Sunday, April 8, 2012

H is for Haggadah

Happy holidays everyone!

Today I'm taking a break from writing and technology to wish everyone a joyous holiday season and talk about how storytelling fits into the spring holidays. It's Passover, and that means a Seder, the ritual meal during which Jews remember the Exodus from Egypt and give thanks for our freedom from bondage. We do that, of course, by telling a story.

The Haggadah is a book containing this story and all of the rituals which go with it; blessings over candles, special Passover foods, etc. Different families do things a bit differently, some pausing for more more discussion, some skipping over a few bits to get to the eating faster, and some hewing closer - or wandering farther - from tradition. For the uninitiated, the Seder plate always has the following:

Maror, or bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery.

Charoset, a sweet mixture representing the mortar the Jewish slaves used to make bricks. This varies widely by culture, and the few times we've hosted the Seder we've experimented a bit with different peoples' takes on it. Chopped nuts and apples are one traditional form.

Karpas, or bitter herbs, dipped in salt water. Again bitterness, but also a green for spring.

Z'roa, or a lamb shank. Representing the sacrifice. This isn't eaten.

A hardboiled egg, representing mourning.

As guests, we didn't this year, but I always add an orange, a modern tradition representing either feminism and acceptance of an equal role for women, gays and a rejection of the bitter seeds (to be spit out) of homophobia, or both. I say both. You can read one take on the origin of this here.

Throughout we tell the story of the Exodus. I'm sure you know it; Moses, the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, flight through the desert.

Our host this year was a cousin of my bride Karine. He concluded the same way he always does; reminding us that when we hear the story we are to feel that we ourselves were freed from bondage. It, of course, happened thousands of years ago, so it's hard to feel that. So he tells another story, reminding us that it is his story. It's my wife's story. Another cousin's. It's the story of a family living in Europe in the early part of the Twentieth Century - including the three sisters Alice, Sonia, and Miriam.  Alice had moved to Palestine when it was still safe for Jews to travel. Then war came. America's borders were closed.  Sonia's family somehow managed to find passage to Cuba, with her five-year-old boy who would grow up to be Karine's father. Miriam wasn't able to flee and stayed behind, in hiding. Her fate was unknown to her family in America until, in the final days of the war, the family here received a letter from the family there, beginning simply, "we are still alive". They wrote about living in hiding for the past years, of seeing German soldiers march into the city and only recently being chased away by allied soldiers. They wrote about how their joy was tempered by uncertainty regarding the fate of other family members who'd been deported.

David tells this story every year, and reads the letter every year, reminding us that it is our story. I looked around the table and saw my children; their grandfather, the young boy who remembered fleeing to Cuba at the age of five, died when out eldest was just two and our youngest had not yet been born. Miriam - the oldest of the three sisters - lived a long and full life, but she passed away a year ago. Young Nathaniel never knew her,, and Chloe knew her only as a very old woman nearly a century older than she. It is David's story and Karine's story, but it's not Chloe's story or Nathaniel's. They didn't live it, didn't know anyone who lived it. I felt a profound shift of these events from memory to history. Those who lived it will soon all be gone but, as story-tellers, we still have the stories. So, year after year, we'll tell them and imagine that they were our stories, that it was we who were delivered from Egypt, who fled to Havanna, who hid in Lyon.

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