Saturday, May 14, 2016

Passover (Part 3 of 3)

The first thing you may notice is that there are no photos to go with this post. That's because the Jewish family we spent the Passover Seder with does not use cell phones (or any other electronic devices) on the Sabbath. They also don't drive, do certain kinds of work, or walk beyond the distance their faith tradition limits them to.

It was my first exposure to a family that lives by Jewish laws of kosher and Sabbath. What strikes me looking back on the experience, though, is that this was not an evening of what was not allowed, but an evening to remember, discuss, and celebrate. Removing the distractions of phones, electronics, and other devices served to heighten the focus of the night--a night of freedom.

The invitation to the evening came from Laura, who clearly exhibits a gift of hospitality. We were not the only first-timers at this Seder meal, though I'm fairly certain we were the only non-Jews. 24 of us gathered in a circle in the living room for the pre-meal discussion. We started with the lighting of candles in honor or memory of someone, then a round of introductions with the question, "What makes you feel free?" Answers included sailing, hiking, eating, being at the ocean, and even visiting a prison.

Rabbi David, who came to the family business of spiritual leadership after an early career as a chef (this would become clear later), was at ease with his small and temporary congregation. The main events of the night were laid out by the Haggadah (the 13 steps of the Seder which must take place in order), but he was not bound by the words on the page. Rather, he encouraged any and all to ask questions, to comment, to share what this experience reminded them of in the bigger questions of freedom and slavery.

Their family celebrated a few traditions I'd not seen before:

  • sitting on pillows on the ground (a Yemeni tradition)
  • bringing out a plate of vegetables and dips after the first dipping of bitter herbs into salt water (brilliant idea, byt the way, to stave off hunger as it takes a very long time to get to the meal portion of the night)
  • instead of eating a small corner of the afikoman (matzah), Rabbi David asked us to take at least half a sheet of matzah and to eat it in silence, imagining what it would be like to be in slavery and only have this dry, flat bread to eat
  • During the singing of the Dayenu (the story of how if God had only done this one thing or that one thing, it would have been enough), we were given green onions to whack each other with. Another Yemeni tradition that broke up the evening, especially for the kids. Everyone was eager willing to take a swipe at friends and neighbors.
  • The four children. I have seen this section of the Hagaddah before but skipped it in writing the one we use at home because I did not understand it. Turns out, a lot of people don't understand it. In this section of the Seder, we were asked to consider the four children: the simple, the wise, the wicked, and the one who doesn't know how to ask questions. I listened to the discussion and am still as clueless as before what purpose this part of the evening serves.
Through it all, Rabbi David led the discussion and the Hebrew chants (I was no good at these, but most everyone in the room know how to read them and knew the tunes). He was tuned into the history of each section and was able to explain Hebrew meanings off the top of his head. I think this lent a less formal atmosphere as he was able to go off script and return to the script at will. When we've done Seders at our place, we are tied to the text because we don't have a big picture of what each piece means and where it came from.

Speaking of which, the other main thing I noticed was how Rabbi David was comfortable not knowing an answer. In fact, at times he probably did know the answer, but resisted explaining in order to let us sit in our questions. He later expressed the beauty of the design of Passover as a chance to ask questions, but not necessarily answer them. It piques our curiosity and keeps us coming back again and again. I think I have a lot to learn from this attitude. If I can resist the urge to explain, I can give people around me the opportunity to explore their own ideas instead of being spoon (or force) fed mine.

The meal was, I must say, one the most amazing meals I've ever eaten, all prepared by Rabbi David and his wife because the rest of us did not keep "kosher for Passover" kitchens. It was a generous and amazing spread. (They did have someone to help with serving and dishes) Here are a few of the dishes we ate: Matzah Ball Soup, Garlic Soup, Salmon with Pesto and Edible Flowers, Saffron Cod, roasted root vegetables, roasted asparagus, several salads, matzahs, fresh fruit, chocolate hazelnut flourless cake, macaroons, and matzah roca. There was more--much more--but I didn't have room to taste everything and my eyes glazed over well before I finished what was on my plate. I think they had plenty of leftovers for their second night Seder the following evening. 

The food and wine lubricated conversation around the table as we got to know each other. We listened as families with different levels of involvement and observance talked about what had brought them to this point. I soaked it all in. The children were dismissed to run wild downstairs while the adults sat around the tables and finished the Hagaddah with some singing and the promise to meet next year in Jerusalem.

I didn't want to leave.

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