartheid. With our second cup of wine, we acknowledged farmworkers, themselves underrepresented minorities, whose efforts bring us grapes. We dipped karpas (spring greens) in salt water and remembered tears shed not just by our ancestors, but by people still enslaved around the world. When we arrived at the Four Questions, traditionally recited by the youngest child, we chanted in unison, to show that in our shared quest for understanding we are all students, eager as children.
We spilled a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, then added modern societal afflictions, like homelessness, homophobia and HIV infection, to the list. We sang, "If God had only brought us out of Egypt but had not liberated all the nation's oppressed, dayenu! It would have been enough."
At the end of the Exodus story, we read, the waters did not divide until someone took the first step into the sea. Sipping soup, a Jewish friend commented that the struggle for freedom depends upon a partnership between God and humanity. Nibbling kugel, a non-Jew added that the work of liberation is a process that builds on previous efforts. We remembered Jewish freedom fighters during the Holocaust, anti-slavery activists before the American Civil War.
We cleared plates. "No room for dessert," someone said, pushing back her chair. Daphne and I unveiled a chocolate-hazelnut torte, moist as pudding, an almond-citrus cake topped with strawberries. A groan rose from the table.
"What does dayenu mean again?" the former nun asked.
"It would have been enough."
"If Lyssa and Daphne had made only dinner and not baked even one cake, dayenu!" she shouted. The room erupted in laughter and song.
As we closed with grace after meals, we each gave thanks for the freedom we already have. Everyone had found redemption in the liberation stories and had added a tale of his or her own.
Passover is a Jewish holiday, but it is also an interfaith celebration. Jews are not the only people who have known oppression and who seek freedom from bondage. I may have started the seder as teacher, but I became the student, even as my first-timer friends became teachers.
The haggadah says it is the responsibility of every generation to retell the Passover story as if we ourselves were liberated from Egypt. We closed by singing Bashana Haba'a (Next Year), reminding us that the work of freedom is incomplete and needs annual, if not daily, renewal.
Dayenu, if we had only extended our table for one interfaith seder, it would have been enough. The seder is now nine years old. Each year I consider updating the haggadah and changing the menu. But my friends, Jews and non-Jews, protest.
The seder no longer belongs to just Daphne and me. It has woven itself into each participant's Passover experience of family and communal history. The work of liberation is incomplete, our friends say, but, dayenu, gathering to celebrate our freedoms is enough.