More than 68 percent of Jewish Americans over the age of 18, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2012, celebrate a Passover seder. The percentage is a little lower for Jews in the 18–39 age bracket, but I have to hope that that is partially due to school schedules (having seders on Monday and Tuesday night this year can't help the numbers). The statistics are similar for unaffiliated Jews. What is the draw? Religious dictate aside, I suggest it has more to do with community, memory, and "ordering" our life's priorities, if only for a small window of time.
Each year I look forward to the family and friends who gather at my seder and form a community of souls who care about each other and the values that promote tikkun olam, repair of the world. But I also look forward to the unseen attendees at my table-my memories. These memories are some of my favorite guests. Setting the table with my mother's silver and remembering the seders she made when she was alive, using the Kiddush cup from my wedding that has graced my table for almost 43 years, and the wine–soaked crayon matzah covers my children made decades ago when they were in preschool, are all memories that bring me contentment.
When I travel around the country talking about the stories and history surrounding our culinary heritage, I often notice some teary-eyed participants in the audience, especially after I talk about Passover. I know better than to assume my talk has bored them to tears! It is the memories that are evoked in their hearts that elicit this response. Memories of the recipes–the smell of the chicken soup wafting through the house at grandma's-and the seders that dad conducted–always trying to include everyone with a speaking part and never stigmatizing the same person with the role of the wicked son (unless it was the family joke to call upon the same person every year!)–and memories of the people with whom they shared the seder in their youth. These thoughts hold an important place in their minds and hearts. And these memories draw us together in an unseen way to fulfill our duties to celebrate Passover and our redemption from slavery.
Seder means "order," and it can refer to more than the order of the rituals in the Haggadah. Setting your table to facilitate the flow of the seder can create order out of the chaos of 20-40 people trying to dip parsley in salt water! I often joke that more wine is spilled on tablecloths knocking down wine glasses while passing the salt water or charoset, than by inebriated participants accidently tipping their glasses. Some people shorten their seders and leave out parts of the Haggadah (I think Rabbi Tarfon often is the first to go!) so that the service won't be too long. That is sad because the stories and singing that are part of the ceremony create lasting memories.
Instead of shortening the content, how about eliminating all of the passing and sharing of the Passover symbols? To do this, I set my table with a plate and bowl on each dinner plate, pushed to center left. The bowl contains salt water and the hard–boiled egg. Let older children pour the water into the bowls from a pitcher or glass measuring cup (don't worry water doesn't stain), and let younger children go to each bowl with a salt shaker and shake salt three times into the water. These activities involve the children, get them out of the kitchen, and even teach math; counting to three at 24 place settings is a great learning tool! If the eggs don't look smooth and beautiful or if you want better flavored eggs (like Sephardi egg soup), then I suggest you use an egg slicer. Go to each place setting and slice the egg before it is added to the salt water. See, if you have three children in the family you have already involved them in the process, kept them away from the busy kitchen, and created memories for them.
Although I place extra bowls of charoset on the table, each place setting - on the plate next to the bowl – gets its own dollop of charoset, piece of bitter herb, and a sprig of whatever green I am using (the current trend is fashionable arugula, but I still love parsley – again, memory). These items are readily available so that NOTHING needs to be passed around the table and I have eliminated at least 20 minutes from the seder without leaving out any Haggadah ritual. I suspect, long after I am gone, that my children will set the table the same way because of memory and not necessarily for efficiency.
More than 20 years ago, I started a family tradition that is doable both in your home and in your synagogue, if you have a community seder. Every year I distribute an indelible marker to my guests and have them sign their names and the year on one designated tablecloth. I later embroider the signatures (use a fine line pen or your task will be enormous!). The names evoke memories in me. Oma Grande's name is here - and her potato kugel, too - even if she is no longer with us. I look at Leslie's signature when she was 8, Tanya's signature the first time she attended our seder, and the next generation with their new spouses' signatures added as well. These are memories of my personal community.
Imagine being unaffiliated with a religious institution, and seeking out a seder to attend. A young college student - a single worker transferred to a new city – an elderly person with no family nearby–they may come to the seder and see that their name will be embroidered on one of the tablecloths. A sense of connection is established, and maybe, just maybe, that person will feel more welcomed and become an active part of the synagogue. Who knows?
When we were children, many of us were relegated to the "children's table," the card table at the end of the dining room. Oh, how we couldn't wait until we were old enough to be seated at the "big" table. Little did we realize that when we got there, those people who had an indelible affect on our lives would probably not be sitting with us. Our memories of them, and maybe their signatures, would be with us at the table.
With every song we sing, every morsel of food we consume from our family recipes, and every discussion we initiate around the seder table, we generate new memories. While we recite the story about our liberation in the past, we are creating traditions and engaging the next group of children at the card table to carry on for generations to come.
Eat in good health!