In The Suburbs / Making the Passover seder an ecumenical gathering
From the time I was a youngster, when Passover came, it was always a time of hustle and bustle and activity, including the making of the delicious gefilte fish, which my grandmother, mother and aunt did for more years than I can recall.
Then came the seders. Our home was always filled with relatives, friends and acquaintances of all faiths, cultures and nationalities. As my mother always said, "The biggest mitzvah (honor) we can experience at this wonderful holiday is to invite as many guests as we can accommodate to share our celebration of freedom."
I've never forgotten her words and over the past 40-plus years of my own marriage, no matter where we've lived, we've always filled the chairs around our seder tables with a rich and wonderful diversity of family, friends and acquaintances from a range of religious backgrounds and cultures.
And over the years, my mother's ecumenical and cultural view of Passover has taken on a whole new dimension for me as I've expanded my role as the seder leader beyond our home to other homes and places of worship. For instance, when close friends moved to Lock Haven, Pa., where he became the minister of the Lutheran Church, I was invited on several Passovers to lead a seder for their church members. Suddenly, what I did among family and friends became a labor of love for a much larger religious population. Also, because there was a need for more explanation and interpretation, I always did much homework to prepare, because the expectation of our guests was that I was one step below a religious leader and should know the answers to questions they might ask. Thankfully I survived.
Each seder was different, of course, but each became a labor of love for me and our guests were so appreciative that I took the time to share this special holiday with them.
The last seder I conducted for our minister friend and his wife was in their new church in Bartlett, N.C., near Raleigh. Ten days before the event, our friend Susan called us frantic. "Our congregants want to make dishes for your seder and none of our stores, even in Raleigh, seem to have Passover supplies," Susan said. "How do I explain that to 50 or 60 women? Want to send me 60 recipes?"
"No worries," I told her. "We're on this."
I looked at my wife. "We need to buy out Shaw's," I told her, "and send these folks a Passover care package from the frozen north."
Within an hour, we'd picked up nearly 75 easy Passover vegetable mixes and a host of dessert mixes. That Monday, barely a week before we were to fly to Raleigh, we overnighted our precious cargo to our anxious friends in Bartlett.
Saturday evening, when my wife and I walked into the seder with guests -- my cousin Scott and his wife Becky, who live in Raleigh -- we were overwhelmed. The tables were set for nearly 100 and the hot tables were adorned by all 75 of the holiday mixes we'd sent...I choked back tears throughout the evening as I thanked church members for having us and for their generosity in cooking.
That seder was a very special evening but unfortunately, a bittersweet time, because our dear friend Susan succumbed to cancer barely two years later. We miss her and our seders with them.
During the past three years, our close friend Pam has asked us to her seder and, as an added request, she's asked if I'd lead the seder. Her son-in-law, Marty's family is not Jewish and until that first seder I conducted, few of them knew much about the holiday and its traditions.
Each of those seders, including the one earlier this week, have become a labor of love for me. Pam's children, Melissa and Marty, and Marty's family have been very appreciative of how much detail and explanation I provide about the holiday. Marty's mom, Kathy told me again this past Tuesday evening how much she enjoys the seder and what she learns each year. That makes me feel especially good about leading the seder.
We joked at the table that perhaps I should take my seder-leading role on the road to families with different backgrounds and cultures, who want the seder experience but need a leader. But we decided that just being asked to lead is really the biggest mitzvah for me and I'll keep my territory limited to this area.
For me, Passover will always be a holiday to be shared with family, friends and neighbors from many backgrounds and cultures. From the warmth and tradition of the seder service to the delicious festival meal, each year the seder experience is more unusual and interesting. And, wherever the seder is -- at our home or out -- I can't wait to share the message of freedom that Passover brings, whether as leader or participant, with as many others as possible.
Steven Gaynes' "In The Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org