Passover started at sundown last Friday—Good Friday to be exact—which is appropriate considering that the Last Supper was a Passover seder. Seders are the ritual, ceremonial meal that are the highlight of the celebration of Passover. When you see paintings of Jesus sitting around that table with all the Disciples, they’re doing the same things Jewish families have done since long before the Christian era. They are telling the story of the Israelites' enslavement by the Egyptians and the way in which God freed them from bondage.
It’s a happy holiday, with food and songs and four glasses of wine that must be drunk before the eating can even begin. It is, for many Jews, the favorite holiday. The High Holydays, which are much more important to the religion, are quite serious, funereal even. Chanukah, despite the hooplah some commercial entities give it, is really just a minor holiday in the scheme of Judaism, on the order of, say, St. Patrick’s Day. But Passover—that is a time to be with your family and bask in the rituals that are the hallmark of Passover: the matzoh, or unleavened bread; searching for the Afikomen; and, yes, the four glasses of wine. So what happens when you live in Elk Grove, far from that family celebration?
One year as part of the well-intentioned effort to start a Jewish community in Elk Grove, a group of us organized a seder at one of our homes. This whole effort was supported by Mosaic Law, the Conservative congregation in Sacramento. It’s important to note at the outset that Rabbi Taff of Mosaic Law was aiding and abetting us, but we, the organizers, came from all three branches of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
Three branches of Judaism? Confused? Allow me to explain. Just as Protestantism has grown into a multitude of official churches, each of which differs slightly—but to the believers, most importantly—from the others, so too has Judaism branched off. Orthodox is the religion full bore, while Reform can be (and is) called Judaism Light. Conservative is somewhere between the two.
The differences are crucial when you’re actually observing the religion, just as they might be when Unitarians take issue with Baptists. You need to know this to understand why that first Elk Grove seder was not successful. The rabbi who came to lead it was Conservative. The seder he led was Conservative. The Orthodox among us were offended and we Reform Jews were bored. Suffice to say, this was not the beginning of a tradition.
Another year I decided to hold my own seder. I had been to enough in my lifetime; I knew how to lead one, didn’t I? Well, probably not so much. There were always Christians at the seder table in my family—it was a tradition—so I didn’t think too much of the fact that those at my seder would be exclusively Christian. They were all good sports and looked to me expectantly, but I felt like an actress on opening night who had not sufficiently learned her lines. Thus, another tradition came to naught.
Last year, I went to Congregation B’nai Israel’s community seder. CBI is a Reform temple, so I knew I would feel at home. Which I did, as much as one can when one is in a large banquet room with several hundred other people. The food was what I expected and the wine was plentiful. As I recall, one of the waiters was the President Pro Tempore of the California Senate, which was somewhat amusing. But as friendly as people were, it just wasn’t, for me, gemutlichkeit, which is Yiddish for that feeling you get when you go home and your family is pleased to see you, your house smells just like it always did and you can’t imagine a better place on earth.
So this year I did—nothing. Oh, I bought a box of matzohs and a jar of gefillte fish at Raley’s, but mainly because I want to support the store’s providing for the Jewish community in Elk Grove. I ate the gefillte fish weeks before Passover started, and I’m working on the box of matzohs now. But as for keeping Passover, that part of the ritual that demands one forego all forms of leavening for the entire week—no, I confess I’m not. Maybe next year.
If you’ve been to a seder that “maybe next year” will resonate. It is an integral part of the ritual which is fully expressed as, “maybe next year we will celebrate the Passover in Israel.” For me, it’s enough to say, maybe next year with family.
How do you celebrate holidays if your family isn't nearby? Tell us in the comments.