For Millennials and Their Families
I gathered six students from JTS’s undergraduate Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies in my office last week to talk about the ways in which family dynamics add meaning—and tension—to family Passover seders. This has always been the case, I believe. Remember that the prophet Malachi, in the passage from this week’s haftarah, which gives Shabbat Hagadol its name, warns that before the “great and terrible Day of the Lord” ushers in a new era of peace and understanding on Earth, God will send the prophet Elijah to “reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.” When families gather to celebrate the holiday and reflect upon the Haggadah, they also celebrate the fact of their being together, reflect upon the stories and characters that make each family unique, and—often enough—act out some of the same turnings toward and away from each other that have occurred on previous family occasions and have characterized Jewish (and other) families for centuries. If anything has changed in our day, it is the immense variety of families that sit down to celebrate Passover together: blended families and single-parent families, LBGT families and intermarried families, parents keenly interested in telling the story of Passover to children who would rather be elsewhere, and families where exactly the opposite is the case. I wanted to find out how these dynamics play out at the seders of my students, and share their insights with you here—millennials and college students, teens and tweens—in the hope that our discussion about the holiday will enrich yours.
“In our family,” said a female student, “it’s my dad and me leading the seder, with a group of impatient people waiting to eat.” This disparity is quite common at my students’ seders, I learned, as it is at American seders generally (and was at my house growing up). Some people truly care about the symbols, rituals, text, and discussion. Others—the great majority, it seems—want to get on with the meal or adjourn to the living room to watch baseball. At some seders, men and women participate equally. In others, they do not: “We try to have everybody read part of the seder just go[ing] around the room, but it always winds up being the men who take charge.” Another student pointed out that the kind of seder that worked when she and her cousins were little no longer succeeded now that they had grown up. Adults did not feel called upon to model good seder behavior “for pedagogical purposes” as they did “when [I], my brother, and our cousins were younger . . . like when you eat broccoli in front of kids.” The younger members of the family, for their part, are no longer as curious about the ritual goings-on at the table as they once were.
I suspect that adult Jews often use the presence of small children as license to express enthusiasm or belief that they truly feel but are too cool to let on about in adult company. Take away the kids, and the license to speak truthfully disappears. The Rabbis of old, building on the commandment in the book of Exodus to tell each new generation of children about God’s deliverance of the Israelites, made these dynamics of adult-to-child modeling a keystone of the holiday. One eats matzah and bitter herbs, dips vegetables in salt water, and eats while reclining in order to elicit questions. If a child does not know enough to ask about these and other aspects of the holiday, “you should open the discussion for him [or her].” (The same holds true for less knowledgeable parents, I believe. Their children need to take the lead.) If the symbols of the holiday were not set on the seder plate on the table, we would not debate their meaning, and redemption would be delayed. Asking questions and disagreeing with the answers is a crucial step toward freedom. It is also a sign that a measure of freedom has been achieved. Dictators in our day, as in Moses’s time, stifle questions and clamp down on the free discussion of answers. Passover moves us in the opposite direction.
The Haggadah trades on the fact—disturbing but real—that children vary in character, temperament, and interest in the holiday. “I’m the oldest of four boys,” one of the List College students told the group, meaning that there is one brother at the table for each of the four sons (or children) of whom the Haggadah speaks in a well-known passage. His brothers would joke about the coincidence of text and family situation. “When I was a little kid, no one wanted to be the ‘bad child,’ but now it’s a little more lighthearted.” The uncle who runs another student’s seder always assigns the readings about the four children (one wise, one wicked, one simple, one who does not know how to ask) to four of the cousins present—and does so based on his perception of their personality traits. “He thinks it’s really funny somehow . . . He always assigns me the wise one, and I hate it. My sister . . . is always the one who doesn’t know how to ask.” At my seders until this day, I told the group, the account of the four children inevitably provokes discussion about why the Haggadah calls one of them “wicked,” and whether virtue correlates at all with interest in the story of Passover.
The Rabbis of old could not have predicted the many sorts of difference evident at Passover seders in North America today. Our families are so varied, their members so incredibly diverse. Here is one example: “All of our mother’s cousins married non-Jews and have non-Jewish children, and [they] are at the seder.” It is sometimes a challenge to involve them in the holiday, because it is not clear to them whether, not being Jewish, the story is really theirs to tell and “own.” On the other hand, many contemporary seders (mine included) feature African American spirituals such as “Go Down, Moses.” The Passover story has inspired many liberation movements around the world. Churches and other non-Jewish groups now regularly hold Passover seders. And yet, family dynamics and religious differences being what they are, Passover sometimes raises Jewish–non-Jewish tensions to the surface, interacting with other tensions in the family. The holiday offers wonderful resources for bringing Jews and others closer, but it can also highlight divisions. “It feels like we are trying to reinvent the wheel and translating the story to those who are not interested in it, and trying to draw metaphors that feel strange at times to their lives and to [ours],” said one student. This led us to a discussion about when innovation disrupts continuity with tradition versus when that very innovation guarantees the tradition’s vitality and continuity.
That issue too is woven into the very fabric of the Haggadah. “Anyone who adds to the telling of the story is to be praised.” I can’t think of another Jewish holiday or text that is as well suited to provoking good conversation about values and goals that are universal—that is, applicable to all human beings, regardless of religion or nationality—as well as particular to Jews. The prophet Malachi probably knew families—such as Ruth’s or Moses’s—in which one adult partner was Israelite by birth or commitment, and the other not. He probably encountered blended families, single-parent families, and families composed of people who were not blood relatives. Malachi may even have wondered how the fact of religious differences between parent and child figured into the ease or difficulty of turning their hearts toward one another at Passover or any other time. Few contemporary Jewish families can avoid such discussion, if they are open to the diversity that is present around their seder tables. Our families are “blended” in all sorts of ways. This can be a great boon to conversation.
When I asked the students to identify their favorite part of the seder, they cited one particular set of relationships again and again:
“When my grandmother reads, so slowly but with such care.”
“That we are all together, all the grandchildren. There is something special about this night. It makes everyone very happy.”
“The Hillel sandwich is my favorite part. And the gefilte fish. And I like hearing my grandmother’s old songs. By 9:00, the seder is finishing and she sings the full version of all the songs, [including] all of dayyenu.”
Another mentioned the pleasure of hearing the contrast “between my grandmother’s [good] voice [and] my grandfather’s [always off-key].”
Then there was the student whose mother’s family were refuseniks in the former Soviet Union, non-observant Jews whose plane left Russia on the second night of Passover. They weren’t aware of that at the time—but now, for them, their children, and their grandchildren, this family story is an indelible part of the meaning of Passover. “Thinking of my mother’s journey out of Russia and seeing the [whole family] Jewishly engaged now . . . is powerful for me.”
May this be a Passover when you, among the younger family members at the seder table, ask provocative questions and provide insightful answers that make the holiday both significant and sweet.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.