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A Passover Do-Over

The third Seder was once an American tradition, with a sense of community and politics that set it apart from the first two

Jenna Weissman Joselit
April 05, 2017
Photo courtesy The Workmen's Circle
Photo courtesy The Workmen’s Circle
Photo courtesy The Workmen's Circle
Photo courtesy The Workmen’s Circle

We American Jews are a funny lot, given to celebrating tradition and undermining it all at once. In the name of freedom, personal autonomy, or that other supreme American value known as convenience, we adjust age-old practices to suit our modern selves.

Keeping kosher too onerous? Let’s hear it for kosher-style. Sitting shiva for seven days too much of an encumbrance? How about limiting the ritual to a weekday evening, between the hours of, say, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.?

We’ve even taken to tinkering with the calendar, with time itself. In the early years of the 20th century, when a five-day work week was a dream rather than an economic reality, attending synagogue on Saturday proved to be a hardship for many would-be congregants. Sensitive to their needs, a number of rabbis shifted Shabbos to Sunday, instituting divine services on the Lord’s Day.

In our day, we’re prepared and even eager to move the Seder from the 14th of Nisan to whatever date on the calendar works best for the family. I already know of several households that have opted this year, independently of one another, to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt on the Sunday before the Monday when Pesach actually commences. It’s easier that way.

I don’t doubt that these cultural improvisations, especially those that have to do with the calendar, are well-intentioned; after all, they arise out of deeply felt domestic and logistical needs. But tradition, they ain’t. Of the moment as well as an expression of the grassroots, they’re not likely to be passed on; they’re spontaneous and exigent, not enduring.

Sometimes, though, a new form of expression or a new practice does take hold—and widely. Consider, for instance, the third Seder. A supplement to, rather than a substitute for, the ritually enjoined first and second Seder commonly observed outside of Israel, it was usually held during the latter part of Pesach.

More of a communal gathering, a public event, than an intimate family occasion, its origins date to the interwar years. In a replay of that era’s cultural politics, when both socialism and Zionism held high carnival among East European Jewish immigrants in the New World, some attribute its creation to the Arbeter Ring, the Workmen’s Circle; other, equally insistent voices, credit Farband, the Labor Zionists. There’s no consensus, either, on when the third Seder made its debut. Some say 1922, others 1927, and still others aren’t sure whether it’s 1932 or 1937.

No matter. At some point within a few years of one another, both communal organizations harnessed the structure and sensibility of the traditional Seder—or, more to the point, perhaps, that of the model Seder conducted in their respective afternoon schools—to their own ends. Emending, interpolating, politicizing, contemporizing, and theatricalizing the venerable haggadah, the Arbeter Ring produced a text called naye hagode shel peysakh (the new Passover haggadah); the Farband, in turn, produced its own Hagode shel paysakh farn driten Seder (Passover haggadah for the third Seder).

For all their ideological differences—which were many and deep—both versions placed a premium on modernizing and rendering relevant ancient Jewish history. The Farband linked the age-old story of deliverance to the establishment of a just and equitable homeland for the Jews, while the Arbeter Ring, for its part, linked the same story to the struggle for economic justice and political freedom more generally. To explain why the organization came up with its own version of the haggadah, a longtime member of the Arbeter Ring put it this way: “Tradition evoked the story of the Exodus from a Torah perspective, not from the perspective of the labor movement.”

Well into the 1980s, people in New York and Chicago turned out in droves for the annual third Seder of their choice, held in a hotel ballroom grand enough to accommodate over 1,000 guests. For a generation or two, the event drew a crowd even in places where the number of Jews was much smaller. They came for the camaraderie, not the food: to lay claim to and celebrate a common history, a shared ideology, and a better future.

And they came to linger. By most accounts, the third Seder was an all-day affair. With speeches galore, largely in Yiddish, recitations of the revamped haggadah, musical presentations, theatrical skits, and folk dancing, it went on for hours. Near as I can tell, no one grumbled about the lengthy proceedings, or, bored, left the table wondering when dinner would be served. (That would be my Uncle Abe who, true to form, peevishly asked the inevitable “fifth question”—when do we eat? —at every single Seder, no matter its pace.)

A haven, a sheltering canopy, the third Seder enabled its celebrants to extend the warmth and magic of the holiday as well as its ongoing meaningfulness a bit further—and within the extended company of their own kind.

Today, neither the Workmen’s Circle nor the Farband—which goes by a new name, Ameinu—holds a grand, public third Seder. A casualty of both mortality and sociology, that type of communal expression no longer appeals to contemporary American Jews who prefer intimacy to pageantry. That’s not to say that the third Seder has vanished entirely from the landscape. It hasn’t. But it endures on a smaller and much more localized scale. I suspect, too, that the third Seder is a victim of its own success: Once an anomaly, the integration of social justice issues and current affairs into the first and second Seder has become almost de rigueur.

I never attended either the Arbeter Ring or the Farband’s third Seder. But on several occasions over the years, I’ve attended a third version of the third Seder hosted by two longtime friends, Debby and Melvin Neumark. Held at their graciously appointed Upper West Side apartment on the seventh day of Pesach, it took the form of an après-synagogue, leisurely lunch at which the Seder was evoked rather than enacted.

Because most of us around the table had attended to and dispensed with the Seder’s formal ritual and familiar obligations earlier in the week, we could now relax. Surrounded by friends, we could dip into and expound on favorite passages of the haggadah without watching the clock (or Uncle Abe’s face); reprise favorite holiday melodies and happily quaff numerous glasses of wine without counting. The stakes were low, the gratification high.

I never got around to asking my hosts how they came up with the notion of a third Seder. I was too busy enjoying its high spirits, lively conversation and good food, including a tasting menu of charoset. And now it’s too late: Debby Neumark, alas, died a few months ago. But from what her family, especially her beloved husband of over 65 years, tells me, the third Seder was her way of both honoring and sustaining the momentum of the holiday, keeping it going after the excitement of the first and second Seder had dissipated.

The more I think about that observation, the closer I come to understanding the appeal of the third Seder. Whether celebrated at home or in a hotel ballroom, it was and continues to be the ultimate do-over. Perhaps the first and maybe even the second Seder didn’t quite live up to your expectations. The kids misbehaved, the matzo balls fell apart, the expensive floral centerpiece wilted prematurely, the latest version of the “must-have” haggadah lacked oomph, the guests were insufficiently appreciative of the effort you put into making the evening just right.

The third Seder offered another chance at redemption. Let’s grab it.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.