The month after my husband and I split up in 2012, I hosted a Passover Seder for 13 people— most of whom I didn’t know. It was really important to me that this Seder work. It felt like a test-drive, somehow, of my ability to be single and to maintain a homey home life on my own.
My husband and I had entertained all the time when we were married. It was one of the things I liked best about our marriage. He had a huge circle of friends, which I loved, and we were the couple who hosted the parties. The best part of a party was the cleanup afterward: My husband would do the dishes, and I’d sit at the table, picking at the leftovers, and we’d talk about who came, and what they wore, and what they said. I could still feel the energy from all our friends reverberating off the walls, filling the room. I often felt lonely in my marriage, but I never felt lonely after a party. Cleaning up together always made me feel most at home in my house, and in my life.
I wanted the separation—and probably to go through with the actual divorce, which we did; after living apart for a few years, we legally divorced in 2015. But still, I was worried about some specific things. Could I still host a party? Would anyone come? Could I support myself again, as a freelance writer, living in Hoboken, just outside the most expensive city the country? How would our 4-year-old son do? Would men find me attractive, as a 45-year-old single mother? I wasn’t getting divorced to pursue some Sex and the City wild, single life. I’d done that—in my 20s and 30s. I’d come to domesticity late. We’d been together since 2000, but I’d just gotten married in 2005, at age 39. I’d just had a child, just learned to cook. I didn’t want to lose all that.
Passover is all about the quest for freedom. Everyone always talks about freedom as the greatest goal, the highest good, the ultimate right. But freedom is a difficult prize; you don’t know what’s on the other side. We Jews wandered for 40 years after fleeing the bondage of Egypt. I did not want to spend my next 40 years wandering around in some desert of alone-ness.
I’m not a big fan of Passover, actually. I’ve never felt right about the plagues. I totally understand the frustration of asking someone to do something, repeatedly, and he just keeps refusing or stonewalling—or maybe he starts criticizing you, condemning your work ethic, and questioning why you’re getting certified to teach Zumba when you should really be sending out résumés to get a better job. I understand the need to leave. But I don’t think you retaliate with locusts and famine and killing his first-born.
I also don’t like the tension between the discussion and the dinner. A Seder is set up so that you can have a stimulating conversation or eat. The longer you talk, the longer it takes before dinner is served. You are salivating—you can smell the brisket in the next room—but you have one more thing you need to say! Who invented this holiday? I do not believe that Jews would create a holiday pitting discourse against dinner. This is not a Jewish idea.
I didn’t particularly like Passover, but for the past 12 years, I’d not liked it with my husband. Celebrating or not was something we’d done together. Now I had to decide what I would do, and what I wanted to do for our son, alone.
The idea to host a Seder came about while I was emailing with my friend Abby, a successful, single writer in Manhattan, someone who seemed like a good role model for me as a single woman, at this age. We were emailing about dating, which I was going to try. This led to a discussion about being single on the holidays, and what we were doing for Passover. Abby’s parents would be in New York City, it turned out, and they needed a home to go to for the Seder. I had a big, empty home—the three-story, 19th-century townhouse I’d stayed in with our son and our little parti-poodle, Paco, after my husband moved into a studio a few blocks away. Maybe I could host the Seder for Abby and her parents? And her younger brother, Ray. And a friend of her brother. And Abby’s friend David, and his wife and child, and his father. Abby assured me that if I hosted, they’d all help cook. Ray, who was also single, was “really into” leading Seders, she said.
There were men out there who were “really into” leading Seders? I found that idea exciting. Ray and I started emailing about the details. He wrote up a list of everything we needed, and who would bring what. This list included things like horseradish, gefilte fish, and noodle kugel. I found his use of the word “kugel” very attractive. He sent me a link to a recipe from Martha Stewart for a classic Jewish stew made with sweet potatoes and prunes. I found his interest in prune stew pretty sexy.
Ray and I talked on the phone. He had a friendly, familiar voice. We talked so long one night that I had to get ready for bed while still on the phone. I brushed my teeth, turned away from the phone to spit, then continued, “But I think we should go light on the plagues.” He agreed.
I finally met Ray when they all arrived for the Seder. He was tall and slender. He had dark hair and a big smile. He looked like Abby; Abby’s cute. We sat down at the big wooden table in my cozy, yellow-walled kitchen. The silk chandelier cast a warm, protective light over us. Ray was at one end of the table, and I was at the other. There were two sets of parents there. They weren’t my parents, but still, the evening felt homey, familial. The service he led was short, but touched on the important points. We didn’t dwell on the plagues. The dinner was good. We had matzo ball soup, brisket, salmon with dill, charoset. I could still cook, it turned out, even as an almost-single woman.
Then, after all that preparation, it was over rather quickly. Abby’s family wanted to get back to Manhattan before traffic got too bad. They filed out. I shut the wooden door behind them, and stood looking at the brass door knob. That was it? That was the Seder? Did that “prove” anything to me about my future life?
There was a knock on the door. It was Ray. He’d forgotten the Seder plate in the kitchen. We found the plate, then stood in the hallway for a few minutes, congratulating ourselves on our great collaboration. I leaned against the mahogany staircase railing, looking up at this handsome, somewhat familiar man. Men liked me the last time I was single, I reminded myself. Maybe I should take a risk. “Maybe we should try working on something else together,” I said, tilting my head.
Ray looked at down at me for a minute. “We could go out to dinner together,” he said.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “That would be a great team project.”
He stood there for a moment, then leaned over and kissed me. Which I really wanted him to do. I was attracted to him. And I was also relieved. There was at least one another man out there who was cute, and smart, who seemed interested in me, who maybe I could like. I wasn’t looking to run from my husband to another man, but the possibility of liking someone gave me hope.
After Ray left, I went back into my kitchen. There were dishes everywhere, wine glasses on my desk, chocolate cake smeared across the wooden table. I went to the sink and started rinsing plates. I loaded the dishwasher, which had always been my husband’s job. It’s not that hard to clean up after a party by yourself, it turns out. Norah Jones was playing on Pandora. When I was married, we often played Norah Jones after a party. Listening to the music, standing in the kitchen, I could still feel the energy from all those guests filling the room. The house still felt full, even without my husband. I still had that satiated feeling, that deep awareness that I am not alone.
I stepped back from the sink, suddenly a little teary-eyed. I wasn’t crying in sadness, exactly. More with a kind of gratitude. The feeling I had was: Here I am! I often couldn’t see myself in my marriage, but I was starting to again.
But I think I was crying from sadness, too. Because what that dinner party showed me was that I could do it. I could cook and host and clean up. I could be a single woman, a solo mom, in her 40s. I could make our trial separation permanent, and I’d be OK. Freedom is a thorny prize, and it looked like I was going to choose it, with its brambles and wandering and uncertainty and all.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.