Playing a New Role

The East Village Mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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I have a confession. I really, really love leading the Seder. I was initially resistant to taking on the role. It meant that Zayde was gone; it meant that I was a grownup, an authority figure, instead of a metaphorical kid throwing spitballs from the back row. It meant, to me, that I was usurping mom’s matriarchal place, even though she was the one urging me to grab that Hebraic helm, to take that karpas and run with it.

We used to have two Sedarim, known as “Dad’s Seder” and “Mom’s Seder.” Dad’s was traditional, involving much Aramaic huminah-huminah and many self-consciously theatrical orders to the women to shut up, but plenty of singing and humor, too. Mom’s Seder involved lots of Pedagogically Relevant Edu-Hippie Teachable Moments, such as painting a kiddush cup to represent the qualities of a person in the Passover story, playing a game of Passover Jeopardy or breaking into teams and choosing props from a paper bag to act out a Passover-related scene. As my father wrote on his blog back in 2001, “This is known as cooperative learning, progressive education, multifaceted learning, or, in Hebrew, hilul hashem or avodah zarah.” (Confidential to those who do not speak Hebrew: Those words so totally do not mean that.)

But now that Dad was gone, my childhood home was gone, and Josie and Max were here, it made sense for me to lead the Seder. And to my surprise, I loved creating the ceremony. I read dozens of haggadot and spent hours looking at Web sites. I incorporated poems, songs, opportunities for discussion. As our base text, we used Elie M. Gindi’s “Family Haggadah” (Behrman House Publishing), which is huminah-huminah-free, but retains the essentials of the “real” Seder. I made Passover coloring books and bought foam Ten Plagues masks at the Jewish Museum. Determined to keep Josie engaged through the entire ceremony, I hung a giant piece of posterboard with the names of the elements of the Seder written on it in Hebrew and English, with a pictogram next to each one (a Kiddush cup, a hand being washed, a piece of parsley, etc.) and a box in which Josie could check off each step as we reached it. I loved drawing the little pictures.

And to my greater surprise, I loved leading the ceremony. I’d enjoyed doing theater in school, but had too much stage fright (and too little talent) ever to consider doing it professionally. I didn’t think I was spiritual enough to be a rabbi — and again, there’s that pesky stage fright problem. I’d taught religious school in college, but hated it wholeheartedly. I didn’t have any mentors; I had no clue about lesson planning or classroom management; the kids were 7th and 8th graders in a hormone-addled stew. They had wildly different levels of maturity and intellectual ability. One commented on my boobs. I decided I was not cut out for any sort of teaching career. In general, the thought of having an audience makes me queasy. I can barely go watch my comedian friends do stand-up because I’m so worried for them that their jokes will fall flat.

So to find myself in full-on performance mode, with a receptive, happily participatory audience, none of whom commented on my boobs, was thrilling. When I went to wash my hands, keeping up a loud running monologue from the bathroom about how dandy it was to know exactly where the afikomen was, hammily play-by-playing every aspect of my soaping, rinsing and toweling (to give Josie time to steal the afikomen), I was delighted at all the giggles I could hear in the other room. (Josie’s was loudest of all.) When I dramatically flung the bathroom door open, milliseconds after Josie had resumed her seat, and slunk vampily against the door jam like Mae West, my mother let out a giant, delicious laugh. That was my favorite moment of the Seder.

I loved all the laughter, but I also loved the teaching aspect of leading a Seder. The feedback was so immediate, compared to writing. I spend so much time sitting alone, silent, typing. I love writing for the Forward because it’s a far less mediated experience than writing for magazines, but it’s still solitary work, producing something for an invisible audience. Leading the Seder was communal. I felt a visceral connection to everyone else at the table. I knew immediately what worked and what didn’t. And I like that Josie and Maxine saw me in a different role, saw another non-Mommy aspect of my essential self. I want my girls to love being Jewish and to find fulfillment in ritual and connection: what better way to do so than by modeling that joy myself? In writing class, we’re always told, “Show, don’t tell.” Making sure my kids see that I walk the walk is way more fun, and more authentic, than noodging and hectoring them to be Jewy.

But I couldn’t pay as much attention to the ceremony if Jonathan hadn’t done most of the heavy lifting in the kitchen. (My guess is that if more Jewish men made dinner, more Jewish women would have leadership roles in ritual life.) Last year, he made both vegetarian and chicken-oriented matzo ball soup. This led to much linguistic fun in which I spent all afternoon inquiring as to the state, size and temperature of his balls. (Hey, I may be leading the Seder, but I still have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy.) Jonathan also made brisket with 36 cloves of garlic (double chai!). I made an asparagus gremolata, roasted veggies (leeks, turnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, roast garlic and thyme, a recipe from Rosa Mexicano restaurant in New York City as reprinted in Gourmet magazine, with strategic planning — “Ohmigod, how much of this can I do ahead” — input from my food-writer pal Casey), and a toasted matzo farfel stuffing with shiitakes and roast garlic, from a charming cookbook called “The Gefilte Variations” (Scribner, 2000) — alas, too much of a time-suck given the amount of other things on our metaphorical plate. It would be great to take to someone else’s house for a potluck Seder, though. Mom brought her famous K for P brownies, and the disgusting Passover candies we all eat while announcing that they are disgusting.

With Passover approaching, Josie has already made the cover of our homemade Haggadah: a dramatic picture of the 10 Plagues. (Girl loves a good scary story.) Last year I worried about the designation of the wicked child; what kind of message does it send to a kid to say that another child is irredeemably bad? This year, I’m focused on Josie’s understanding of the slaying of the first born. She loves to draw dead children lying on the ground with X’d out eyes, leading me to think I have spawned a young George Romero. Is she old enough to interpret this story in a non-literal way, ensuring that it does not scar her for life? Maxine I’m not so worried about. Her comprehension of death, is, well, not extant. When the goldfish Josie won at the Brotherhood Synagogue Purim Carnival went on within a week to its eternal fishy reward, Maxine kept announcing “Daffy is dead! Poor Daffy! But don’t wowwy, she’ll come back!” (Uh oh, what if Daffy is coming back, and she’s peeved about having been used as a prize for wee snot-nosed Jews standing behind a masking tape line, lobbing ping pong balls? Maybe Maxine’s a fish-whisperer! Maybe Daffy craves piscine revenge! It’s all too Stephen King for words!)

Unless the fish gets us in our sleep first, the girls will help me make eggs with turmeric and grape juice again this year. We serve them in the wicker duck-shaped basket that we used during my own childhood Sedarim. (Josie loves it so much, she puts stuffed animals in it and pretends it’s the basket in which Moses floated down the Nile before being rescued by Miriam, a.k.a. Josie.) For the first time, Shirley will be present, perhaps in her own Moses basket. I’ll let Josie open the Seder with a boffo Passover joke, stolen from a wonderful new Young Adult novel Josie and I read together, called “Penina Levine Is a Hard-boiled Egg” (Roaring Brook), by Rebecca O’Connell. Jo delivers it with borscht-belt ha-cha-cha fanfare: “Can Elijah come in through a screen door? He can, but it’s a strain!” Ladies and gentlemen, she’ll be here all week! Don’t forget to tip your waitresses!

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.


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