Take Back The (Seder) Night

By Jay Michaelson

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.