The Particulars of our Practice

October 2, 2017

 

Pictured left: The Arnold Family Passover Seder

 

Most of what's important to me, I've come to realize, I learned at the kitchen table. As I begin to organize my own Passover seders in my new home half a continent away from South Bend, I'm free to run the dinner and the ritual in whatever way I want. But what I mostly find myself doing is what we did at the seders of my youth, back when my parents did the choosing for me - not because I feel tied to it by tradition, but because I like it, because it is who I am. These things, these choices, are what I thought made me unique - though, as I've also come to realize, these choices aren't unique at all.

I come from a feminist family, though ironically, we'd probably more often describe this world view simply as "being a mensch." The Passover seder gave us ample opportunity to express this, in mild opposition to the Maxwell House Haggadah. There was the orange on the seder plate, of course, but there were other touches too. When we went through the four questions, someone would always crack - in the middle of making fun of how asinine the four sons' questions were - that if the sons has been daughters, they would've asked better questions. And when we shouted "Next year in Jerusalem!" it became, over the years, just the beginning of a discussion of what that meant. This is how my family's beliefs came out: Not as an explicit set of principles that were drilled into us, but in the details; in the particulars of our practice.

For years, I thought this made us unique, that these little touches were something only our family did. But as I met members of the tribe outside of South Bend I found out that these pushbacks against orthodoxy were more common than I thought. At a seder in Tel Aviv, I came expecting a solemn, hyper-traditional ceremony, straight out of the old world. Instead, I found an American family with terrible Hebrew and a table full of passionate discussions about social justice. And again in Silver Spring, Maryland, where we were challenged to improvise gender neutral phrasing every time the Haggadah referred to the almighty in masculine terms.  At this seder, the long-running joke my friend and I share about our families originating from the same shtetl was perfectly confirmed when the same cracks, sarcastic asides, and uproarious laughter happened at almost the same times as they would at our seders back home in South Bend.

Far from ruining my sense of my family, these connections deepened it. People shared a sensibility that went beyond a particular shul, which led them to similar improvisations - ones which created similar counter-traditions across the globe and, over time, became tradition in and of themselves. My family's seders may not have been unique, but it was a grand tradition to be a part of.

 

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