More nights like this, please

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Stephen Rosen­thal

ICONFESS, MY ini­tial plan for this col­umn had been to pro­vide you with some quirky, spring onion-whip­ping, frog-throw­ing Seder-night cus­toms — some­thing to talk about over your egg-in-salt-wa­ter on Mon­day evening. So, be­ing a mil­len­nial (ap­par­ently), I turned to our peo­ple’s most widely-stud­ied book — Face­book — re­quest­ing any out-there cus­toms from the dig­i­tallyassem­bled masses. But as the posts came back, I re­alised that, in an at­tempt to be flip­pant and triv­ial, I’d been miss­ing the point en­tirely.

Be­cause cus­toms mat­ter. For thou­sands of years, the whip­ping of scal­lions on wrists has repli­cated the bondage of Pharoah’s taskmas­ters on our an­ces­tors. The rea­son­ing had never crossed my mind. The un­likely im­age of a weaponised salad onion to­tally dis­tracted me from what is, in fact, an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful, ex­pe­ri­en­tial sym­bol of our peo­ple’s two cen­turies of op­pres­sion.

And is there a bet­ter scene-set­ter for our story from slav­ery to free­dom than that of be­gin­ning the Seder by trudg­ing around the table like slaves, car­ry­ing a slice of matzah on your back?

But there’s a sec­ond cat­e­gory of tra­di­tions unique to the Seder. And, although they’re less for­mal, his­tor­i­cal or es­tab­lished, you’d be as mis­taken as I was if you judge them as flip­pant or triv­ial. They’re not.

One Face­booker posted their an­nual rit­ual of re-en­act­ing the Pesach story with a two-man pan­tomime camel cos­tume.

Why? Be­cause her sis­ter had made it for her pri­mary school play and brought it to the Seder table 15 years ago.

An­other, look­ing to ex­cite the kids with a stuffed an­i­mal for each verse of Chad Gadya, was stumped for a suit­able an­gel of death. Set­tling on a Darth Vader teddy bear, to this very day, at the ap­pro­pri­ate verse, the en­tire table break out into a ren­di­tion of the Star Wars Im­pe­rial March theme tune.

At my par­ents’ Seder, we al­ways cheer, boo and gig­gle at the same ran­dom stages and pages; a col­lec­tion of years of amassed anec­dotes. We know the punch-line’s com­ing a mile off, but it still makes us crow ev­ery time. To any­one else, it clearly seems ran­dom. But, to us, it’s the re­liv­ing of the shared great­est hits of our all too in­fre­quent fam­ily gath­er­ings.

So, why is this night dif­fer­ent from all other nights? Well, for one, it shares a place with Yom Kip­pur, in that Jews of all and no lev­els of ob­ser­vance par­tic­i­pate ev­ery year, with­out fail.

Why? Well, maybe be­cause, un­like much of our tra­di­tion in the eyes of many, Seder has been left to us to cus­tomise.

The in­struc­tion to en­sure that chil­dren can fol­low and en­gage opens the door to the songs, sto­ries, sym­bols and well-in­ten­tioned silli­ness that we — all of us — love and re­mem­ber year af­ter year.

Ju­daism to­day seems in­creas­ingly to fall be­tween the two stools of a nec­es­sary ad­her­ence and a pas­sion­ate de­sire for re­spect­ful evo­lu­tion. The fault lines of these de­bates can cause real dam­age. Good in­ten­tions on both sides are masked by in­tran­si­gence, with nei­ther side achiev­ing what it wants.

But Seder is the great­est ex­am­ple of a liv­ing, breath­ing Ju­daism that touches all ages, re­li­gious lev­els, ge­ogra­phies, her­itages and cul­tures with­out threat. It flexes ef­fort­lessly, with a con­fi­dence, self-as­sured­ness and charm to be as in­clu­sive to your sons as it is to the four sons.

Seder has some­how be­come the can­vas on which we can paint our own pic­ture of our Ex­o­dus, and, by beau­ti­ful ex­ten­sion, our Ge­n­e­sis. I reckon we’d be well ad­vised to try to repli­cate it.

Maybe the ques­tion should be: “Why can’t all other nights be like this?”

Seder has been left to us to cus­tomise

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