I don’t know a lot about religion. I was raised Christian, and received very basic education about the Bible. From what little I read, in the Old Testament God seemed to be a very angry, vengeful force; it wasn’t until Jesus came along in the New Testament that God seemed to become more loving and accepting. So I was always confused as to why Jewish people (who I thought were supposed to focus exclusively on the Old Testament [as well as the Torah, which is a text I know absolutely nothing about]) believe so strongly that God is love. Didn’t they read about all the crap God put people through? Floods, fires, plagues, and turning people into salt for no good reason… I just didn’t get it. All of the Jewish people I know are intelligent, rational humans; so I had to believe that Judaism wasn’t a flawed religion, but rather, that I was missing something about this spiritual tradition. Yet I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about learning more. Reading about Jewish beliefs only left me feeling confused; I quickly realized that I needed a lot more context if I was going to make sense out of information that was so different from my own upbringing. I decided that if the opportunity ever arose for me to attend a Jewish ceremony (a bar mitzvah, synagogue service, wedding, or special holiday) that I would take advantage and experience a bit of Jewish culture and tradition first-hand.
A few years ago a Jewish friend casually mentioned that she was preparing for a big religious holiday, playing the role of hostess not only to her full family, but also to several friends. She offhandedly commented that I was welcome to attend the celebration as well; but later, when I inquired more seriously about the event, I realized that my presence would likely add another layer of stress to her already-extensive event planning. (I would be coming from out of town, and therefore would have needed to stay at her home at least overnight; to plan for a house guest as well as prepare for a large ceremony [and related meal] was a lot for a person to do all at once.) I was disappointed that I missed this opportunity, but trusted that another one would appear.
Fast forward to a month ago. One of my husband’s carpool buddies (hereafter referred to as “J”) mentioned that he would not be riding with the group in a few weeks, because he was taking the day off to help his wife prepare for their annual Seder. When my husband relayed the information to me, my ears perked up. A local Seder, being hosted by someone we knew? Without hesitation, I asked my husband if he could arrange to get me invited to the event. (Yes, I totally pushed my way into someone else’s family gathering. Whatever. Sometimes ‘serendipity’ occurs because of action, and not by waiting around for fate to intervene.) J graciously agreed to let me crash his event – so that’s how I found myself among a crowd of Jews on a Monday night in March.
I was asked to arrive at J’s home at 6 pm; by 6:10 pm, the house was packed with people. J’s family is a true 21st-century hybrid: attending the evening’s Seder were ex-spouses and their new partners, parents and siblings of the ex-spouses, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, kids and grandkids… it was a blended family in every way. Yet everyone present genuinely got along with all the other people in the room; indeed, everyone seemed to truly enjoy being in the company of the others. It was really cool to see sixteen people who had such potential to be angry with one another allow past hurts to remain in the past, and cultivate peace (or at least deep tolerance) for all the humans currently in their lives.
And while all of the adults present at the event loved the people around them, 14 of the individuals in the room were very ‘Jewish’ – as in, they were very animated and enthusiastic, and at times brash and raucous. No one said anything hurtful or harmful – but nearly everyone in the room spoke with energy that was very “spunky” (read: opinionated, confident, and loud). Add to the mix a large, young dog, and the environment was pretty chaotic – in a terrific family-holiday sense. Indeed, the gathering reminded me of big extended Thanksgiving family dinners I attended as a child – and it felt absolutely wonderful to be immersed in the comfortable space.
As I was introduced to each family member, J explained, “This is Stef, she’s the wife of one of my carpoolers. She’s not Jewish, and has never been to a Seder before, but wanted to see what they are all about.” With each introduction, the person I stood in front of responded with genuine delight. Indeed, each and every person (from the 6-year-old first-grader to the 92-year-old grandma) treated me as a treasured guest: they made sure I had a comfortable seat and that my glass was always full, they served each course of the meal to me first before serving anyone else, they took great care to explain every action of the evening as it was occurring so that I wouldn’t feel incompetent or look silly… All of the attention was a little bit shocking, but admittedly also rather incredible. I smiled broadly at each person as they shared a kindness with me, and received each one warmly. I allowed each person to be a good host or hostess to me, and in so doing, I gave them a gift, too. (Sometimes the best way to help someone feel good is to simply accept the kind gesture they are offering.)
After everyone had a bit of time to mingle and socialize, J decided it was time to begin the Seder. I was shown a seat next to J’s wife’s ex-husband’s wife, who was formerly a Methodist woman but converted to Judaism in her late 20s. (Did you catch all that? If so, big kudos to you!) Now in her late 50s, N was well-versed in Jewish customs and culture – yet she could still remember when everything was new (and a bit confusing) to her, so she was incredibly gracious about gently telling me when to take certain actions throughout the Seder ceremony and meal. I wasn’t aware that a Seder was an interactive kind of event; actually, I had no idea what a Seder even entailed. My plan was to show up at J’s house and just do whatever everyone else did; I didn’t realize specific actions needed to take place in a specific order at specific times throughout the evening. Had I known this in advance, I might have been more reluctant to attend the Seder. Fortunately for me, J had printed off copies of a document called a “Haggadah”, which served as a script that led all of us attendees through the series of events for the evening. Apparently there are thousands of versions of Haggadah available for Passover – and J just ‘happened’ to select one for this gathering that was very basic in its explanations and very clear in its directions. I was very grateful to receive this simplified version of the traditional Passover text.
