Thursday, April 14, 2011


Elizabeth Zelvin

This coming Monday is the first night of Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Exodus, when Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. The traditional Seder, the festive meal and ceremony that takes place not once but twice, on two successive nights, consists of an abundance of special foods and the reading of the Haggadah, which is the retelling of the story of the Exodus in a peculiarly Jewish way. Only the People of the Book could have given so little space to the narrative of what happened and so much to a recounting of the arguments among various eminent rabbis through history about precisely what each word and phrase meant. Chanted in Hebrew (with the English translation on alternating pages), this is what is known to generations of American Jewish children, especially those raised along secular lines, as “the boring part.”

In my family, the children were not allowed to eat anything (except a corner of the ceremonial matzoh in its proper place and the parsley dipped in salt water, no treat to a child) until halfway through the Haggadah, when you got to eat the Hillel sandwich, invented by the first-century scholar of that name as a symbol of the bitter and the sweet: charoses, apples chopped with nuts and wine or honey to symbolize the mortar used when the Jewish slaves built the Pyramids, combined with horseradish so pungent it cleared your sinuses for a week on a piece of matzoh. Then we got to eat the meal: hard-boiled eggs in salt water (symbolic tears), gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzoh balls, a main course that in our house included my mother’s famous pot roast along with potato kugel that she always pretended to the guests she’d made from scratch. My father invariably blew the gaffe, perhaps in retaliation for having been sent to the kosher deli to buy it ready made. While recovering from this meal, at least enough to do justice to dessert, we would read the rest of the Haggadah, open the door so the prophet Elijah could come in for his ceremonial sip of wine (as close as we get to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny) and finally get to the songs. My favorite, “Chad Gadya,” was sung in a mix of Hebrew and ancient Aramaic—more evidence that we’ve been doing this every year for a very long time.

At non-traditional Seders, like those my family does today, the food is the same, but the Haggadah has been edited for relevance in a variety of different ways and has become a lot more fun. At different times, I’ve used a variety of materials. One is a recounting of the Exodus story from The Egalitarian Haggadah, including such priceless lines as “They collected back wages in goods from the Egyptians for 400 years of unpaid labor. Then they mobilized according to plan and marched out.” Another comes from psychologist Harville Hendrix, the author of Getting the Love You Want, who sees the story as a parable of the journey toward relationship health and happiness that couples make in counseling. He says that we are “prisoners of the fear of change” and that “we expect life’s rewards to come to us easily and without sacrifice.” Only when we accept the need for change and growth can we reach the Promised Land of intimacy and a fulfilling life. (I am not making this up. And if you’ve been in therapy less than forty years, you’ve got it better than the Jews in the desert.) Most recently, I’ve tried to condense the story and cast it in a form that my small granddaughters will sit still for: “Pharaoh was very mean to the Jews. He wouldn’t let them go home for four hundred years.”

In fact, my family today is a little low on Jewishness. My husband was born Irish Catholic, my daughter-in-law is a Catholic from the Philippines. My cousin’s father was a WASP, so he’s only half Jewish, and his children are one-quarter Jewish. My half-Jewish granddaughters are being raised in their mom’s faith.

The moving and powerful message that we repeat every year at the Seder for family, friends, and the strangers in our midst (who are especially welcome at this holiday table) is this:

In every generation throughout our history, oppressors have tried to destroy us as a people. Each time we have survived. We are telling this story not only because it happened to our ancestors, but as if it happened to us personally. And in spite of all this, we still fight oppression wherever we find it. Even if we are free, we cannot be completely happy unless all people everywhere are free.

This message is well worth handing down to our children and grandchildren, however fractionally Jewish. So we gather and feast and tell the story every year.


lil Gluckstern said...

Beautiful, Liz, and what richness you and your family embody.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Lil. Happy Pesach to you too!

Grace Topping said...

Hi, Liz --

Thanks for your post. As a Catholic, I gained a better understanding and appreciation of Passover after our neighbors invited us to join them in their Passover celebration. We read from the book, learned about the events commemorated by Passover, shared in the delicious meal, and even participated in the games at the end. It was a wonderful experience and an example of how you understand a people better when you break bread with them. I even won the competition at the end of the dinner by being able to recite the children's story without taking a breath, which quite impressed my neighbors. It was truly a memorable evening.