This is a guest post written by my big sister, Niki. Not just a sister, but a second mother, a best friend, counselor, and confidante. Every year, we celebrate Passover at her home, which is always filled with good smells, warmth, laughter, family love, and the best matzoh ball soup I’ve ever tasted! I hope you enjoy her thoughtful and personal take on this family tradition.
Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?
Is the question asked by the youngest child at the Passover Seder. Seder in Hebrew means “order” – it refers to the specific order of retelling the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. Retold by Jews all over the world, we are required to remember our religious, cultural, and ethnic history and to experience the story as though reliving it every year.
Passover lasts seven days and the Seder is held on the first night. Outside of Israel, some Jews also hold a Seder on the second night. A tradition of long ago, fires were lit on mountain tops to signal the start of the holiday. It took time to be sighted by the closest community and light their fire for the next community so some of us celebrate the first and second night to make sure we don’t miss the actual Holiday. In our family there are many of us and it takes months of planning to find a date that works for all of us: our clan is happy if our celebration falls somewhere during the week of Passover. We gathered this past Saturday starting a “little” later than called for (some call this Jewish Standard Time – if you want everyone to arrive at 5:00 pm, it is imperative to set 4:00 pm as dinner time).
Passover is one of the Jewish Holidays that I look forward to every year. Usually I host our family Seder at our family home, and this year for the second time, in our new home in Sonoma. Because we were all raised to contribute, everyone in the family shares responsibility for our festive meal. I make the entrée, the matzoh ball soup, the charoset, and provide the matzoh. Various family members volunteer to fill out the rest of our dinner. I also prepare the Seder Plate. The Seder Plate contains the symbolic foods eaten at our Seder:
- Bitter herbs (horseradish) – symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of slavery, which we endured in Egypt.
- Charoset – a mixture traditionally made from apples, chopped nuts, cinnamon and sweet wine representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt.
- Parsley – dipped into salt water representing the tears we shed as slaves.
- Shankbone (chicken wing, or beet) – representing the Paschal lamb and the sacrifices we have made to survive.*2 Before the tenth plague, our people slaughtered lambs and marked our doors with blood: because of this marking, the Angel of Death passed over our homes and our first-born were spared – not so for the Egyptian first-born. This was the last of the plagues sent to convince the Pharaoh to allow the Jews to leave Egypt.
- Hard-boiled egg – representing the offering brought to the Temple. In more recent years has come to signify spring, and our rebirth or renewal.
- Matzoh– the unleavened bread that we had to make in a hurry to sustain us on our journey through the desert.
- Orange – a modern addition to the Seder Plate. Jewish feminists introduced the custom of adding an orange to the Seder plate. It is said to be a symbol of the fruitfulness of all Jews, including women and members of the gay community.
The table is set, and a cup for the Prophet Elijah is filled. We open the door to invite him into join our Seder. Elijah has been the Jewish savior and redeemer throughout time.
Our family Haggadah (from the Hebrew Lehagid – to tell) has undergone changes throughout the years. Originally compiled from a variety of texts, we have added poetry and songs, and our own traditions to reading the story of our Exodus from Egypt. We have been celebrating Passover now for many decades. It has been so moving to observe my children, my siblings’ children, and now Anya’s children taking turns reading from the Haggadah. Many years passed since their first attempts at reading, my sons are now leading the Seder. Caleb, now one of the youngest at the table, read the Four Questions. We all clapped – as we did for the children before him – as he is our new beginning reader. We swell with pride at the milestones our children have accomplished.
At our Seder table chaos reigns. Attention wanders, children get up and return, side conversations abound, we are starving and it takes too long to read the entire Haggadah (which is already shortened). It is time to finally eat! Delicious. We give thanks for coming together year after year: for retelling the story of our ancestors; for our bounty in eating plenty when others have little; for the love we share with each other. As my great Grandfather used to say: I am a lucky Jew!
Caleb Reading the Haggadah for the First Time