In the first few pages of the Haggadah, I learned that Passover is a holiday that celebrates the liberation of Jewish slaves from the Egyptians back in the time of Moses, and that the ceremony is a series of 15 specific steps. I also quickly came to realize that a Seder is a celebration full of symbolism and meaning – and much of the text in the Haggadah spoke to my heart. I won’t recount all of the specific events of the night (if you want to read the haggadah for yourself, you can do so here [and I do encourage anyone who is curious to take 20 minutes and thoroughly read the text]), but I will call out the passages that touched me deeply during the three hours I celebrated Passover:
- “We are not the only people to have been enslaved by others. The Passover Seder reminds us that in every age we must all do whatever we can to help those who are enslaved by tyranny. If a people is anywhere enslaved, exploited or oppressed, then nowhere is freedom really secure — and freedom must never be taken for granted.” Amen.
- “Each year, we are encouraged to discover new things in the Seder…It is in this spirit that the story is told and handed down, each generation knowing it has the responsibility to tell the story to the next generation.” I like the emphasis on being an ‘active’ participant in the ceremony every year – even if a person knows what ‘comes next’ in the evening’s events.
- “We pray that the coming year will be a year of happiness and peace.” I have no issues with any religion that promotes happiness and peace for all beings.
- “We know that life is fragile. Each day is a gift to be cherished and no moment should be taken for granted. We thank God for helping us maintain a life of meaning and we are thankful for having opportunities to sanctify our lives by performing good deeds that make a difference in the world.” and “We are meant to link our rituals with doing good in the world.” You know it. May we all remember this, and truly live it every day.
- “Questioning is a healthy sign of freedom. Asking questions is so fundamental that, according to the rabbis, even if one finds oneself alone on Passover, the Four Questions should be asked aloud.” I LOVE this. I love that the focus is not on ‘blind faith’, but on truly investigating, learning, and deciding for oneself. Awesome.
- “There is a word in Hebrew — Teshuvah — that means return. It is an acknowledgement that there is always a chance for forgiveness, redemption and change. Our traditions teach that Passover is open to all. Everyone is welcome at this table. There is always room. Because no one is ever turned away, there is always an opportunity for a rebirth of spirit. As a sign of hospitality to all, we open the door to our homes and symbolically invite anyone who wants to join us to come inside.” Beautiful.
- “It is interesting to note that the last thing God does against Pharaoh [kill all the first born babies] is the first thing that Pharaoh did to the Israelites, a lesson that we should not be vengeful and always have measured justice. ‘An eye for an eye’ does not mean we should seek equal retribution, but that when pursuing justice, we must be fair and equitable.” This passage explained a LOT to me about the image of the ‘angry God’ that had been created in my mind’s eye.
- “In ancient times, the Israelites ate simple foods. For one week each year the matzoh becomes the symbol of those days when people had little, reminding us that our lives are about much more than the material things we have or own…The flat, unleavened matzoh represents humility. Matzoh is not ‘enriched’ with oil, sugar, honey or other things. Only by acknowledging our own shortcomings and looking to a higher wisdom, can we free ourselves from the arrogance and self-centeredness within our own hearts.” You know it.
- “Each of us will take a bit of the maror, the bitter herb, and dip it into the haroset — a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wines and spices. We acknowledge that life is bittersweet. The sweet taste of haroset symbolizes that no matter how bitter and dark the present appears, we should look forward to better days. As we remember our ancestors, this is a time to be appreciative of everything we have; a time to be grateful for all the gifts we have been given.” So true.
- “This custom of hiding the afikoman is not found in early Haggadot and was probably added as a device to keep up the interest of young children who might otherwise become bored with the ceremony.” I love this honesty! 🙂
- “We have eaten this Passover meal as a free people and we give thanks to God for his many blessings. Preserve us in life, sustain us with good and honorable work and make us worthy. Bless this home, this table, and all assembled here; may all our loved ones share our blessings.” What a beautiful blessing.
- “Next year may all men and women everywhere be free!” Amen!
At the end of the evening, I was genuinely surprised by how emotional I felt from the words and actions I had just experienced. I also felt pleased that I sampled everything offered to me (from parsley dipped in salt water, to a matzo/horseradish/apple/nut/spice ‘sandwich’, to gefilte fish [which I had never had before – it wasn’t horrible, but also not something I’ll seek out in the future], to authentic matzo ball soup), and I felt very happy that I genuinely felt like a member of this kooky, fun, kind family – if only for an evening. Though attending the Seder made for a very long Monday (and left me semi-exhausted for the remainder of the work week), I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in this experience. History lesson, performance art, delicious meal, rich symbolism, and meaningful prayer all rolled into a single evening – Jews know how to get their religion on! 🙂