Anxiety 101: Leading the Passover Seder

The Passover seder is a stressful time for the members of my family. Everybody, on some level, is dealing with intense anxiety and strain.

The first generation, the generation of my grandparents, has to pull itself together and look healthy and alert, even though they’re coping with sciatica and heart palpitations. The second generation worries about whether the family’s Passover traditions will survive, while they focus their attention on their grandchildren’s brilliance — Michele’s big vocabulary, Wendy’s latest musical triumph and Howie’s phenomenal memory for sports trivia and the details of President Eisenhower’s death.

My mother, of this second generation, has the special status and burden of being hostess. She spends weeks filling the freezer for the seder meal, and though she loves it, she also struggles as a widow with the reality of doing this alone.

The third generation, my peers, is on its own seesaw. We are committed to raising our children in a way consonant with our values (we subscribe to the Utne Reader, use Tom’s of Maine Natural deodorant with aloe and coriander, and we generally don’t eat flanken), but we also respect our roots, and care about the sensibilities of our parents’ generation.

The fourth generation, the children, perplexedly asks: Why do we have to wear these “nice” clothes and “nice” shoes? Why can’t we crawl under the table instead of sitting at it?

In talking with friends, it’s become clear to me that my family isn’t the only one to feel seder stress. As my peers take the train, plane or car home to Mom and Dad, or invite relations to their own homes, they experience a mixture of pleasant anticipation and dread. Like the seder scene in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the Passover occasion is both a simmering crucible for unending family dynamics and a structured event. After all, we have a job to do: enact the seder.

In my family (twenty adults, five children — see the genogram, next page), we are each governed by the roles we expect to fill, the roles others expect of us, and the roles placed on us by modern American society. Psychologists call the pressure to respond to so many conflicting, diverse, insistent expectations “role strain.” In most families, the seder has a leader (the person with the most “role strain”) whose job it is to try to satisfy all the people all the time. In my family, that leader is, for the fourth time, me.

According to tradition, my family’s first seder is always held at Aunt Esther and Uncle Sid’s house. Uncle Sid is the leader. He uses the Haggadah that the family has used for over 35 years (the one put out by Maxwell House. My favorite part of this Hagaddah is the centerfold — advertisements for food products from the 1950’s). The second seder takes place at my mother’s apartment. My father led this seder until his death five years ago. Dad also used Maxwell House.

After my father’s death, the question arose of who would run that seder, with the logical nominees being one of his three children. My oldest brother, David, immediately removed himself from consideration, informing us that he had no interest in the task. The middle brother, Steve, said, rather passionlessly, “I’ll do it if no one else will.”

I had felt for a long time that the Maxwell House Haggadah had to be put out to pasture (or, more appropriately, sacrificed like the Pascal lamb). I wanted a family service that would be contemporary, egalitarian and socially relevant — including, for example, readings about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and nuclear holocaust. I felt that unless my generation put new energy into the seder, it would die. So, I agreed to run the service.

I sometimes wonder how the seder scepter might have passed if I had a sister. Would my mother have wanted to break with family tradition and “give the women a chance?” Would my sister want to carry the torch? Would there be adherence to the accustomed sex roles, with my hypothetical sister making matzah balls while the men lead the service? While I can only speculate, I’m sure that this extra variable would certainly have been one more source of role strain.

The three seders following my father’s death were so stressful for me that I asked my brother Steve to lead the fourth year’s seder. He reverted to the traditional Maxwell House service, though he made sure he got to ask his perennial seder joke: Why does the lion eat horseradish on Passover? Because he wants moror (bitter herbs).

This year, I’ve decided to brave it again. I’ve compiled a xeroxed Haggadah — part traditional, part innovative — and I am committed to getting through it without collapsing from role strain. To this end, I thought it would be useful for me to list formally the sources of strain — that is, who expects what (from me and from the service and from each other), in the hopes, of course, that this exercise will help me take it all in better stride.

Psychologists use the term “role senders” for all those people (both absent and present) whose expectations color one’s behavior. For example, for me, even my father, deceased for five years, is a role sender. I can still hear him singing The Ballad of The Four Sons to the tune of Clementine. It would be hard for me to skip this tune at our seder.

The following is my partial list of role senders. “Direct” roles are my understanding of what the sender has explicitly stated to me; “history” roles are based on my past experience with the sender; and “assumed” roles spring primarily from me.

