Jewish Journal

The Sedermakers

When responsibility for ritual moves from one generation to the next, emotions abound.

by Julie G Fax

Posted on Apr. 1, 2004 at 7:00 pm

It's not that Jeanne Weiner wanted Aunt Leonie's Indian Tree dishes for herself. She hadn't used the hand-painted china in five years -- since just before her husband died -- and last Passover she was on the verge of giving the entire service for 31 to her daughter Joelle Keene, who had taken charge of the family seder.

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."

The emotions heaped on a set of seder dishes shouldn't be surprising.

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.

"It is a sign that things are changing, that the power of the older generation is fading, that the end of that generation is coming and that a new generation has to take over," said Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein, associate rabbi at Beit T'Shuva.

The question of who is making seder and how becomes symbolic of whatever is going on in a family. Whether the transition occurs because of death, illness, new geographic realities or simply a readiness to retire, it means changing a ritual whose very focus is the continuity of generations.

"We in America have gotten used to handing our children over to institutions to get their education, but this is one instance where the family has to take a role in presenting something that is so deep and so educational," Feinstein said.

She suggests making the transition in stages, if circumstances allow, and making sure that not only is the recipient ready to take on the enormous task, but that the one giving up sedermaking responsibilities is really ready to do so.

When Don Goor's mother, Stephanie Goor, finally stopped shlepping 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 started 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 her never-changing marks in her leader's haggadah. And each year Stephanie brought over the box of stuff, and for years took 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 L.A., 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.

For many, who is not at the seder is as important as who is. Beyond the rawness of missing loved ones, the cycling of the generations can have a strong psychological impact on those who take over -- even when it is not because someone has died.

"Before, there was this buffer between you and your own mortality, but then when you take ownership, you are the matriarch, you are the patriarch and there is no buffer between you and the end of your cycle," Feinstein 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 Weiner's first marriage 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 had become 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 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.

Keene has tried to replace the haggadah she and Beryl composed when she was 18, but nothing has seemed quite right yet. With cousins 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. 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," Weiner said.

Keene is happy to make it her own, but like any daughter of any age, 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.

"The seder is 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."  

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