Happy Passover! Now pass the wine
I’ve been going to seders ever since I was born, I guess; my parents no doubt brought me when I was a baby, although the first seder I can recall was when I was about six, when my Uncle Teddie gave me my first sip of wine.
I remember that day, not because of the seder, but because the wine was so awful. In Yiddish, I’d describe it as dreck. Manischevitz, it was, sweet and insipid. It’s a miracle that, years later, I was able to overcome that horrible experience and try wine again.
The Passover seder never had much religious meaning to me. It was instead a family get-together, and since I liked my family, I liked going to the annual seder. One of my aunts usually held it at their big houses in suburban New Jersey; our little apartment in The Bronx was hardly suitable for a gathering of up to twenty. We’d go through the entire Haggadah, more or less, meaning it was a very long seder, with all the ancient rituals adhered to: the drops of wine on the plate, the singing of songs, the recitation of history, and, yes, the Four Questions, which for many years I got the privilege of asking, since I was the youngest male.
Like I said, we stuck to the Haggadah, the basic how-to book of the Passover seder, because my father, his brother my Uncle Lennie, and their brother-in-law, the aforementioned Uncle Teddie, were good Jews, nominally, at any rate. I attended Hebrew School–as we called religious training–after my public school day ended, for nearly seven years, from the age of six until after I was bar mitzvahed, at thirteen. I was well educated in Jewish history and culture, and while I could read Hebrew, and still can, I can’t speak it, nor could I translate it for you, not if you paid me.
I still go to seder every year, because my dear cousin, Maxine (Lennie’s eldest) holds one, at her house in San Mateo. We use a battered copy of her daughter, Rebecca’s, Haggadah, from when Rebecca was in grade school. I tried once, about ten years ago, to write a new, more modern version of the Passover story, because I thought the old version was anachronistic. For example, in that old Rebecca version, written at the height of the Cold War, it says a prayer for the Jews of the Soviet Union. There hasn’t even been a Soviet Union since 1991, I think it was. And I never understood the part where the four sons are pitted against each other: One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. That seems kind of unloving and unfair to me.
My more fundamental problem with the Hagaddah is that I’ve never been able to relate to it as a religious document. It seemed to me as a kid, and still does, that the practices the Haggadah commands for the seder don’t have much to do with my conception of spirituality, or with the problems of the modern world, or even of understanding myself. It doesn’t mean much to me, but I do respect its tradition and, like I said, I enjoy getting together with my family, and honoring something that at least tries to instill meaning.
My favorite part of the Haggadah is the emphasis on wine. I like the fact that we’re encouraged, in the Hagaddah, to drink a lot. It’s great to get high in a family as political, funny and verbal as mine. As far as I’m concerned, we Jews invented wine. Maybe it wasn’t an actual Jew who discovered it, somewhere in the Caucasus (so we’re told), in the misty days of pre-history. But the Jews were the first to celebrate wine, to elevate it as a crowning achievement of humankind, to place it at the center of their most important rites and rituals, to make it a center of their poetry. (Along with olive oil. Where would Mediterranean cuisine be without the Jews?)
Maxine and her husband, Keith, do the cooking for the seder: traditional stuff, like leg of lamb, roasted potatoes, Israeli cous cous, greens. The ritual foods also are there: the burnt egg, the parsley and salt water dip, the charoset, a sweet paste of fruits and nuts, said to symbolize the mortar the Jews used when, as slaves, they built the Pyramids. (Every food item in the seder has a symbolic meaning.) But I bring the wine, naturally. I don’t even pretend to try and do perfect pairings with such a culinarily chaotic table, although I always bring a nice Pinot Noir for the lamb. The Biblical emphasis is on red wine, especially when you make the droplets on the plate (ten in total, one for each plague). But, if there’s a God (Hashem, for the Jews), I don’t think she’d mind if someone who preferred white wine used that instead. She would, though, wonder about someone who didn’t like wine.