More nights like this, please

Seder has somehow become the canvas on which we can paint our own picture of our Exodus, writes Stephen Rosenthal

April 06, 2017 13:50

I confess, my initial plan for this column had been to provide you with some quirky, spring onion-whipping, frog-throwing Seder-night customs — something to talk about over your egg-in-salt-water on Monday evening.

So, being a millennial (apparently), I turned to our people’s most widely-studied book — Facebook — requesting any out-there customs from the digitally-assembled masses.

But as the posts came back, I realised that, in an attempt to be flippant and trivial, I’d been missing the point entirely.

Because customs matter. For thousands of years, the whipping of scallions on wrists has replicated the bondage of Pharoah’s taskmasters on our ancestors. The reasoning had never crossed my mind. The unlikely image of a weaponised salad onion totally distracted me from what is, in fact, an incredibly powerful, experiential symbol of our people’s two centuries of oppression.

And is there a better scene-setter for our story from slavery to freedom than that of beginning the Seder by trudging around the table like slaves, carrying a slice of matzah on your back?

But there’s a second category of traditions unique to the Seder. And, although they’re less formal, historical or established, you’d be as mistaken as I was if you judge them as flippant or trivial. They’re not.

One Facebooker posted their annual ritual of re-enacting the Pesach story with a two-man pantomime camel costume.

Why? Because her sister had made it for her primary school play and brought it to the Seder table 15 years ago.

Another, looking to excite the kids with a stuffed animal for each verse of Chad Gadya, was stumped for a suitable angel of death. Settling on a Darth Vader teddy bear, to this very day, at the appropriate verse, the entire table break out into a rendition of the Star Wars Imperial March theme tune.

At my parents’ Seder, we always cheer, boo and giggle at the same random stages and pages; a collection of years of amassed anecdotes. We know the punch-line’s coming a mile off, but it still makes us crow every time. To anyone else, it clearly seems random. But, to us, it’s the reliving of the shared greatest hits of our all too infrequent family gatherings.

So, why is this night different from all other nights? Well, for one, it shares a place with Yom Kippur, in that Jews of all and no levels of observance participate every year, without fail.

Why? Well, maybe because, unlike much of our tradition in the eyes of many, Seder has been left to us to customise.

The instruction to ensure that children can follow and engage opens the door to the songs, stories, symbols and well-intentioned silliness that we — all of us — love and remember year after year.

Judaism today seems increasingly to fall between the two stools of a necessary adherence and a passionate desire for respectful evolution. The fault lines of these debates can cause real damage. Good intentions on both sides are masked by intransigence, with neither side achieving what it wants.

But Seder is the greatest example of a living, breathing Judaism that touches all ages, religious levels, geographies, heritages and cultures without threat. It flexes effortlessly, with a confidence, self-assuredness and charm to be as inclusive to your sons as it is to the four sons.

Seder has somehow become the canvas on which we can paint our own picture of our Exodus, and, by beautiful extension, our Genesis. I reckon we’d be well advised to try to replicate it.

Maybe the question should be: “Why can’t all other nights be like this?”

April 06, 2017 13:50

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