Sometimes I get to a seder, sometimes I don't. Shrug. I go for the sense of community with a largely atheist, much intermarried family I don't know very well, and for the pleasure of communal ritual (which is a far older custom than any extant religion, but is an element in almost all of them), and because I love fresh horseradish and hardly ever get it the rest of the year. This year, my distant cousin Mina got me invited to the seder given each year - largely in Mina's honor, and to keep the children aware of their Jewish ancestry - by her Irish Catholic daughter-in-law, whom I had never met. I was proud to be invited, delighted to meet a slew of cousins I didn't know, and wrote of this to a pagan friend who wasn't sure what a seder was. So I analyzed it for him.
As you know, all Judaism – and all Jewishness – is based on the notion that there is an omnipotent God who has chosen the Jews, and that history is worthy of study because it constitutes evidence of the working of God’s will in the world. This is a break (how conscious before the fact is an interesting question) with traditional cosmologies in which whatever deity actually creates the world is well nigh spent by the effort (often literally, being dead, his body parts used to create this or that) and retires to some unreachable realm, no longer influential (or interested) in terrestrial (much less human) doings: Ouranos, Varuna, Osiris, Obatala or Nyambi.
But if there’s only one god (let’s call him El, the Genuine Article, as in a train high above the streets, or a box of exploding cigars), then he either rolls over and ignores us (the Red King a-dreaming) or he enters history, stirs the pot, tastes it now and then and adds spices to taste. (God-in-a-toque and the divine (Julia) child.) Jewishness is predicated on this interfering god, and interpreting reality through his interferences. (E.g.: Sodom means he’s anti-gay or something else that was done there.) That is rough on theology as it means God is responsible for all the pain and bad stuff as well as the good stuff, and if God is good that means we've all done something to deserve it, and if God isn't good then he's a demiurge created by the real God, or else (Job's god) he's got too much on his plate to care to explain it to us. But that is not the subject of today's sermon.
So the first Event really (aside from the legendary strand of personal mystical interactions recorded in Genesis), for Jews, the moment when El threw aside his anonymity and said These are my chosen people, is the Exodus, and the celebration of the Exodus is a celebration of Jewishness (and Jewish survival) as no other holiday is. The actual event being commemorated, of course, is the Passing Over, when the firstborn of Egypt died but the Jews, having anointed their lintels with lamb’s blood or something (colored flashing lights? Christmas trees?), were spared, whereupon Pharaoh said, “Beat it,” and beat it they did, so fast there wasn’t time for bread to rise.
The event is commemorated with a feast (and a season) from which leavened product is specifically excluded. (You can’t even keep it in the house; it’s a spring cleaning holiday.) Like all celebratory holidays in every religion, this one involves particular foods and a particular crowd: in point of fact, a theoretical communion of all Jews celebrating at once, and in a sense sharing that meal with all other Jews (and their well-wishers). No accident that Jesus’s Last Supper was, it is generally agreed, a seder. He was offering his unleavened self and cleaning house of old theologies – or so runs the tale - in some versions.
For the Orthodox Jews, this is a major deal. Orthodox Jews must have two sets of dishes, utensils, pots and pans (even washing machines) in order to observe the division of food into milk and meat categories, never mingling them. Too, everyday items may not be used during the Passover season because they have probably touched leavened bread (or other leavened product, such as beer) during their shelf lives, so either one has two more full sets of dishes in the house for Passover use, or one goes out and buys brand new ones at this time. (Producers of dishware, cookware, silverware love this holiday.) Bread and anything else with yeast in it has to be thrown out of the house before Pesach. (I don’t know anyone who goes this far – I don’t even know anyone who has two sets of dishes. It would never occur to my Catholic cousins – or to their Jewish mother-in-law, for that matter.)
