Seder night: the view from under the yarmulke

27 Mar

Hi guys. I hope you aren’t feeling neglected by my lack of blogs recently. I’ve been writing some articles for other people/things (I KNOW RIGHT) and I thought it would be a bit cheeky to put them here as well. I will when I know what’s happening with them. Promise.

Meanwhile, you can have my thoughts on Passover.

I read a Guardian article the other day (well, I say article… it wasn’t the most flowing stream of ingenuity I’d ever come across, but whatevs) written by a guy who was reminiscing about the Passovers of his childhood and how much more he enjoys the holiday now he’s grown up. Inane and ill-informed comments beneath it aside (on reading which I nearly broke my resolve never to ever get engaged in CiF) it struck a pleasant chord and I was reminded of why I, too, enjoy Passover.

However, 2 days into the Matzah-fest and I have to admit, I am struggling more than usual. I think it’s because I am at work and people keep bringing in things I can’t eat. Yesterday it was cakes (topped with mini eggs and the like). Today it is doughnuts. Some of the cakes are still in the kitchen. I’m afraid to make too many cups of tea in case I break down, pass out and come to with my face encrusted in sugar and jam.

Normally I would have spent a significant amount of time pre-Passover or during the festival busily engaged in preparatory baking. This year I made cinnamon balls, macaroons, a chocolate and chestnut torte, chocolate pots and matzah-meal rolls, but there still seems to be no food. The macaroons didn’t even see Passover. The cinnamon balls never made it past the first evening. We finished the torte last night. We ate the chocolate pots already. Meanwhile, delicious flour-based products are accruing all around me and the temptation is great. Oh, it is great indeed.

Anyway. Enough of the woe. Some of you may have given things up for Lent and that lasts much, much longer than Passover. Also, I have massive respect for people who cope with Ramadan. So, yeah. I’ll shut up about that now. Let me tell you about our Seder.

Passover, or ‘Pesach’, to use the proper Jewish word, is, like so many other Jewish festivals, primarily about redemption and food. The focal point of the 8-day celebration is the first-night Seder, a meal during the course of which the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold. This is my favourite bit. Of course it is.

I like preparing the Seder plate. Ours is big, round, gold and blue, with hollows in which all the different symbolic foods sit. The one in the middle is for the bowl of salt water, to represent the tears of the Israelites. Then there’s the hollow for the shank bone, to represent the paschal lambs slaughtered by the Israelites so that the Angel of Death would not also slay their first-borns. Then there’s the hollow for the burnt egg, which relates to the seasonal nature of the festival, and another for the parsley on the same basis. The bitter herbs are for the bitterness of the lives of the Israelites, and the charoset – a fruit, nut and wine mixture – represents the mortar they used for building as slaves. There’s also a mystery extra hollow on our Seder plate and every year we have a light-hearted argument about what to put there. This is a long standing, traditional argument and only the first of many at the Seder meal.

There are three slices of Matzah put aside at the start of the meal and wrapped in a special silk cloth. This year, we used a new one that my parents brought back from their trip to Israel in 2012. The slices are symbolically broken and dished out at various points in the meal. Half of one – called the afikoman – is hidden at the start and once the eating is over the children are sent to look for it. My dad always makes a great show of sound effects to convince us he has been all around the house. These were terribly effective about ten years ago but not so much now. Nevertheless, the tradition continues.

When we sit down at the table – this year laid with a new tablecloth, a present from my Israeli great-aunt – the service begins. No matter how stressful the preparations have been, how busy we are, what complicating factors have been thrown at us, we always start cheerfully. Before the meal we wrangle who will be using which Haggadah. The Haggadah is the service-book, the Passover manual, if you like. I don’t know if it’s traditional worldwide to have a selection within each family, but we do. It makes the evening more interesting. We have one that belonged to my father as a child, written for children. Then we have two new version of this, which were given to my parents when my brother and I were very small (before my sister was born). We also have a very archaic brown leather-bound version, full of words like ‘awakeneth’ (I didn’t make that up) and ‘thence’. We have a couple of others that are exclusively in Hebrew. And this year, we have a new book, accompanied with plasticine-figurine illustrative photos. This year, my mum has the new book. My dad has a photocopy of the book. My brother and sister have the new versions of the children’s book. I have the leather one.

We open the first page and my dad launches into a blessing. Immediately there is a discussion about whether we’re supposed to start with this, or with something else. A few pages later and we all seem to be on about the same page. The first cup of wine, blessings, washing the hands, breaking the matzah, hiding the afikoman. So far, so good. We have the traditional exacerbation of my sister to ask the Four Questions. This is a song, supposed to be sung by the youngest child, which requests that the rest of the family explain why we do things differently at the Seder meal. My sister, as is traditional, refuses, because her Hebrew isn’t very good, and while we all know the tune, the words can be a bit tricksy. So, as is traditional, we all sing it with her. We are not a very tuneful family but it doesn’t shatter any windows, so we proceed.

We tell the story. Some of it is read in Hebrew, by me (not very fluently) and by my mum (much more so). Most of it is read in English (quasi-Victorian by me, simple by everyone else with their ‘21st century’ books). Occasionally we break into the traditional songs, and we are traditionally bad at them. My dad misses his cue to say ‘in every generation, a slayer is born’ (parodying with his characteristic wit the sentence of the service which begins ‘in every generation..’), which is unusual, but since he’s taken the trouble to remind us, the tradition is nonetheless fulfilled. We name all the plagues and spill a drop of wine at each one, to commemorate the havoc wreaked upon the Egyptians, and their suffering. We’re not allowed to lick our fingers after this.

Onwards we proceed. There is an argument about dipping things into other things. This is where the Seder plate comes into its own. We dip parsley in salt water. We sandwich raw horseradish between two pieces of matzah. We put the fruit and nut mixture on some horseradish (my sister complains that this is messy). Then we all eat our burnt eggs dipped in salt water (nb, this is delicious). And then we eat a full meal, including dessert. Delicious.

After the meal, more wine, grace, further blessings, more terrible singing. We are sent off to find the afikoman. My brother retrieves it in minutes and we all eat a piece. The Seder is over for another year. Now it is time for the traditional sluggish movement towards the washing up.

The tablecloth has wine spills and matzah crumbs on it. The Seder plate is messy. The ornamental wine cups which we fill for (and then drink on behalf of) the prophet Elijah are dirty. But everyone is happy and full.

Some years we do two Seder meals. This is supposed to cover the eventuality that it isn’t actually Passover in Israel when you hold your first one, because of time and date differences and the like. While this may have been a problem five hundred years ago, it’s not so much of an issue now. The tradition persists, nevertheless. This year we can’t, as we are always busy on Tuesday nights. That makes this one more special, though.

Who knows where we’ll all be in 2014? Maybe the wish we express during the service will come true, and next year, we’ll be celebrating from Jerusalem.

Chag sameach!


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