Last spring, I celebrated Passover at the Seward Park Housing Corporation on Grand Street in Manhattan, a few blocks from where my grandmother grew up, above her father’s tailor shop in the 1920s. While the matzo ball soup simmered on the stove, my friends and I gathered in the dining room. The only thing distinguishing this Passover feast from any other? I was the only Jew at the table.
Needless to say, I didn’t think it possible to be the token Jew at a Seder in New York City, a place where even the blondest shiksas say “spiel” (albeit usually pronounced “speel”). I felt like the worst Jew in the whole tri-state area when I didn’t garner a single invitation. (My parents were home in Montreal, and my sister was at her in-laws’ in St. Louis.) What, oh, Adonai, had I done to deserve this abandonment in a city peopled by my people?
I’m a classic nonpracticing, cultural Jew. I attend synagogue twice a year, and I was not bat mitzvahed. I never quite know what’s going on when we retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. Still, the prospect of spending the evening alone sent me into a tailspin.
In my despair, I thought of the Jews I’d seen in Park Slope at Kolot Chayeinu, the crunchy temple-in-a-church where I’ve attended High Holy Day services since moving to Brooklyn in 2000. The congregation includes religious skeptics, African Americans, adopted Chinese girls, gay men, lesbians, converts and interfaith couples, and is led by the earth mother, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann. It exemplifies all that is wonderful about New York, and it’s the only temple I’ve ever thought about joining. Suddenly I wondered why, after years of inspirational services, I’d never become an official member. Surely none of these people would have left me hungry on this night of all nights.
Instead, as my friends boarded Metro North trains to Westchester County, or gathered with their families on the Upper West Side, I worried that I had finally become my worst nightmare: the single Jewish girl left to die alone in her apartment, watching DVDs of “Sex and the City.”
I called my friend Julie, crying. Being a glass-half-full type who grew up in a Lutheran family in Indiana (purity rings and all), she hit on an unexpected solution: Why not ask friends who had never been to a Seder to join me for dinner? She even offered up her apartment. “I’ve always wanted to go to a Seder!” she said excitedly. I hesitated. “But who will lead it?” I asked.
“Who will lead what?” she responded.
“The Seder,” I said. “Who will make sure we do everything right, and in the proper order?”
She paused, flummoxed by the sudden knowledge that this was more than a religious dinner party. “You will,” she said. “Now start inviting people.”
I spent the next day at work secretly downloading, printing and collating free Haggadahs off the Internet. At 6 p.m., I shopped for the requisite provisions — parsley, eggs, wine. I didn’t, however, try to find a lamb shank bone; that would have involved figuring out what a lamb shank bone was.
When I arrived at Julie’s, she was elbow-deep in a Mollie Katzen recipe for vegetarian kugel and already had made matzo balls for the soup. Soon, my friend Gitu — a half-Mexican, half-Indian Buddhist singer — arrived. She made haroset (which everyone pronounced “chair-o-set”). Marisa, an agnostic yoga teacher, dipped strawberries in chocolate fondue. Rusty, Julie’s husband — a doctor in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush who grew up Protestant — put his and Julie’s daughter, Isabel, to bed before setting the table.
We sat down and opened our Haggadahs. They were hard to read, what with the “Do Not Reprint” written in bold letters diagonally over the prayers. I began the blessing over the wine and the afikomen (silently thanking God for transliteration): “ Baruch Atah Adonai… ”
As we took turns reading, two surprising things happened: First, I knew what I was doing; second, my friends read from the Haggadah with a childlike curiosity I had never experienced. Every other Passover dinner I had attended in New York had been rushed and rowdy. We spent most of the time thumbing through the pages to discern how long it would be until we went from dipping to eating. (At one Westchester Seder, we skipped over so much that I didn’t even get to read.)
This time, everyone went slowly, careful to pronounce the foreign names and locations properly. Julie kept track of how many glasses we had drunk. (“Abs! It says here we should be on the third glass of wine! Aren’t we only on the second?”)
When we dipped our pinkies in wine and dabbed them on our plates to remember the Ten Plagues, we added our own worries about the world — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global warming, the subway fare hike. Julie, Rusty, Gitu and Marisa each asked one of the Four Questions. It was unnerving to see four tough adults channel their inner Jewish children and ask, with genuine inquisitiveness, “What makes this night different from all other nights?” I was even more stunned that I knew the answers. (For full disclosure’s sake, before dinner I had called my parents to make sure.)
The most shocking thing of all, however, was that I finally understood what Passover was all about. Here I was, surrounded by four clueless goyim , and I had stumbled upon the meaning of the holiday. I suddenly understood that it wasn’t about remembering the schlep my ancestors made from Egypt to give me my freedom. It was about honoring what we all overcome every day to be where we are — whether it be physical or emotional distress, or hurdles of a completely other kind. On Passover, we are given the chance to recline, celebrate our freedom and reflect on the struggle to release ourselves from whatever bondage we still may be in.
Most important, it is also about community, and I felt utterly blessed to have an authentic New York family — my chosen people — to share it with.
Abigail Rasminsky, an editor at Dance Spirit magazine, has written for The New York Times, Nextbook.org, Dance Magazine and other publications.