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FIRST PERSONAt a Seder in Nepal, I felt like the wicked son. Then a bluegrass-and-Buddhist Seder invited me in

Sitting among strangers on the other side of the world, a young New Yorker gains a new perspective on ritual, faith and community

Out of the honking, dusty chaos of Kathmandu, I followed two tzitzit-clad Israelis into the fanciest building I had entered since arriving in Nepal four months before. A thousand people filled an enormous top-floor ballroom, most of them young Israelis who were traveling after completing their army service and were wearing white for the holiday. I was told it might be the largest Passover Seder in the world.

I made my way to a table in the back with a sign that said it was reserved for English speakers. There was was a 19-year-old Londoner on his gap year, a scholar of Hinduism from California dressed in a bright green Punjabi suit, a 30-year-old from Illinois who said the Unabomber was her “rebbe,” and a defense attorney from Dallas with a booming voice who, upon learning of my plans to attend law school, kept repeating: “Listen, buddy, if you outsource your paycheck, you outsource your ethics.” 

The rabbi of the Kathmandu Chabad stood on a table in the center and yelled — in Hebrew and without a microphone — the entirety of the Haggadah. Most of the crowd ignored him, chatting among themselves and nibbling on matzo and the meal itself long before it was time. My table attempted to conduct the Seder at our own pace, but we were derailed when those around us broke into “Dayenu” or the blessing over one of the four cups of wine.

Missing family traditions

Surrounded by strangers in that sterile hotel ballroom, I found myself missing my family’s Passover traditions — like “Speed Maggid,” in which we go around rattling off the Exodus story rapid-fire. I have always loved Passover and taken it seriously, insisting as a kid that we complete every verse of “Chad Gadya.” But divorced from the familiarity of home, I was left questioning whether I cared about the ritual. 

It was my first in-person Seder since 2019. Not just because of the pandemic, but because I’ve been growing distant from my New York Jewish roots as I have begun to study and practice Buddhism. Fourteen years after studying for my bar mitzvah with a rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary, I am now a student at Nepal’s Rangjung Yeshe Institute, a school run by Tibetan monks.

What Buddhism has given me

Buddhism has given me something I never found in Judaism: a deep and personal spiritual practice. While the fallible god of the Torah has always interested me, he did not inspire worship. In Buddhist teachings, I found no punitive god to fear, nor complex laws to follow, just the promise that every being holds the potential to live with ease, compassion, and clarity. 

I was initially drawn to Buddhism because the doctrine of emptiness dovetailed with the existentialist philosophy I studied in college. Beyond its intellectual stimulus, Buddhism provided me with an ethical framework for living. The highest ideal of Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva — the practitioner who vows to stay in the cycle of suffering to help others, rather than crossing over into personal enlightenment. Aspiring to this model gives me purpose and motivates my daily meditations, which focus on cultivating empathy and loving kindness.

But I have yet to find in Buddhism the sense of community I have within my multigenerational Jewish family. I always sat with ease at my aunt’s Seder table or in shul on the High Holidays. But at a Tibetan puja or Dharma talk, I feel like I stick out, both because of my light eyes and curly hair and because I do not know most of the prayers and mantras. I hope to someday find a sense of belonging in Buddhism, but understand that the Tibetan gong will likely never sound in my bones as does the Jewish shofar.

This was why I sought out a Seder in Kathmandu: to reconnect with a tradition that has tethered me all my life to a supportive cultural and emotional center. But amid the impersonal disorder of the Chabad Seder, the text of the Haggadah, the nose-clearing power of the horseradish and the melody of “Ma Nishtana” only made me nostalgic for home. I left the hotel ballroom before the fourth cup feeling like the wicked son.

The bluegrass Seder

Then, two days later, I was invited at the last minute to a “bluegrass Seder” at Yantra House, an educational and cultural center on the grounds of what once was a rural manor. Inside, a group of American students and travelers like myself gathered around a long table in a stone courtyard of trees and warm spring air.

A three-piece band led us through an adaptation of the Hagaddah, including a recitation of the Seder order to the tune of “Amazing Grace,” and the Four Questions to the tune of Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling.” The karpas was fresh parsley from the Yantra House garden, and the haroset tasted just like my dad and I used to make. 

I was still at a Seder surrounded by strangers on the other side of the world. But this time I felt embraced in the welcoming sanctuary of an extended family. Celebrating the rituals with this group of people who seemed so similar to me was like being transported to a home larger and older than that of my particular family and city. We talked and joked all night like childhood friends.

It’s hard to believe these two Seders were marking the same holiday, using the same text. The first left me estranged and indifferent, while the second kindled a special flame of memory and culture.

Oppresson, freedom and Mitzrayim

Both, though, lacked something that has always been integral to my family’s Passover celebrations: consideration of the relationship of modern Jews to oppression and freedom, and of individuals who might be living in Mitzrayim — a narrow place — today. 

Uneasy with this, I found myself contemplating the real meaning of Passover — the way in which the trauma and salvation of our ancestors remains relevant to the affliction of multitudes today.

In Leviticus 19:33, God commands, “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” A version of this is repeated 36 times throughout the Torah — more than any other edict. Every year at Passover, Jews renew their commitment to the stranger, especially those struggling in narrow places of persecution and poverty. 

The Seder enacts a ceremonial descent back into the anguish of slavery, that Jews may never lose their fellowship with and compassion for the pain of others. Similarly, the Buddhist bodhisattva returns again and again to suffering out of love for sentient beings.

Attending these unusual Seders in this unusual place showed me how Jewish rituals resonate in important ways with Buddhist practices — and how the two religions can clash. Both Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism are famous for their commitments to debate and dialectic. Trying to hold these two spiritualities at once has enriched my relationship to each.

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