April 9, 1998
The Editor’s Corner
By Gene Lichtenstein
The good news about Passover in America circa 1998is that more Jews than ever are embracing the holiday. It has become,as Dr. Ron Wolfson tells us (in the Passover section), our mostpopular Jewish holiday. Even non-Jews seek an invitation to a sederat the home of Jewish friends.
The bad news about Passover in America circa 1998is that more Jews than ever are embracing the holiday. It has become,in many instances, a Jewish version of Thanksgiving, a time forfamily and friends to gather for warmth, friendship andconviviality.
What could be wrong with that? Well, nothing andeverything.
When I think of favorite occasions many of themhave to do with just such a gathering of family and friends. Mywedding (my second wedding, that is); a particular birthday; ananniversary; and Thanksgiving, most definitely Thanksgiving. All ofthese have a special quality about them, marked by what might bedescribed as an overflowing of affection and feeling accompanied by agreat bounty of food and drink.
But neither Thanksgiving nor a wedding anniversaryare quite the same thing as Passover. Why is this night differentfrom all other nights, we ask. And the answer is both significant andprofound...unless of course we fail to do our part.
Our part, I believe, is the key to Passover. I amnot referring here only or even mainly to the scouring and cleaningthat the kitchen undergoes. "Our part" has to do with understandingthat the evening is about ritual and our past; with recognizing thatit is incumbent on us this particular night to "feel" the words ofour story and to be touched by them anew. No easy task. But itseparates Passover from all other celebrations and all othernights.
We are charged on Passover with reciting thefamiliar passages and once again re-experiencing the escape frombondage. Our seder may change ever so slightly from year to year, forthe simple reason that we have changed. And the challenge for each ofus is to convert what has become rote into a dramatic engagement thatis fresh and alive. Perhaps that is why we have so manyhaggadot and somany different seders: feminist and vegetarian; civil rights and newage; traditional and modern. Usually there is an effort in all ofthese to find a way to "connect" - with friends and with our commonpast. And that effort is not always successful.
What does it matter? Is it not enough that moreAmerican Jews come back into the fold, even if just for anight?
Should we not enjoy a secret moment of pleasurethat a seat at a seder has become such a hot item among non-Jews?Should we not, in short, relax and enjoy the holiday?
I think not. Nor can we turn the other way andperform by the numbers Maintaining the ritual in the same rigid andfixed form year after year ensures that Passover will become a roteceremony, detached from our lives and empty of meaning, so that whatwe remember fondly is a favorite uncle invariably exclaiming, "Giveus the short form, I'm hungry."
What Passover requires of us is demanding and lieselsewhere. The seder ritual calls for an act of the imagination eachyear that sets free our feelings. This seems to me essential if weare to be linked to a common past, to reify that we are one tribe orpeople, to define ourselves as Jews.
And that is something that a Jewish Thanksgiving -as pleasurable and celebratory as it is - can never do.