“We’re Reform Jews, so this is going to be quick,” the father of my hosting family says as I sit down for my first Seder. I’ve read stories about the Passover feasting tradition lasting throughout the night and into the next morning, and he confirms this with an aside. “I once sat through an Orthodox Seder, and we still had not eaten dinner by three in the morning.”
This Seder would be different, however. It lasts only two hours, in part, because the majority of participants haven’t yet seen their teenage years. It’s also a school night. But short attention spans and palates that prefer marshmallow hail to Whole Foods’ gefilte fish make my first Seder experience no less exciting, educational, and spiritual. In fact, this intimate celebration by family, friends, former students, and even a shaggy dog under the two tables pushed together that span a doorframe adorned with plastic Star of David flags create a rare setting, filled with pleasant disorder, ripe for what Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls “history made memory by re-enactment.”
This re-enactment could not have begun, or not begun, in a less memorable fashion. After one of the youngest children halts the start of the Seder because she isn’t fond of the rubber snake hanging from the chandelier, precious memories are the least of my worries for the evening. The parents assure her that the reptile is not real, and they smartly explain why it dangles above our heads without actually telling her why it is there. “What does the snake represent?” asks the hosting mother before she has a chance to take a seat. “One of the plagues!” yells one of the boys. Close, she explains, but that’s not quite it. The eldest of the children at the table, who celebrated his bar mitzvah this year, schools everyone, including me. “It’s there because when Moses threw his staff down, God turned it into a snake.”
The explanation appears to settle the kids into their seats, and the father of the hosting family begins the Seder using a mix of English and unbroken Hebrew. I grew up in a small Southern town where my only exposure to Hebrew consisted of Adam Sandler’s infamous song about a certain eight crazy nights and his harsh pronunciation of “Chanukah.” But hearing blessings like, “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam asher barcha banu mikkol ha’amim venatan lanu et torato,” send me into a state of enchantment. The speech has no pauses, no interruptions, and no breaks. And as the night progresses with the young boys reciting Hebrew lines of the Haggadah as effortlessly as their father, I find myself envious of the ability to speak not in tongues but in the gracefulness of flowing water. For now, I focus on not embarrassing myself by stressing the wrong syllable of “Adonai” in the English transliterations.
It’s because the evening is not flawlessly scripted or soundly grounded in Orthodox tradition that the recollection is even more firmly imprinted. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson explains that Philo, a Jewish philosopher in the time of the Roman Empire, teaches
Unleavened food is…imperfect or unripe, as a memorial of the good hope which is entertained; since nature is by this time preparing her annual gifts for the race of humanity, with an abundance and bounty pouring forth.
Rabbi Artson writes that this hope “is always a potential, always unformed, always just ahead. Our anticipation of a better tomorrow—for ourselves, for our people, for the world—finds a visual reminder in this simple, hard bread.”
For most at the Seder table this evening, tomorrow is simply a school day. As I nibble on my gluten-free matzah, imperfect for its lack of yeast and in my case, taste, tomorrow is a bit more. It’ll be better—better because of the precocious, Hebrew-rattling children teaching me about freedom, better because of the conversations with friends and mentors facilitated by the spiritual occasion, and better because of the hope delivered by my imperfect Seder.
Win Bassett is a freelance writer and editor and regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He holds bachelor degrees in electrical engineering and computer engineering from North Carolina State University and a law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law, where he was an editor of the North Carolina Law Review. After serving as an Assistant District Attorney in Raleigh and Executive Director of the North Carolina Brewers Guild, Win plans to enter his first year in a Master of Divinity program in the fall. You can contact him at winbassett.com, find him on Twitter at @winbassett, or see him running on the streets and trails in Raleigh and Durham, NC.