Passover was really a joy in our home, and my parents made sure that all our friends and relatives who didn’t make a seder would be at ours.
I can’t remember a seder in our apartment with less than 30 guests; a four-and-one-half room apartment (I never figured out which the half room was) with all those people, and we had a seder each night for two nights.
All the furniture in the living room was either pushed to the side or moved into my parents’ bedroom, and we lined tables up end to end, all the way into the den. Each table was not only a different shape and size – they were also all different heights. The trick was not to put a place setting near the abutting tables. The wine glasses were even trickier.
The seders were wonderful, and they got better every year. My dad sat at the head of the tables and we went around the table, with every person participating in the reading of the Haggadah. If you couldn’t read Hebrew, you read in English. There were exceptions that broke the order of going around the table, when my dad did specific parts, and the kids did specific parts. We had plenty of non-Jews at our seders over the years, and they participated as well. There were no exceptions to the participation rule.
To this day, I can still smell the apartment: the soup, the roast, and all. I see the candles burning bright and I can hear the laughter and singing that continued way into the night as well.
When I was very young, my father would gently nudge the table so that the wine in Elijah’s cup would shake.
“You see,” he’d say, “Elijah’s drinking.” I didn’t understand how he wasn’t blasted silly after a dozen homes: forget about hundreds of thousands.
Passover is very different for us now. We no longer make the seder in our home; we go away. There came a time when it became a chore for my folks to schlep the dishes, and we decided that it would be more fun to have someone else do the work. After all, this is the holiday that celebrates freedom, going from slavery to freedom; slaving in the kitchen doesn’t exactly fit the spirit of the holiday. Here’s what I told my congregation a dozen or so years ago:
“Well, it’s almost Pesach, and I look forward to spending these eight days, as I’m sure you all do, with my family and extended family,” I said. “This year we will be reveling on the white sand beaches of Tahiti, swimming in the azure waters of the Pacific along with the dolphins.
Picture it: a seder under the palm trees, reading the Haggadah by the light of flaming torches, the dark night sparkling with the lights of its jewels, the stars and the moon. The natives stand staring at us with awe, and wonder at the strange language we are speaking, and the even stranger rituals we follow.
We need salt water so that we can dip the potatoes, and a bare-footed server runs to the ocean’s edge, scooping salt water from the sea with a conch shell, pure white.
At our seder we, the youngest from each family unit, stand and recite the four questions. It’s an interesting sight. My mom is the youngest of five children, and at 86 she stands, as do I, my son Wayne, his friend Jeff (who is 6 feet 4 inches tall) and so on until we get to the youngest at our seder table who is now about 17.
We are 31 people, singing together and reciting different parts of the Haggadah as we go around the table. We’ve made changes to our seder, adding stories and songs, making the experience more than just tradition.
The natives standing around, smiling as we sing “Take Me Out To The Seder” (to the tune of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”) and There’s No Seder Like Our Seder (to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”). Our sons and daughters, mostly grown, some already married or engaged, one with four children of her own, and all beautiful inside and out, create their own wonderful spirituality, with the boisterous singing and laughter.
When we drink each glass of wine, and we drink four (at least) full cups, one of the boys will start by saying: “All right, everybody leeeeeeean to the left.”
It is joyous, and we notice that more natives than are supposed to be there have come onto the beach to watch these rituals.
Dressed to the nines, we are. Suits, white shirts, and ties, beautiful dresses, shined shoes, each man wearing a kippah, some sitting on pillows, all of this in diametric opposition to the bare-chested, barefoot natives who are now surrounding our table.
“Kol dichphin yetay v’yechol. Kol ditzrich yetay v’yiphsach.” All who are hungry come and eat. All who are needy come and celebrate the Pesach. Hmmm, do we invite the natives to our feast, to partake in our seder?
Now there are canoes; beautifully painted outriggers paddled by a dozen men that pull up and onto the beach. The man who comes up to me is obviously the chief. Tattoos adorn his body, and, although they are without bright colors, they speak volumes.
We invite him to join us and we explain the symbols and the rituals that we are enjoying. We talk about slavery, the exodus from Egypt, the bitter herbs, the charoset, the shank bone and the egg, and he nods as if he understands.
We eat gefilte fish, and I explain about this, the craftiest, most cunning and hardest fish to catch – the Gefilte – and why it is such a delicacy. The kids have all heard this story before (every time any one comes up and asks me about gefilte fish) and do their best to keep straight faces. I explain that the Gefilte is easily spooked when it is nervous, and if it sees a glimmer of metal under the water it turns inside itself, coming out on its own other side (the head now emerging from where there was a tail) and swims away.
The natives begin to dance, a chorus of men around this huge fire, and we join them, creating circles into circles into circles, the sand as soft as talcum powder under our now-bare feet.
We go back to the table, say Birkat Hamazon and move steadily toward Chad Gadya, the last song in the Haggadah. The fire on the beach has diminished to glowing embers as we sing. It is getting very late, and most of the natives are gone already.
We look out over the calm, silent Pacific, still glowing with the lights of the heavenly bodies above, and we know that in the morning, after shul, we’ll be frolicking in that beautiful blue sea, eating fresh coconuts and enjoying each other. We sit there and recount stories of Pesachs past, and talk about those of us who are no longer with us to enjoy and be enjoyed. They’re there just the same.
It’s the sharing. It’s being part of a joyous, joyful time. It’s families that have grown together after spending 18 years together each Pesach. It’s watching our kids grow and have kids of their own. It’s the singing and the laughter and the tears. We are families from New York, New Jersey, Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis and Chicago. We are one fabulous family although we are not all related by blood.
All the feelings and emotions, the rituals and songs I speak about are all true. Tahiti? Tahiti is a figment of my Pesach imagination (James Taylor was going to Carolina – in his mind), but then where you are when you celebrate this glorious time is only a state of mind: the one you put yourself in when you create the mood and surround yourself with those you truly love.
Now that’s what celebrating joyous occasions should be all about.”