Passover was a night like no other when I was a kid. My mom would spend days preparing spicy Middle Eastern dishes that we’d stack in the station wagon along with heaps of suitcases and enough books and toys to keep my siblings and I entertained on the long road from Pennsylvania to Brooklyn.
My parents argued the whole drive while my country boy dad tried to navigate city traffic. After another hour spent trying to find a parking place, we’d tumble into our relative’s Crown Heights apartment—tired, hungry, irritable, and three hours late.
Every year, we’d hope and pray that dinner would be served when we arrived. But, our relatives were far too considerate to start the seder without us. And so, we’d take our place at the beautifully set table and sit through three long hours of prayers and songs in a language that we didn’t understand.
The wait until dinner was so long that we actually looked forward to the bits of matzah and greens dipped in salt water. We’d engage in covert dares as to who could withstand the most horseradish in one gulp just to entertain ourselves until the meal arrived.
Since most of the guests were Israeli, the prayers were all said in Hebrew. However, they kindly made exceptions for us three “American” kids. When it was our turn to read, a room full of curious eyes would turn to us as we took our turns stumbling over the passages in English.
And, just when we thought we would perish from embarrassment or boredom or starvation, the food would come out. Big heaps of savory meats and spicy vegetable dishes followed by rich dark chocolate cakes and juicy fruit salads. After dinner, the relatives would get drunk on Arack and deep purple wines. They’d sing and laugh long into the night while we played hide and seek and board games with our cousins.
There was something about that long wait—the hours of hunger, the torture of sitting still for so many hours—that made the time after the seder especially joyful. In some small way, it gave us a connection to our ancestors and the long years of suffering that they encountered before gaining their freedom.
It’s easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of our youth—to feel like our experiences were the only “right” or “good” way to do things. Even memories that weren’t all that pleasant are labeled as “character building.” And so, when my son was born, I did my best to re-create the Passovers of my childhood.
That first year we gathered together with my parents and siblings and their kids and suffered through hours of prayers and songs (which I now could read in Hebrew!) while the little ones whined and pulled dishes off the table. Days of cooking and cleaning before the seder, followed by three hours of praying while keeping toddlers from dumping wine on the carpet, kept even the delicious meal from being very enjoyable.
So, the next year, we cooked a little less, cleaned a little less thoroughly, and uttered a few less prayers. As the years went by,more kids were born, and more short cuts were taken.
By the time Passover came along last year, there were nine kids around the seder table and we’d long since abandoned the idea of keeping them all sitting for hours. In fact, the idea that they could wait that long just didn’t seem feasible. So, I printed out a 30-minute haggadah which we ended up shortening to a mere 20 minutes.
The kids dipped and munched, listened to a song or two, ate a bit of matzah, and went off to play on their devices. After they left, the adults took our time cleaning up while we chatted and drank wine. It was, by far, the easiest Passover I’d had in years.
And yet… it didn’t feel like Passover at all. Some key component was missing. As Passover draws near again, I find myself thinking about what it is exactly that makes Passover “different from every other night.”
Is it the food we eat, or the way we sit, or the number of times we dip our vegetables? Is it the length of the seder, or the language we say the prayers in? Is it, like so many other holidays, just about that warm feeling we get from celebrating traditions with loved ones? Or is it the delayed gratification—that touch of suffering we get by waiting so long to eat?
I’m not sure, really. But, if I’ve learned one thing from parenting, it’s that no matter how carefully we try to manage environments or occasions, children will form their own perspectives, and find their own meanings.
So, this year, I won’t try to re-create the long, grueling seders of my youth, nor will I rush through a bare-bones re-cap. I’ll dig out the dusty old full-length haggadah and we’ll muddle through—a bit of Hebrew, a bit of English, elaborating on some parts, skipping over others—creating new traditions that work for our growing family.
And, if all else fails, I’ll make the kids clean up after dinner. Because that would definitely make this night different from all other nights.