Every year, my father begins his seder with a story about the year that he, my mother and I were in South America. We were in Montevideo, Uruguay; Passover was only five days away and we had no seder plans. On Friday night, he went to one of the two shuls in town, hoping that he might meet someone who would invite us to his or her home for a seder. No one spoke to him. The next morning, he went to the other shul across town. Right away, he was greeted by the rabbi who promptly invited him over for lunch. And when he found out that my father had a wife and a 2-year-old with him, the rabbi insisted that we come to his house for the first night of Passover. Then he insisted that we join him at his brother’s house for the second night.
Moral of the story: We Jews are one big family. Everywhere you go, you can find “family” by finding other Jews. And so we say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
In 1998, when I moved to California, I imagined that I, too, might find a place where I would be welcomed as part of the big family. But when I went to High Holy Day services at the university Hillel, the tunes were unfamiliar, and all the couples and groups seemed to stick together. At the break fast, there was canned tuna, grape juice and stale challah, but most people quickly headed out the door to their own break fasts. So when Passover was approaching, I knew the Hillel seder was probably not for me. I assumed that there were other seder-less people like me: I saw signs for seders hosted by local synagogues and JCC’s, but I felt queasy about paying for a makeshift family and hospitality.
The week before Passover, I was still at a loss as to what I would do for the holiday. But this time I was lucky: I happened to be talking with two acquaintances who, I found out, were also Jewish and also seder-less. Out of some mysterious force of energy, we decided to create our own Haggadah based on our unreliable memories of seders past, mixed with our own additions: new interpretations of old rituals, questions that we had always wanted to ask and commentaries that we had always whispered down at the kids’ end of the table.
In a flurry of late nights at Kinko’s we cobbled together our own Haggadah and put on a seder for 35 people. Only five or six of the guests were Jewish, and most of them hadn’t been to a seder for a while since they were not near family or because they had had their fill of seders as children. Nonetheless, I expected that they would have to guide the non-Jewish people through the evening. But just the opposite occurred. While the Jews repeatedly mumbled the refrain, “When do we get to eat?” the first-timers thoroughly embraced the event in all its ritualistic, theatrical and musical elements. Now the kids were ruling the day. Afterwards, one of my (Jewish) friends giddily commented: “I always thought I was the wicked child. But your seder is written for the Wicked Child! It’s the seder for wicked children!”
Since that first seder 11 years ago, I have continued to revise the Haggadah each year, adding more commentary, more questions and more twists on old traditions, with new and old friends squeezed around our table. In 2003, my husband and I moved to Brooklyn. After five years of seders, I was pretty committed to the annual Haggadah project and my husband was gearing up to cook a big feast. By mid-March, I was editing the Haggadah and e-mailing invitations. But about a week before Passover, I realized that only six people had confirmed that they were coming. It was New York City, and everyone seemed to have a family seder they were “required” to attend. Here I was, all excited for a big seder event, and all I could picture was eight people sitting around a big table surrounded by empty chairs.
I thought of all the times I had wished that I could have found a seder like mine. It is New York, I thought, but there must be someone out there who needs a seder like mine. I looked on Craigslist, the online community bulletin board. Sure enough, there were a few seders already posted, but the starting fee was $50. And so I posted my own invitation with a description of my seder... “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Well, not quite all: I asked that interested readers send me an e-mail explaining why they “needed” a seder. There was no fee, but everyone should bring a couple of bottles of red wine and any Passover treats they deemed essential to the evening.
Within three hours, I had 12 e-mails from people who sounded nice, sufficiently “normal” and genuinely thrilled to have stumbled upon my invitation: one message was from an older couple whose kids lived overseas, two were from couples in which one person was not Jewish, one was from a woman who was considering converting to Judaism and one was from a man who had just moved to the city the week before. When Erev Pesach arrived, I opened the door to six friends and 10 people who had found their way to my seder via Craigslist. Everyone brought wine; one brought his mother’s honey cake, another brought her special charoset and another brought flowers. Like me, all the guests had their own stories about how they had tried to find the seder they needed.
This year I am back in California in a city where I know very few people. At this point, my seder guest list is short, and so far, there have been no invitations posted on Craigslist.
But there is still time.
Eliza Slavet earned her doctorate in literature from the University of California, San Diego where she now teaches. Her book, “Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question,” will be published later this year by Fordham University Press.
PQ: ‘I asked that interested readers send me an e-mail explaining why they ‘needed’ a seder. There was no fee, but everyone should bring a couple of bottles of red wine and any Passover treats they deemed essential to the evening.’
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