Theoretically, I love Passover. Through gray Chicago winters, I yearn for it. On the first day of the year, I flip ahead in the calendar to see if it falls in March or April. Secretly, I hope it will be February. But as Pesach draws near, I am overwhelmed with anxiety.
The emotion feels familiar, but uncomfortable and irrational. I take the time to really feel the stress: tightened jaw, flippy stomach. What is my problem? I’ve “done” Pesach for more than 30 years. I’ve cleaned out chometz [leavened food products]. I’ve cooked seder meals. I’ve even led seders for more than a decade. How am I ruining my favorite holiday? In my youth, Pesach meant awakening. Adults arose from a stuporous hibernation. With sudden energy, Mother and Grandma scrubbed the kitchen and boxed chometz. We unpacked dishes, pots and silver stored all year in the basement. Down the basement stairs we carried the non-pesadicke dishes; up the stairs we carried the pesadicke things.
When we finished, we visited Aunt Frimi to watch as she and my cousins completed the same traditional tasks. Then, Grandma and Aunt Frimi began cooking round-the-clock-chicken soup, tzimmis. In wooden bowls, they chopped onions and whitefish. My memory can’t be accurate, but in every image the sun shines. Shehechiyanu—Grandma’s joy of surviving another winter, cooking into another spring, was contagious. With daffodils blooming and Pesach inside, I felt newly born.
In my childhood, no one re-thought the seder. We followed the Maxwell House Hagada. Word for word for word. I don’t remember seeing any other version. Women rabbis and cantors did not exist. The men and boys sat at one end with Zayde presiding. The women sat near the kitchen. Zayde mumbled Hebrew while my aunts, my mother and I took turns reading paragraphs in English. My male cousins attending Hebrew day school read the Hebrew words with ease. Although I was among the brightest in my public school class, at the seder table I felt stupid. While the seder droned on and on, I felt enslaved in the dining room, alone and inadequate. I was an outsider, a female, a goy.
As a young mother, I wanted to prevent the boredom, exclusion and shame I felt as a child. I felt free to design a child-friendly seder. I made snacks to eat before beginning and inserted songs so none of the children would be bored. My husband would lead a very abbreviated version that the children could follow. As a hostess, I emulated Aunt Frimi. I reveled in the sensuality of scrubbing out winter and welcoming spring. I set out colorful bouquets of tulips and daffodils. I cooked fragrant soups, flourless desserts, Happily, I prepared beautiful, bountiful, peaceful meals set on fine linens. My husband led the seder while I sat proudly at his side.
Then, almost 25 years ago, my world changed. My husband and I divorced. I was suddenly a single head of household. The seder, always an important family occasion, threw me into deep depression. I cleaned, I cooked, I cried. We would have no seder at home. That first year their father took the children for first night, and I took them to a friend’s home for second night. And so a new tradition developed: first night with father, second night with me at friends’ homes. It never occurred to me to host the seder myself.
Then one year, at the last moment—the very day of the first seder—their father called to say he would not take our three boys, hi a panic I called my first-night hostess who said, “Bring the boys and your pot of soup. We have plenty.” I vowed I would never again be caught without a plan for firstnight seder. In my anger, I decided that the following year I would do first night myself.
The challenge was finding guests. My friends liked to do their own first-night seders. The children’s Jewish friends all needed to attend their family seders. So the boys each invited one close non-Jewish friend. “Remember you were a stranger in the land of Egypt…. Welcome the stranger into your home.” I couldn’t imagine anything stranger than one mother leading a seder for six boys ranging in age from six to 14.
I cooked the chicken soup and knaidlach, tzimmis and brisket just like Grandma, but I set no crystal or china, nothing breakable. Grandma’s candlesticks and my seder plate were the only familiar items I dared set out. I served white grape juice to prevent stains. The guests arrived promptly at five, dressed in their church clothes: khakis, navy sports jackets and dark ties. Clearly my sons had prepared each friend for a Major Event.
We explained everything. The boys’ excitement escalated. They asked questions about the candlesticks, the matzah cover, the hagadas. They loved the idea of the pillows and almost fell off their seats reclining like kings. The afikoman search was a free-for-all. The guests learned the choruses of “Had Gadya” and “Dayenu” and sang with gusto. Parents arrived for their very boisterous children around eight o’clock.
“That was the best seder ever,” the boys hugged me and each other as I, suddenly very tired, closed the door behind the guests. “Let’s do it that exact same way every year, OK?”
Everyone was excited but me. I missed Aunt Frimi’s traditional seder. Not only did I want the crystal, china and silver, 1 wanted a man to lead the service. Raised as the first-born daughter in a first-generation American home of the 1940s, I could have been the poster child for Good Girl. I made straight As in academics and attitude, volunteered to help others and at night dreamed of growing up to marry and have children.
