Life at the Head of the Table
Leading a Seder is not for the faint of heart. You have to know your audience. It requires fortitude and commitment, which can be difficult for those who lack devotion or a long attention span.
It is a job I have never looked for, and arguably am not well suited for, but nevertheless have accepted for most of the past 25 years.
When I was a kid, my older brother would do the honors. As time passed, we would share the responsibility. But ever since I got married and my wife and I began hosting, the position of Seder leader has fallen to me by default. And, every year, I find myself wondering the following: If I skip the next few paragraphs, would anyone notice? If they do, would they mind? Which parts of the Haggada can be read quickly in English, and which parts must we struggle with in Hebrew? Can I invite some Israelis next year?
Think about it: two rituals that may require the most discipline in Judaism are sitting through the recitations of the Purim Megilla and the Passover Seder. Mainly because the two are lengthy liturgies poised between spiritual and physical fulfillment—namely, eating.
Strict observance of Purim requires fasting the day before the holiday, on Ta’anis Esther, all the way through the nightime Megilla reading, with all its numerous interruptions to blot out Haman’s name.
Likewise, fulfilling the full mitzva of the Seder requires a long, interactive reading both before and after the meal. While there is nothing wrong with a snack before the Seder, the reading takes place with delicious food on the table or beckoning from the kitchen via aroma, posing a test of willpower. And leading to the infamous joke that the Fifth Question is, “When do we eat?”
The Seder is supposed to keep interest in the story of the Exodus alive for the next generation. But if done poorly, with tension instead of passion and an overemphasis on persecution instead of redemption, it can have the opposite effect—which only increases the sense of awe at the responsibility of being a Seder leader.
I have never been one to let good food sit on the table, but for reasons I cannot fully explain, I have been a Seder stickler for all the years I have been conducting them.
While often tempted, I have never willingly omitted a word of the Haggada—all 62 pages of the wine-soaked, dog-eared Maxwell House version with the smiling, fake-Jewish family on the cover.
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home with many nonobservant relatives. So I can vividly recall the annoyance that can creep into the room somewhere between the recitation of “Ha lahma anya” and the eating of the korekh, or bitter herb sandwich, which I always look at as the first real appetizer of the meal.
It gets even worse after the brisket, when people need an incentive to stay at the table, especially when the grogginess of the third and fourth cups of wine kicks in. My brother and I would try to mix in some commentary, and as an adult I would add something contemporary—like praying for the safe return of American troops overseas, or talking about poverty as a modern form of slavery.
For most jews, however, simply gathering at a seder table and the consumption of matza for one or two nights fulfills the observance of Passover. No need for lengthy passages no one understands. Growing up, some of my relatives and other guests would often leave after the meal, or hang out in another room while we concluded the Seder.
Although my public-school educated but devoutly religious father could not read much of the Haggada in Hebrew, I remember his passion for it in his English recitation, especially the part in which he spoke in God’s voice: “And I will smite all the firstborn, I myself, not a seraph. And against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments, I myself, not a messenger!”
He took pride in the fact that he had given his sons a better Jewish education than he had.
Like many people, my father found it difficult to stay awake and engaged throughout the Seder, especially for the post-meal portion, as general fatigue mixed with wine-drenched drowsiness set in. But never once did he utter the words “hurry up” or suggest skipping anything.
It’s probably that memory more than any other that affected my view of the Seder.
In the early years of our marriage, my wife and I either hosted both sets of parents at our home or took the mercifully short walk from one of their homes to the other to split the Seders. I don’t remember the last time my brother and I had the opportunity to celebrate the Seder together. Often we alternated nights at our parents’ house.
At home, I was the de facto fastest Hebrew reader. While I might be lenient davening for myself, how could I take a shortcut in the name of others? Though, as any Seder leader knows, some parts inspire more participation than others. “Dayenu” rocks. Hallel less so. “Ki le-olam hasdo” draws blank stares. “Had Gadya” is always a hit and a suitable finale. (My teenage daughter recommends reciting the chorus to “Dayenu” only after every third verse as a way to move things along.) Like a director or ringleader, the challenge is to keep the audience engaged during the inevitable lags in the action.
For a decade now, my immediate family has spent Passover in a hotel, without our parents, surrounded by strangers and a few repeat guests who have become friends. It saddens me to be without the family elders at this transgeneration-oriented ritual, but I have been outvoted.
Four years ago, seated with a group of Russian-born, yeshiva-educated day camp counselors at the hotel, I experienced one of the most meaningful Seders ever. Their joyous passion for the Seder was inspirational to someone who spent his youth marching for the freedom of Soviet Jews on Solidarity Sunday outside the United Nations. For the first time in years, I didn’t feel the need to lead or be in control to make sure nothing was left out. The Seder was in good hands.
Another year, my wife and I and our three children sat alone. The lack of company seemed unnatural, but it gave us the chance to focus on each other—and collect the dividends of our yeshiva tuition dollars.
Again, in my role as humble Seder leader, I soldiered on through the more difficult passages, struggling to be heard over the din of the ballroom, trying to rush to the fun parts and get to the meal quickly for the kids’ sake. But even with my tired voice cracking and the effects of wine and too much food making it difficult to keep my eyes on the page, I recited every word.
Just because my father couldn’t be with me, does not mean he couldn’t have a place at the table.
Adam Dickter’s article is adapted from a piece that ran on www.thejewishweek.com.