Passover - my favorite of all the Jewish holidays.
No other gathering offers up as sumptuous a meal with as much symbolism and metaphor, conversational heft, range of aroma, song, and spirit as this celebration of freedom.
This is the part I get enthusiastic about.
The angst, however, comes from my expectations: I not only want everyone’s belly to be satisfied but their spirits must be lifted as well. I want historical significance. I want all five senses engaged. I want a high-definition Passover with large Loop musical theatre production values.
But I’ve got a tough audience: A family that prefers to do without the long meaningful fireworks version. They’d rather get right to the eating business.
Oh, the religious school teacher bag of tricks that have gone unappreciated! Like the Seder I wove a long red ribbon around everyone’s wrists, representing the bloody shackles of slavery, and then pulled on the ribbon when the Israelites were freed. The flim clip I showed from Disney’s “The Prince of Egypt.” The animated finger puppet plagues. The handmade haggadahs with covers illustrated by my kids.
During these, Mother-in-Law leaves to check on the soup. Daughter excuses herself for the bathroom, but I suspect it’s to text. A conversation between Brother and Uncle-in-Law starts in the far corner.
My husband tells me that our Seders have an impact, that our family just isn’t admitting it. But that’s easy for him to say: The filmic spoof on Passover that he made with his Hebrew School buddy got a great reception. He used Little Tykes figurines for Hebrew slaves, Captain Picard as Moses and a Klingon for Pharaoh. A stovetop set the stage for the burning bush, then on to the parting of the kitchen sink and finally, the Hebrews leaving Egypt to Bob Marley’s “Exodus.”
That was a hit, but those were his efforts, and not my style. All of these years I’ve been desperately trying to bring the heart of the holiday to the table – to conjure up the smallest sense of being enslaved and what it might feel like to be freed. Sure it’s a little bit force-fed, but it’s my table.
My grandfather, who fled Germany just before Hitler came into power, led my growing-up family Seders. He was not a religious man but he led us through every page of the Haggadah, even the songs at the end. I didn’t think about it at the time, but like many immigrants, he knew firsthand what it meant to leave home and set down roots in a new country where freedom was celebrated. There was something poignant about listening to his German-accented Hebrew as he read.
Since I moved from my hometown and became this holiday’s hostess, I’ve been trying to resurrect this Passover of old at my present table.
But I can’t. My grandfather is gone and I have a lousy German accent. So I’m letting my Passover people go. This year, we'll definitely host a true Seder, even if it is a bit modified to suit the audience, but I'm releasing my guests – and myself - from having to feel something that a plate of brisket and a bowl of matzoh ball soup just can’t evoke. But right next to Elijah's seat, I’m going to set a place for Grandpa Kurt.
Photo of Kurt Blum is courtesy of the Blum family archives.
A version of this essay aired on Chicago Public Radio-WBEZ in April 2009.