This year, I’m not sure what will be added to my seder table of Resistance. In recognition of Jewish women, Miriam’s Cup and an orange have become Passover staples and we already supplement the traditional Haggadah with “The Four Daughters.” Shall there be “White Roses”, to honor the murdered anti-fascists of 1930s Berlin? Vermont Maple Syrup, to demonstrate loyalty to Bernie Sanders in 2020? Would matches and a tiny woodpile serve as a reminder of the Spanish inquisition, and signify that the Golden Age of Jews in America may be ending? A clock could remind us of the need to consider historical time beyond that of our individual lives, and focus on the fate of our imperiled planet. Shall I play the anthem of World War Two partisans? What kind of Socialist Internationale can defeat oligarchy and save the human race? Perhaps placing my battered copy of “Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America” beside bitter herbs will be sufficient?
My newly religious son has returned for three weeks, taking a break from studying at an all-male Modern Orthodox yeshiva overlooking the Jerusalem Forest. He returned to a family where Jewish tradition resides in educated female hands – with a mother who cooks and leads seder. We spent the morning studying Gemara together, a throwback to my days as a Prozdor student gone rogue at The Jewish Theological Seminary, plaguing my instructors with such questions as whether Moses might have been on peyote when he saw the burning bush and hurrying outside to call my non-Jewish boyfriend from a pizzeria payphone. I recalled how fed up Rabbi Burt Vizotsky became with our misbehaving Tuesday night Talmud class, telling us in a moment of frustration that we would amount to nothing. My blunt teenage response:
“Rabbi Vizotsky, are you condemning all of us to the proletariat?”
“Not you, Miss Siegel. You’re going to be joining the bourgeoisie!”
I spoke to my son about falling short as a parent – the purchase of a telescope but no substantive study of astronomy, a shady treehouse never constructed, the family sukkahs never built. My son reminded me that he helped erect one at his yeshiva this year. I should consider that parenting task fulfilled. At a certain point, it is not what you have done for your child, but what the young person does for themselves and for others, that really counts. It seems I can expect construction of successive sukkahs in the years to come. During our Gemara study, we explored and discussed the specific requirements for a proper sukkkah. I remember the stunning one of my youth, a block long and fragrant with pine, decorated by young Hebrew School students. To this day, the Hillcrest Jewish Center sukkah, not far from the intersection of Union Turnpike and Utopia Parkway, remains the most beautiful one I have ever visited. Sharing childhood memories continues to enrich my Jewish practice. Preparation for Passover always includes gratitude to my late parents for the religious world they gave me. When it comes to grief, progress has been made. There’s been a successful transition through mourning and I no longer weep among the doily laden shelves of the “Kosher for Passover” supermarket aisle.
Passover comes early and household cleaning starts. It cannot compare in breadth and depth to the military scale operation (on a par with the invasion of Normandy) launched by my parents a full month before the holiday. There would be almost no chametz to be found, all dirt and dust removed from every crevice of my improbably splendid (How did a school psychologist and sixth grade teacher with four children live so graciously?) home in Jamaica Estates. Alas, my decrepit dwelling in a more upscale community will never meet proper standards of anything (spiritual or physical) as I never had an affair with a contractor as an old acquaintance had (in jest) recommended! To my delight, the extraordinary friends who have become my family are oblivious to aesthetic flaws and my seder endures as a cherished destination. They approach the gathering with enthusiasm, happy to affiliate and celebrate, to affirm our journey from slavery to freedom. There’s consolation and comfort to be gained from one another’s company in a time of political plague. This year, we are all primed to discuss the question:
WHY IS THIS SEDER DIFFERENT THAN ANY OTHER SEDER?
Like Rabbi Akiva and his fellow scholars, who observed Passover while in hiding from the Romans, we may also be talking deep into the night about our moral responsibilities and fears about the future. With the passing of my mother in law and my father, the demographics of our gathering no longer spans almost a century. We are truly the grown-ups now. The uneasy parents who will be seated at my seder table are in their fifties, with children in middle and high school. They take their progeny on scheduled college visits and hope for the best. I cherish my updated passport and deny Homeland Security possession of my retinas. What will happen when they take a close look and realize that my eyes are hazel, not brown? Financial assets are kept as close to liquid as possible. The lovely customer service representative doesn’t understand why I’m not purchasing T-bills and why I am talking about opening a Swiss bank account. When it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States, I’m just not feeling it. “Gimme Shelter” spins around in my head and life in America feels as fragile as a sukkah – three walls and a roof open to the sky and vicissitudes of stormy weather. As this hideous presidency rains down upon me, I cannot distinguish between water and blood. What is permanent, what is temporary, I do not know. The only constant: a need for sweeping revolutionary change, to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.
Every year, I ask my seder guests to consider how they have been enslaved during the past year and what, individually and collectively, freedom might be like. Likely responses will be the job, the boss, those tweets, the M.S.N.B.C. and C.N.N. breaking news cycles, social media, FOX News, perpetual horrors and terrors…This year, the daughters of my friends have grown a year older and may have new questions:
“How important is it that I be attractive to men?”
“Of what use is religion, if I don’t believe in G-d?”
“When I graduate college, will I receive equal pay for equal work?”
“Will I ever be able to live without fear of rape?”
“Can I act become a brave advocate like the Parkland students?”
“Does the world need my particular type of activism?”
“How can I successfully confront sexism at school and at work?”
“If I get married, will I be oppressed or free?”
“Will there be a place for me in the world if I change my sexual orientation?”
“If I am creative and smart, will my talents and skills be recognized and rewarded?”
“Is a better, more just and Democratic world possible or am I deluding myself?”
We must get ready. The next generation has burning questions. They need our love, respect, support, and willingness to listen. They need our sustained commitment to political activism.
A dear friend who passed away once told me that preparing for Passover was as important as observing it. While sweeping, dusting, and disinfecting, I’m keeping his scholarly and emotional insight close to my heart. On this starlit winter night, I can almost hear his gravelly voice whispering in my ear:
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. Your seder will be good enough. You’re ‘The Reconstructionist of Borough Park.’ ”
Please accept my wishes for a seder of Resilience and Redemption. Please accept my wishes for a Zissen Pesach – a joyous Passover. Let us all go from slavery to freedom!