My parents sold their house, my childhood home. (I have issues about this, but I’ll deal with them in therapy rather than in this column.) Their new apartment is large enough to hold a brisket and a large matzo ball, but not simultaneously. So this year, Jonathan and I are hosting Passover for the first time.
It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because we’re taking on an adult role in the extended family (how can we sit at the “kids’ table” when we have a kid? Or when the table’s in our house?); because cooking for a lot of people can be stressful (I haven’t yet pulled a Bridget Jones and tied a bouquet garni with blue string so that the soup turns the color of a Caribbean sky, but it could happen), and because Passover is a major megillah for the Ingalls.
My parents have always had dueling Seders. My dad calls his “My Zeyde’s Seder.” It is a rapid-fire, singsong spew of Haggada delivered, in his words, “with the same intonations, incantations and misogynistic deprecations that have been handed down by rabbis to my grandfather thousands of years ago.” In other words, he bangs on the table a lot and barks, “The women will be quiet!” This performance is only semi-intended as camp. My mother’s Seder, on the other hand, is all about cooperative learning and hands-on participation. As befitting a professor of education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, she finds neat-o lessons everywhere. In the past, we’ve compared and contrasted various kinds of Haggadot (feminist, archeological, Manischewitz, pacifist, Claymation). She’s made game boards so we could play Jewpardy (with categories including Pharaoh Phacts and On the Seder Plate) and Jewish Family Feud. We’ve mimed the plagues, turned “The People’s Court” into a one-act play in which Pharaoh was on trial (I was Rusty the Bailiff), and slapped each other with leeks (don’t ask). She incorporates multicultural readings, finds amusing Passover songs on the Internet, invites questions and commentary from the group. My father assures readers of his Web site, “Believe me, God does not listen.”
Last year Mom outdid herself. She had us tell the story of Passover through a combination of Haggada reading and Paper Bag Players-style improvisation. She divided us into teams, gave each team a bunch of random props (dental floss, a plastic lei, a tape dispenser, a vintage Dukakis/Mondale button) and assigned each team a section of the Haggada to act out. Despite some kvetching, the family rose to the occasion. Some people went conceptual. My aunt Belleruth’s team used Arafat as a stand-in for Pharaoh; my brother used the pimping of baby formula in Third World countries as a metaphor for the killing of the first-born. Some were more literal. My 90-year-old grandmother played the youngest child reciting the Four Questions, with shoelaces — one of her team’s props — tied in her short steel-gray hair like bows. She read the questions in a piping babyish voice while my cousin Abie stuck his arms under her armpits and made amusing hand gestures. My father rolled his eyes and muttered things that sounded suspiciously like “hillul hashem” (an abomination unto God).
Mom’s Seder can be scary. You will be in a skit, and you will solo on “Echad Mi Yodaya” even if you do not know Hebrew. My mother resolutely refuses to see that this is terrifying. She hands people a transliterated Haggada and sings encouragingly along with them. But hello! Still terrifying! Past guests have included Brown University students, who tend to look like deer in the headlights when the solos start, as well as my mom’s friend Mary, a nun (whose Hebrew is better than mine, so she’s not a very good example), and my dad’s Franciscan co-worker from a group home for troubled boys, Brother John. Everybody steps up to the mike; everybody represents. Khad Gadya, yo!
For the past two decades or so we’ve sung the hallowed “Mom’s Seder Song.” My brother and I wrote it (under Mom’s watchful eye, of course) when we were kids.
Now I’m a mom. Is it still “Mom’s Seder”? Will we call it “Bubbe’s Seder”? Can I really be old enough for a matrilineal passing of the torch? Vay iz mir, time’s passing too quickly. Last year, baby Josie spent the Seder asleep in my lap in her green baseball shirt and purple leggings, her thighs like little sausages. This year, she’ll sit in her high chair and eat people food (“Meat! Tzicken!”). She’ll clap when we sing the Passover songs and look from face to face, beaming. After each number, she’ll yell, “Yay!” and then “Mo’! Mo’!” I’ll buy her a Passover board book (with the 10th plague edited for content; you think I want her in therapy at 3?). I’ll find pulverized matzo in Tinky Winky’s fur for the next few months.
Like most parents, I find I’m mourning Josie’s babyhood even as I can’t wait for her to be older. On Purim I got all excited for next year, when she’ll be able to dress as Vashti and manipulate a grogger. This week I’m suddenly fantasizing about making a Seder plate with her at the pottery-painting place on Greenwich Street. Next year, maybe. Can she learn the Four Questions at age 2? She’s a genius, you know.
I don’t like to think about my parents growing older, but that too comes with the territory. Our Seder will still be a family affair, for a long time to come, I hope. Mom will bring food in Pyrex wrapped in plastic wrap, in the tradition of bubbes everywhere. Dad will provide afikoman gifts, pharmaceutical company schwag he spends all year collecting. Last year we scored a Prozac ball that lights up and flashes when you bounce it, a Zyprexa clock, a Prozac mini-basketball and some Seroquel pens.
My father always asks, “Whose Seder do you like better — your mother’s or mine?” Sorry, Dad. I think you know the answer. It’ll always be Mom’s Seder. God willing, even when Josie’s the mom.