Take Back The (Seder) Night

By Jay Michaelson

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own
By Marge Piercy
Schocken, 304 pages, $22.95.

It’s well known that Passover is the most widely observed of Jewish holidays, and there’s no shortage of explanations as to why. Its themes are universally relevant — freedom is much easier to relate to than, say, sin and atonement — and the Seder is full of rich, embodied symbolism. But above all, Passover is celebrated primarily in the home, without rabbinic oversight, leaving families to shape their own rituals and set their own levels of observance.

For many people, sadly, this lack of professional leadership results in a rote recitation of the Haggadah. But for generations now, the Seder has also been a site of creativity, innovation, exchange and debate — which, if one reads the Haggadah’s text attentively, is obviously what the talmudic rabbis had in mind.

Marge Piercy’s “Pesach for the Rest of Us” is but the latest entry in a growing literature of Passover books that at once record the author’s personal religious journeys (and her idiosyncrasies) and encourage readers to explore their own. Most of us know Piercy as a poet and novelist, and there is a fair amount of her verse in “Pesach for the Rest of Us,” which follows the order of the Haggadah but does not repeat most of its content. But the book’s real poetry is in how Piercy has rendered her voice in conversational prose and in recipes with the imprecise language of a friend talking on the phone. (“If you like, after you have cooked the dish for an hour, add some farfel.… Don’t add too much. Go light on this.”)

This breezy tone actually serves to reinforce the assertiveness of “Pesach for the Rest of Us,” a kind of “Take Back the Seder Night” for nonreligious Jews, especially women. In a word, Piercy is blunt. She has no patience for Orthodox Jews, and she suggests that they find another Haggadah, and another Seder, if they are looking for traditional observance. She welcomes interfaith families and urges all of us to avoid the “gibberish” of an all-Hebrew text. And Piercy’s feminism is upfront and central, not only demanding a cup for Miriam, an orange on the Seder plate and feminine God-language in blessings, but also depicting the whole holiday from the perspective of the mother/housewife/matriarch/cook who orchestrates it.

Above all, “Pesach for the Rest of Us” is relentlessly… human. There are countless digressions about Piercy’s relatives, her pets, her kitchen, her life. It takes a lot of effort to achieve the effortless, but Piercy pulls it off.

Clearly, not everyone will be part of the “Rest of Us” in the book’s title. Sometimes I cheered Piercy’s devil-may-care impiety, and her bold political assertions. Other times I didn’t. Some of Piercy’s complaints feel dated: She talks about kosher wine as if the past 30 years of top-quality Israeli winemaking haven’t happened yet, and there is a first-wave feel to some of her feminist assertions that don’t make a lot of room for the brilliant women (like Avivah Zornberg) who do work within the Orthodox world.

But “Pesach for the Rest of Us” is like an intimate conversation with a friend — and since when do you agree with your friends about everything? Personally, I was more than willing to put up with the disagreeable parts in exchange for Piercy’s subjectivity, her incisiveness and the expression of her poetic voice. Reading her Passover guidebook is like having a surrogate bubbe, except one who, in addition to being a great cook with a treasure trove of folk wisdom and tips, is also feminist, acerbic and literarily brilliant. As such, “Pesach for the Rest of Us” is the perfect bridge between the old world and the new — that is, between an old, vanishing Jewish culture and a contemporary world that is both duly suspicious of its antiquity and desperately in need of it.

Jay Michaelson is the author of “God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness and Embodied Spiritual Practice” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006).


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