Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pesach, the Seder

I've been trying really hard to be productive with my day, but ugh, the internet is so vast. It's like a physical manifestation of thousands of years of d'var Torah and mishnah. There's so much! So little time! And every shiny new object pulls me in. But I'm here to talk about the seder I went to Saturday night, at last.

I arrived at shul on Saturday a little after 7 p.m. for the evening services. The rabbi at the Orthodox shul was guaranteeing that he'd have everyone out in time for the candle lighting so the seders could start ASAP and not run into the wee, wee hours. There were friendly glances from those who'd met me the night before, and as usual the kids were running around in the cutest way possible. The davening was mesmerizing and the songs magical, and the rabbi's sermon (which had to fill up a space of about 20 minutes for some reason about the rules of davening and the time) was interesting, discussing the Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions of blessing the wine before the second cup and so forth. The service ended, Chag Sameachs were issued, I grabbed my (free!) box of Shmurah Matzo and we headed off to the host's apartment.

As it turns out, the host was having his first seder, with the help of his mother and father (a rabbi from the DC area) who were visiting for the holiday. The group for the seder consisted of five men in their 40s/50s, the parents, myself, and another girl six months older than I. It was definitely an interesting (and boisterous) group of individuals. I was hopeful, excited, pumped! We got to the apartment, unloaded our matzo boxes, and after some confused shuffling and figuring out what to say, we three women lit the candles. Then, we piled into the small dining area into our assigned seats -- my card said "GUEST."

The host and his father were sharing the seder leader duties -- they would be bouncing thoughts and gleanings off one another and the attendants, as well as sharing glimpses into vintage, historical haggadot. The bonus of the seder was that we had the rabbi -- a man who had been in the business professionally for 36 years, and who has been teaching for 41 years, not to mention having been a chaplain in the military. This man, he knew people, important people. He had wisdom about Jimmy Carter and the present "situation" -- yes, these people were Washingtonians, with grace and wisdom, not to mention stories that were a fascinating addition to the seder table. The singing was melodic and familiar, and although the haggadot didn't have transliterations, I could follow along -- I just couldn't sing with the crowd. I hummed the melodies and listened to the atuned and seasoned Jews around me, the smiles on their faces, the community and friendship, the freedom that emanated from this group of Jews gathered in this holy and historic ritual -- it made me feel alive.

We had the typical food -- gefilte fish and matzo and charoset -- but there were interesting tidbits to the seder table, including, instead of parsley, we had potatoes. It's a Polish tradition, and I thought it was beautiful, not to mention helped us get through the heavy portions of the non-meal. The rabbi told us stories about The Rebbe, shared wisdom and asked us questions. I was so proud that when the rabbi's son (the host) asked if anyone knew what Pesach meant I could share, without hesitation, that I knew what it meant. I shared my tidbit about matzo in the Middle Ages. I listened as those around me asked and answered questions -- these people, they were engaged, constantly engaged, in the conversation about our history, our lineage, what it meant to be an enslaved, then free people.

We finally arrived at the meal around midnight -- three hours after we had started the seder. This caused complications when it came to the afikomen, since there are rules about the latest time in which you can consume it. And who got to search for the hidden afikomen? Yes, you guessed it, me. I played it off like a chore, but in my mind I was elated. I, this Jew by Choice at a seder table with these Orthodox Jews (note: the rabbi and his wife are Conservative), got to be the child, the Jewish child I've always envied for knowing Hebrew and the rituals better than I. It meant the world to me, this I cannot lie about. After some searching and help from a few people, we found the afikomen, ate our dessert, and then the afikomen. There was more discussion, more politics and gleanings, more wisdom and discussion of ritual and then the night was done. It was nearly 2 a.m. and we were all exhausted, but awake and conversing, laughing. We were alive and free. We plodded down the hall, the other girl and I singing a song and arm in arm shuttling down the hallway and down the stairs and out into the night we all went. One of the men flagged me a cab and I was off toward home.

The thing is, it was the most appropriate seder experience I could have asked for. The thing about it is, Pesach is a festival of freedom. Pe, the mouth, and sach, that speaks -- the mouth that speaks. Only when we are free can we speak our minds, can we speak openly and with our hearts on the tips of our tongues. And on that night, I truly understood what freedom felt like. I was free to be myself, a Jew, among these people, and it was liberating to experience such a holy, religious, meaningful and touching seder. It was nearly five hours long, but it was the most all-encompassing light inducing moment I've had in a long time. It reminded me of how I felt at the Chabad House in Omaha all those years ago at the simple Shabbat table with song and food and laughter and conversation. I felt enlightened and whole.

So it is, friends and passersby, that I conclude my discussion about the first night seder. I am indebted to the rabbi and his wife and their son and those who opened their minds and hearts to let me attend the seder, to share in the mitzvah with them. It's one of those things that will rest in my mind, gather dust, and be relived each year at Pesach.

Kul tov!