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All in the Seder

May 9, 2009 | by Jennifer M. Paquette

Passover proves the key to liberating one family's strained relations.

After I became observant a decade ago, I made some typical “overzealous” mistakes, and my relationship with my parents fractured almost beyond repair. Their synagogue wasn't observant enough; their food wasn't kosher. We fought about nearly everything; a strangling emotional dialogue of mutual condemnation.

Holidays I'd always loved sharing with family were now spent in exile, especially Passover, my favorite Yom Tov. There were just too many details. An observant Passover was just so different from those of my childhood, with our "progressive" Haggadah and chocolate Easter eggs.

My sister said in exasperation one year, "Of course Jennifer won't be with us -- it's a Jewish holiday!" I told myself there was no possible way; my parents’ house wasn't kosher, let alone for Passover. We couldn't agree on when to begin the Seder, let alone what it might include. Some compromises were just too tough.

We started having the important conversations that I'd skipped in the excitement of becoming religious.

Then my marriage ended. I moved back to town with my children, just babies then, really. We went to live with my parents. I had my own kosher kitchen in the basement, and built-in babysitters for late-night diaper runs. Forced together, my parents and I actually started having the important conversations that I'd skipped in the excitement of becoming religious. We started sharing the realities of our lives -- and discovering we might not be so different after all.

My father's parents had recently died, and for over a year, he said Kaddish. Going to shul will never be his favorite thing, but being there daily made him literate in day-to-day Judaism. Even after the year of mourning ended, he remained the "tenth man" his shul could count on for a minyan.

When I moved out of their house, taking my kosher dishes with me, my father went out and bought two sets of plastic dishes for when we visited. It was “his project,” and he turned the basement kitchen over to it entirely. For his birthday, my kids and I bought him tea towels and dishcloths to match "his" dishes.

And then, one springtime, my parents sat me down and asked what it would take for all of us to have a Seder together. I stalled, thinking only of impossibilities: glatt kosher for me, vegetarian for my sister, and all that Hebrew Haggadah text.

In my mind's eye, I saw my grandfather holding up the matzah and asking what it all meant.

But then I saw, in my mind's eye, my grandfather, holding up the matzah and asking what it all meant. He could never remember whether he was supposed to find the matzah, hide the matzah, or maybe find it and then hide it again. Amazing experiences my children would never have… unless. Experiences my children needed more than I needed the self-righteous shroud I'd wrapped around myself.

Jewish law says you can make a Seder in any language you understand. I explained that to my parents. But the Seder must start at a specific time, I said, and done right -- it goes late, with feasting, four cups, and nobody rushing off before Hallel because they need to work the next morning.

Fine, they said. Count us in.

Amazingly, they meant it. My mother took me shopping for the expensive groceries I'd need even for our small clan. We hammered out the details one by one, sharing recipes and swapping stories from past years. Sometimes, it looked like some small issue might derail our plan, but in the end, we did it. We arrived at the Seder table together, all in one piece.

And at peace.

Sitting beside that table, tired and hungry, yummy smells in the kitchen, sisters at my sides, my children running to find the matzah my father hid… it was Heaven and (in a different realm) Disneyland all rolled into one. As a family at last, we came out of Egypt and celebrated our freedom together. My children asked the Four Questions. My sisters sang, the kids danced, we drummed on the table, and beat each other with leeks (a Sephardic custom!). We were hooked.

We've made a Seder together every year since. It's funny -- if you were to ask where I've had to compromise, I don't think I could come up with anything. Last year, at two in the morning, with all of us nodding off, my father gamely asked if he should start reading Song of Songs, which takes up several pages of minuscule print at the back of the Haggadah. I politely declined, amazed at the lengths he was willing to go to above and beyond anything he'd ever done before.

Every year now, we start planning earlier. We just can't wait to get to the Seder table.

Every year now, we start planning earlier. We just can't wait to get to the Seder table. My mother's been asking about getting the special round Shmurah Matzah, and a month ahead, I noticed that my father had already pulled out his Haggadah, like he does every year, spending weeks in his easy chair, sounding out all that Hebrew.

I used to think I needed distance to protect my newfound Judaism, but it turns out it's not so fragile. I've also learned that this isn't just “my” religion; I can share it with my family, a little bit at a time.

Year-round, they're more open to my religious observances... and in return, I don't bristle when they ask questions, testing my limits. Where once I used to automatically say no, these days, I always try to find a way to say yes.

This year will be my fourth Seder with my family, not counting the many we shared before I became observant. But, of course, those do count. Though we didn't know it then, those rowdy, irreverent and abbreviated Seders of my childhood paved the way for our rowdy, fun and meaningful grown-up Seders.

There's a Hebrew expression when things are going well: "ha-kol b'seder" -- everything's in order. But it can also mean, "It's all in the Seder." Even if family relations seem strained beyond repair, try making a Seder together. It’s a liberating experience. Just as it was back in Egypt, 3,300 years ago.

For more great Passover articles, visit's Passover site.


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