A Tale of (Two) Seders

Passover.

The holiday that includes two dinners retelling the Exodus from Egypt. Lots of singing. Lots of Hebrew. Lots of prayers. Lots of food.

I have hosted in the past, attended seders at my synagogue, at a comic’s house, at the top of the Hancock and with friends. This year to get out of hosting, I left Chicago. That’s not entirely true… I had a business trip to New York to speak at Columbia University and I extended it with the hopes I could find a seder to go to.

I covet the indie scene that exists for and by young Jews in New York, DC and San Francisco. It is something I haven’t found or created in Chicago, so when I can I go to New York for Shabbat and this time I extended my trip in the hopes that I could find a meal for the first night in the city. My friend Avi extended an invitation and he and his co-hostess extraordinaire Sara put together quite the feast.

One of the details from the dinner that I plan on stealing in the future is the same detail that made me leave at the earliest possible moment. We were told to bring our favorite Haggadah to the dinner. The Haggadah is the book that contains the story, prayers and song that you read during the dinner. The order is dictated by law and tradition, so while the core text is the same, the side commentary and illustrations change book to book.

I chose a “Free to be you and me” 1970s Haggadah. Funny and appropriate for the time when it was written, it left out parts of the seder and had limited amounts of Hebrew. This would be fine if I was with my friends in Chicago, but at a table including many Pardes alumni, a rabbi, an Israeli and generally deeply Jewishly educated people… it was my downfall.

The book didn’t have all of the sections everyone else had in their books (or knew by heart). I can find my place in a Hebrew text when I listen to other people and there were times when I just frantically flipped through the book, not finding my place. That kicked off some serious self doubt and yelling at myself for not knowing more Hebrew, not being a better Jew, not studying more since my mikvah… and then I spent the next four hours trying not to burst into tears.

Now… I’d also worked myself up before the seder, trying to figure out how to ask “Are there going to be people there that think I shouldn’t touch open bottles of wine and how will you protect me from being shamed at dinner?”

I was too embarrassed to get another book. I was too embarrassed to ever ask if I should keep my hands off the wine. I couldn’t lead any more of the seder than I did (a part in English about the four sons). At a truly lovely seder, I had a vicious inner-monologue going the entire time about not being good enough, not being Jew enough, not being enough to be there or be in the company of those at the table.

I managed to choke back tears at the table, but when dinner ended I grabbed my coat and ran out the door. It was so rude, but I really needed to go have a good cry. I was mortified that I didn’t know the last 15 minutes of prayers and I just needed fresh air. Even now, a week later, I’m crying writing about it. I hate this feeling and wish I had the luxury of a year for full time Jewish study. I don’t and I don’t suppose I ever will.

The next morning there were torrential rains, but my early morning flight arrived in Chicago on time. I did a bit of work and then joined up with one of my girlfriends to co-host a seder with her. I can safely say there were no tears involved, although we had a very intense debate about public Christmas trees and menorahs.

It was a relief to be back on home turf. A table where everyone knows just how Jewish I am. A homemade haggadah with typos (G-d, King of the University) and all the important bits. There was no raging inner monologue racing through my head, just lingering doubt about overcooking the potatoes.

So those were the seders I went to this year, bookended by a great Shabbat dinners in Brooklyn and Chicago.

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