Two years ago on erev 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. She fills one of the metaphorical empty chairs as I prepare for Passover now, though I feel her spirit close to me.
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 of 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 connect with them.
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 to honor feminist and LGBTQ+ contributions to the Jewish tradition. We use creative art materials for guests to create their 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 that they 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 thank them, because of you. I hope 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 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 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. How different from my own experience of driving to Acme to purchase enough packaged Passover products to earn a free six-pack of matzah. My grandfather died when I was thirteen, but his writing of his story and sharing it with us helps our relationship to transcend 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 I help to create.
I’ve experienced so many different seders through 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, my ancestors gathered for this freedom ritual even when they were not free. The seder feels both ancient and ongoing to me; I am a link in the chain of its telling.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She teaches online workshops at the intersection of writing and spiritual growth and shares a weekly Substack called Journey With The Seasons.