Passover Musings: Then and Now

The Passover seder, a collective commemoration of liberation and redemption, is probably the most observed Jewish ritual of our time. Here LABA fellow Amy Handelsman reflects on her family’s seders past and present.

One of the foundational principles of Judaism is T’shuvah, the concept of circularity and return. We return to the same holidays every year, the same time every year, in a shell-like spiral. But our experiences may be different because we are different people, having (hopefully) evolved and with different facets of our personalities highlighted.

Spring returns at Passover, a holiday beloved by Jews the world over and celebrated even by the most secular among us. Perhaps it is the meal that is so compelling. More likely, it is the communal sharing of this story of liberation and redemption. For me, it is also the comforting structure: seder, itself, means “order” in Hebrew.

I think about Pesachs past and present, how this ritual rich in symbols resonated with the girl I was then and with the woman I’ve become. Here, then, are musings on a range of Passover topics:

Preparing for Passover: Chametz

Then: Spring cleaning. The curtains removed and laundered. The blinds wiped, the storm windows changed. Winter clothes are stored. And while we didn’t search for chametz with a candle and feather, nor sell our baked goods to the Rabbi, we did a thorough sweep into the corners of our house.

Now: Chametz, the leavening that makes dough rise, has moved from a literal meaning to the metaphorical. For me now, it connotes spiritual yeast—a puffing up of ego; that part of me that wants to rise above others, Pharoah-like.

Setting the Table and Scene:

Then: We drive into Manhattan to my aunt and uncle’s, who host the seder with help from my father’s Hungarian mother. Solidly middle-class and suburban, I feel like poor relations arriving at their luxe Classic Six on 78th Street and Lexington Ave. I am enchanted by random things—the size of their foyer, the swinging doors between dining room and kitchen, the dumbwaiter, the pint-size maid’s room and bath.

There are sixteen places set, each with its own Maxwell House Haggadah, worn thin and stained by wine and charoset. The book’s language is archaic—both charming and abstruse.

Now: I search Judaica stores for the most relevant Haggadot—ones neither too modern and abbreviated, nor too stuffy and full. Leading seders for those less observant, I (not without some guilt) excise the debates between rabbis and instead star the must-have passages. My favorite is the New American Haggadah (2012), compiled by two of my favorite authors, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander.

Welcoming the Stranger:

Then: We hunt for anyone who may be alone, without family, to join our seder. No one we know falls in that category.

Now: There are sometimes more gentiles than Jews at our table. The non-Jews are especially tickled to be among us.

Slavery and Freedom:

“Now we are slaves, next year may we be free men… In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt.”

Then: The Cinderella-slavery of being the youngest of three sisters; the relentlessness of homework, bedtime and chores.

Now: My external associations: commemoration of pogroms, the Shoah, the Civil Rights movement, Soviet Jewry. An identification with those still under the lash of tyranny and war, whether through sex-trafficking, or domestic violence; the Boko Haram, ISIS; those imprisoned in China, Russia, North Korea, Syria; my post-Trump fears of the erosion of American freedoms.

Internal: As I come to learn that the Hebrew for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “narrow straits,” I look inward towards my own personal Egypts. Where am I constricted in my thinking? Under whose critical voice do I strain? Where am I slave-like in my obedience? To work, to ambition, to a love relationship, to habit?

The Four: Questions, Sons, Cups:

Then: The youngest of all eight cousins on my father’s side, I read (in English) the Ma Nishtana, the Four Questions, seeking answers to why this night is different from all other nights. Being in the spotlight makes me feel both nervous and special. I wrestle with why there are four sons and no daughters (all the cousins but one is female). I see the normally abstemious adults get loaded on Manischevitz and feel tipsy myself with my four sips of wine.

Now: I beam with vicarious pride as my friends’ kids read the four questions (in Hebrew) as I more fully embrace the seder’s raison d’etre: to teach the next generation. I understand that the four sons represent both the range of traits in our children, and the different ones of our own personae. I bring Kosher for Passover wine to the table; the sickly-sweet smell of Manischevitz now makes me queasy.

Reciting of the Ten Plagues:

Then: Another childhood favorite. A sense of fun and accomplishment; reciting them first in English and then in Hebrew while dipping a pinky finger in wine and flicking a drop on your plate. Delighting in the grossness and terror of locusts, frogs, boils. Wondering what murrain is. Theatrical re-enactments of Pharoah, Moses, even G-d (“with an outstretched arm”).

Now: Fear that we are heading now away from Tikkun Olam and towards climate change that can, indeed, lead to plague-like consequences.

The Seder Plate:

Then: From a kid’s point-of-view, a weird combination of items; a familiarity with our own childhood plate where sections segregated the foods to keep them from touching.

Now: We delayed going to the butcher and have to substitute something for the shank bone, but what? Do we use the root of real horseradish or will our guests miss the red Mrs. Goldberg’s? The Hillel sandwich—combining the bitter (herbs) with the sweet (charoset)—takes on a deeper hue as we have sustained greater trials and losses.

The Afikomen:

Then: My cousin Nina always found it and we later learn her father—our host—had always tipped her off.

Now: We hunt for harder and harder hiding places. Some of us give money to all the children present—the practice of which I disapprove (ditto, everyone, victors and losers both, scoring athletic trophies).

Elijah’s Cup:

Then: The unheard-of practice of leaving one’s apartment door open in Manhattan. Confusion over who is this Messiah guy; why He’s so late in coming, and why we are spending next year in Jerusalem.

Now: A feeling that redemption is within our midst if we work for it, and a prayer for peace.

Chag S’meach!