This year, the question that the youngest at the table asks of “Why is this night different from all other nights?” will be replaced by us all asking “Why is this Pesach different from all other Pesachs?”
It will indeed be a different Pesach. For many of us who are used to having long Seder tables crowded with family and friends, this year’s Seder will be smaller and quieter. The social distancing measures that are saving our elderly and decimating our economy will also infiltrate our Seder night making it truly a night that is different from all other nights.
And that difference, that sense of surrealism, and quite possibly sadness, will most likely take us back down memory lane to a time before COVID-19 when our Seder tables were bustling, noisy occasions filled with spilled wine and endless matzah crumbs.
Before my brother moved to Israel and I moved to Perth, family Seders were just that. Buba and Zaida at the head, surrounded by their 4 children, their spouses and 17 rambunctious grandchildren singing Dayeinu at the top of their lungs.
And then I remember further back. To the Seders of my childhood.
As my parents have forged their own path of Jewish practice, and neither had traditions from their own homes to draw on, Seder nights at the Wenig’s were infused with rituals and customs that were borne from a fusion of what we children learnt at school and idiosyncrasies that evolved from year to year.
My siblings and I would always come to the Seder table prepared; we each had something that we had learned and were eager to share with the participants at our Seder. Every year the guest list was the same: my Aunt and Uncle on my father’s side with cousin David, the Weiss family who used to join us for Seder but for nothing else during the year, and of course my dear grandparents who, although not Jewish, were thrilled to participate in this intergenerational dialogue about history, stories and freedom.
My older brother always had the coveted seat next to my father. He was, and still is, the most learned of the children and I think my father felt both supported by his close presence as well as an immense pride that his son was able to help him lead the Seder service. I remember one year my brother taught us all a different tune to Ma Nishtana, a tune that was much more upbeat than the regular monotonous melody. To this day we all sing the ‘new’ tune of Ma Nishtana together, much to the relief of whoever is the youngest at the table.
My parents never wanted us to be jealous of one another and so, instead of one child receiving an afikoman present, there were always four that were pre-bought in anticipation of our afikoman bargaining with our father. One year I hid the afikoman so deep in the cupboard under the stairs that it could not be found or retrieved when it was needed. I guess that piece of Matzah is still there, becoming harder and more shrivelled every year.
Some Seder events that have made it to the ‘pool room’ of Seder memories are more recent. The time when I laboured the entire Seder while my sisters-in-law urged me to go to the hospital is one. (We never forget Davi’s birthday!) Or the time when two-year-old Mikey contributed to the Seder by belting out his rendition of ‘Spider Man’ (not all that relevant, but nachas nonetheless).
Over the years our Seder table has grown and shrunk. Grown with the addition of children-in-law and grandchildren, and shrunk again as growing families moved overseas. Although we do not have a Seder all together every year, when the 27 of us are able to be together for Pesach, the Seder becomes a blending of living in the moment and talking about the past.
We are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day. Our prayers are bursting with references to this seminal point in our history. But Pesach night is different. On this night we are commanded not just to remember, but to tell the story. We move the memories from the recesses of our mind into our consciousness, and talk as if ‘we too were freed from Egypt’.
Memories are important, using and talking about them to connect is even more so. My siblings and I are only together once a year, if that, as we all live in different corners of the earth. But when we are together, our conversations are much like that of the Pesach Seder. We talk about our shared childhood memories, many of which centre on Jewish festivals and rituals, and we again solidify our bonds through our shared past. We should recognise that shared memories have a wider reach than family. As a Jewish people, we too have collective memories that bind beyond family, beyond country, beyond time. It is up to us to tune into and involve ourselves and our children in our national story so that these memories can stand as the building blocks of connection for generations to come. This year’s Pesach Seder, while it may be more intimate, will still create memories, memories that will stand the test of time.
Wishing our community a healthy and Pesach Kasher V’Sameach,
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