April 2, 2009
The Next Big Question...
What It Really Takes to Get Your Seder Going
The seder is all about questions. The evening starts with the famous four, asked by the youngest present, but if the seder is what it should be, it doesn’t stop there. Everyone around the table — from the youngest all the way to the oldest — is encouraged to dissect, debate and shamelessly pontificate over each bit of the haggadah and over any part of Jewish tradition, ideally well into the night.
Of course, asking a question good enough to ignite meaningful conversation is no easy task.
Just look at the haggadah’s four sons. The Wicked Child asks the question wrong, with his impertinent “What’s it to you?” The Simple Child doesn’t really excite anyone with his timid “whassup with all this?”
And the sorriest of them all is the kid who can’t get a word edgewise into the eternal conversation — the one who doesn’t even know how to ask a question.
And there, the haggadah instructs, help him out — get him started.
To help our readers bring substantive and invigorating conversation to the seder this Passover, The Jewish Journal asked some professional questioners — a lawyer, radio and television talk show hosts, newspaper columnists, journalists, a rabbi — about the best ways to move a discussion forward.
“If I’m interviewing somebody, I really want to know what they have to say, and I want them to say it in the most articulate and compelling way. My role is not to sound tough, but to invite that,” said Krista Tippett, who produces and hosts “Speaking of Faith,” an American Public Media weekly radio show that airs in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoons on 89.3 FM KPCC.
“So much of what passes for conversation or questioning in our public life actually shuts down what people might have to say. It puts them on the defensive and limits discussion,” she said.
Tippett engages in long conversations with her guests, following their lead as the discussion progresses.
“It’s a discipline, but a very rewarding discipline, to let yourself be guided by what answers come out. And it’s also a little scary, because you lose control,” Tippett said. “But that can be the amazing thing about conversation. There are things you can put into words in the presence of other people or in response to a question that you didn’t know you thought before.”
Getting people to talk about issues of faith and belief requires a specific kind of entry point, she said. She cites a story she heard years ago from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of 15 books. Kushner asked some high school students if they believed in God. No hands went up. Then he asked whether anyone had ever experienced God. Hands shot up — “when my mother lights Shabbat candles,” “when my grandmother died,” the students told him.
“It’s more vivid and more human to talk about experience than if someone asks you ‘What do you believe?’ That’s such a daunting question, and most of us are not going to be able to do it justice,” Tippett said.
Tippett, who is not Jewish, has attended seders, and she appreciates the way the conversation is grounded in text and experience.
“One of the things that begins even before the questioning is you have to have a quiet, inviting, trustworthy space, where not only can the questions be posed, but where people can feel safe enough to really hear those questions and internalize them,” Tippett said.
Of course, quiet and safe isn’t what you find at many family seders, where raucous ritual is more common than moments of contemplation.
In fact, the usual style of seder conversation, with family and friends raising their voices and interrupting one another — mostly in friendly good humor — could easily be compared to what happens on NBC’s “The View,” with all of the four or five co-hosts, plus guests, vying to be heard.
So here’s some practical advice from the show’s Joy Behar: “You basically have to jump in, because if you wait for people to take a breath, you’ll never get a word in.”
Behar isn’t Jewish, but she attended seders when she was married to her ex-husband, a Sephardic Jew. The main difference between conversations on “The View” and at a seder, she said, is that TV limits how much time you have to talk, while seder conversations can go on and on.
But there are keys to carrying on an interesting back and forth, she said.
“The main thing in a conversation is curiosity and follow up. You have to have curiosity about the person you are talking to. Nobody likes anything more than talking about themselves. People love that, and they’re interested to say what they think. If you are interested to hear what they have to say, you’re already on second base. And the follow up requires listening — listening, listening, listening is probably the most important part.”
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz usually has about 75 guests at his seder, including many professors and students. And all of them have to be ready to fight back, he said.
“I cross-examine people who think they have the perfect answer,” Dershowitz said. “I don’t let them get away with the first answer — I demand a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth.”
