Scallions transformed into the whips of Egyptian task masters, an imaginary suitcase for a journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and someone in an embroidered Egyptian ensemble—these are my childhood memories from the Passover seders my family and I enjoyed with friends in their very eclectic home. Our friends had nine children; the father was from Brooklyn and always ready for a debate, and the mother was from Egypt and incorporated many Sephardic customs that brought Passover off the page for me. Seder evening always felt exotic with them—there were so many differently spiced foods, boisterous songs and lengthy discussions. Plus I was pretty enamored to know someone from that faraway land where the Hagaddah scenes transpired.
Leading up to the holiday my mom would work on sewing me a new dress that I would anticipate showing off at these seders (it’s a tradition to have something new to wear before Passover!). She would let me select the pattern and choose the material, and then she got to work on her pedal-powered Singer. Now, as a working mom, I have no idea how she had time for this while teaching elementary school full-time. Her efforts certainly made the holiday feel a little more special.
But then one year, Passover changed for our family—our friends and their nine children realized a lifelong dream to move to Israel. They made it to the “Promised Land” and we were left at our much smaller, much less exotic Passover table. Without the banter, costumes and scallions, we felt lost. With only a half-dozen voices joining in on the seasonal songs, it felt less like a celebration. After that first time of us flying solo at the seder, at the age of 8 I asked my dad if I could try leading the seder the following night. In a way that would have pleased Sheryl Sandberg, I leaned in, or rather I leaned to my left side as instructed by the Haggadah, and took the reins. I don’t remember too many details from the first seders under my helm, but they were well-received, and I felt so good leading them.
The head of the seder table was one of the places that I grew to love Jewish conversations, Jewish learning and Jewish teaching. We incorporated some of the traditions from our Egyptian/Brooklyn friends and continued to glean new ideas from various Haggadahs. I instituted changes over the years that at first felt like a departure but are now part of our traditions. For example, we didn’t always read everything out loud; passages were sometimes looked over with a partner. And we didn’t always wait until we finished telling the story to eat the parsley and potatoes dipped in salt water—we sometimes snacked on crudités and dips.
There have been times when we spent Passover away from home at wonderfully adventurous destinations, including Israel, Prague and Puerto Rico. But when we were part of those bigger communal seders, I missed our smaller family discussions and the memories we had built.
Now, as I continue to lead our family seders, my attention turns to not only keeping the adults around the table intellectually stimulated but also to finding customs that will speak to my one-and-a-half-year old daughter, Zoe. She is the only seder guest under age 27! I want to recreate that whole-body experience I had with our Sephardic friends. It’s a lot to live up to, and right now I’m focusing on baby steps. We’ve been singing a lot of “Dayenu” thanks to the PJ Library, using matzah stickers to chat about this new food (she’s a huge challah freak!), and soon I want to pick out a dress with her from her collection that she hasn’t yet worn and designate it as her “seder dress.” So that’s how we’ll start off—we’ll pay attention to props, songs and matzah ball soup and build toward next year, when maybe she’ll be able to sing along to the Four Questions with us and pack something in that imaginary suitcase.
I invite you to join one of the many Parenting Through a Jewish Lens classes that Hebrew College and CJP are offering this fall—it provides an opportunity to discuss with other parents how you make Judaism come alive in your home.
Elisha Gechter is the associate director of community engagement at Hebrew College’s adult learning department. She also does community organizing and teaching for Eser and Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Sam, and daughter, Zoe.