Seder Means Order

Posted on March 28, 2013

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Every year at Passover, I think wistfully of the Seders of years past at the home of my (ex-) brother-in-law Larchmont, New York (twenty years older than me and my ex-husband, so to me and my first husband they played the role of supplemental parents). The first night took place at a long table and included their sons, and my sister-in-law’s siblings, and their spouses and children.

The second night was an even bigger celebration; my sister-in-law’s parents’ entire house in Jersey City was devoted to the annual ritual, the furniture in the living room moved aside and the room crammed with tables and folding chairs, and the clatter and the joy of an exploding population of babies and toddlers, the next generation of children being taught to ask four questions.

My brother-in-law used to remind us at the beginning of the Seder that “Seder means ‘order.’” I took this to mean that the Seder is an ordered meal in which the symbolic meaning of every food: the matzoh, horseradish and charoset is acknowledged.

I have attended Unitarian “Seders” around Passover, and other times of the year as well, that acknowledged the symbolism of food in the spring, or at the time of harvest. Similarly, there were remembrances at Thanksgiving in my family – acknowledgement that turkey, squash, pumpkins, and cranberries are native North American food, and reminders of the origins of family dishes, like tomato pudding (a rich and simple dish with tomato paste, cubed bread, brown sugar, butter and herbs), the recipe for which my maternal grandmother bribed the maître d’ of the Tally Ho in Toledo, Ohio. (This one fact tells you a little something about my maternal grandmother too, a lover of prosperity, not much of a cook herself, one who loved luxuries and appearances.)

Some years ago, a friend of ours, Jewish in ancestry but not practice, decided to hold a Seder to convey the tradition to his two teenagers, who had had little exposure to Jewish ritual. My husband, daughter, son and I were invited. Having been to more Seders than our host and his children, we enthusiastically sang “Chad Gadya” and “Dayenu” pounded the table robustly, and urged our young son search for the hidden afikomen. Amusingly, the guests who threw themselves into the ritual with the greatest abandon were non-Jews, having absorbed the traditions as guests at other Passover tables.

The thoughtful, joyful Seders in Larchmont and Jersey City, that one evening in Princeton, and the family meals of my youth (and my father’s stories of backyard picnics, Sunday night dinners, and holidays that stretch another generation back in memory) are what I think of when I wax sentimental about shared and symbolic meals – connecting stories of family by biology, marriage and choice with the larger community and ever-burgeoning cultural influences.

It’s important to note that there is no one right way to hold a ceremonial meal. There are traditions to which one is exposed and additions and changes over time. Each time an annual meal is held, people add dishes, things to say, observances, memories. Some steps are forgotten or abandoned.

Because Jews migrated around the world, they picked up many traditions. To illustrate this, note that “Chad Gaya” has its origins in Aramaic; “Dayenu” is Hebrew, and “afikomen” is Greek. In that spirit of absorbing many influences, I have taken on the habit of setting a place for Elijah at many meals at my own house. The Elijah for whom there is an extra plate and utensils is not the fearsome prophet of the Torah (and Quran), but any unexpected guest whom our family would like to welcome. Those who know the tradition nod knowingly when I point out the place set for Elijah (now offered to them) and others shrug and sit down without having to wait. We all have something to bring to the table.

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