Questions fly around the Dershowitz seder.
How can you blame Pharaoh for continuing to enslave the Israelites when God hardened his heart? Do Jews really believe there is an evil child? What kind of God would kill the eldest born? What is the score of the Red Sox game? (That last question usually needs to be cleverly smuggled in through some Jewish-sounding ruse.)
“The other thing we do is we go around the table and invite anyone, particularly non-Jews, to ask the hardest question they want to ask, which gives us a perspective from people who have never been to a seder before,” Dershowitz said.
One year his seder put Pharaoh on trial, with Dershowitz defending Pharaoh, and everyone else on the prosecution. When God didn’t comply with Dershowitz’s subpoena, Pharaoh got off.
Every week, Deborah Solomon writes a Q&A column for The New York Times Magazine. Her tactics are a little more subtle, but still directed, as she grills her interviewees in the weekly “Questions For ...” column — 620 words of pithy and sharp exchanges whose timely subjects have ranged from retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to film director David Lynch. The conversations appear deceptively casual, as her quirky questions lead to unexpected insights into her subject’s personalities.
“There are things I want to know,” Solomon said. “I don’t see interviewing as a game. Some people see it as a post-modern game, in which one person is seeking and the other person is withholding. I really want information — I’m curious. I love knowledge and information,” Solomon said.
“I try to get people to talk about subjects that are not part of their natural public discourse, to speak candidly about issues and other people in their lives. I want them to be interesting,” she said.
Solomon — who is so enamored of questions and answers that her cell’s ring tone is the “Jeopardy” tune — doesn’t believe in open-ended questions or questions for their own sake.
“A lot of people say ‘questions are more interesting than answers.’ That’s a shibboleth. There is a certain aura surrounding questions, but I like answers. I think there are answers to questions,” she said.
She admits that at her own chaotic family seder, most of the questioning is done by the kids.
“We’re more likely to argue over which of the girls dented the fender on my father’s car in 1973 than debate contemporary interpretations of freedom and slavery,” she said, though she loves hearing her two teenage sons use the Hebrew they learned at Jewish day school.
“It’s a nice tradition, children asking questions of adults, because it insists on harmony between the generations,” she said. “There is not enough question-asking in everyday life, where people are more likely to retreat into silence than pose a question.”
Keeping curiosity alive is a key part of interpersonal connections, our questioners said.
“One of the best parts of my job as president of the university is meeting new people and getting to hear their stories. I always learn something from people’s stories,” said Robert Wexler, president of American Jewish University.
He has honed his interviewing skills over the past few years in AJU’s Public Lecture Series, where he’s talked with the likes of President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Karl Rove in front of thousands of people.
At Wexler’s seder, everyone comes with commentaries on the haggadah that might open conversations on ethical issues. Personalizing those texts can transform the evening.
“Everybody has to see themselves in the discussion. If the discussion is just abstract, I don’t think it is as meaningful,” Wexler said.
That is a principal Larry Mantle uses when he interviews guests on his daily morning show “AirTalk” on the public radio station, 89.3 FM KPCC. He regularly covers topics from politics to film, popular arts issues and new books.
“One of the things that I try to do is to bring my own questions about the world to the conversation I have with a guest. I’m inquisitive about any topic you can imagine, so what I hope, when I’m conducting an interview with the guest, is that they sense my real interest in who they are and what they have to share,” Mantle said.
Mantle’s colleague, Patt Morrison, a longtime Los Angeles Times columnist who has her own eponymous afternoon show on KPCC, adds that interviewers must do their homework to know their subject well enough — and listen attentively enough — to be able to ask incisive follow up questions.
“An interview is really a conversation with a purpose — the destination may remain the same throughout the interview, but the interviewer has to be flexible and willing to take a different path, or several different paths, to arrive there,” she said. “It’s also the obligation of the interviewer to challenge the boilerplate, pat answers to get behind them — follow-up questions like ‘What does that mean, exactly?’ make the interviewee give more thought to answers that might have been automatically proffered.”