In not-so-well-to-do families in stricter times, each year new dishes were purchased at Passover, and last year’s Passover dishes were promoted to year-round daily dishes – in any case, it’s a headache. My friend Barbara Murray has a set of Passover dishes in the basement because her husband has relatives who married Jews, and she loves to throw them a seder when the cycle has come round to her, and the Jewish cousins are charmed by her wish to be included. It’s a very inclusive holiday. My friend Edith, who comes from a not terribly observant family, found herself in London once, with Passover coming up. She went to a synagogue and was immediately overwhelmed with invitations, and had that experience so difficult for strangers to come by anywhere, feeling part of a family on a family sort of occasion. Because, as a Jew though a stranger, she was long-lost family, and inviting her in was a mitzvah (good deed, blessing).
Besides fresh dishes and unleavened bread, the seder includes a reading of the haggadah, which tells the story of Exodus and the Passover, with appropriate pauses for consumption of certain foods (bitter herbs for the wanderings in the desert, wine at certain moments, matzoh with assorted stuff on it – there’s also a game with matzoh broken, part of it hidden, kids sent to search for it, the matzoh restored and proven to be the other half of the broken one – I forget what that means, go invent something). When my cousin Amy’s partner, Ilene, who is fairly devout for my family (for a radical lesbian) – she converted Amy from Buddhism (the Jew in the lotus, as they say) – held seders for the Martinson connection (my mother’s family), which she did for two or three years before saying to hell with us – we all got haggadahs, borrowed from her mother, and the reading went around the table, each person getting a few paragraphs. This year, the Laskey haggadah assigns most of the reading to Father and Mother, and Jim read Father’s part, while the Mother’s was given to his mother, Mina, rather than to his wife and our hostess, Mary – since the house tradition was started (by Mary) when Mina sold her house and could no longer host the thing herself.
I’m rather fond of matzoh myself, though I like it salted with butter, which is not the way it is ever served at a seder. I also like fresh horseradish, which I think stands for bitter herbs. There is usually a fruit-and-nut spread symbolizing the land of promise, and every Jewish wife has her own recipe, there are whole traditions of them. (All this sort of holiday, in all religions, I call “communion” holidays, and sharing food is central.)
Four questions are asked during the Haggadah reading by the youngest (speaking) person present. There’s a nice moment in The Ten Commandments, and one that Jews enjoy, during dinner at Aaron’s house on the night of the Passover, when Aaron’s youngest kid starts asking the questions spontaneously. Ritual watchings of the movie are a recent addition to seder tradition. “Oh Moses, Moses, you wonderful, impossible man! What power can you find in these mud pits to keep you from these arms?” is not one of the four traditional questions, but Anne Baxter saying it to Charlton Heston is my favorite moment in the movie. Wherefore is this night unlike all other nights? is the first traditional question. Whether they are ever actually answered is debatable – the answer to Anne’s question, of course, is God.
I’ve also never been to a seder that served kosher wine. My father used to insist on French wine, and bring it himself, whoever was hosting the seder, and this is a tradition to which, thank God, all my cousins hold. But making wine kosher is easy enough – just get a rabbi to go zap over the bottle, and it’s kosher.
There are two dubious moments in the seder, by me: At some point, someone (usually the youngest ambulatory kid) is sent to the door to see if Elijah is there and invite him in if so. (In strict neighborhoods, poor Jews hoping for a free meal – or at least dessert – sometimes lingered by front doors awaiting this moment.) Elijah (Ilene said) stands for all the poor and deprived who might turn out to be God’s confidante, but I am opposed to inviting him in because the Prophet Elijah invented religious persecution (he slew 400 priests of Baal for no particular reason), and I think it would be better for Jews to remember that they have practiced this in the past, that some Jews would love to practice it now, and that all of us – Jews and non-Jews – have suffered horribly from it, and ought not to commemorate it. (I think this is where Ilene’s lack of interest in me changed to active dislike.)
