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Unleavened Dread: Setting the Seder Table’s Empty Places

I could measure my halting, lurching progress toward adulthood through Seders.

Three years ago, we were at my parents’ house in Providence, R.I. Tiny Josie dozed on my lap. My dad and my mom each ran one Seder — my dad’s traditional, my mom’s egalitarian — and jockeyed good-naturedly over whose was better.

Two years ago, my parents sold their home and moved into an apartment large enough to hold a matzo ball and a brisket, but not simultaneously. So Jonathan and I took on the hosting mantle. Fifteen-month-old Josie ate tiny cubes of chicken and played with a plush bag of plagues. (The little cow was so cute, and he didn’t even look sick.) We incorporated elements of both Mom’s and Dad’s Seders, but acknowledged that the official Dueling Seders tradition was over.

Last year, my dad’s illness colored the entire holiday. He could barely sit up. He had a panic attack about forgetting to bring his guitar; he whispered that the holiday was ruined. He went to lie down halfway through the Seder; Mom continued to lead us. Josie was old enough to listen intently to the story of the holiday. (A typical 2-and-a-half-year-old, she loved screaming “NOOOO!” after I asked, “What did Pharaoh answer when Moses said, ‘Let my people go’?”) But she wasn’t old enough to stay at the table for the duration. I was newly pregnant with Maxine; Jonathan and I kept that fact as hidden as the afikomen.

This year will be hard: Zayde is gone. My hilarious uncle, Art, also died last year; we’ll host his family, as well. Loss will color everything; perhaps that’s not so bad for a holiday that is all about the bitter that comes with the sweet. The sweet will include the passing around the table of babies Max, Arlo and Lev — the grandchildren their grandfathers never met — like particularly luscious little matzo balls. And the sweet will include Josie being old enough truly to participate.

The Seder will be aimed at her now. We’ll use Elie M. Gindi’s “Family Haggadah: A Seder for All Generations,” supplemented by a coloring book I’ll make for Josie and by songs she’s learned at nursery school. She’s excited to help me make colored eggs — we’ll tint them with turmeric, red cabbage and onion skins, then commemorate Zayde with his tradition of blowing them right out of their shells. Impressive, and it makes a funny noise. We’ll make haroset together — the kid loves a mixing bowl. She’ll help set the table.

Technically, I guess we’re almost ready. Jonathan went to Costco and got the giant jug of gefilte fish, some disgusting Passover chocolates and the sugared fruit slices of doom. “Dave the Kosher Butcher” has delivered the giant flat of matzo, the lamb, the shankbone. We’ve got the lethal horseradish from The Pickle Guys on the Lower East Side. I’m gearing up for the big cleaning. But I don’t feel ready. I feel a bit sick — contemplating one holiday, one more first, one more milestone without Dad. I sometimes wish I were a kid again, kicking my feet under the table, impatient for “Had Gadya” to be sung and for all the adult droning to end, wanting only to find that darn matzo and get a prize. My wants are a lot bigger now, and harder to satisfy.

Last week, when Josie was still nattering on about Purim, I made the mistake of launching enthusiastically into the story of the plagues without rehearsing first. I realized by around, say, lice, that I was in big trouble. How would I explain plague number 10? Dead children! Firstborns, even! Why did I not ponder my approach before opening my piehole?

So I china-shopped my way through the rest of the plagues, emphasizing Pharaoh’s evilness and hard-heartedness. When we got to number 10, all I ended up saying was that because Pharaoh wouldn’t pay attention unless God did something really, really monstrous, God killed Pharaoh’s oldest son. (Sue me, I edited. I didn’t mention the blood on the doorposts or the murder of all the Egyptians’ oldest sons, because who am I, Edgar Allen Poe? I also chose to end the story of parting the Red Sea story with a sort of Egyptian surfing adventure. I think I was hallucinating with desperation by that point.)

I kept saying that the story celebrates the journey of the Jews from slavery to freedom, but Josie just wanted the plagues again. She wants to be scared and troubled. This is a child who demanded that I read her “The Grouchy Ladybug” over and over, even as it made her cry in terror. This is a kid who wants to go on the gut-lurching sliding cars — not the stationary ones — of the Coney Island Wonder Wheel. I’m far more afraid of bad feelings than she is.

In an attempt to distract her from the farshtinkener plagues, I keep offering up the Four Questions. I told my little (kosher) ham that she’d have a big part in the Seder, which is hugely enticing to her. (If she could dance on the tabletop like an orphan from “Annie,” she would.) I drew her a pictograph for each question: a slice of bread and a slice of matzo, a bunch of herbs and a bitter herb (which she keeps thinking is a carrot), a hand dipping something into a bowl of water twice, a person reclining on a pillow. She insisted I also write on the paper, “Only Josie can ask the Four Questions. You are not allowed to do it.” I’m not sure who she intends to show the paper to. I guess she’ll just flash it like a warrant.

Alas, my coaching isn’t going well. And I’m not even trying to teach her the Hebrew! (Believe you me, I’ve resisted pointing out to her that her friend Jacob delivered the Four Questions in Hebrew last year, when he was 2(!), not that I’m competitive. Why can’t you be more like Jacob, Josephine!?) I do think she feels my trepidation about the holiday, the expectations that are riding on her. Every time I suggest we look at our Four Questions picture, she bats her eyelashes and suggests we make a drawing for Bubbe or read “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” instead. Nice redirect, kid. She’s clearly feeling some kind of preschooler performance anxiety. Gott im himmel, I have become the Seder equivalent of one of those beauty pageant moms who mouths the words to “The Good Ship Lollipop” and hisses, “Smile!” while her daughter desperately tap dances.

I kid. Truthfully, I think the larger issue really is that she’s not ready to let go of Purim. As funny and gory as the plagues are, she still would prefer to wear her hamentaschen costume, hang Haman (a stuffed monkey) from a tree (the back of the stroller), tell the story of Esther saving the Jews. She keeps asking, hopefully, whether there’s another Purim carnival coming up. I keep finding groggers in corners.

“Tell me the story of Purim,” she demands. “Purim’s over,” I say. “Don’t you want to hear about Pesach?” “Okay, you can tell me about the plagues,” she sighs, “but when will it be Purim again?”

I understand her desire for time to stand still. I understand more than she knows. But it doesn’t. So we find the joy in the ticking of the clock and in the changing seasons, and in the babies coming and the little girls dancing around wearing slightly rumpled and faded paper hamentashen costumes.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].


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