For what now seems a very long time, meaning decades, I have been having at my home what we've called an alternative Seder. It started with my best friend Roseanne when we were in our twenties, and both thrived and evolved through the years of raising children. Roseanne and I treasured our Jewishness but we could not "get along with" what seemed to us to be the too strict and remote rules associated with some of the practices, or the way things were practiced in our respective families. We came together and invited a bunch of people, friends, colleagues, and people who were Jewish and not, alike.
Our threads of belonging had to do with guilt (for real), humor, food and most definitely the visceral version of the New York version of the above. There was also history, borrowing from other cultures and events to focus on both Jewish history, from the Holocaust to life on the lower East Side, to a broader set of existential questions.
From the beginning we adapted our "Seder" to mean something somewhat different than the usual meanings. The word "Seder" means order, as in the order of things; ours came to have an order that felt organic, but it wasn't set in stone. We would decide on a theme and elaborate on it--sometimes doing some research in the process, then tell the story of the Exodus as it was told traditionally, followed by a series of jokes. How do jokes fit into something serious like this, you might ask. To which, the answer (a very Jewish one) might go between "Who knows?" and "Why not?"
The story was one that I transposed from a book of Old Testament stories called "From Adam to Moses", and it became the staple that it still is, read out loud around the table, as a legend rather than as fact, and made to appreciate some of the enchantment and mystery.
What became important was the idea that we were not, and are not--in many ways--free, and that at best the "exodus" was something we were engaged in, in the present. This would mean we were becoming free, or trying to do so. And trying meant also focusing on our being enmeshed, stuck, but also yearning to feel freer on the inside as well.
The themes had to be compelling, also in personal ways. They were offered as just that, an offering to people around the table as well, so we might broaden a discussion or reflection based on how we all connected to a given subject.
But in addition there was some ritual, including the cooking of eating of food that was traditional, wonderful and warming. There was the acknowledgment of the original Jewish visions of the Exodus, which happened as we as a group would read some lines from a revised version of a children's story from the book "From Adam to Moses". It would be read in legend form, with a child like bent, one that kept the enchantment but didn't present the story as having the one and only meaning.
One of the reasons I stopped liking the story of Exodus, had to do with the good versus bad, and God being something like a Bob Fosse magician making Himself so important as to change Pharaoh's heart over and again. Now there is a musical here (I said it first!) as in "Exodus: the Musical", but I didn't see it at the time. It was the exclusivity I didn't like, the "us" or them, the constant demonizing of the "other". So this year, the prize goes to the concept of evolving-- that is of us-- of me as well, to be sure.
I am realizing we are all vulnerable to a cult like insistence that we are on the right side. It is harder than it may seem to question how we might be contributing to detachment, and to harsh judgments of others that often come from the harshness and puritanical standards we have drunk in.
Evolving can't be just chaos though, with no learning from the past. It includes a certain humility about how hard it can be to change our habits, and for that matter, to admit how we might be wrong or stuck. However, even though it may be hard to move from having an exodus from external evil, to looking at a more internal vision, many of us are yearning to do so. There are many of us who have been very lonely precisely because we realize our own fragilities, failures, and weaknesses. To lift the veil and stop hiding behind appearing to conform and fit it, we might feel more genuinely connected to being alive.
Passover has, has for us become for us a mish mosh of tastes, and jokes and stories and celebration. It is a piece of evolving in and of itself, because each year we tap into something that does not always echo the themes of past years. And while that is work, it is also a chance to tune in more deeply to some of the things pressing to us personally, and then to do so in company, in other words to share.
Right this second, this feels like a good beginning for this year, even though more or different considerations may come into the picture, in preparation and at the table.
I'll let you know how it works out.