An old tradition made new again
I grew up in a secular Jewish household. Everything I know about Judaism, I learned from Fiddler on the Roof and Woody Allen films. The only times I recall attending synagogue with my family were for weddings and funerals. My brother and I woke up Christmas mornings to a bounty of presents, in numbers far exceeding the few we received during Hanukkah. There were Easter baskets, too. Our feast day was Thanksgiving, which hewed our familial identity with that of the nation, rather than that of the tribe.
Growing up, I attended just two seders (the traditional Passover meal) but only one of them remains accessible to me as a memory. This is the one at which, at age eight, I tippled too much in the Manischewitz and tipped over on my great Aunt Jenny’s couch soon after the main meal was over. What little I recall of the evening, I recall fondly; however, Passover for me had long been not much more than a subcategory of misty childhood memory.
Thus it came as a surprise to me when, late last winter, I decided to host a seder. Maybe it has to do with having kids; maybe it has to do with mid-life. Whatever it was, I hatched my plan to foist a feast upon my family and some close friends. My husband, a secular Protestant, may have wondered what had gotten into me after so many years of indifference, but if he did, he didn’t mention it. What he was worried about was that I might go all “Martha Stewart” on him.
In the name of domestic harmony, I promised him simplicity. I chose some straightforward recipes and searched for an appropriate version of the narrative of the Jews’ slavery in and exile from Egypt, the Haggadah, to read ahead of the meal. A friend pointed me to one that suited my religiously unschooled but still culturally Jewish sense of myself. I assembled copies, and, in my only nod toward the Hebrew language (of which I know exactly two expressions: shalom and l’chaim. Thank you, Fiddler!), I made sure the pages would be read from right to left as we recited the text.
I made good on my spousal promise, and, with a surprising lack of incident, I managed to set a table with several seder staples (and modern variations), the most satisfying of which were my very first brisket and a flourless chocolate cake.
Somehow, I had forgotten the Manischewitz. This became apparent while preparing the charoset, a customary dish that calls for a sweet red wine. What we did have was an unopened flask of MD 20/20 (also known as “Mad Dog 20/20” to underage drinkers everywhere) purchased by my husband as a joke months before. A quick taste test followed by an energetic Internet search revealed that “MD” stands for “Mogen David” and that it’s as kosher as matzo. I triumphed in my resourcefulness, and the meal was complete.
It was surprisingly simple and satisfying in a way that was new to me. I had managed to not worry about doing it “right” and, instead, to enjoy the fact that I was doing it at all. My mother-in-law was the first to suggest we do it again. For her, the seder “created a sense of family and social awareness as well as the space for sharing something with a long and deep feeling of history and commitment.” And so we shall, with some Mogen David at the ready to get the party started. This, it seems, is how traditions begin or, rather, how they continue as, really, it’s only new to me.