Thursday, August 29, 2013

Haggadah Diaries - This is the way it happened to me!

I cannot find the artist.  If anyone recognizes this work, I would love to give recognition.

My daughter Jody and I have finally embarked with some amount of seriousness upon our Haggadah journey.  We want to create a Haggadah for the world we find ourselves in and not just for our family.  This is something I've wanted to do for so long that I'd almost given up on it.  But my desire to do this with one or both my daughters rather than alone helped me to procrastinate until one of them was ready. Perhaps I am now being rewarded for my patience.  We shall see.

A Haggadah, for those who may not know, is the book used on Passover at the seder or celebratory dinner.  The word Haggadah itself means "telling," and therefore an apt title, because the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt is the evening's theme.  The seder is explicitly designed to transmit the Exodus story from family elders to the youngsters so our history will not be forgotten, and thus many of the Haggadah's devices are kid-friendly. For example, there is a game of hide-and-seek with a matzah, a recitation of four questions by the youngest among the group, singing, dipping and dripping liquids, and of course, story-telling.

This is one of Judaism's most important and symbolic holidays for reasons I'm sure we will get to later.  The point I want to make now is that Passover is the only holiday of this magnitude left to be orchestrated within the family home instead of the synagogue.  This hugely important holiday is left to each household to figure out its own practice.  If you think about this, despite fifteen steps for running an official seder laid out in the Haggadah, leaving the seder to the whims of the kvetchers, the hurriers, the shy, the hoggers, the deniers, the too-busy, recalcitrant readers, interested neighbors, and no doubt worst of all, the hungry, seems like a very a brave and risky move on the part of our forefathers.

On the contrary, it turns out that the forefathers had something.  It turns out that more Jews make time for Passover seder  than any other holiday except the High Holidays.  And not only do they attend, but Jews have taken to heart this lack of oversight, personalizing their seders in every way imaginable.  Jewish families over the centuries have integrated creative re-enactments, props, thematic twists, current events, art work, music and who knows how many other ideas into their seders to make them meaningful and enjoyable.

What is it that drives Jewish families to embrace this holiday so thoroughly?  To add their personal imprimatur to the historic order of business laid out in the Haggadah?  I could certainly ask myself that question.  I was driven to create my first Haggadah to satisfy my own eclectic seder table, often a reflection of our multicultural, secularized Jewish America, with non-Jewish or non-practicing family members, friends who have "always wanted to attend" a seder, children of assorted ages, teenagers who wish they were somewhere else, and almost always one hungry person who is loudly asking if this year, we could please use the 30-minute Haggadah.

A story relayed by anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff and edited and reprinted by Steve Zeitlan on rather poignently and with humor gets at one answer.  Myerhoff actually videotaped a family seder as part of a research project, and captured this tale:

"Arnold was very aware that his [young adult] grandsons didn’t know anything Jewishly, and he wanted this tradition passed on. So after saying the opening prayers, he introduced his older grandson and said, “My grandson Marc will lead the seder.” Greg had been given a chance to lead the seder a couple of years before. So Marc was expecting this, and he said under his breath as he came into the house, “If he tells me to lead it and breaks in and interrupts it and takes it over, I want you to know I’m leaving.” He said this to his mother as we all went in. So we were all very tense. This combination of intentions does not make for a relaxed evening, but seders are never relaxed.

It was a sacrifice for the old man to give up leading the seder because it was something he loved to do, but he was doing this to assure that his grandsons would be prepared to carry it on. What happened during the course of the evening was that the boy slowly changed into a man. You could see it happening before your eyes—this is the wonder of working with videotape—and it became a rite of passage for him. It was the bar mitzvah that, in a sense, he had never had. He began the seder as an ignorant, unsure boy, and by the end of the evening he was commanding the situation with a good deal of authority.

It so happened that by the end of the evening, he was rather drunk as well. So the videotape has this wonderful mixture of authority and slippage. When his grandfather put him in charge of the seder, he began to take a lot of wine because he was very nervous, and his grandfather turned to him and said, “You can’t do that, you’re supposed to have four cups.” The grandson said, “Look, these are my sacred cups, and then over here I have my other cup. I’m drinking from that one, and I do the required four cups at the right time.” And the grandfather said, “That’s an interesting idea. Do you think I could do that too?” And so an innovation was made that you knew was going to get passed down, and that generations from now in this family they would tell the story of how this came about...."

I love this story for the way the grandfather relinquishes his own control to give his grandson a chance to own the history for himself.  I love this story for the way the grandson lived into the role, and put his own stamp on their family tradition by separating the sacred cups from his "other" cup.  Anyone making a seder in their own home surely has a deep desire to see their children link themselves to their Jewish history and carry the story forward as their own.

Tradition teaches us that in every generation, we ought to look upon ourselves as if we personally had gone out of Egypt.  But for being taken out of Egypt by God's hand, we would all still be slaves in that land.   How can we, so far in time and space from Egypt, come to see that experience as ours?  By inviting our children to follow the same structured seder with its fifteen steps that our forebearers followed year after year across time, and then by adding to that structure the highly personalized experience of seder in our own homes.  By laying our own family stamp upon the seder, we link our own unique story to the Exodus story.  We nest our intimate family story within our ancestors' larger story.  Then we can each of us say, "This is the way it happened to me."

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