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.
PLUS: Watch a Matzah factory video and explore Beliefnet's guide to Passover
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.
We children of survivors didn't blame the Germans among us, or any second-generation Germans, for what happened during the Nazi era, but it was satisfying to have the recognition and the sense of unspoken apology.
Mary Frances, Frank's mother, raised her hand a little timidly. "May I speak?" she said. She didn't need anyone's permission, but we all nodded.
"I have a story about slavery," she said. "When I was a girl, I lived in the Philippines with my mother and father. My father was a missionary for the Methodist Church. When the war started in Asia, the Japanese invaded the Philippines and took us prisoner. We had to leave our house--which was nothing special, just a regular house--and go to a special camp. We couldn't take anything with us. There was barbed wire all around the edge, and soldiers with guns. All the women lived in their own huts, and the men lived in theirs. It was so hot. There wasn't very much food, and I saw my father wasting away. I tried to take care of him, but he got very sick. I watched him die in that place."
The room was silent. In all of our collective stories and inherited memories about the war, no one had heard of this, a family of American Christians being held captive, dying in an internment camp. Frank looked at his mother in openmouthed disbelief. "You never told me about this," he said.
PLUS: Watch a Matzah factory video and explore Beliefnet's guide to Passover
She looked at him mildly over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses. "You never asked," she said.
There was no recrimination in her voice, no disappointment. Frank suddenly became one of "us," a child of survivors, and we knew instantly what he felt like. Our parents had never spoken of the war, either. "Where were you during the war, Mommy?" was a taboo question. We found out what we could from other relatives, from books, from whispered conversations we weren't supposed to overhear. Mary Frances took up the story. "When we were liberated, oh, it was the most exciting feeling, but it was also so bittersweet, because my father wasn't alive. I was only 19 then, but that's when I knew I wanted to become a minister myself." In fact, Mary Frances had become one of the first women ministers in the Methodist Church.
Josh had brought his guitar and starting strumming an old spiritual. We all started singing with him: "Oh freedom, Oh freedom ... And before I'd be a slave, I'd be dead and buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord, I'd go home and be free."
My rabbi once said that in Hebrew, Egypt was called "Mitzrayim," or "the narrow place," presumably because most people settled along the Nile and its narrow strip of fertile land. But he challenged us, for Passover, to think of Mitzrayim as our own narrow place, and how we could be liberated from the thoughts or habits that weighed us down.
I was still angry that my mother's family had suffered as they had in the years before, during, and after the war. Intellectually, I knew that others had been enslaved and died in World War II-- Gypsies, gays and lesbians, communists, among many others--but emotionally, I wasn't willing to believe that anyone else had suffered as much, or as unjustly, as the Jews.
Mary Frances' story reminded me that no one has a monopoly on misery, on fear, on suffering. Without discounting what happened to my family, or my people, Mary Frances gave me a personal window onto her experiences during a war I had claimed for myself.
What my friend's mother did that Passover was help show me a way out of my own narrow place, leading me somewhere bigger, sweeter, and warmer--a place just a tiny bit like the land of Israel, where the freed Jews, the former slaves of Egypt, found a home after wandering in the desert for 40 long years.