Filling the house is easy. In fact, this year we've stocked up on extra chairs and a folding table to accommodate the crowd that will overflow my dining room on Saturday evening. It's what happens when they're seated and the seder begins that's so perplexing.
Death, divorce, migrations, and my status as the clan's sole remaining "Jewish expert" have brought me to the head of the seder table, as the designated leader. So each spring, as I ready for the role I've inherited, I grapple with the meaning of a religious gathering that is so important to everyone and to which they all bring so much ambivalence. Why is it that each time the family comes to the seder table, so few of them are there in spirit as well as in body?
As we begin the 21st century, Passover is the most-celebrated Jewish festival among contemporary American Jews. It surpasses the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and totally eclipses equally important festivals such as Shavuot and Sukkot. Passover even draws more celebrants than the easy-going, playful Hanukkah and Purim.
The most observed practice of this most observed holiday is the seder (Hebrew for order)-an elaborately ritualized meal with its own liturgical guidebook, the Haggadah-where the story of the Hebrew tribes' liberation from bondage in Egypt is recounted. More than retelling, Jews are commanded to experience the passage from slavery to freedom, and to teach it to their children as a lived reality. The Haggadah says that "in every generation," each Jew should feel the exhilaration of leaving Egypt-in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, which means a narrow, constricted place.
The seder has it all-story, music, symbols that we see and eat, even the enchanting tradition of welcoming the prophet Elijah, harbinger of the Messiah, to our table with a special cup of wine, an open door, and a haunting song, "Eliyahu Ha-Navi" that still electrifies me every time I sing it.
Yet what should be a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser of a Jewish observance is usually a tough sell. While some of my seder-goers immerse themselves in the rituals and delve into their meaning, as we are instructed by the Haggadah, a surprising number resist engaging with the tradition's teachings. They zone out, wisecrack, and otherwise redirect their energies away from the spiritual dimension of the evening. So my role as moderator often morphs into wrangler, as I corral unruly guests to focus on the text, or school marm, as I segue wandering conversations back to the narrative that undergirds the gathering and defines who we are.
I'm not arguing for a return to the rigidly formal, male-dominated seders of yesteryear, where Father knew best, the men did the praying by the book, conversation was taboo, and the women spent most of the evening ferrying food. As a woman taking a traditionally male role, I'm deeply aware of the need to open up the observance to diverse voices and views. But let's face it, through the course of the seder I play some pretty peculiar roles, including therapist, ringmaster, and drill sergeant, as I cajole, hector, and bamboozle my friends and kin into following the prescribed rituals and engaging with the story.
For many contemporary Jews, including a goodly number of the cast around my dinner table on Passover, Jewish identity is the problem that sparks a life-long internal argument. So I guess it's not surprising that this most dramatic of all Jewish observances, which calls upon us to take part in the inception of our peoplehood, should fuel the existential tussle. Hence the acting out at table: Interruptions, outbursts of irrelevant chatter, sarcastic asides. It's easier to chat about work, make silly jokes, and gossip than to grapple with the profound questions of human freedom and religious faith at the heart of the festival.
Twenty-first-century life presents so much choice among possible identities that it can suspend us in a perpetual free-fall. We've come to a point in Jewish history where freedom often seems less a cause for exhilaration than a corollary of rootlessness. Untethered from bonds of tradition, many Jews are spiritually estranged. They're uncomfortable in the presence of the numinous experience captured in the Passover story.
I can marshal the conscripts to sit around my seder table, no problem. They are drawn by the tug of emotion, and for the older ones, the memory of lost parents and idealized childhood seders. Even for the younger generations, the idea of the seder as a quick fix of Yiddishkeit, a reservoir of Jewish experience from which they and their children can drink is appealing, at least in theory.
Ultimately, I take heart from the rabbis who created the Haggadah. Centuries before Freud and the science of psychology, these religious teachers were astute about human behavior. In the Haggadah's allegory of the Four Children-the Wise, the Evil, the Simple, and the Apathetic-they gave us a tool for understanding the range of responses I encounter annually at the seder.
We have our 21st-century equivalents: the indifferent, the ignorant, the uncomfortable, the angry. This year we return to the table, where I will try to fulfill the ancient mandate to retell, to relive. And perhaps this time, more of my family and friends with find their way into a fifth category, the engaged. As the Talmudic sage Rabbi Tarfon said, we're not obligated to complete the task, only to begin.