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Jewish Journal

The Next Generation Adds Its Own Touch to Seder

by Julie G Fax

April 1, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Preparing for Temple Bat Yahm's pre-Passover seder (from left) are Helene Jacobs, sisterhood president; Tamar Brower, pre-seder chair; Joan Rome, reservation chair; and Sorrell Wayne, gift shop chair.

Preparing for Temple Bat Yahm's pre-Passover seder (from left) are Helene Jacobs, sisterhood president; Tamar Brower, pre-seder chair; Joan Rome, reservation chair; and Sorrell Wayne, gift shop chair.

When newer, color versions supplanted the 1923 Union Haggadah Revised, Tamar Soloff's brother and father hoarded enough copies of the original to ensure that their extended families would have a supply of their own.

"That was the haggadah from my childhood," Soloff said. After marrying Martin Brower and starting a family, they departed from Westchester for Newport Beach, taking half of the haggadah stash with them.

Again this month, the Browers will rely on the small, out-of-print books at seders for their family and their Temple Bat Yahm chavurah. Retelling the story of the Jews' flight from ancient Egypt in English and Hebrew, its pages also transport Brower back to earlier times with songs like "Behold It Is the Spring Tide of the Year" and "Who Knows One?"

"Tradition is what you're used to," said Brower, who served as the choir director in the Westchester synagogue of her father, Rabbi Mordecai Soloff. "It has the music that I grew up with, and my children grew up with."

The old cliché that change is hard is never truer than when it comes to the Passover seder -- whether that means changing haggadah, menu, location or host.

The microcosm of the seder, perhaps like no other ritual of the year, brings into focus all the nostalgia, Jewish identity issues and family dynamics that stay in the fuzzy background the rest of the year.

At no point are those dynamics more in focus than when it comes time for the seder to transition from one generation to the next. The transition occurs for any number of reasons -- an aging parent is simply ready to retire, or in more dire circumstances falls ill or passes away. Or perhaps someone moves out of town, or makes religious changes and wants to make the seder her own way.

The question of who is making seder and how becomes symbolic of whatever is going on in a family. Who is not at the table and why -- death, illness, conflict, geography -- is as important as who is. This intensity of emotion, no doubt, has as much to do with Pesach's being the most observed Jewish rites of the year as does the rabbi's brilliance in crafting the rituals of the seder.

Add to that the notion that any change is hard, especially one that is so laden with associations, and you begin to understand why something like using a childhood haggadah becomes so important or passing on a set of seder dishes can serve up a hearty portion of emotion.

Last year, Jeanne Weiner thought she was ready to give her daughter, Joelle Keene, Aunt Leone's Indian Tree dishes -- service for 31, plus serving dishes.

But when it came to actually giving up the china, she balked. And even though this year she is making the transfer, these dishes -- more than the Thanksgiving dishes or all the furniture she gave to her daughters -- call up a wave of emotion and tears.

"I wanted to give them to her, but I couldn't. I just had to be ready, because I was making a statement. And that statement was that my husband was gone and I wasn't going to do any real entertaining of my family anymore and it's moved on to my children's homes," said Weiner, a 76-year-old psychologist, sitting at her daughter's dining room table, the pink and turquoise peonies blossoming on a setting of the dishes in front of them. "It is part of my new life, which is not as satisfying as my old life was."

Adjusting to a new reality has also been part of Passover for Don Goor and his family, and it also came down to dishes.

When his mother, Stephanie Goor, finally stopped schlepping her box of seder paraphernalia -- charoset bowls, kiddush cups, candlesticks -- back and forth between his home and hers, he knew she had fully let go of making seder.

The transition was a slow one, starting about 10 years ago, when Goor and his partner, Evan Kent, first moved seder into their home. Goor's mother and grandmother still prepared much of the food and led the seder as they had for years, with Stephanie sticking strictly to the never-changing marks in her leader's haggadah indicating who got to read which part. Each year Stephanie brought over the box of stuff, and would take it back to her home.

