After the overwhelming success of the first Seder, how could things get any better? Wait ’til you hear this story…
So the second Seder – we planned it a little different based on the number of people expected to attend, which was much smaller than the previous night’s hundreds. Furthermore, for the 14 of us, it took a lot of preparation and effort to get through that first Seder, something we weren’t sure we’d be up to in the same capacity the next night. So we decided that we would do one joint Seder, with the 14 of us and whoever else wanted to join. It would be a no-nonsense Seder, where each of us could share what we wanted to without having to worry about people who didn’t know what Passover was, etc. And sure enough, by the time we sat down to start, there were over 40 people there. Many were returnees from our Seders the previous night, some were people who had been home the first night, and maybe some were those who heard the rave reviews and had to check it out for themselves (just kidding :)). We arranged a few tables together so that we had all 40+ of us around one big rectangular table, with the different leader scattered around the table. Somehow I was chosen to lead the leaders, and thus we began.
Though bigger than we had expected, the Seder went at a very enjoyable pace, with some interesting forays into the philosophical facts of the Seder and some interesting point which were left unanswered the night before. It was also good because different people got to add their highlights from the previous night’s Seder, making this somewhat of a “best of” Seder. It was going great – people were getting into it, great conversations were being had, and we were on a roll.
Suddenly, in the middle of magid – one woman stormed up, ran to the wall and tore off a picture. (Backdrop – in an attempt to lend some creativity and color to their Seder, one of the groups had put up pictures of different people/things around the room. The plan was that for the ‘4 sons’, people would stand next to whichever picture they thought represented a particular son [e.g. WalMart could be the wicked son for stealing small businesses’ business]). So it turns out there was one picture up of Che Guevara. And this woman’s family, 10 of whom were sitting at our Seder (including grandmother, parents, married kid and husband, teenage girl and boyfriend), had escaped from Cuba. She grabbed the picture, stormed back to the table and started yelling: “Do you know who this is? Do you think you know who this man is?” Dead silence. Except for some feeble attempts to explain why the picture was there, which were quickly quashed by her yelling. “Do you think this is funny?”, she continued, presumably mistaking one girl’s rushing out of the room in tears for laughter. “This is disgusting, that you dare put up this picture at your Seder. Oh, you think you’re so cool with your freedom and your Seder – but you don’t even know who this is. How would you like if I put a picture of Hitler at your Seder? Well, this man is our Hitler.” Then the grandmother got up and began her tirade – quieter, and in her Spanish accent, but so much more powerful: “My husband was in jail for thuurty years because of this man. You don’t know what he did to us, and how much we suffered.” They went on for a good 5-10 minutes, and we were just sitting there in shock for what seemed like an eternity, with no idea how to proceed.
Then I had an idea – in one of the dead silences, I started speaking: “You know, the Passover Seder is such a hard thing for so many of us – here’s this story that happened thousands of years ago to our ancestors and we’re supposed to retell it. But how are we supposed to connect to it, and relive something which transpired so long ago? It’s a very difficult process. We’re fortunate to have here with us people who went through their own story of slavery, who went on their personal journey from slavery to freedom, almost in our lifetimes, and before their very own eyes. My grandmother is from Colombia (of course I said it with the South American accent) and they also went through kidnappings and hardships to get here, so I know what that is like. It’s a sad thing but it’s also an amazing opportunity for us here – maybe you could share more of your story, and what it was like to go through your Exodus from slavery to freedom and through that you can help all of us better relive and understand what Pesach is all about.” They loved it – “Yes, that’s exactly what it was like! This one time…”. And they went on for a few more minutes going through some stories, with Che as Pharaoh and their grandfather as the Moses who escaped death and led a family to freedom. And just like that, things were back to normal and the Seder proceeded, only this time at least some people were feeling it a little more deeply.
What was it that calmed them down? How did we “save the Seder” (according to the married daughter, who afterward thanked me for dealing with her difficult family – and suggested I go into politics)? By making it real, by connecting it to people’s real lives – because that is what people connect to. It also was no longer about us versus them, but it was about all of us sharing in this experience, and empowering them to be able to share with us their wealth of relevant meaning. And it wasn’t just about their story, it was also about my family’s story, and the story of the Jewish people thousands of years ago, being re-experienced anew (“b’chol dor vador…”). I can truthfully say that between these people and the African American convert from the night before, I was never at Seders which better fulfilled the goal of ” “l’harot et atzmo ke’ili hu yatza mimitzrayim”.