When I say “Passover,” think “Christmas.” The place Passover holds in the Jewish family is much closer to Christmas than Easter. Passover is as stressful as Christmas for all the same reasons. There is so much preparation, and the work usually falls on the women. It’s a lot more than cooking a big meal.
For anyone who has any ambivalence about the way they were raised, as I do, those feelings become much more focused and uncomfortable at Passover. The flipside is that the whole family is together, and you see the children growing from one year to the next.
Do you go to your family for the holiday? Is your family where you should be? And if you don’t go, it’s an issue. If not, where will you go? Being a Passover orphan is serious, like having no place to go on Christmas. But every Passover meal begins with the instruction to have guests, whether they are hungry, or just in need of a Passover seder. So if you put the word out on the Jewish grapevine, you’ll usually get an invitation.
You can’t ignore Passover, any more than you can ignore Christmas. If you try, it will come out and bite you when it’s inconvenient and damaging. I have no problem ignoring all the other Jewish holidays. They are just a bunch of overstuffed people stuffing a synagogue. Prayers can’t take off and fly in that environment.
Passover is celebrated around the supper table with family, friends, and guests. The Passover liturgy (the Haggadah) includes games for the children, rabbinic commentaries, rousing songs, and rabbinic jokes. The book instructs you to expand on the tradition with commentaries, jokes, and songs of your own. To lubricate things, the Haggadah prescribes 4 -6 ounces of awful-tasting wine, spread over 3 to 4 hours interrupted frequently by food. (Drunkenness is considered tacky, and responsible families offer non-alcoholic substitutes.)
It’s a very serious holiday, but not the least bit solemn. The serious part is keeping the custom, explaining it to the children, and reminding them that we would still be slaves in Egypt if God Almighty had not led us out.
This year I was afraid I’d be a Passover orphan. My brother and his wife are moving out of town, and did not host a seder. Celebrating with 200 strangers at the Federation of Jewish Charities’ community seder in Manchester would have felt more lonely than staying home.
I bought a plane ticket to Buffalo, NY to celebrate with my sister Marta and her husband Rabbi Irwin Tanenbaum. Irwin is the best kind of rabbi: He takes the work, and Jewish tradition, very seriously and himself lightly. I actually knew him 10 years before he met Marta. We were classmates and good friends at Oberlin College. Irwin met Marta at a convention. He read her nametag and asked if she was Ken’s sister.
Irwin and Marta celebrate the first night with Irwin’s parents and enormous extended family in Erie PA, 90 miles from Bufffalo. They’ve been gathering there to celebrate Passover for 100 years, and they understand how rare that is today, and how privileged they are to do it. People fly in from long distances. And what a seder! Just the right mix of serious observance, teaching, singing, food and fun. I was accepted as soon as I said “Marta’s brother.”
The seder at Irwin’s temple could have been touchy. It was the first temple seder since their beloved cantor Susan Whelle died in a small commuter plane between Newark and Buffalo. Susan did much more than lead the singing at worship services. She counseled the dying and their survivors, led workshops on all kinds of meditation, and how to pray and have a personal relationship with God.
Hard to believe, but most rabbis are uncomfortable dealing with that sort of thing. Their training is intellectual and historical. Most don’t even have a vocabulary to discuss spirituality, except one they borrow from another religion.
Stepping into this breech as song leader for the temple seder was Marta and Irwin’s 24-year-old daughter Leora, who came up from Providence, RI, where she’s a circus performer. Leora sings, dances, acts, writes and illustrates children’s books, “walks on stilts, and gets thrown around by huge guys,” she says.
“$147,000 on her education, and she runs off to join the circus,” Irwin says only half joking. Seriously, she is young enough and gifted enough to take a flyer on being a flyer. (People who get tossed around by big guys or jump from one trapeze to another are called flyers.)
Leora relaxed after one note, and she knocked the music out of the park!
Imagine, more than 200 people at the two seders combined, with open bottles of wine everywhere, and no one was drunk!