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Jewish Journal

Strangers at the Feast

by Ellen Jaffe-Gill

April 5, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Strangers have a way of bringing richness to a Passover seder. Above, the Dalai Lama of Tibet adjusts his kipah as he reads a program during a Passover seder sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. last year.  AFP photo

Strangers have a way of bringing richness to a Passover seder. Above, the Dalai Lama of Tibet adjusts his kipah as he reads a program during a Passover seder sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. last year. AFP photo

My worst Passover was my first in Los Angeles, more than half a lifetime ago. I had nowhere to go the first night, and the second night, a college friend took me to an institutional seder that was so sterile and faceless that I went home early and, paraphrasing Scarlett O'Hara, vowed, "As God is my witness, I'll never go without a seder again."

And I haven't, because since then I've made one every year. Only during a two-year sojourn in my extended family's Expected Attendance Area have I failed to haul out the haggadot and start rounding up everyone who wants a place at the table.

There were only five of us at the first seder I made, in 1978, including a live-in boyfriend and a non-Jewish guy I knew from work who had always wanted to go to a seder. I had taken my 23-year-old self to J. Roth (of blessed memory) and bought copies of the most up-to-date haggadah I could find in those days before feminist, peacenik and other alternative haggadot were in mass circulation.

It was the first seder at which I drank the third and fourth cups of wine, because my family never got back to the service after shulchan orech. But no one got tipsy, because Live-In Boyfriend and I were pouring Manischewitz; nobody knew from Baron Herzog back then.

The next year, we had to put both leaves in the garage-sale Formica dining table. By 1983, the spring we lived in New Hampshire, we had graduated to fake French provincial, my parents' old dining room set. Two years later, I made the seder about eight minutes after Live-In Boyfriend moved out.

The following spring, the love of my life had his feet under my seder table (and still does). Ten years ago, leftover marinated green beans from our wedding luncheon made a nice cold side dish. Many pages of our haggadot have been papered over with new readings.

Blood relatives are rarities at our seders: once, years ago, an uncle and aunt happened to be in town; more recently, one of my sisters lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years. My husband and I have no family in Southern California, and because guilt infliction seems to be effective only from parents to offspring, I haven't been able to persuade my Arizona-based mom and dad to join us.

So every year we troll for folks who need a seder and don't have one. We find them in the synagogues we belong to, sometimes in classes and at work. Every year the Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism, where my husband studied for conversion six years ago, sends us two or three people. This year the role of "the gentile who's always wanted to go to a seder" will be played by the lone Christian in my husband's Hebrew class.

Many of the faces around the table change from year to year. People move in and out of town, in and out of our lives; we change jobs, attend different schools, find ourselves hanging out in different circles than we did the year before.

Some perennials have developed, though: folks from shul who like our combination of fun, attention to the haggadah, and enough good food to feed an army, and a longtime friend whose husband always seems bemused by our seders, which are nothing like the ones he grew up with in London.

My best friend, Barry, used to come every year and complain that we never had enough unattached gay men at our seder. Finally, he passed up our first night a couple of years ago to go to a seder that was all gay men. He came back. We're family.

I identify with our ancestor Abraham, who always was more comfortable welcoming passersby into his tent than he was depending on the kindness of strangers. While there have been years when we've been invited to someone else's home for seder, I decline with thanks. Tempting as a work-free seder might be, there are people who count on us now.

Tomorrow night, my husband and I will sit side by side and gaze out over the mixed multitude in our living room. Our dog will lie under the table, waiting for something to drop. We'll tell the story, sing the songs, eat and drink, talk about Egypt and deliverance. And even if Elijah doesn't show up, the Shechinah will be there.

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