Recalling The Passover Seders Of My Youth As I Struggled To Host My Own


If you are Jewish and only celebrate one religious holiday a year, it’s likely to be Passover. Even if you are not observant and have never understood the holiday or if your third cousin twice removed was Jewish, or perhaps your next-door neighbor, it’s a reason to show up at a Seder table.

Whether it’s a sense of belonging or a connection to ancestors, or because you don’t want to disappoint your mother, you show up, compliment the matzoh ball soup and keep refilling your wine glass. Maybe someday you’ll host a Seder of your own. (This year, Passover begins the evening of April 5.)

I was a single working mom with a young daughter, the first time I hosted Passover. An East Coaster who was relatively new to California, I had no family here and few Jewish friends. And yet it was Passover and I needed to attend a Seder even if it was one of my own making.

What’s more important at a Seder than even matzoh? People. So I hunted up some. I had read that the Pasadena Jewish Temple was pairing Passover host families with Israeli college students so I volunteered to have two guests. Now there was no turning back.

On the big night, I was roasting chicken breasts when the phone rang. It was the temple looking for a place for one more student. “Sure,” I said throwing two more pieces of chicken into the oven. You don’t turn away strangers on Passover.

As I set the table I was picturing Seders of my youth at Aunt Helen’s where she served homemade gefilte fish from a steaming pot on the stove, rather than the fish from a jar sitting on my counter. And the matzoh balls in her chicken soup were light and fluffy, I remembered, wondering how the ones from my Manischewitz mix would turn out.

But when the guests started arriving, including a couple of my non-Jewish friends, the symbolism became more important than whether or not everything was made from scratch. I had my mother’s wedding crystal wine glasses on the table. My Grandma Sarah’s prayer shawl, one of the few things she brought with her when she immigrated from Russia, covered my head when I blessed the candles.

Because there were no male Jewish family members to lead the Seder, and that was the only way I had ever experienced one, I turned the honor over to my student guests. They led a long evening of prayers, mostly in Hebrew, that I didn’t understand. It was strangely comfortable because it was the same way Uncle Ralph had conducted the Passovers of my growing-up years. At the same time it was uncomfortable because, just like when I was a child, I didn’t feel like a participant.

My daughter and I exchanged quizzical glances that would inspire me, many years later, to study for my adult Bat Mitzvah. That night led me to explore new paths to celebrating Passover. I also gave myself permission to stop feeling guilty about serving fish from a jar.

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Vittorio Rienzo

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