This Passover, 'You Shall Lie to Your Children'

At Passover, my friends along the Orthodox spectrum and I struggle to find a balance between the tyranny of family traditions, our love for Jewish texts and a healthy dose of cynicism. Do we have the freedom to hold a seder that truly reflects who we have chosen to be?

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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vered kellner
Vered Kellner

This week, I will be holding the Passover seder in my home for the first time. To be more precise, I’ll be holding it in our rented apartment in New York. It won’t be anything too wild. My immediate family, my mother, brother and his family, a couple of friends from Israel and our babysitter – 14 people in all. It’s nothing unheard of in the annals of Jewish history. Still, it’s four o’clock in the morning, and there’s no chance I’ll be falling asleep.

My head is filled with the memories of dozens of seders past. The one in my grandparents’ home, with dozens of grandchildren and the smell of a new dress for the holiday. Seders in my parents’ home. With my father, and mainly without him, after his passing. Seders I looked forward to with excitement; seders I spent crying in the bathroom, exhausted from the build-up generated by the preparations that had gone out of all proportion; seders that I observed from the outside, rolling my eyes, urging everyone to move on to the next course and cut their talking short so I could cut out and go meet my friends. The seder I spent under the influence of the love I finally found, and the seder I spent just under the influence. The first seder with my husband’s family, and the seder we had four days after I gave birth to my son as I nursed him in the next room, listening from there to my eldest daughter singing the Four Questions for the first time.

A flood of generations washes over me, and the axis of time stretches out before my eyes. I remember the stories my mother told, how in her parents’ home in the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem people used to knit special socks for the door handles before Passover, and, in the case of one particularly righteous woman, special coverings for the paws of the neighborhood cats. Every year, when my mother took the Passover utensils out of the attic, she also took out the great cleaning legends of her childhood, using them to prove to us that in comparison, she was utterly sane. After all, she only started cleaning for Passover the day after Hanukkah and made us lie down on the wet kitchen floor with a knife and a rag, attacking particles of hametz – any leavened substance – in the cracks between the tiles. That explained why everyone came to the seder high on bleach fumes.

Not me. Over all the years that I prepared my kitchen for Passover, I instituted a custom that turned into law: to shorten the process and make it easier. A day of cleaning, which is also affectionately known as spring cleaning, and that’s it. This year, too, I’ve spent a month searching for religious rulings on various Sephardic Jewish websites. I’m grateful to the online booklet published by the West Coast Rabbinical Court of Beverly Hills, “The Freedom of a Nation,” that got me this far, which dismisses the overblown ‘chumrot’, or stringencies, of the Ashkenazim whilst advocating with pride the more-restrained Sephardi perspective on cleaning. My mother confirmed that her ancestors had been among the Jews expelled from Portugal, so with one judicious chop to the family tree, we lopped off centuries of strict religious rulings that came out of Eastern Europe.

But here’s the problem: the more I try to pretend I’m a sane person who’s satisfied with the minimum amount of Passover preparations that religious law requires – and I only do that much out of respect for my family and guests, not because it’s such a part of me – the more I fear deep down that if I dilute the holiday craziness just a bit more, not a trace of its original flavor will be left. And then I wonder what kind of memories will my children have of Passover eve if they don’t grow up with turned-over carpets, curtains pulled off the rods and fingernails melted in the bleaching fluid that the Health Ministry hasn’t approved yet.

The truth is that the question is a good deal broader. I’m surrounded by many people of my own generation who are mostly on the spectrum of Orthodoxy with some sliding toward the edges, all of them with a clear Jewish identity that doesn’t conflict with the understanding that Jewish religious law is just a tool in forming their world view, not an end in itself. These are people who would gladly labor over a page of the Talmud if it saved them exhausting efforts in the minutiae of keeping kosher. They are intimately close to the essence, having reached that closeness after a long, though satisfying, path of seeking. And now, as parents themselves, they want to pass their world view, with all its internal contradictions and its complexity, on to the next generation without the tyranny that they sometimes experienced – but they are not sure how to do it.

One solution they have found is to send their children to Jewish day schools. It seems that for most parents, it’s simpler to have the school system build the foundation and create the intimate connection to the sources, thinking that they’ll counteract the indoctrination at home. But then their children come home with concepts such as the Messiah, Angels and Creation. The parents have something to say about that, but the question is whether their children are old enough to hear it. How on earth does one provide an authentic education without raising a generation of soulless cynics? How many drawers’ worth of cutlery do we have to scrub before it’s OK to tell the children that hametz is mainly a symbol, not some demonic creature that tries to invade the kitchen one week out of every year?

The result is often sad. Instead of following the traditional rule, “You shall tell your children” – the main commandment of the Passover holiday – we default to “You shall lie to your children.” In our desire to give them a picture of the world that’s a bit less chaotic than it really is, we cut corners and go through the religious motions with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Until a few years ago, we did that “for our parents,” and now we do it “for the children.” If we had any guarantee that this experiment would work, and that in the end our children would come out like we did – connected to their roots while at the same time free to see the big picture – it might be worthwhile. But as many of us remember from our own childhood, there is no seismograph more sensitive than a child’s innate BS detector. Besides, where in this festival of ours is our freedom, as adults, to shape our own lives according to our understanding and world view without having to render an accounting to previous generations or fear for our tradition in future ones? Where is our freedom to hold a seder that reflects who we have chosen to be?

The telephone cuts through my train of thought. It’s my mother, calling from Jerusalem. We go over the menu again, and she tells me that she’ll also be bringing the kosher-for-Passover grater because I don’t have one. Deep down, I sigh. She’ll be landing here in two days, and we’ll grate potatoes together, just like we did 25 years ago, as if nothing had changed. But something has shifted nonetheless. For the first time in my life and my mother’s, she will be leading the family seder. My eldest daughter will sit next to her, and my son will definitely steal the afikoman. For now, I take comfort in that.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York. Follow her on Twitter at
@veredkl

IllustrationCredit: Dan Keinan

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