Passover is on its way out and it’s never too early to wax nostalgic. Or is it?
At our seders there is always conversation that begins with, “when I was young, we used to…” At times the memory is sweet, other times it leaves a more bitter taste.
It doesn’t take much to prompt a memory.
At our table our mother can be reminded of her family seders from the objects we use—the wine decanter brought lovingly from Slovakia in 1905, our great aunt and uncle’s wine goblet now designated for Elijah. A tune links us to the past. Our family completes the seder with the melody our brother learned at Hebrew School when he was still a soprano and sang with such gusto at the model seder and all subsequent seders. And, of course, it can be food that reminds us of seders past. There are only so many variations on the seder meal. Brisket, chicken soup, a matza kugel are taste connections.
A few streams of thoughts converged this year to shake up my memory museum.
I thought first about Alla and Vera’s complete lack of nostalgia for their Soviet childhood. Yet, Alla fondly remembers her grandmother’s and her parents’ efforts to create Passover celebrations in Leningrad when scarcity, fear, and lack of knowledge were the hallmarks.
Second day of Passover during the services, our rabbi led us through source material that focused on who serves and who is served. As he reminded us that the original seder and the custom of leaning were based on the Roman model of the banquet with participants lounging about triclinium style, my thoughts wandered to the question: what if the Passover seder were fossilized in the form it first took in the rabbinic period? The Haggadah would be much shorter. Many sections have been added over the course of Jewish History. Women might not be at the table at all.
Today as I caught up with our webmaster, she mentioned how her husband reminisced about his family seder from his youth. For some people it must be difficult to be a guest in a new setting or merge styles with a partner to create a new seder. For me, it’s important to keep the seder fresh each year and I spend time studying and preparing well in advance of the holiday. As a child our grandfather and great-uncle prided themselves on leading the seder in the same way year after year. Uncle Sam even hid the afikoman in the exact same drawer each year.
And then it struck me. Nostalgia for last year’s content may be misplaced. Our mom remembers seders when her father read the Haggadah from beginning to end non-stop without conversation. Without becoming dizzy, she has become accustomed to our unpredictable seder that can move in many directions simultaneously and shift shapes from year to year.
Although we spend the seder remembering what happened to the Israelites, we also read in the Haggadah: “In every generation a person must see oneself as if he/she went out of Egypt.” In a flash, that line that I like so much meant even more. It pushed me to realize we must reinvent the seder experience for each new generation to help them feel the exodus. It’s a time to remember, but no time for nostalgia. The seder is not a museum exhibit, it’s a living experience that grows as long as we grow, balancing memory and change.
I don’t advocate packing away nostalgic thoughts on Pesah with the hametz—keep them coming. But let’s continue to learn and let’s continue to keep our focus on the next generation and how best to link them to our past and future.