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Passover Season Transitions: Childhood to Leading the Service
Jewish transitions are marked in a number of ways. For example, I used to sit at the kids' table for Passover -- you know, that folding card table placed at the end of the long, bedecked dining-room table. The kids' table didn't get the fancy tablecloth or the fine china. Our table was covered with a nice enough cloth, but one that could stand a few more stains. And our wine was served in juice glasses -- Flintstones jelly-jar glasses, to be exact.
We didn't even have our own chairs. A piano bench shared by two, or sometimes three, of us, or a hassock dragged in from the den worked just fine. If you were short, a few phone books brought you up to the proper height.
Here, among my cousins, siblings and children of family friends, I celebrated the seder, giggling sometimes and, at other moments, totally oblivious to the activity of my parents, older relatives and friends seated at the adult table.
Over the years, there were minor exceptions to the rule of only young ones at the kids table. New mothers with their infants or a toddler in a highchair got to return to that distant table. It was a practical move. The highchair fit better there at the end; and mothers needing to leave with a crying child could make an exit.
At the kids' table, the focus was not on the service, but on daring one another to eat the horseradish, purposefully mispronouncing the chorus of Hallel -- "Ki L'Olam Chasdo" -- as "have some dough," or fighting over the precious afikomen.
At our table, we would laugh and nudge one another as we struggled to read the names of the rabbis from some passage that had little meaning to us then. My siblings and I would snap to attention to perform the Four Questions.
We learned them all at Hebrew school, but I had to recite only the third since I was the third of four, and we always sang them in birth order, oldest to youngest.
With Help From AT&T
Our "carrying on," as my parents described it, brought admonishments, like "behave yourself," as well as stern looks from others at the adult table. The only permitted interruption was the phone calls from those graduates of the children's table who were away at college. They participated in the event with a little help from AT&T by the ritual of passing the phone from one relative to another.
We knew all the seder rituals. But we kids wanted to celebrate in other ways, too: Playing whiffle ball in the backyard; going to the basement to indulge in our annual ping-pong match, which culminated in the awarding of the family "Seder Bowl Trophy"; searching for the prize-winning magic matzah ball (the one with a hidden raisin); reading the English translation of "Echad Mi Yodea," while adhering to the family rule of taking only one breath during each stanza. And, of course, scarfing down endless amounts of Passover candy.
Over the years, my role and perspective changed. As a young adult, I sat somewhere in the middle of the adult table. The expectation was to participate fully in the service, though now the Four Questions were the job of the younger grandchildren.
I loved being with family, the food and the traditions, but like others of my generation, I had spent long hours in Hebrew school learning to recite prayers while not learning much about Judaism. I was stuck in the middle. I was too old to go sit at the kids' table and ignore the service, and too young to be taken seriously at the adult table.
As the family grew, the logistics of bringing us all together for the first seder began to get difficult. Some new relatives were not Jewish, and schedules and conflicts called for a deviation from the Jewish calendar. My parents started having a seder on the first Saturday of Passover. It wasn't halachic, but it served an important function of getting everyone in one place to share the ritual meal.
I continued my move up the table. When my daughter was born, I made a brief return to the kids' table until she was able to sit on her own. When she began Bat Mitzvah preparations, I also took on Jewish study.
I found I was no longer satisfied with the old "Maxwell House Haggadah." With its antiquated language, it lacked contemporary resonance and gender-neutral language. Worst of all, it actually excluded women from the Passover story.
I wanted a seder on the first night of Passover. I wanted my children to participate in a service that had relevance, while also preserving the family's treasured traditions.
Breaking from the norm is always difficult. I did not want to disrespect my parents, but there was more that I wanted to pass on to my children. With trepidation, I put together a Haggadah and a songbook.
I searched through a number of different Haggadahs and alternative readings to organize a service that spoke to my family's desire to tell a story and reflect our shared historical, mythical, cultural and spiritual unity. I included traditional songs, and some parodies of familiar show tunes and TV theme songs, while conveying information that had been lost in the maze of Hebrew.
I invited my parents to join us for a seder that I would host and lead. Around the table sat my parents, son, daughter-in-law, daughter, husband and friends. I took my seat at the head of the table and, at that moment, my perspective then changed again. Would the service be meaningful and inclusive? Would it continue into the next generations?
I added a Miriam's Cup to the table and readings about it. A fourth matzah on the seder plate triggered talk of social problems, like poverty and racism.
My parents actively participated and enjoyed themselves. Dad mostly approved of it all. Mom liked the food, but reminded me that she never put a turnip in her matzah-ball soup. Some traditions are more difficult to alter than others.
I look forward to new generations that will sit at our seder. The card table is in the basement and, when necessary, I will place it at the end of my dining-room table. I await fresh ideas as my children and grandchildren make the slow, inevitable journey up and around the table.
Someone, sometime will take my place, but for now -- and I am aware how fragile this honor is -- I'm at the head of the table.