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Modern seder raises more than four questions

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Wearing masks to represent the plagues makes the service more interactive TANIA LEWIS PHOTO
Wearing masks to represent the plagues makes the service more interactive TANIA LEWIS PHOTO

The Hebrew word seder means order. Order connotes predictability and control. Somewhere, for someone, the prospect of seders brings the comfort and confidence of knowing where and with whom one will sit each night, for so it has been, year after year. That’s how it was for me once upon a simple time.

My parents taught me about the solidity of living, breathing order. I used to joke that if the queen ever invited my parents for Friday night dinner, they’d undoubtedly exclaim: “Oy – sorry, but our kids are coming for Shabbat.”

READ: THE YIDLIFE CRISIS SEDER FOR THE EVIL, THE SIMPLE AND THOSE THAT DON’T KNOW HOW TO ASK FOR A BETTER HAGGADAH

The Pesach seders represented the ultimate for them in adherence to order. They maintained the Old World observance they had grown up with in Czechoslovakia. As Holocaust survivors, their wonder never ended at the gift of having plenty on the table and the miracle of family around it. The entire clan gathered – with not even a phone call necessary.

By contrast, these days, the group email about the seders is the first harbinger of spring. One by one, everyone weighs in. Marriage, divorce, travel and new relationships enter the fray. As in dominoes, a single shift impacts not just our immediate group, but Jews the world over!

My parents’ steadfastness instilled resilience during tumultuous times, but there are questions I never got to ask them. While Tevya might procure answers from the “Good Book,” there really is no book to inform these contemporary dilemmas.

As Tevye would say, “As the good book says, when you spit in the air, it lands in your face”

Each year, the holiday looms, lugging huge question marks in its wake. Will my children be with me on the first night or the second night? Is my significant other significant enough to include? Add a fifth question to the Ma Nishtanah: where will I feel most comfortable? This comfort has nothing to do with reclining against pillows as the Haggadah instructs, but is determined by where I will feel like an integral part of the proceedings and not like a politely included afterthought or a stray.

My situation is far from unique. Come to think of it, perhaps the vision of comfort I described above lives only in Hallmark greeting cards. Reconstituted family constellations are no longer an aberration.

It’s no piece of flourless cake for my married daughter, for example. Both her parents and her in-laws are divorced. Each year, she and her husband can only please two of four parents with their presence at the seder table. Or, as my father used to say, “You can’t dance at two chasenes with one tuches.”

So last year, we did something a little different.

My son had completed an extensive renovation and was excited to pick up the mantle of seder-making in his sparkling new space. His father and I both attended, sharing a seder for the first time in 17 years. He attending with his wife, who, though undergoing cancer treatment, paid the usual attention to her spring wardrobe, as we traditionally do at seder time. Guests included gay and straight individuals and couples, family and friends from as far afield as Montreal and Washington, a convert to Judaism and a wonderfully respectful, curious Muslim who had done more homework than anyone else present.

This might sound far-fetched to you, but every seder table includes people in some degree of transition. Who should be included? Where does one draw the line? How does the new widow feel, sitting without a partner for the first time? What about the child with no parent, the empty-nesters, the out-of-town student far from home. What if one is struggling with health issues – contemporary versions of boils and pestilence? Last year, a friend of mine decided to forgo her usual festive extended cousins’ gathering to sit quietly at her dying mother’s table. Another friend, who is Orthodox, told me that the reading at her table is almost entirely in English in order to engage most listeners best.

Some seders follow the letter of the law very strictly in terms of start time and ritual, and participants have no difficulty raising kosot (wine glasses) and singing into the wee hours. Not so my daughter. She is pregnant, and although she feels wonderful, she needs her early bedtime more than usual to get through her usual workload. Out of consideration for her, her father-in-law is starting before the appearance of the third star on the second night, which this year falls on Shabbat.

READ: THE EVOLUTION OF THE HAGGADAH: A COLLECTOR’S PERSPECTIVE

I would suggest that these questions are less about proper etiquette and enough seats than about common sense and compassion. From the evolving set of rules in my own magic hat, I pull the following: inclusion trumps perfection, acceptance trumps judgment, and flexibility trumps tenacity. Lovingly held beliefs are not as important as love.

Epilogue. My son moved out of that big house, symbolizing to me how transient are the venues that house our seders. What’s important are the people who gather therein and how we treat each other. This year, I’m attending a seder being hosted by a woman who used to be married to my ex-husband’s cousin. She is not related to me, or strictly speaking, to my children, although we adore her and her brisket. She was separated from her husband just last year and she attended my son’s seder solo. This year, her ex is coming to her home as a guest. Her non-Jewish mother joined often with the utmost of grace. Sadly, my ex-husband’s wife lost a valiant battle with cancer and did not survive to see another seder. This symbol of the transience of life is the most poignant message of all.

Next year? My fervent prayer is that my seder will be disrupted by the sound of an infant’s healthy cry. The blessing of natural “order” should prevail, reminding me not to sweat the small stuff.


Marilyn Lazar is a Toronto-based writer.