Saturday, April 07, 2007

A tale of two seders

I went to two Passover Seders this year. So did Brad! Both were sort of half Seders, meaning that people started to escape and the leader was able to skip large portions of the ceremonial text after the meal.

At the first Seder, lovely and hosted by Bethany and Abigail, a slew of children got cranky. Their parents were fortunate enough to be able to use their tots as an excuse to leave immediately after eating dinner. The Seder itself included a dramatization of the Jewish slaves' exodus from Egypt -- a hokey, but entertaining, way to engage participants in the story. It also included a very dorky Doctor Seuss-like poem that was easily skippable, but amusing enough to include, reducing boredom and allowing the adults around the table not to have to think about the meaning of liberation.

The meal. Forget about liberation. Food is the only thing anyone is really thinking about. When your host invites you to a dinner party and also calls it a Seder, you may sit passively through a few rituals, but then you'll promptly be served. It was a rush job to get to the food, but Bethany did a nice job of keeping her drive through the ceremony covert. More time could be spent on food and conversation than hearing about the four children.

Of course, when all of the parents are eager to escape, even desert is passed over. I had baked a lemon sponge cake wrapped in whipped cream and strawberries. It looked like big pile of Colgate shaving cream, but it promised a lemony and moist matzoh meal treat inside. Bethany and I ended up dumping at least half of it into the trash at the end of the meal. I guess next time I'm told to bring a desert to a potluck Seder, I will pick up some fruit or some ice cream.

It was a nice Seder. Not spiritually uplifting, perhaps, but celebratory, good company and the kids were cute. And it was nice not to have a Seder scheduled for the second night of Passover. But, the sixth night was scheduled.

Italian restaurant Seder. Every year, for as long as I can remember, my dad's relatives spend my grandmother's remaining money and host a Seder in a dim meeting room in the basement of the Empress Hotel in La Jolla. It's not always on Passover – they simply schedule it on a Saturday that typically is overlapped by Passover. I skipped out last year because I was co-hosting my friend Mark's 40th birthday, but wanted to show up this year and see my grandmother who is, unfortunately, too frail to come to the dinner and instead must eat a nursing home ham on Seder night. It's lovely that my Aunt Carol goes through such a great effort to plan the Seder and schlep the jars of gefilte fish over (the Italian restaurant doesn't provide gefilte fish). And it's nice to see the members of my family who I rarely see (just once per year in San Diego). Other than my dad's sister Carol, I don't get the sense that the other relatives even care that I'm in town. Still, they are my relatives.

As nice a guy as my dad is, he just does a lousy job leading the Seder. It's not entirely his fault. We use a Haggadah that my grandfather pieced together. It is relatively archaic and misses some key elements of the traditional Seder service line-up. My grandfather put some effort into this, and it is nice to see it, but it is probably outdated to use as our principal outline. (I believe at one point my grandfather responded to the complaints of family members that the pages of the Haggadah weren't numbered, so he went through and wrote page numbers on each copy of the Haggadah. Unfortunately, the numbers assigned to pages in about three quarters of the Haggadahs don't correspond to the numbers on the same pages in the remaining quarter of the Haggadahs.) I think my dad recognizes that it's not the best tool to direct a bunch of people who couldn't care less about Passover through the ceremony. He just rushes through the service, calling on the men at the table (he always forgets to call on the women). He sort of mumbles and mispronounces and happily announces that it's time to eat after only about 30 minutes of ritual.

It's really worthless and I've secretly wished they would just forget this sham of religious observance and convert the event to a dinner party. Perhaps a costume party? A different theme each year? Perhaps the children, rather than searching for matzoh, must guess everyone's age. Given some frightful plastic surgery at this Seder, it could have been fun.

Again, the parents with kids escaped as quickly as they could and my dad cut the second half of the Seder to about five minutes. I insisted on a rousing round of that joyous Passover favorite "Had Gadya" about animals eating each other and being smote by fire. And then it was over. Another ritual without meaning.

It makes me wonder sometimes if my true liberation would be an escape from rituals that are just about going through the motions.

Going through the motions. I suppose that's what traditions are all about. I like traditions when I like them and when I get a sense of who I am because I participate in them. I don't like traditions that I don't like.

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