Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Family Seder

Some of my earliest Jewish memories are from Passover. I vaguely recall, as a very young child, watching Grandpa Hurwitz cough while eating horseradish root (or, because my  mother retells it to me, it feels like I was there). I remember learning the piano chords to the Four Questions and then proudly playing them at my Great Aunt Lenore's home when we all gathered for seder one year. I remember a seder at my Grandma Irene's home in Florida, dusting off the dishes she never used.

But most of all, I remember the seder as it usually was, in our home growing up. It was a remarkable blend of the intentional and the unintentional. Recipes were handed down, but not discussed with any fanfare. China was from my parents' wedding, but when we had more than 10 people, interspersed was my great-grandmother's china (a floral pattern my mother hated). After her death, we used my grandmother Julia's silver, which as a Ukranian Catholic she never could have envisioned happening at a seder, but we also had plenty of plastic forks and plates around. The haggadah was just the one we happened to have, one with a burned corner where a guest had accidentally set fire to it from one of the decorative votives on the table. The matzah cover was a horribly ugly blue felt creation from my brother's early religious school years that was somehow gorgeously meaningful in its weirdness. You get the idea.

We didn't think too hard about the actual content of the seder. We knew we'd do it all in some form or fashion, but there were never plague bags or gimmicks to make it flow. We'd read, each person in their turn, and then we'd eat. We'd talk some more, and then we'd go to bed. I recall the first year, as an aspiring rabbi, I was given the role of introducing the seder. I wrote a d'var Torah about the meaning of freedom (I wish I still had it now) and proudly set the stage for what the festival meant to me, and to us, in that space.

I believe it has been a decade since I have been in Pittsburgh for a seder. It's been years since the last family seder Micah and I experienced, in Las Vegas in 2008. Usually we spend Passover in a community we have created through our rabbinates. The first night usually at The Temple, the second night with couples whose weddings and conversions I officiate.

I find myself each year yearning to make our Passover authentic. Somehow the seven days pass so much faster than they did when I was younger. before we know it, we can eat bread again. I almost miss it by the end. Micah and I spend time talking about the seder, ways to make it creative, and in that way we find our authentic seder voice (one more scripted, one more spontaneous). I often feel we could do more in this festival, but that is an ongoing journey.

Now, with children of our own, we have another growing edge. We are taught about the Four Children: wise, wicked, simple, and unable to ask. We know that we are all of these children in some way.

In our daughter and son, we have these children looking at us in anticipation of being taught. It is no longer abstract. To our five year old's wise questions, we try to answer from our own faith and uncertainty. To our children's simple questions, we answer easily. To their wicked moments (of which there are few), we try to respond with compassion. And, for all that they are unable to ask, we model our own commitment.

When thinking about Passover this year, something in me yearned for a different experience. While I can tell you the practical reason we are traveling for Pesach this year is because we did not take vacation time at winter break, there is a spiritual reason. I knew, deep down, that we need to have a family seder. Our children need to make a memory that is organic, drawn from the deep connections that exist in a family, not just created by their rabbi parents and Temple community. They need to have the experience of learning that which is not always explictly spoken--that for some reason even the least religious of us are drawn to a ritual that has been handed down from generation to generation, that somehow we find a new meaning embedded in the parsley, matzah, and this year, Grandma's brisket.

I think about this weekend and am brought to tears by the image that our children will experience something powerful beyond words: a seder table filled with family members they already know well. Four generations will gather together and say that we are proudly Jewish and connected to our people, and say that we are lovingly connected to one another as well. In that moment, it does not matter what parts of the liturgy we do or forget, or what tunes we do, or whether things are like they are at home. What matters is that we come together and give ourselves the gift of a night to remember. 

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