I grew up Jewish in a predominantly Christian community in upstate New York. Our baby boomer classrooms were packed with Catholic and Protestant kids. We actually had more Jehovah Witnesses than Jews. On Wednesdays from 2 to 3 p.m., when the Catholics were excused for Catechism, my few Methodist and Lutheran friends and I quizzed each other on vocab during the loneliest hour of the week.
This was long before diversity was considered a good thing. Back then, “different” simply meant "weird." Fortunately, I had one Jewish friend in my grade, and throughout every year, we were tapped to give presentations about our strange holidays and traditions. (These days, anycone can learn via YouTube. Check out the great Uptown Funk parody that gives the Passover basics at the bottom of this story.)
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Remembrances of Seders Past
An old joke about the history of Jewish holidays goes: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” And while there’s plenty of essen (Yiddish for eating) at Rosh Hashanah, Hanukah and Purim (as opposed to the 24-hour fast of Yom Kippur), the most extravagant eating — and drinking — happens at the Seder meal of Passover (the holiday begins this year at sundown, Friday April 3). The Seder is a commemoration of the Jews’ liberation from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt.
Though Seders are interminably long, Passover always held a special place in my heart. We dressed up and enjoyed a veritable feast in our for-special-occasions-only dining room; songs were sung, questions were asked, and a prize was awarded to the lucky (more like observant) child who found a hidden piece of matzo called the Afikoman.
But what really stoked my youthful imagination was how we set a traditional place, and poured a glass of wine, for a special hoped-for guest: the prophet Elijah, and left the front door open for him. Elijah’s appearance is believed to herald the coming of the Messiah, a time when justice and compassion will reign. To raise kids’ hopes (and just to mess with them), adults drink Elijah’s wine throughout the night.
One balmy Saturday evening in the late 1960s, partway through the Seder, we distinctly heard footsteps coming through our front door. My sister and I perked up from our stupor and raced to the door. Was it possible? Could Eliyahu be at our door?
Nah, it was just Suzie Litts, who lived across the street and was wholly unaware that she had walked in on a celebration. But religion was on her mind. “I hope it’s all right…” she began. “My mother has altar duty tomorrow… She needs some fresh flowers and we don’t have any, so I picked some of yours. Is that OK?”
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Seder in a New Homeland
Decades later, I attended a few Seders at a friend’s parents’ home in her predominantly Jewish enclave on Long Island, where yarmulkes and challah bread were as common as they were scarce in my town. Her brother-in-law, a rabbi, led the Seders. Rabbi Jeff’s Seders were mighty long, but I relished every minute: a large, witty family gathered to celebrate freedom, with no shortcuts or “two-minute Haggadahs.”
At Seder, everything we eat, say, pray and sing recalls and honors that historical period. Saltwater symbolizes tears; bitter herbs connote suffering; 10 drops of wine, the 10 plagues, and so on.
It’s also traditional to drink four glasses of wine, although there are differing explanations: from honoring the four matriarchs of Judaism to “the four expressions of redemption” in the Book of Exodus to some Kabbalistic calculus of Hebrew words and years of slavery. All well and good, but honestly, once we’re old enough to drink in front of our parents, we stop caring why and simply throw ourselves into the process.
My friend’s dad insists he’s an atheist, but he worships fine wine so before every Seder, he’d descend to the cellar and passionately consider his options. One year when he came back upstairs, he took me aside and, blowing dust off the labels, asked what I thought of the vintage French wines he’d selected. I told him I thought Moses himself would be impressed.
Halfway through a Seder, the youngest participant asks “the four questions,” in Hebrew and English. At one of Rabbi Jeff's Seders I attended, earnest 8-year-old Gabe read the questions (and his rabbi father answered). But then, the showstopper: His grandpa recited them in Yiddish — a first for me. Listening to him, I felt a visceral connection to generations of Central and Eastern European Jews.
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Seder in the Vaterland
One of my most memorable Seders happened to take place in a onetime Yiddish-speaking epicenter, Germany, where I was working as a teacher. My boss, a Dutch Jew who’d been a baby during the Holocaust, took us under his wing, got us jobs and invited us into his world, including his synagogue’s Seder.
This was in the early ’80s, and vestiges of the Third Reich were still in evidence — if not waving from flagpoles, then in people’s behavior. One can’t and shouldn’t generalize a culture, but during our 15 months in Germany, we encountered our share of subtle and blatant anti-Semitism. They had slang words and gestures to indicate the presence of a Jew, which we quickly learned to recognize — and steer clear of.
To put that Seder in context (according to Wikipedia): Before World War II, there were more than half a million Jews in Germany. By the end of the war, just 20,000. When I lived there, that number had climbed to nearly 200,000, or about 0.3 percent of the population. To sit among that community — most of whom, one had to assume, had lived through the war or were the children of survivors — changed my feelings about religious observance forever.
The temple was simple, a stark contrast to Long Island’s opulent palaces. Though we spoke English and they, German, we shared something far more profound. On this night, we spoke the same language, ate the same foods, recited the same prayers and followed the same traditions. But what we grew up taking for granted (or feeling “weird” for celebrating), these people considered a cherished and hard-won privilege.
I had made plans with non-Jewish friends for this coming Passover weekend. There would be wine-drinking, and music, and food shared around a table — but no Haggadah, no Afikoman, no Dayenu, no matzo jokes, no shared recollections of Seders past. So when a Jewish friend invited me to her family’s Seder, I had to accept. It will probably center around her noisy young grandkids, likely won't be as much fun as a dinner with my peers and I can’t just leave when I’m tired, but it’s Passover, and Seder is what our people do.