A few days ago, Maxine came home from Hebrew school, her face a dark cloud. I found out later she’d spent much of the class sobbing, her face in her hands. Her class had been making matzoh plates from popsicle sticks, Elmer’s glue, and plastic gems. Maxie’s got some motor and sensory issues, and she couldn’t arrange or glue the popsicle sticks properly. She knew what she was supposed to do, and she wanted to do it, but she just couldn’t. Her teacher made her bring home her work, wrapped in aluminum foil, but Maxie wouldn’t let me open the package. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she told me. “I don’t want to look at it. Hide it.”
After she went to bed, I opened the package. I’d seen her friend Rachel’s plate at pickup, so I knew what she was supposed to be making. But instead of a plate, Maxie’s foil package held a jumble of gluey interlaced sticks. It looked like a teepee that had been hit by a tornado.
Maxie is generally the most resilient, least perfectionist member of our family. She’s inherently sunny, a people-pleaser, a kid who compensates for her physical difficulties with tons of goofy humor and sweetness. She loves going to occupational therapy, and she’s eager to keep trying when she has challenges. But this time she was stymied. There was a right answer, one proper way to do the project. She saw herself as a failure. And she was inconsolable.
I couldn’t help seeing a parallel. Passover turns a lot of us into tightly wound loons. There are so many rules, and you can wind up becoming a Jewish Alice, tumbling down a rabbit hole of increasingly twisted and exacting standards. Is the house really as clean as it could be? Is that cheddar cheese really kosher for Passover, or does it have a different designation from last year? Do we do peanuts, which, as Leah Koenig points out, are not actually kitniyot (a category of foodstuffs which Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden from eating on Passover) because they’re a New World food our ancients wouldn’t have known about, but no one will actually certify them kosher for Passover because of tradition? Can we (gasp) buy the freakin’ quinoa? And do I have to unscrew the telephone receiver and clean inside it? Shampoo the furniture? Cover up the artwork in the kitchen with a picture of bread in it? How arcane can we get? As a commenter on Leah’s piece said, “We need a frumkeit Olympics.”
I’m not Queen Machmir (a strict constructionist), but I do get very worked up about the Seder. Since my dad’s death, I’ve led it, and I try to add new songs, poems, and activities every year. I try to incorporate wisdom from my mom, a professor of Jewish education, about making it interactive and engaging for kids. I try to anticipate the children’s questions, even the ones they don’t know to ask. I try to prepare for guests of varying levels of Jewish ritual cluefulness, so everyone will feel welcome. And every Passover at some point I freak out and growl at everybody like Dick Cheney.
So, I was very taken with rabbi Joanna Samuels’ essay in the Forward a few days ago, sharing her own shpilkes. “I am sure there are two or three families out there who spend hours having rich discussions,” she writes ruefully, “who strike their own right balance of ritual and spontaneity, where there is not a bit of family tension about who is serving and clearing, and where the evening ends with singing all of the songs. That would constitute the Seder shel ma’alah–the heavenly Seder. But what most of us attend is the Seder shel matah—the (decidedly) earthly Seder. Among the features of this Seder are eye-rolling teenagers, exhausted children up way past their bedtimes, relatives whose religious observance or lack of religious observance is a source of tension to other family members.”
She confesses that even though every year she wants to focus less on cooking and cleaning and more on “undertaking projects that result in real freedom for real people,” every year she falls short of that mark. Been there, thought that. The Seder shel ma’alah is the Platonic ideal of a Seder: No child throws an afikomen-related tantrum, everyone engages in the host’s carefully thought-out freedom-and-slavery-related discussions, no one spills Cabernet on the Marimekko tablecloth. Since humans can never actually achieve a Platonic ideal, we have to live with imperfection all the time. And, as Neil Farber at the Medical College of Wisconsin points out, this can be hard. When we compare the real to the ideal we wind up unhappy, because, Farber says,“One, we are being mindless; not focusing or being actively aware of or appreciating the present. Two, We are never going to be as happy with what we have when we compare it to some mental idea of what is perfect.”
Chasing perfection—as Tal Ben-Shahar of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya writes in The Pursuit of Perfect—only leads to unhappiness. Ben-Shahar makes a distinction between what he calls perfectionists and optimalists. Both have high standards, but perfectionists think the perfect is reasonable, and immediately seek someone to blame when (surprise!) it remains elusive. Optimalists, on the other hand, live in the real world. They appreciate that limited success is still success. And when things don’t work out, well, they can sit with their own discomfort rather than immediately trying to assess blame. To an optimalist, failure is part of a learning process; the journey is as valuable as the destination.
It’s a similar idea to Samuels’ reflections on the chasm between shel ma’alah and shel matah, the ideal and the real. “My apartment,” Samuels writes, “will be a work in progress; our Seder there will be a blessing by virtue of everyone being around the table. I will breathe. I will take it all in. And hopefully, I can use some of the energy getting more serious about freedom—to try to see myself, in some limited way, as an agent of change in the world, casting my awareness and my resources on those whose needs for freedom remain unmet.” Amen.
Last night I had Maxie make the cover for our haggadah supplement. I worried she wouldn’t want to after her unsuccessful ritual art experience, so I told her to draw whatever she wanted. She made “a girl in a headband with a rose on it standing next to the Red Sea praying.” Very cute. Then I asked her to write “Our Seder, 2011” on it. Perhaps anxious about her unsteady writing messing up her picture, she refused. I let it go. Drawing the picture was enough—dayenu. We know what year it is and whose Seder it is. That’s optimal.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.