April 20, 2011
A seder for broken Jews
The big fashion of recent times has been to rewrite or repackage the Passover haggadah to fit our individual tastes. If you’re vegetarian, there is the “Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb”; if you’re interested in Buddhism, there is the “Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists: A Passover Ritual”; if your thing is spiritual traditions, there is “The Santa Cruz Haggadah: A Passover Haggadah, Coloring Book, and Journal for the Evolving Consciousness”; for all you social justice lovers, there is Arthur Waskow’s “Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah for Passover”; if you are gay, you can try “Like an Orange on a Seder Plate: Our Lesbian Haggadah”; and if you don’t believe in God, don’t worry, you can get “The Liberated Haggadah: A Passover Celebration for Cultural, Secular and Humanistic Jews.”
There are literally hundreds of others, but you get the point — one of the modern freedoms we celebrate at Passover is the freedom to create our own haggadah. This is so wonderfully American — a craving to inject our personal identities into everything.
It’s as if Passover were a time to break down our collective Jewish identity into individual morsels of sub-identities that we can feel more comfortable with.
The Master Story of the Jews, then, becomes the Master Story of Me. I celebrate not the story of my people, but how I have adapted that story to fit my own story, my own modern identity.
What does this say about Jewish identity in the first place? Is it not enough to carry the day for so many American Jews — or is it too much?
Leon Wieseltier, in his book “Against Identity,” writes, “I am always at a disadvantage toward my own tradition. I am not only quickened by my intimacy with what I have been given, I am also dulled by it. I lack the wakefulness of the stranger. I should conduct myself toward the tradition to which I have fallen heir like an actor who has played a scene poorly: I should go out and come in again.”
Too many American Jews have gone out but have not come in again. They haven’t come in because they see no reason to. For 364 days a year, they live out their chosen identities, identities that were chosen to carry few burdens or complications.
Then comes seder night, the night of their ancestors, when they come face-to-face with the ancient story of their people, and, somehow, it feels a little weird — a little too close for comfort. It may be hazy, mythical and distant, but it can’t easily be dismissed. This is, after all, the story that nourished their bubbes and zaydes going back many centuries.
It’s a spiritual showdown: Who shall surrender? Shall I become the story or shall the story become me? Shall I become my grandparents or shall they become me?
It’s not an easy call. As Wieseltier writes, “Identity thrives on facts: you are the child of this man and this woman, this neighborhood, this town, this nation, this faith, this country. But there is one fact to which identity is oblivious, and that is the fact of individuation: you are nobody else and nobody else is you.”
Maybe this helps explain the mysterious power of Jewish identity — we are a family with the seed of individuation: We are nobody else, and nobody else is us.
And yet, in this great American nation that has smothered us with acceptance, Jewish identity has easily morphed into: We are everybody, and everybody is us.
Ironically, Passover, the unique Jewish story, has fallen all over itself to dull its Jewish uniqueness. The rationale for this is proper and utterly predictable: By making it more universal, or more personally relevant, we make it more Jewish. This truism is now a modern sacred cow.
But it’s a truism that can take us very far from the womb, and it’s one that doesn’t get me in the kishkes. It’s a little too perfect, a little too correct. Why can’t Passover become a little more Jewish-Jewish? A time when we can look inward rather than outward; a time to assess how we are doing as a family; when we can recount our master story and use it to bring us closer together.
Next year, someone ought to create a Haggadah of Broken Jews. This one would celebrate the incredible variety of our people from across time and cultures and offer interpretations from as many different sources as possible. Thankfully, the haggadah is long enough to allow for a very diverse list of Jewish thinkers, ideas and traditions that would enrich the evening with the glow of peoplehood.
In addition to all the symbols of the evening, I would also add an empty chair.
This empty chair would be there to remind us of the Jew or Jews we don’t talk to. As long as that chair stays there, empty, we will never forget that we are still a broken people, still working to fulfill the Passover ideal of uniting for a common destiny.
And for those of you who would prefer to express your fondness for Buddhism, social justice or vegetarianism on seder night — hey, you have the rest of the year. Give one night for your people.
Happy Jewish Passover.