And then the world changed, with me on the cusp. I read Betty Friedan. I entered graduate school. I received my Ph.D. when my oldest son was four. I was a pioneer Super-Mom, trying to balance career and children. And I had become Super Super-Mom, divorced, single-parenting three sons while working full-time. I didn’t ask for the job. I had to do what I had to do. But I didn’t have to lead a seder. It had been thrust on me by necessity, and having done it once I did not want to do it again.
I was surprised by the strength of my feeling. Quite consciously, I abandoned my right to lead the seder.
Over the years that followed, we were invited to first night at the home of Orthodox friends, a Conservative rabbi, a Humanistic family. Eventually I began dating, and the man of the season was always happy to lead the seder.
But then, after having grappled with the terror and shame of divorce, I began to enjoy the autonomy of single life. I meditated. I exercised. I bought a stick-shift car to force myself to focus. Slowly I developed confidence. I had a lot to learn. I began finding my voice, voicing my findings. As spring approached almost 20 years ago, I again decided to lead my own seder.
That Pesach was my first really stressful one. The house sparkled. The food was scrumptious. But the chutzpah of leading the seder still unnerved me. My shoulders tightened, my back ached, my palms sweated profusely. As leader, I no longer felt inadequate as I had at Aunt Frimi’s table. But I felt bossy. I wanted more discussion, more participation, more something. I had replaced the authoritarian seder Zayde led with an authoritarian female leader. I felt dissatisfied.
Then another unimaginable event: the house caught fire. For four months we lived in a hotel. By Pesach, the renovation was complete. Spring. Newly wired, newly painted…the chometz of our past life had gone up in flames. As I re-read the hagada, I began to see Pesach as a metaphor for a personal journey. I had been freed of the burden of trying to maintain a 100-year-old house without sufficient funds. The insurance had freed us to update the house properly. And my months of arguing with insurance representatives and contractors had strengthened my voice. I had been freed from a marriage that wasn’t working, freed from a job that was too much work.
That Pesach marked a turning point. I took ownership of the ceremony. I read a variety of hagadas, choosing poetry and readings. I explored the idea of moving out of an automatic set of rituals. Everyone raised questions. Everyone sat for hours to discuss. Everyone sang, with transliterations, in the spirit of the fifth cup of wine.
Then I attended a women’s seder and discovered female role models. I was no longer alone. I felt connected to a community of women all searching for meaning. I started checking the synagogue gift shop and local bookstores annually for new material. This year, the elderly saleswoman at the Orthodox bookstore surprised me by showing me several feminist hagadas, suggesting I take them home to peruse at leisure. “I think you’ll like them all,” she smiled.
Each year I include new interpretations and symbols. This year I set the table with an Israeli cup of spring water for Miriam, an Ethiopian matzah cover, daffodils for my son’s friend who died. My mother, living in a nearby retirement home, explains the history of her father’s silver cup for Elijah. The hagada is cut and pasted with sections entitled “What kind of G-d is this?” and “Is this story true?” It includes a reading by Martin Luther King, Jr, 10 plagues that we perpetrate against our planet, a page by Julius Lester about slavery.
“My mother’s seder is not like any other you’ll ever attend,” my adult son proudly tells our guests as they settle into their pillowed chairs. Over the years, we have welcomed neighbors and friends. Catholics, Buddhists, atheists, Russians, Filipinos Jewish friends whose children are now grown and out of town.
As I observe myself this year, I realize I’m not anxious about the cleaning or the cooking or serving. I have fully internalized the feminine from Grandma and Aunt Frimi. My stress from the pressure of owning the masculine, of designing and leading a meaningful seder, has dissipated. Like our ancestors, I have been on a journey I didn’t want. I seem to have traveled from angry-and-passive participant, to happy hostess, to angry-and-determined leader, to rcluctant-anduncomfortable leader, to active-and-creative leader. I have become free to be more of who I am every year, integrating all the parts, masculine and feminine
Planning the hagada modifications well in advance has given me the time to read and reflect without pressure. I realize the seder is a vehicle through which I present my values, my belief in questioning and in growth, my love of evolving Jewish traditions, my trust in a Power well beyond myself At the seder table, I aim to form a community from strangers of varying backgrounds. I work to create an experience that challenges the ignorance that led to hatred and pogroms. We use the service to reflect on personal fears and celebrate various levels of freedom—political, gendered, personal. I had no idea the seder meant so much to me. No wonder I stressed!
As I set my crystal. Aunt Frimi, aleha ha-sholom [peace be upon her], is right by my side, still a bit askance at my chutzpah. The candles now shine from two sets of tall silver candlesticks— my grandmother’s and the same ones Aunt Frimi used. After appetizers, I relax into the pillow on my chair and begin the seder, trusting my guests to open their hearts.
Barbara M. Stock is a psychologist in private practice in Evanston, Illinois. Long ago a stringer for the suburban Chicago Tribune, she is now a freelance writer.