MYSELF (Leader)

Direct: Everyone should love this seder. The children should be involved so that they will remember it as a special and fun occasion. We should look at our own oppression and ways we oppress others, politically, emotionally, economically, and should discuss ways to free ourselves and others. Sexist or ethnocentric language of the Haggadah should be modified to include both genders and all peoples.

LILLIAN (Mother)

Direct: This is her seder, and it should be carried out in the memory of her husband. Use a certain amount of Hebrew. Sing songs that Hal liked. Arrange the seating according to her ideas of who gets along with whom, and who she wants helping in the kitchen. Only traditional sweet, kosher wines should be used.

History: Things should move along at a “good pace” so that food can be served when it is ready. Cousin Max and Uncle Sid should be given “high visibility” parts in the service to show respect for their place as family elders.

Assumed: There should be a Jewish emphasis in the service (as opposed to generalizing it to any oppression). Don’t use unusual methods (group role-plays, debates, experiential exercises, etc.).

SID (Uncle, Family Elder)

Direct: The service must be faithful to the literal meaning of the original Haggadah. Other peoples’ oppression shouldn’t be mentioned.

Assumed: Sid should be given a prominent part in the service. He expects to be consulted on questions of protocol and the propriety of any changes.

RACHEL (Cousin, Family Radical)
Direct: No sexist language should be included. There should be a variety of wines available.

History: The seder should have relevance to current political struggles for freedom from oppression. There should be lots of leeway for side conversations and laughing at the seder.

Assumed: A non-traditional service is desirable. Debates on social issues should be encouraged by the leader.

SUSAN (Fiancee)

Direct: The leader should be relaxed.

Assumed: Nothing should rattle the leader. The leader should pay lots of attention to his fiancee.

STEVE (Brother, Parent of Howie)

Direct: The service should be short. Content of the service is not that important.

History: There should be group singing with funny changes in the songs.

Assumed: Any baseball metaphors that can be used in the service would be appreciated.

HAL (Deceased, Father)

History: The seder is a serious matter and all levity should be stopped immediately. The family traditions are the most important part of the seder, and they should be maintained.

Assumed: Lillian knows best how the seder should run. Nothing in the seder should upset her. The seder should be run the same way it always has been in our family.

WENDY (Cousin, Ten-Year-Old)

Direct: The most important part of the seder is when presents are exchanged for the afikoman. She doesn’t like to sit next to certain people.

History: Wendy should say “The Four Questions” and get lots of attention for it.

Assumed: A certain amount of silliness is desirable in the service.

As can be seen from this list, some of the expectations here are directly opposed to each other, while others are more or less complementary. Taken as a set, what’s most obvious to me is that I can’t possibly please everyone. I certainly can’t please myself — as I have strong values and beliefs about how a seder should be run, but these are different from Lillian’s, Sid’s, Hal’s or Steve’s.

There are even contradictions in expectations from one person. Lillian, for example, wants certain songs and many Hebrew sections, but she also expects the seder to move along at a “good pace” so as not to ruin the chicken, flanken and kugel. Rachel, on the one hand, wants a meaningful seder. On the other, she’s happy to laugh her way through the service, barely paying attention. Sid and Rachel’s interests are diametrically opposed: Sid wants a traditional service; Rachel a non-traditional one.

What are my coping strategies, this fifth time around, to make this year’s trek from Egypt less harrowing?

First, I’ll put some roles on “hold” for the duration of the seder. For example, my role as Susan’s fiance will have to wait until after the service, and my affinity for role plays will have to wait for another lifetime.

Second, in planning the seder, I’ll sit by myself in a corner of a quiet room and tell intruders that I need to be alone. Hopefully, this will prevent others from getting their “two cents in” about how to lead the service.

Third, I’ll set priorities. Since the seder is my mother’s project, I’ll give her expectations more weight. I will try to let go entirely of the roles sent by my father. Even though his expectations still carry a lot of emotional charge for me, the fact is — he’s not here.

Most importantly, I’m deciding now — before the start of the service — that I am going to “go with the flow” I won’t let the conflicting demands of others make me anxious.

Finally, if none of these measures is successful, I can always take heart in the last words of the seder: L’shana habaah b’Yerushalaim. Next year in Jerusalem.

Jeff Axelbank is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Rutgers University