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Why Has the Seder Survived?

Photo: April Killingsworth

Photo: April Killingsworth

Why is Passover, specifically the night of the first Seder, more popular than any other Jewish holiday? In other words, why is this night different from all other nights? (You know I had to ask, right?)

I’ll use my own childhood as an example, which I’m guessing is typical of a mostly-secular Jewish household. Let me preface by saying I’m describing such a scenario with no judgment whatsoever. All I’m trying to understand is why and how the Seder survives above all else.

In my family and in many others I knew on the North Shore of Chicago, there was going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur every year no matter what else was going on at school or work. There was Hebrew school. There was a bar or bat mitzvah where we read and chanted from the Torah and haftarah. (And by “read” I mean we sounded out letters and syllables, which I’ve written about before.)

There was knowing that being Jewish was an important part of our identity; but other than Passover, there were few rituals. There were no Shabbat candles, no Friday night dinners, no Havdalah candles, no sukkah, and no Hanukkah candles after the third or fourth night. There was no special cleaning for Passover. There was, however, a Seder every year.

Of course there was a Seder. It would be unimaginable to miss it, to diminish its importance in any way. In my family, my mom hosted the Seder some years, and in other years we went to our close family friends’ house where the table was decorated with sets of toy plagues. We went through the Haggadah with all the steps and the symbols. We covered it all: the four sons, the four questions, the four cups, and the important details in the middle. We sang songs. We devoured charoset and matzo balls, and we searched for the afikomen. We discussed freedom and slavery with historical and modern examples. If it was spring break, we waited until after the first night of Passover to leave. We might succumb to the breadbasket halfway through our vacation, but we would not miss that Seder for anything.

The Seder was the most Jewish night of the entire year in my family, and I loved it. I think that even as a kid I must have understood that what we were doing at that table was a tradition connecting me to the essence of my Jewish soul. The ritual aspect of it all lit me up and perhaps it’s what stirred in me a desire to learn more about Judaism as an adult.

It’s also possible that I’m giving the Seder too much weight in my memory or too much credit in my own Jewish story. But it’s hard to deny the power of the Seder for the Jewish people. What is it about this night that moves so many Jews to follow customs handed down through the generations even when so many other Jewish traditions have long fallen away?

I have my own theories, but I’m hoping some readers will provide answers as well.

Is it nostalgia for a strong memory from childhood?

Is it because the Seder takes place in the home and not in the synagogue?

 

Is it because this meal, unlike a Shabbat dinner, occurs only once a year? (But other holiday meals are also only once a year. And certain holidays, like Shavuot, for example, are all but ignored and require so much less work than Passover. Yes, I’m answering my own question and arguing with myself.)

 

Do we connect to the story of slavery, liberation, and a discussion of both ancient and modern plagues?

 

Do we, as my sister-in-law in New York City pointed out, have Jewish “FOMO” (fear of missing out) if we skip Passover? She also noted that in NYC it’s not “Are you doing anything for Passover?” as might be asked of other holidays. It’s “Where are you going?”

 

Is the Seder the equivalent of Christmas dinner, which for a Christian family may be a tradition that’s upheld even if the family does not affiliate with a church or any other Christian traditions?

 

You tell me. What makes the Seder such a popular night on the Jewish calendar?

 

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About Nina Badzin @NinaBadzin

Nina Badzin is a Minneapolis-based essayist, short story writer, and a mother of four. You can also find her blogging regularly at http://ninabadzin.com. Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NinaBadzinBlog. Twitter: @NinaBadzin

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