The other dubious moment is the expression of hope that we will celebrate Passover “next year in Jerusalem.” That kind of got passed over chez Laskey – it doesn’t really mean anything to them (the kids are Catholic) – and when Ilene read the line to us Martinsons, she hurried through it as well – since the last thing anyone in my family would want is to be obliged to live in the Holy Land. How seriously, how fervently, did non-Zionist Jews say this in the years before the Holocaust and the founding of Israel? Did Jerusalem mean Jerusalem to them, or was it (as Ilene cleverly glossed it) an Ideal World where all would be at peace? How about Zionists, who were mostly not religious to begin with? Hard to say.
At the climax of Job, one of my favorites of Joseph Roth's wonderful novels, and almost the only one partly set in the new world (to which Roth never came – he died of alcoholism in Paris in 1939, a ticket to New York in his pocket), Mendel, a poor but devout Jew whose family has been more or less destroyed in its attempt to reach new world success, and who lives in the back room of a friend’s store over the grumbling of the friend’s shrewish wife, joins this family for Passover and is sent to open the door when Elijah is mentioned. To his surprise, there is a knock before he reaches it. Outside is a stranger from Russia, who apologizes for disturbing them – of course they invite him to join the meal. He turns out to be Mendel’s long-lost youngest son, an invalid baby left behind in Russia who has grown up to be a successful folk-band leader, now on tour in New York. He is searching for his father, to take him home to the Baltics. (Considering what lay ahead – of which Roth knew nothing as it had yet to happen – one may forebode about this.) As the tale unfolded I found my eyes wet; best of all, it was the shrewish hostess who leaped to her feet and cried it was a miracle, and a judgment on her, and that she would never question her husband’s charity again.
There has been some discussion in archaeological circles as to whether there ever was an Exodus. There is no contemporary sign or record of it. Israeli archaeologists perusing the Sinai have found no sign of a march of a great concourse of people meeting the Biblical numbers – but pre-modern estimates of crowd size should never be taken too seriously (never mind that our written account of the event dates from three or four centuries afterwards). What seems likely to me is that a sizable band of Semitic tribes of linked ethnicity (easily glossed in myth as ancestry from an eponymous Israel), let’s say four thousand not four hundred thousand, having quarreled with the Egyptian authorities (newly nationalist after the overthrow of the invading “sea peoples” of the 15th and 16th dynasties, who may well have included – or employed – aforesaid Israelites, as Genesis suggests), decamped by way of the Sea of Reeds (the Hebrew Bible does not mention the Red Sea, which would in any case be the wrong direction) and, avoiding the Negev and the Egyptian-controlled routes to its west, circled around through Nabataea, followed the caravan routes north to Petra and Amman, and then crossed the Jordan, where they found – surprise! – communities in the hills (of what is today, ironically, the West Bank) of peoples linguistically and ritualistically related to them. (Archaeologists have found they eschewed pork; they probably did not circumcise yet, as the Hebrews learned this rite from the Egyptians who had done it for millennia.) Their miraculous tale of wanderings and tribulations and a god who nurtured them and led them through it all was identified joyously with the god worshipped by the Yids in the hills, and the various peoples were then linked by inventing twelve sons for the eponymous ancestor. Since there was no monarchy, the myth could equitably be shared; it did not yet imply one tribe ruling the others but something more confederal than that.
But the seder is a link to relatives one has not seen in forever (which is to say, all Jews - but also Arabs) and to all well-wishers, and as it calls for no extremes of religious observance (no religion demands that you must eat leavened bread or lobster at every meal), it is an easy way to cross any boundaries that may in fact exist, and also (but this is a matter of modern times) to permit Jewish and non-Jewish womenfolk to join forces in the kitchen, the latter learning tradition in the guise of acquiring recipes from the former.
And liberty and brisket for all.
One of these days I hope to find myself at Pesach-tide in Pasadena, where my Episcopalian cousin Martha gives, I am told, a famously special seder. And we can sing the holiday songs of Irving Berlin (Russian Jewish immigrant, married to a Roman Catholic). Though I will insist on "It Only Happens When I Dance With You," "Isn't It A Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain" and "Puttin' On The Ritz."
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