Growing up in West Michigan, my family attended Presbyterian church reliably on major holidays like Easter and Christmas and sporadically the remainder of the year. According to family lore, as a tween I famously declined confirmation in the church. I admire my parents open minded approach; being part of the church community was one available option, but not required. Suffice it to say, organized religion has been something I haven’t felt personally connected to for most of my life, but family history always has been.
My maternal roots are German Jewish, and while my family didn’t practice Judaism or celebrate Jewish holidays, this significant part of my heritage has long held my curiosity. For most of childhood, I knew the basics – that my grandparents’ ancestors immigrated to the US in the mid-1800’s from Bavaria and Heidelberg respectively, eventually settling in Chicago area. But it wasn’t until years later, when I was invited to Seder dinner that I felt inspired to dig deeper.
In April 2007 in San Francisco, my friend Jenna hosted Seder for the first time. I was 27, in graduate school, living in the city with two of my best buddies in a walkup apartment. In classic late-twentiesdom, our friends were navigating various milestones – graduate school, new-ish careers, relationships, and other adventures. Neon Bible was Arcade Fire’s brand new album, George W. Bush was President, and the first Iphone had not yet come out.
The evening of Seder as I was walking into Jenna’s apartment, I got news from my parents that my paternal grandmother, Grandma Tutu, had passed away peacefully, at age 93. We had known it was coming, but naturally for a moment I considered leaving. My friends encouraged me to stay, and so I did, comforted by gathering around a candlelit table to take part in a tradition that was bigger, older, and undoubtedly wiser than any of us.
Our friend Josh, who was hard at work on his history PhD at the time, had put his spin on an of-the-moment version of the Haggadah, heavily laced with political satire. Those of us who had never participated in Seder followed along, tasting the ancient story with each symbolic component of the Seder plate. We dipped our fingers in wine, dunked parsley in salty water. We DAYENU’d and we hid the afikomen. Shoulder to shoulder, on stools and folding chairs, we read Wendell Berry’s Prayer After Eating, William Carlos Williams’ This is Just to Say, and Edward Abbey’s Benedicto. Then we hungrily piled our plates with the Seder feast. Dish after lovingly-prepared dish materialized on the table: Matzo ball soup, slow roasted brisket, sticky glazed chicken, tender carrots, tangy braised cabbage, addictive matzo crunch. More wine! A messy table! Full-bellied leaning back in chairs!
Jenna has continued to host Seder every year since, each year with Josh’s refreshed Haggadah, now affectionately titled “The Uncle Josh Haggadah Project.” New friends have joined the tradition, other friends have moved. We’ve acquired new pets and houses and jobs, married, had children. Parents and grandparents have passed away. With the passing years, our lives have expanded, shifted and changed. Jenna’s table was never too small – she just added more stools and chairs. For fifteen years, she has offered us her table and sustained the tradition.
When we gathered for Seder in 2019, of course we didn’t know that a year later, when we were a month into the pandemic and still wiping off our groceries with disinfectant, we would portion Seder potluck items and drop them off on each other’s doorsteps. We never would have guessed that in April 2020, we’d each light our own candles, compile Seder plates from what we had in our fridges and come together at a virtual table. Or that a year later in 2021 we’d do it all again.
Earlier this week I came across an email from Jenna after the group’s fifth Seder in 2011. She wrote, “I am reminded of how special it is that we all take the time to sit together and appreciate, celebrate and nurture our freedom, the changing of the season and the strength of friendship. This tradition may be rooted in Jewish history, but as we all know the significance reaches far beyond that.” These words, and memories of our Seder meals have floated into my mind over and over throughout the last few weeks as the war in Ukraine has raged. The annual tradition has been the root of questions that continue to unfold – not only about my Jewish heritage, but about the violent struggle for power and domination that has caused suffering throughout the ages, and about the nature of freedom. It seems natural to connect the war in Ukraine with a time of year that commemorates liberation in Jewish tradition, and with a meal that represents redemption from suffering. These are ancient stories that continue to repeat themselves. Or as Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Earlier this week, writer Elissa Altman gave eloquent words to similar thoughts on Instagram: “Passover, Easter, Ramadan are coming soon. During the Seder, we say the words: live and remember as though these things have happened to you. Even if they have not. Welcome the stranger to your home and your table, for you yourself have been a stranger. I’m bewildered this year, as I was last year when so many families had empty seats at their tables: how do we metabolize what we’re seeing. How do we metabolize such sorrow. How can a body withstand this. I don’t know. All we can do is feel the grief, and love the life. Love my family. Feed people. Organize. Send money. March. Shout. Pray. Meditate. Don’t look away.”
In a few weeks, my friends will come together around Jenna’s table for her fifteenth consecutive Seder dinner. It will be her first one as a mother, and the group’s joyous in-person reunion after two years of Seder on a screen. I’ll be in Michigan this year, but my family and I will share in the traditions simultaneously with our friends in California, and I have no doubt we’ll feel the glow of their candle light from thousands of miles away. And, as we have for the last fourteen, we’ll pause this year to read Benedicto before we savor the meal before us.
by Edward Abbey
May your trails be crooked, winding,
lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing
views. May your mountains rise into and above the
clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering
through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past
temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark
primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl,
through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down
into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and
pinnacles and grottoes of endless stone, and down
again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where
bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer
walk across the white sand beaches, where storms
come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags,
where something strange and more beautiful and more
full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for
you—beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.