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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Seder: A Family Passover Story

Though the faces at Seders may change, family traditions—hopefully—remain with us forever

Joni Blinderman
April 18, 2016

The other night I fell asleep with Passover on my mind.

The holiday has been my personal marker, a ritual bridge between the darkness of winter and the light of spring. But this past winter was marked by unusual amounts of angst, restlessness, and loss: the cloud of aging parents, the passing of a beloved aunt, and a barrage of friends and family facing serious health issues has left me in a spiritual and existential funk. Now, as Passover approaches, I wonder, and hope. Will the holiday’s opportunities for eternal conversation offer me the meanings I seek? Could it nudge me forward from the realities of everyday life?

Though I fell asleep feeling a little desperate, I awoke the next morning feeling lighter, thankful my distress had been replaced by a new possibility in charting my life’s compass. I had had a powerful, invigorating dream.

In it, my Aunt sang Passover songs at an old family Seder in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her beautiful voice resonated from the center of a long table surrounded by people whose faces were hidden from view. I instantly recognized the shape of the room and the dark mahogany wooden beams. It was my childhood home. I also knew, from the spot where she sat, that the year was 1998.

I wrote about this particular Seder in a family journal right after it took place. I noted: “This Seder is the one that will seep into our collective consciousness. I will remind my children of that night so that they will share the memory with their own children. It will be a telling of joy and laughter, of warmth, of leadership and of unconditional love.”

I still puzzle over the secret sauce of that Seder. Why is the memory so powerful? As the details flood back, most recently from my dream, I recall that that Seder was the last time so many of my aunts and uncles were able to celebrate with my own young family, including my three children. After that year, my elder family members—our patriarchs and matriarchs—passed on, one by one.

Their stories of the “old country,” indelible parts of my identity, have become fainter with each passing year. Knowing this rattles my foundation. This year, I will lead my family’s Seder in Brookline for the first time in many years. I wonder how I will build new blocks of memory for my family now. I lose sleep over it.

During the Seder of ’98, I remember that my father was so overjoyed at being surrounded by his beloved family. His eyes welled up with tears as he recited the Kiddush. He held the same Kiddush cup that I hold every Shabbat and holiday. He led us through the telling while encouraging all to participate, especially the youngest. My son recited the four questions for the first time. My mother and aunt told stories of their youth and of Seders gone by.

I remember, too, that ’98 was the year my aunt forgot the melodies to several of the Seder songs we had always sung when I was a child. I had hoped she would be able to teach my children the melodies. My brother and I tried to recall the tune but instead ended up chanting an incomprehensible cacophony of sounds. I can still hear her laugh as she said, “I don’t think that is how it is supposed to go.” She found the melody a few moments later, dim at first and then her face lit up. She smiled. Her voice became stronger and louder. My heart lifted. We all joined in. We continued on through the night, suspended in time and space.

Some 18 years have passed since that night. I wish I could wake up on April 22, the first evening of Passover this year, and see my father lifting his Kiddush cup, and hear my aunt singing the songs whose tunes I cannot remember. I am hopeful that we will hear my remarkable mother recall the stories I love so much. But I wonder for how much longer she’ll be able to manage to fill the role of family historian.

And yet, even as I worry, I also have faith—in myself and in my glorious children. As I write this, I gaze over at my daughter, who is in from college for Spring break, as she lays on the couch, deep in discussion with her brother about whether or not go to Israel to work with at-risk children, or go to Florida to work in an institute devoted to diabetes research. He suggests going on an extended road trip and having fun. (Something he reminds me that he didn’t do.) I smile turn my attention to my other son, who is describes the details of an education start-up he leads, which focuses on mindfulness and stress reduction.

This is the wonderful stuff of our family; a family we have built on our belief in the future and on the strength we have gained from generations past. I realized, at that very moment, that there was no secret sauce that night that I needed to bottle. The elixir for my funk exists in the wonderful and complex relationships of today.

The constellation of my family has changed in ways I could never have predicted—some have moved far away, others have changed partners and started over, and still others have lost their connection to rituals. I now understand that my aunt’s melodies and the vibrant memories of family connection shared every spring are calling me to embrace change and to become the leader my parents would have expected. This year, like my father used to do, I will lift the Kiddush cup with joy and encourage us all to sing loud and clear. I will encourage the youngest at our table to participate and for all of us to ask old and new questions and contemplate the world, and how we can participate in its repair.

And I imagine that, when I look around the table at my now grown children and extended family, we will be able to tell a powerful story of one family’s journey through the narrow places on the way to our Sinai. Together.

Joni Blinderman is Associate Director of The Covenant Foundation, a philanthropy dedicated to innovation in Jewish education. She and her family live in Teaneck, NJ.