Alice Waugh lives in Newton, Mass., and works as a communications officer at MIT. She converted to Judaism in 1998, aided by Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Mass. She and her husband Ben have two daughters.
My First Seder
Like many non-Jewish families, my relatives often assembled at my grandmother's house for holidays--including Easter dinner, which featured ham with her delicious secret recipe for raisin sauce. As agnostics, we ignored the Christian basis of the holiday, and it was only years later that I found out that Jews celebrated a different springtime holiday called Passover and did not observe Easter--though Michael Wex writes in Born to Kvetch that some Yiddish-speaking Jewish Americans punningly referred to Easter as “Yeaster” because er hot zikh a heyb geton--“he raised himself up.”
Other non-Jews I knew had participated in seders, but by the time I'd reached my mid-thirties, I still hadn't had the pleasure. Then my boyfriend (and eventual husband) invited me to visit his mother over Passover and attend a big potluck seder with her chavurah (group of friends who meet for discussion and worship). Though I was not yet engaged and had no plans to convert to Judaism, I had been learning about some of the traditions and was looking forward to my first seder.
The large group of highly intelligent and sociable people engaged in lengthy discussions over many of the finer points of the hagaddah (a book with the texts and rituals that make up the seder). I kept surreptitiously thumbing through it, seeing how many pages we had to go before we actually got to eat something other than sprigs of parsley, bland matzah and definitely not bland maror (horseradish). To keep myself occupied during the parts I didn't understand, I made up Four Questions of my own: Why would we ever eat while leaning over--unless it was after the fourth cup of wine? What is this gray smooshy oval that smells vaguely like fish? Why is there so much more talking than at WASP holiday dinners? And how in the world do Jewish kids sit through a whole seder?
Nevertheless, it was all very interesting and thought-provoking, especially when people argued over their differing interpretations of phrases. I didn't know it then, but this was my introduction to a central facet of Jewish culture: discussion. This wasn't just basic conversation; at this seder, it meant debate, scholarly references, taking sides, off-topic stories, nuggets of personal and Jewish history, disagreement, occasional mild insults, laughter and just generally sharing.
I emerged from my first seder with an understanding of the basic agenda: the leader reads from the hagaddah, then there's a big meal, then some more Hebrew and singing. But after I converted to Judaism, I went to more seders and made a discovery: they are all very different from each other. At seders I've attended, some people skipped this or that portion of the hagaddah while emphasizing another. One seder featured only grape juice, while another included a heated debate over whether the non-Jewish neighbor's corkscrew was kosher for Passover. One seder was mostly in English and another was entirely in Hebrew, read at an impossibly rapid pace by the Israelis at the table. Some seders were formal dress-up occasions and others were raucous family affairs. And I found out that Jewish children, at least young ones, don't actually sit through the whole seder. They do, however, manage to sit or stand quietly during pivotal parts such as the Four Questions--though chasing around the house after the afikomen (a piece of matzah hidden by an adult) seems to be the highlight.
I've been going to seders for only about ten years, but I know now that there are an infinite number of variations I can expect. However, I think I've found some common elements that every seder I go to will have in abundance:
1. People--Family, friends, Jews and non-Jews, even bare acquaintances who need a seder to attend to reaffirm their connection to Jewish traditions and Jews all over the world.
2. Jewish bonding--Remembering our ancestors' struggles through recitals and rituals, and how those struggles are relevant to people today everywhere in the world--non-Jews as well as Jews.
3. Food--Delicious chicken soup with matzah balls, tzimmes (a casserole of carrots and fruit), chicken, green beans, kugel (egg and vegetable casserole), coconut macaroons . . . plus the symbolic flavors of maror (recalling the bitterness of slavery) and charoset (diced apples, spices and nuts, symbolizing the mortar used by the enslaved Jews in building structures for the Pharoah).
4. And of course, discussion. What's a Jewish occasion without it?
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Yiddish word for a savory or sweet pudding made from either noodles, potatoes or matzah. Hebrew for "bitter," one of the ritual food items on the Passover seder plate. Commonly represented by horseradish or romaine lettuce.