'I Have a Story About Slavery'
An interfaith Passover seder recounts the old story...and some new ones.
BY: Johanna Skilling
Maybe hosting your own holiday celebrations is a sign of growing up. Maybe it's a way to create new shared experiences with loving friends. Maybe it's a practical response when your holidays don't fall on a weekend and you can't get home to your family.
A few years ago, my friend David and I decided to create our own seder. It was a great opportunity: Our seder would be open, interactive, with lots of storytelling and conversation, something very different from the traditional 1950s-style observance we had both grown up with.
In my family, seders included a complete reading of the Haggadah--the book of ritual and liturgy used at the seder. The edition of the Haggadah we used was published by none other than Maxwell House, the coffee company. We read every single word in the old-fashioned English the book used and tried not to giggle when my uncle intoned phrases like, "And what saith the wicked son?" We did everything in the proper order, exactly as we did every year: Grandma--later my mother--explained the ritual seder plate, all of us read out loud from the Haggadah, drank from the four cups of wine, ate the festive meal, and sang the traditional songs that punctuate the service.
The seder naturally ended with the sacred words of Maxwell House's full-page ad in the back of the book: "Good to the last drop." We greeted this moment every year with great hilarity, not to mention relief that the long, somewhat tedious second half of the service was finally over. Passover was always a tremendous family holiday, a great time to see cousins and uncles and aunts, eat a fabulous meal, and enjoy a ritual we'd known since childhood. But as I grew a little older, I realized there was something more that could be learned from this most popular of Jewish holidays.
David and I decided that our seder would try to build on the traditional service: It would still have structure and meaning, but we would tell the story ourselves, instead of reading from a Haggadah. We'd sing some different songs and let people talk more freely about what they were thinking and feeling.
We invited people to my tiny fifth-floor walkup and asked everyone to bring something for a pot-luck buffet. We made sure, of course, to have everything for the seder plate, plenty of matzah, and more than enough wine.
The guest list was eclectic. Besides David and me, there were Josh and his girlfriend, Linda, a German Lutheran who was studying art history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. There were a couple of visiting Germans from Linda's program, also Lutheran, and my friend Frank, the music director of a neighborhood Methodist church. Frank brought along his mother, Mary Frances, a lay minister. And there were half a dozen friends from our synagogue, most, like David and me, children of Holocaust survivors.
Everyone sat in a circle, on the couch, on one of the four chairs I owned, on the floor on pillows. David began by telling the story of Passover, starting with the story of Moses in Egypt.
You know how the story begins: Pharaoh had ordered his men to kill all the newborn Jewish boys in Egypt. So Moses' parents, Amram and Yocheved, placed him in a basket of bulrushes to escape being murdered. Of all people, Pharaoh's daughter found Moses and brought him up as her own son.
At this point in the story, Renee spoke up. "That sounds like the first example of a hidden child," she said. The distant past and near-past become blurred for an instant. The Passover story has become a metaphor for the survival of the Jews after the Holocaust, and for children of survivors--like Renee, like me, and like David--it is especially poignant.
We began talking about the slavery of the Jews in Egypt. I volunteered that my great-grandfather, Simon Goldberger, was a slave to the Nazis during the war. A tailor, he spent three years sewing uniforms for Nazi soldiers. When he was liberated at the end of the war, 75 years old and weighing only 80 pounds, he returned home to Vienna only to find that his home was gone, a daughter and son-in-law had died in Auschwitz, and his once-thriving extended family, along with his neighbors and his way of life, had vanished.