"For a long time it was still their seder but it was in our house," said Kent, the cantor at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, who has been with Goor, the rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, for 18 years. "We used the same haggadah and had the same food, but slowly what happened was we realized that our own friends would join us and it sort of grew and changed."

Discussion became more spontaneous and informal, with the hosts (both clergy, after all) taking the lead. Eventually, the menu evolved, since Kent is vegetarian, though many of the foods -- mom's knaidlach and grandma's farfel muffins -- stayed the same.

Finally, they switched to a different haggadah, and the transition seemed to be complete.

With change coming slowly and organically, Goor said his mother and grandmother never felt pushed aside or left out, and always participated.

"My mother's way of resisting was to make these little editorial comments along the way about how good seder used to be, or what an unusual way of doing things," Goor said. "My grandmother was more outspoken. She would come out and say 'I don't like this haggadah. I liked it better the other way.'"

This year there will be another transition. Goor's grandmother died at 91 a few years ago, and his mother died just a few months ago at the age of 71. Seder will be a low-key affair this year.

"I'm avoiding it totally. I keep pretending it will happen on its own," Goor said.

It was a slow transition for Jeanne Weiner's family after Beryl, her husband of 27 years, died four years ago.

Beryl had been central to the family seder since they moved to California from New York more than 30 years ago, after Jeanne's marriage to Joelle's father ended.

"Beryl had a real gift for drawing people out and making them comfortable so they wanted to talk," said Keene, the music teacher and newspaper adviser at Shalhevet High School, who lives in Beverlywood with her husband and three teenagers.

After Beryl died, the family seder sputtered a bit, not only because of Beryl's death, but because Keene and her family became much more observant, scaring away her two sisters and her mother from a seder that they imagined would start late and take forever.

But eventually they gave it a try. Last year the whole family was together again -- with adjustment and accommodations to new religious realities, kids of many ages and the absence of Beryl's guidance.

"Last year was the first time everyone came and we had a really big seder here. I remember feeling that this was like the first real one, because everyone was here," Keene said.

Weiner still does some of the cooking -- she's used the same matzah ball recipe for decades, and the chopped liver stays on the menu. Not only do the plates and bowls come from her, but so does the sense of style and care with which the table is set, and the general love of entertaining she passed to her three daughters.

"Those are things that transitioned down the generations very seamlessly, especially since my mother is here to help us and to congratulate us when we get it right and correct us when we get it wrong," Keene said.

Keene, who is now Orthodox and uses the full text of the haggadah, has tried to replace the haggadah she and Beryl composed when she was 18, but nothing has seemed quite right yet. With kids ranging in age from a baby to teenagers, and religious observance covering the spectrum, coming up with the right balance, timing and tone is challenging.

But Keene is determined to make it work.

"I feel pressure to make seder really wonderful -- it should be terrific, fun, uplifting, interesting, relaxed, memorable -- the list of adjectives is so long," Keene said. In other words, to make seder just like Mom.

But Weiner encourages her daughter to create a seder that is all her own.

"I think what you are trying to and have emulated is the feeling rather than the fact of our seders -- the lasting impression of it, which was that you loved it and it was good, and that is what you are recapturing," Weiner said. "But you are creating your own, and frankly that is as it should be. It's nice to pass on dishes, but do things in your home the way you want them to be done in your home."

Keene is happy to make it her own, but like any daughter of any age, she still wants Mom's approval.

"Is there anything good about the seders here?" Keene asks her mom. "You said the food was good."

"No, I didn't even say the food was good," Weiner answers, deadpan. "I said what was good about the seder was that the family is here. That is the most important thing."

"Well, you said I do a good job on the table," Keene submits.

"You said it and I agreed. Don't misquote me," her mother fires back.

They go at it for a few more minutes, until finally Weiner caves in with the smile and love that was there all along.

"It's warm and friendly and welcoming and the food is delicious. The family is here and the table is beautiful. What more could anyone ask?" Weiner says.

"Thanks," says Keene, with a relieved laugh. "Thank you. I needed that."

Andrea Adelson contributed to this article.

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