Thursday, April 9, 2015

Inch Fifty-Eight: A Place at the Table

Monday night I attended a seder, the Jewish ritual meal for Passover, at Ohio Wesleyan, our local college. It was not a traditional seder, nor even a full seder, but it had the structure of a seder and that was a good start. The OWU seder is offered in part for its very small Jewish student population and in part for non-Jewish members of the greater Delaware community who wish to experience a seder.

It was the first time I had been at a seder in 27 or 28 years.

The first person I met when I arrived was Jessica, the associate chaplain and rabbinic student, who was the driving force behind the event. We'd exchanged emails prior to the seder but nothing prepared me to come face to face with someone in my age bracket.

Students drifted in, along with a lot of adults from the community. None of the other adults were Jewish (I knew all but one, and I ended up sitting next to her at the seder, so got to know her religious beliefs early on). Of the students, I would estimate perhaps a third to half were Jewish, with the rest coming from the campus Interfaith House or just coming along out of curiosity or friendship.

It was so odd to be outnumbered at a seder by the non-Jews.

Since I last attended a seder, there have been new additions to the seder ceremony. (By "new," I mean changes that I had never experienced, although the changes date back almost 30 years themselves.) A seder table always has a filled wine cup for Elijah the Prophet. Our table also contained an empty wineglass for Miriam the Prophetess. The glass was passed along the table and each of us emptied a teaspoon of water into the glass to honor Miriam and her well, which miraculously accompanied the Jewish people during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And the seder plate, which holds ritual objects (a roasted lamb shank, maror (bitter herbs), haroset, matzoh), also now holds an orange. The orange was introduced to recognize and include the Jewish LGBT community. Both of these changes resonated with me.

I had forgotten the flavors of a seder. There were bowls of haroset every three to four plates. Haroset is a mixture of chopped apples and chopped nuts, flavored with cinnamon and bound together with grape juice or, more traditionally, kosher grape (sweet) wine. Haroset symbolizes the mortar the Jews made bricks with when they were slaves in Egypt.  In the course of the seder, you not only eat the haroset, but you also eat a Hillel sandwich, which is haroset and maror (traditionally horseradish) between two pieces of matzoh.

I had forgotten the sting and sweetness of the Hillel sandwich. And I had forgotten how addicting haroset is. I wasn't the only one who felt that way. The young woman next to me and I kept returning to the haroset bowl, which she had moved to be between the two of us. "I love haroset," she said, smiling as she spooned some more onto her plate. "It's my favorite food at seder."

Passover is the festival of freedom. The intertwined issues of slavery and freedom have always played the key role in the haggadah, the text followed during the seder. Now issues of social justice—poverty, hunger, inequality, homelessness, modern slavery—also are part of the telling. We did not use printed haggadahs, but instead had readings that took us through the order of a seder.  As Jessica explained, Jews are supposed to tell the Passover story as if it is happening now, not just reciting something that happened long ago. I am eager to participate in a modern seder that contains this new overlay.

After the seder concluded, I talked with Jessica for several minutes, long enough for us to say we had to stay in touch. Her immediate recognition of the All-of-a-Kind Family books ("Of course I read them! I'm 50!") made for a quick bond, one which we hope to grow over coffee and conversation in the coming weeks.

Warren asked me when I came home if I had a good seder experience. "It was more of a seder outline," I said, but added that I was satisfied. For the first time back at the table, it was a sweet reunion.

You traditionally end a seder with the words "next year in Jerusalem," an element that was omitted Monday night. I already know what I want next year. Next year I want to attend a full blown seder or even host one myself. I want to make the haroset, I want to bring the desserts.

Next year in Jerusalem. Next year a seder. Next year a place at the table.


Laurie said...

I'll admit to being quite ignorant on Jewish traditions. Recently, I did read a bit, mostly because I was curious what charoset/haroset is, because of something I'd read. I'm glad you had a "sweet reunion."

see you there! said...

I've heard and read about a seder but never been to one. I like the fact that the tradition has made subtle changes to keep it modern.