Dartmouth Hillel opened up its annual Passover Seder by explaining the meaning of the word. Whoever spoke announced that it means “order,” a reference to the specific arrangement of Seder events: prayers, songs, quotes, and, of course, food.
My family barely practiced anyway, and as my parents let our Synagogue membership slip away (we hadn’t gone in years), and we never observed the Sabbath (my parents came home after sundown), all sense of ritual was coming to an end.
Except Passover. No matter how many times I ignored holidays celebrating fasting, repentance, costume, or harvest, Passover remained constant. We would venture to my Cousin Joyce’s house in Great Neck, Long Island, and I would settle into ritual. Inside, the Great Neck cousins: squat and red-cheeked from wine, gold bracelets squeezing pudgy forearms, brash, with unsettlingly white teeth and tanned skin, always having just returned from Italy or Atlantic City or The Shore and always about to venture to the next vacation spot with too much sun and wine and not enough brooding.
These were the owners of the house; they had vanity plates. They possessed aspects of a type of neo-Judaism that focused around celebration. Whereas we once suffered, now we are set free: L’Chaim. It is only appropriate that they would host the holiday that commanded slouching to one side—sitting like kings. One of them went by Aunt Irene the Brisket Queen and lived in Florida and chainsmoked and had one of those dogs with legs the length of your thumbs. They were unabashed, and every time one of them opened their mouths, I half expected them to have no less than one gold tooth, even though I’d seen their smiles a million Passovers ago.
They were undeniably a fun presence at the Seder table, but they reminded me precisely why I felt I had to distance myself from Judaism: their brand of it was excess, was the same thing the kids I went to Hebrew school with were sippin’ on. It was a complex, was multi-thousand dollar celebrations for basic rites of passage, overpaid rabbis, religious consultants, the doctor-or-lawyer-nice-Jewish-boy partner requisites, the archetypal Jewish American Princess who changed her profile picture ‘for Israel’ without understanding apartheid politics, who took mud baths by the Red Sea and flashed the peace signs while riding camels in Facebook albums entitled “Is-real,” who kissed for the first time at Synogogue retreats and fucked for the first time at Jewish summer camp. It was a life defined by paradox: one encompassed by a religion, but one that reflected an incredibly base understanding of it.
At the border
On the other end of the dinner table were the Leibling women: my maternal grandmother and her sister, who wrote with almost the exact same handwriting and wore almost the exact same perm, whose faces had as many lines and age spots as a well-worn piece of matzo, one of those large circular ones that stay covered at the center of the Seder table and are always burnt around the edges. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they were worn matriarchs. They smiled, they laughed, fell asleep at the dinner table, were roused by a spark in their hearing aids, and then laughed again. They were women of the Depression, who folded their napkins judiciously and pocketed dried fruit for the road, but they were full of anecdotes. My grandmother spoke of when she met her husband, when her husband ran over the neighbor’s cat, when he opened the hardware store and she taught at the university, when she had to move away from Brooklyn and to a town (actually) called Hicksville, upstate. They spoke of botched hair care and drunken lunches and dopey boys at school dances, and everyone listened.
But when they prayed, they did not giggle.
Whenever Passover landed on a Friday night and traditional Shabbat candles were lit for the occasion, they always forgot their head coverings and instead put napkins on their heads and closed their eyes and made a summoning gesture three times with both hands, bringing the warm air surrounding the candles closer to them, and they prayed. And despite the ridiculous sight of two respectable old women with dinner napkins sitting sloppily on top of their heads, they did not laugh. They kept their eyes closed and made it clear—in a language I barely knew—whatever they were muttering, they understood it, believed it.
Sitting at the Dartmouth Hillel Seder, getting quietly sloshed with Nancy, Director of Religious Life, who tries to attend holiday rituals here, at least the fun ones, anyway.
My mostly irreligious, slightly Hindu roommate had an Econ test to study for, and my Native, slightly Catholic roommate had told me that organized religion made her queasy (I don’t blame ’em), so I was Sedering with Matt from across the table and Nancy. I opened a Haggadah, heard everyone’s personal Passover experiences, did the herbs, the saltwater, the matzo, the questions, and the plagues, taking care not to lick my pinky after emptying the wine (1, 2). I waited.
Then, the Passover Extravaganza. “Flourless” was set to the tune of Beyoncé’s “Flawless,” and something from the Frozensoundtrack made an appearance, I think there were dancers, an ill-orchestrated chorus, and Pharoah jokes.
I am not easily made uncomfortable. I can dish it, I can take it, and I can spit caustic cultural critique with the best of them. But this was somehow different. Somehow, then and there I decided that a Seder is not the place for sac-religion. If anyone was going to roll their eyes, it was going to be me. So clutching the holy rulebook, searching for some unadulterated understanding, was foreign to me. Perhaps I was being too sensitive. This was, after all, my very first foray into religious life on campus, so perhaps I was expecting stoicism and back-and-forth rocking prayer and a Cup of Miriam on each table and a designated person to open the door symbolically for Elijah the Prophet, and maybe, if I was lucky, the nouveau tradition of the orange on the Seder plate, as introduced to the world by Dr. Susannah Heschel, a Dartmouth professor (3).
But there was none of this. The medley felt a lot like depriving yourself of essentials in favor of excess, like Hillel was running some sort of marketing campaign to try to make this holiday sexy. Jewishness had, in essence, sold out.
The Promised Land
Sometimes we fall from glory.
I have gotten up and taken a walk from a place that should be my home. I am drunk and afraid and maybe starting once more to believe in a god and chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds and forgetting when to spit what. My roommate—the one with a tiny bottle of cedar oil and a smudging shell that makes our room smell like summertime, a friend, and I walk outside where she smokes a cigarette and they talk about eclipses. The friend says she needs to return to her dorm before the eclipse occurs; that bad things happen when she’s outside during one. I wonder if that’s why the Seder was so shitty, that maybe each practice falls privy to every other practice’s rules and so a Seder on the night of an eclipse is destined to be terrible, and maybe so is Easter on days with red skies and maybe that’s why holidays have planned dates because if Yom Kippur ever fell on Thanksgiving there would be too much repentance or not enough thanks or too much temptation or too large a break-fast dinner and I rest my head on her knee and the brick is cool.
Sometimes we fall from glory.
And I tell them that in a language I barely knew, congratulations means the same thing as good luck
And we say goodnight
And good luck.