Two years ago on the night before Passover, my mother’s first cousin emailed us an amazing surprise: he’d received an audio recording of an extended family seder from the late 1950s from another cousin. Seder guests included my great-grandparents-who had died long before my birth, my grandparents and various great-aunts and uncles. My Mom was likely away at college that year because she wasn’t mentioned; I couldn’t ask her about it because she had passed away two years before. Her presence fills an empty chair at our seders now.
The sound quality of the digitized clip wasn’t great-no surprise there-but I listened attentively to the prayers and rituals-the singing of the Kiddush over wine, the hiding of the middle matzah, the dipping of parsley into salt water to represent the tears of the Hebrew slaves, and an off key and hurried singing of ‘Dayenu’ –a song that captures the essence of the Jewish spirit. Dayenu means ‘it would have been enough’—if the Holy One had only led us out of Egypt, Dayenu! But we go on to sing more blessings and then cheer-Dayenu!
I had hoped to hear my great-grandparents’ voices, but they were blended into the cacophony of the group’s collective voice. Dayenu, I thought instead, it was enough to know that they were part of this seder and that listening to the singing was a way that I could imagine them, sense what their seder was like.
What would they feel, I wondered, if they could come join our seder table? In our home, we’ve added an orange to the traditional seder plate, as many contemporary families have, to honor feminist and LGBTQ+ contributions to the Jewish tradition. We use creative art materials for guests to create their own responses to the Exodus story and we pause in the middle of the meal to act out the story with costumes and props.
I hope that, despite these updated rituals, my great-grandparents, and all of my ancestors, would feel right at home-recognizing that even though we may interact with and interpret the Haggadah (the book that guides the seder) differently than they did, we are taking our place in a great chain of seders going back in time. We wouldn’t be gathering for Passover had it not been for their courage to leave the pain and pogroms of the Old Country in search of a better life for future generations.
We are here, I want to tell them, because of you. I hope that they would kvell over how three and four generations later, we continue to gather each spring for the seder. We come together for old jokes and new laughter, for the taste of springtime here, like mustard greens and freshly roasted asparagus, for a little too much sweet wine and most importantly, to imagine ourselves as being freed from what enslaves us.
During the pandemic lockdown, I also rediscovered the autobiography that my grandfather, Dr. Joseph Kaplan, wrote about the early part of his life. My grandfather’s mother died in childbirth in Lithuania and his father Solomon had to split up his living children among relatives who could care for them. He left for America to build a better life, one where he could afford to take care of all of his children. He promised them that he would send for them as soon as he could.
At four years old, my grandfather was sent to live with his mother’s sister, who resented having another mouth to feed. When he was old enough to go to yeshiva, his grandfather came in horse and carriage to take him there. In the memoir, my grandfather describes arriving to his grandfather’s shtetl, just as the community was preparing for Passover:
It was Passover time when I arrived in ‘Lidovian,’ a sleepy town with about 7 Jewish families. The whole town were gathered at my Uncle’s house baking Matzas. I was put to work as a ‘water pourer.’ It lasted about a week. All Jewish families from surrounding villages would come with their flour and bake their Matzahs. Everyone worked day and night.
That snapshot of my grandfather as a boy, the water pourer in the communal matzah-making, is etched inside me now. His experience is 180 degrees away from mine-heading to the grocery store, purchasing enough packaged Passover products to earn a free six-pack of matzah. And yet I recognize how this symbol connects us, how in the life he was given and in the rituals that I choose to continue, we share the bread of affliction, as it’s called.
My grandfather died when I was thirteen, but our relationship transcends space and time. ***
The more that I come to understand my ancestors’ stories-the complex, challenging, and resilient lives that they led-the greater meaning that I find at each new seder that I help to create.
In my early 50s now, I’ve experienced many different seders throughout my life: those from my childhood in my grandparents’ homes and others when we went to our temple’s community seder set up in the large social hall; the first seder that I made with my college roommate; the seders held by friends and the ones that I create in my own home where I host a mix of family and guests who’ve never experienced a seder before and other friends who may not have a place to go. All who are hungry may come and eat.
For hundreds of years or maybe thousands, our ancestors gathered for this freedom ritual even when they were not free. The seder feels both ancient and ongoing to me; the ritual is even more powerful as I see that I am a link in the chain of its telling.
Gabrielle ‘Ariella’ Kaplan-Mayer is a passionate Jewish educator and author. She serves as the Chief Program Officer at Jewish Learning Venture. Gabrielle teaches online writing workshops at the intersection of creative writing and spiritual growth.