Which, it seems, is what the Wise Child does in the haggadah. The first answer to the Four Questions — “Because we were slaves in Egypt” — isn’t enough for the Wise Child. She wants to know what each and every law and ritual and obscure statement means. And to her, the haggadah says, “teach.”
“I’m not aware of any other religious celebration or any other tradition where the mitzvah of the day is discussion,” AJU’s Wexler said. “That is why Passover is my favorite holiday — because it’s an invitation to have an intellectual discussion. We do all kinds of rituals at the seder, but the main theme of the day is ve’higadetah le’vinchah, to tell this story to your children, and that means discussion. The discussion is the worship.”
The Fifth Question
by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer
Passover’s Four Questions have long been the launching point for an evening of conversation on a range of subjects, from ones as detailed as precisely how many plagues God dumped on the Egyptians, to lofty and abstract topics like the meaning of freedom.
The Jewish Journal challenged a group of professional questioners — lawyers, journalists, rabbis — to contribute one or more questions to the conversation, a Fifth Question to help spur discussion at this year’s seder tables:
Alan Dershowitz,Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University:
Why, after so many thousands of years, can’t the world finally accept a Jewish nation living in peace on its own land?
“I think that is a conversation that needs to happen. Another way of framing the same question is, ‘Why does the world expect so much more of Jews and the Jewish nation than they do of anyone else and any other nation?’ Or, a third way of putting it is, ‘Why has anti-Semitism persisted for so many centuries?’”
Deborah Solomon,Columnist for The New York Times Magazine:
Is the greatest Diaspora of Jewish history taking place right now on the Upper West Side of Manhattan?
“As I see my neighbor, Phillip Roth, buy his groceries every day, and as I see him traipsing up Columbus Avenue murmuring to himself, no doubt about the paragraph he just finished writing, I often wonder, ‘Is this the greatest Jewish Diaspora? Has there ever been a moment like this scene in New York, which is so full of literary promise and intellectual accomplishment? What other moment in history can compare to this one?”
Robert Wexler,President of American Jewish University:
How do we define our net worth?
“I started to hate that term in the last couple months. I had never focused on it before, never realized what a horrible term it is. I would like to talk about how net worth is not about how much you possess.”
Larry Mantle, Host of “AirTalk,” weekdays 10 a.m.-noonon 89.3 FM KPCC:
What in your life touches you most? To what are you most emotionally open, and why? To what are you most closed?
“I think the answers to these questions say a great deal about a person…. I think one of the problems we have is an increasing unwillingness by many people to listen to people where they have a disagreement. It’s really important for all of us to analyze where we are closed. What are the things we won’t bother with, or are threatened by hearing? Life is so much more interesting, so much more dynamic when we expose ourselves to things outside of our bubbles.”
Krista Tippett, Producer and Host of American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith,” airing Sundays 3-4 p.m. on 89.3 FM KPCC:
Who will we be for each other?
“That is the question that’s been on my mind, and been given voice by a number of people as we’ve been talking about the economic crisis and how we are going to live through it and beyond it. Religious traditions, and certainly Judaism, are keepers of those kinds of questions and have minded them and refined them and lived through different permutations of them. It has a new kind of resonance as the fundamental certainties and securities of our reality are so shaky.”
Joy Behar, Co-host of NBC’s “The View”:
Do you think that there is any meaning to being here, to life, or is it the existentialist position of the meaninglessness of it all, and if so, how do we deal with that meaninglessness?
“It’s not an up question, it’s not a fun question, but it is a question that Sartre and a lot of existentialists confronted. I think it is appropriate at a religious ceremony to question if there is any reason why we are here or not. If there is no reason, what are we going to do with that? And if there is a reason, what is the reason? There is a place at the table for an existentialist, I think.”
Deborah Solomon suggests one topic that very likely everyone will be discussing this year, with all its underlying questions:
“The most popular seder questions of 2009 will be: Did Ruth Madoff know? Did the sons know? Does the money still exist? Where is all the Madoff money?”