The Sisterhood of the Traveling Seder
In every culture there are rituals by means of which an individual becomes part of a group. These activities may be called rites of passage, initiations, or hazing. No matter the name, or particular details, they represent a shared experience for members, and a basis for interpersonal bonding.
For Jewish women, the Passover holiday serves such a purpose. Yes, I know, some of my readers are now thinking of Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, or perhaps a first visit to the mikvah, but as important as those events are, Passover has the most significance. Until she has made her home ready for the holiday, and been hostess for her own Seder, she has not come of age.
No, helping her mother doesn't count, nor does being part of the group making preparations for an event at a shul, or community center. Those who simply make arrangements for their families to spend the holiday at a special hotel, may be prosperous, and may even have children of their own, but have not yet joined the sisterhood of adult women; so to speak.
Some time ago, I had such a friend. She was almost forty, unmarried, and very tired of being treated as a girl. As an example, her mother would go shopping, and appear at her apartment with household goods, such as towels, or dishes, never having consulted as to their suitability, or the need thereof. That sounds innocent enough, doesn't it? No, it is not. Grown women choose their own linens, cookware, etc. Those gifts were generous, yet robbed my friend of the ability to fully manage her own ménage.
There came a year when my grown son was going to be away for the holiday, and I resolved to help my friend along the road toward the recognition she sought. She had done many kind things for me, and this was a chance for me to reciprocate. I became her personal helper, and chef, for that year's holiday, so that despite having a full-time job, she could have the first night Seder at her apartment.
The preparations for this event began before I even arrived in New York from my home in California. I'd had a conversation with another woman, in the Los Angeles area, about what was going to happen. That year, there was a question as to the “Kosher for Passover” status of the coating on citrus fruit. This was not a big problem for Angelenos, most of whom know someone with a citrus tree, but for those in colder climes, it meant the inability to include several beloved recipes. This other gal pal wanted to help. She went into her yard to pick lemons, and limes, packed the fruit carefully in papers, then shipped a box to Queens, as a gesture of feminine solidarity. What a lovely gift that was, one which is fondly recalled each spring.
The packing was done. It was time to go to the airport. For four hours on the plane, my mind took flights of its own, imagining the various tasks to be accomplished. Upon landing, there was no time to be lost. We went straight from the airport to an appliance store where I bought her a food processor, which would be in constant use until the big feast.
On to the apartment. Armed with aprons, and lots of good humor, we began the labor of love: chucking out the chometz, scrubbing, and making lists for the shopping trips to be made. The shopping was a real step on the road to feminine understanding; my friend was in shock. She had to pay the bills; hundreds of dollars worth. "All of this for one meal?" She could begin to identify with her sisters, throughout history, who had scrimped, and done without, to put aside the wherewithal for annual celebrations.
During the week to come, she went to the office all day; then came home to work with me, all evening. Of course, I was there cleaning, and cooking, all day as well.. She learned to make Gefilte Fish, and Chopped Liver, the light hand required for Sponge Cake, and the patience for long slow browning of Short Ribs. At the end of each evening, we'd slump in kitchen chairs, and share a cup of tea before going to our respective beds, and collapsing in exhausted, dreamless, slumber.
The big day dawned, and we were awake with the sun. Tables to be set; Haggadahs, and Seder plates positioned; washing pitchers, and bowls placed; veggie nibbles set out to keep appetites at bay during the ritual; last minute cooking; and a frantic effort to get ourselves pretty enough for such a grand occasion. She was the hostess at last, full of both jitters, and joy, as she waited for the doorbell to ring.
Ring it did. The setting, and preparations, were duly admired. Then it came, not fifteen minutes after she opened the door, the first joke about constipation. Her shock was visible; how could anyone say such a thing whilst viewing her elegant preparations? She managed a weak smile, then moved on to the main event.
She got everyone seated, then took her place at the head of the table, and asked them to open their Haggadahs. The next shock came as the festivities barely begun someone wondered aloud as to how much could be omitted. All the work done, money spent, careful planning; for people to act as though the only thing which mattered was dinner? "Do we really need to wash twice?" someone asked.
She struggled to maintain order, and dignity, amongst the rebellious. We had a lovely, if somewhat abbreviated ritual, and the meal was much enjoyed, although corralling everyone to bench afterward required more than a bit of doing. The lot were sent home, each carrying a bit of something leftover to enjoy the next day.
The door closed behind the last guest, but it was not yet time to rest. There was food to be put away, dishes to wash, even a table to move so that my sofa bed could be opened. Finally, we sat for that last cup of tea before going to sleep. She looked at me, and I knew that she was one of us. She had hoped, planned, spent, cooked, and cleaned herself to the edge of endurance; then managed to be graceful in the face of vulgar jokes, and those who would have robbed the ritual to satisfy their appetites.
To be a Jewish woman is to be part of that struggle to maintain tradition, and love, at the Seder table. Though our labors be as nothing to those we had in slavery, still they are great, and worthy of the recognition we give one another.
To be a Seder guest is to be the recipient of love, expressed with all the care a heart can offer. Please be respectful of your hostess, she is one of a line of great women.
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