Lonely at the Table

Some converts come to Judaism missing one thing: a Jewish family.

When the Jewish month of Adar begins, joy comes in… or so the saying goes. Not for me. When Adar begins, anxiety sets in, and it has nothing to do with pre-Passover cleaning. It’s the annual problem of finding a place—two places, actually, one per night—so that I’m not alone for the Passover seders.

A decade ago, I converted to Judaism. For eleven months of the year, this is a non-issue in my Upper West Side (Manhattan) Jewish community. Converts are as common as blackberries in liberal synagogues these days, and my plight isn’t that different from that of friends who grew up as non-observant Jews and then adopted, as adults, a more religious lifestyle. Most of the time, being a convert simply means being a Jew; it’s easy and lovely blending in.

As a single convert, I have no Jewish family. This isn’t a great hardship on most holidays. On the High Holidays, I davven where I please, mindful of my good fortune. (Several friends have told me about miserable years they spent praying at shuls their families loved but they couldn’t tolerate.) On Shavuot and Sukkot, I happily join old friends for days of festive reunion. Shavuot is the holiday most commonly associated with conversion; Jews read the Book of Ruth, the story of Judaism’s most famous convert. Shavuot is, in many ways, the perfect holiday for converts: maximum time in shul, maximum emphasis on community; minimal time at home, and minimal need for family. The High Holidays are wonderful for similar reasons. During much of the year, a patched-together “family” of friends functions just as well as a family of blood relations.

Passover, though, is different. Of all the Jewish holidays, it’s the most home-centered, and even non-observant Jewish families tend to celebrate it. It’s the holiday when relatives who see little of each other during the rest of the year gather in large groups. The seders take center-stage, and synagogue services, by contrast, are poorly attended. Of course, it’s possible to sign up for synagogue-based seders—I’ve been to quite a number—but even the best ones sit wrong at heart.

Every year as I watch my Jewish-by-birth friends flit off to seders with parents, grandparents, or distant relatives with whom they would scarcely dream of spending Shavuot or Yom Kippur, I am painfully reminded of the one thing that is missing from my Jewish life: a Jewish family.

Family seders are not intrinsically better than institutional seders; in fact, in ten years I’ve attended some thoroughly unsatisfying ones. I’ve been to seders fraught with tension because not all in attendance want to read the Hagaddah; I’ve been to ones where the story of great-aunt Gertrude’s hip replacement replaces the story of the Jews leaving Egypt. I’ve been to seders so big that I was never introduced to half the people present, and to family-oriented ones that were so family-oriented there was little room for anything else.

What makes a family seder special, really? In the end, it has little to do with the rituals, food, or the quality of the discussion. It’s special because one automatically belongs, one doesn’t have to ask for an invitation. As someone who doesn’t have a biological Jewish family, I am keenly aware of how the biblical tale itself revolves deeply around themes of household, hearth and family: The babies slain or not slain; the bread not rising on the family hearths; the four children of the Hagaddah.

And, of course, there are rituals of Pesach hospitality. Ma’ot chittim—the charity specifically earmarked for Jews who can’t afford Passover food—and the injunction in the Hagaddah to “let all who are hungry, come and eat” both focus on quenching physical hunger, not loneliness. Family seders may be jolly, learned, rambunctious, disputatious, warm, or bleak, but they are always inclusive. I imagine parents and grandparents checking that everyone is coming, corralling not just children but the middle-aged. No one has to ask if she may come.

For converts without Jewish family, the annual Passover anxiety arrives in Adar, the Jewish month that begins our perennial uncertainty. Where and with whom will we spend the seders? How long to wait for an invitation? Whom to ask. How to ask. When to ask. Whether to “settle” for a synagogue seder, or to drive on a holiday when car travel is proscribed. I have never been homeless on the first or second night of Pesach. The Jewish community has always come through for me, often splendidly. But much of the hospitality is extended at the last minute, and there’s no continuity from one year to the next.

I am waiting for the Adar when I hear the rabbi preach about finding spiritual meaning in the insecurity of not knowing where one will be for the first seder. I am waiting for the Adar when I hear congregants consulting one another about the intricacies of inviting oneself to someone else’s seder, and whether it’s wiser to ask a close friend, who will feel obliged, or a more distant acquaintance, who won’t.

After all, finding a place at the seder table is supposed to be the easy part.

Darcy R. Fryer is a teacher and historian. She lives in New York City.