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Thu, Apr. 5th, 2007, 03:17 pm
Seder As Salon

So, for only the second time in my life, I hosted my own Seders instead of celebrating Passover with my family. Mostly it was absolutely terrific, even if I missed hanging out with my siblings and watching my dad turn red in the face while singing Yiddish songs.

The Seders I hosted were part of an ongoing project. Over the last four years or so, I’ve been struggling with ways to make Judaism meaningful to me. For a lot of people, this meaning comes from being part of a community, going to synagogue, and the like - but I’m sufficiently socially awkward that I don’t always enjoy community activities, and I’ve never been much of a fan of synagogue. So I’ve been exploring the other rituals and commandments of Judaism as the center of my Jewish identity.

Passover, for most of my life, was a time to haul out the same tired interpretations of the Exodus story and the text of the Haggadah. Intellectually interesting, yes, especially when my dad would get into the history of Passover as a response to Easter and to Roman culture - but also dry. So when I thought about making Seders of my own, I wanted to make it a living, breathing, meaningful experience that would nonetheless seriously investigate the themes and issues of the holiday.

Now, maybe that sounds like something out of a self-help book, but it definitely framed the choices that the boy and I made about how to make our Seders happen. We decided up-front on two main goals.

First, the Seders would stay traditional and explore Jewish identity, but we would encourage people of all levels of observance and all faiths to participate. This is particularly important this year because the boy is deep in the throes of conversion! We had three inter-faith couples at our second Seder - one converted, one in the process, one not planning to convert - and that was pretty awesome. At the first Seder, we had representatives of, gosh, at least five different religions? And that got us into some intense discussions. This goal is definitely a keeper, though we may have to do some serious thinking about what’s the maximum number of people we can easily invite. :)

Second, we wanted to consider our Seder not just as an opportunity to read the text of the Haggadah, but to think about it intently and explore its relevance to our lives. This is what I like to call “Seder as Salon” - bringing people together with the explicit purpose of investigating certain ideas and themes in a way that you rarely see in our culture and society. I know people who go to lectures, and who take classes, and who participate in all kinds of activities and events, but I don’t know anyone who takes part in a symposium (in the Greek sense) or salon (in the Enlightenment France sense) on a regular basis. That’s something I’d like to change. This second goal was wildly successful, by the way - even more so than the first. The two Seders were quite different in tone, content and feel, but both got into some serious, awesome talk.

The first Seder was smaller, due to a couple of last-minute cancellations, and started a little late for the same reason. But once we got started, we got deep into questions of social justice, class, relationships between strangers, the experience of slavery (F. brought an awesome passage from The Left Hand of Darkness that was pretty much a show-stopper), liberation, religious identity, and entitlement. We didn’t even start eating until well after midnight, though people ended up having to go home by 2am or so, which meant that the singing-and-drinking portion of the evening was cut a little short.

The second Seder was bigger but shorter; people were gone by 1am or so. What was really neat was that we did the exact same ritual, but ended up on totally different topics - the nature of society, what it means to be Jewish, faith, science, assimilation, and the historical process by which religions and cultures evolve. No singing, though - and that’s probably the one fly in my ointment, in terms of what was overall a terrific Seder. It was very lonely sitting at the table by myself singing the songs, even though everyone had very good reasons for having to head out early.

Lessons I’d like to remember for next year’s Seder:

1. Ask everyone to bring a question to ask or a brief quotation to discuss rather than an activity - just the questions gave us plenty of discussion, and we never even got to any of our prepared activities.
2. Strongly recommend that everyone bring a guest, instead of just suggest it.
3. Do something new that we’ve never done before, “to make people ask.”
4. Have an “ends late” and “ends early” Seder, for purposes of singing!
5. Invite my family, even if they can’t come.
6. Find a way to say, “All who are hungry, come and eat,” and not feel like a hypocrite.

But really, if it’s half as good as this year, I’ll be more than content.