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On Chametz and Haggadahs:
A Passover Story
Copyright © 2001 Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D.
"What plague am I dressed like?" my six year old grand daughter, Sasha,
asked, her eyes bright with anticipation. I noted her plaid jumper and white
tights, but it was her red sweater that held the clue. "Could it be Blood?"
I replied. "That's right!" she chirped, pleased that I recognized the
symbolism. It was an auspicious beginning.
Last year we held our seder out of order (pun intended since seder means
order). We are a secular family and celebrate the spirit, not necessarily
the letter, of the holiday. So when the seder days fell mid-week, and it was
not possible to gather the clan, we assembled the following weekend.
We ate, chatted, and were about to set up for the festivities, when Sasha
inquired: "Did you throw out all the crumbs and bread?" Since no one in the
family rids their home of chametz, leavened foods forbidden at Passover, her
question surprised me. "No," I said, and then added defensively: "I'm not
going to throw out a perfectly good loaf of bread considering we just had
pizza." But Sasha knew about banned foods from the many books that were read
to her, and looked away, as if in silent reproach.
Still, she soon bustled about, expressing delight in how much more she could
do this year. We put out a special cup for Elijah, along with all the
ingredients central to experiencing the seder as if we ourselves came out of
Egypt. Sasha merrily hummed that quintessential Passover song, Dayenu --
It Would Have Been Sufficient -- as she started on the final task: Placing
a newly minted Haggadah on each seat.
Until a few years ago we used Haggadahs that were familiar to me since
childhood; small pamphlets put out by the Maxwell House coffee company and
generously given away to any homemaker with an outstretched hand. These
guidebooks, mottled with layers of wine from the inevitable splashes that
occur during a seder, were as much a part of the holiday as the Passover
dishes or silver wine cups. My daughter Ora, son Jason, and I would
affectionately comment on the blotches of sweet brew as if they were the
inheritors of, and links to, seders past.
But more recently, once the moment of nostalgia passed, objections
immediately surfaced. Jason said that with its many long, obscure passages,
the old guidebooks lacked a contemporary sensibility. Ora, who now had a
daughter, felt its outmoded language reflected dated attitudes, especially
toward women. The little pamphlets fate was sealed; I had to conclude they
wouldn't speak to the next generation. After the seder I put the Haggadahs
away in the same special drawer, but didn't take them out again the following
We switched to more contemporary Haggadahs, but none stayed around long
enough to be splattered with layers of wine; when the newer guidebooks
replaced the Biblical text with straightforward narrative, the awe seemed to
go out of the story, too. We changed guidebooks every year as if we were
trading partners in some sort of Passover square dance. Then Ora, and her
husband, Jonathan, introduced a Haggadah put together by one of their
friends. I was taken aback. An ordinary person could do that? I had no
formal Jewish education. Did I have the chutzpah, (or was it hubris), to
With fear and trembling, I threw myself into the task by reading commentary
in several traditional and newer guidebooks. I waited for the lightening to
strike, but it didn't. Instead, I quickly realized my home-grown Haggadah
must have been percolating for a long time; I knew exactly how I wanted to
blend the old with the new so as to (hopefully) convey a sense of mystery
while, at the same time, addressing present-day concerns.
As if in a frenzy, I cut, pasted, and reworked language. Still, I wondered
if I was a so-called "smorgasbord Jew," picking and choosing small morsels
from a large, rich history, when Rabbi Gamliel came to the rescue. Rabbi
Gamliel, who lived in Roman times, said that in order to fulfill the
obligations of the ceremony, it was necessary to explain three symbols: the
Passover offering, matzoh, and maror (bitter herbs). The guidebook I
constructed did that, and more. But would it be accessible? I e-mailed a
draft for everyone to preview. Happily, their feedback told me it was on the
I watched with delight as Sasha carefully placed a brand new Haggadah on each
chair. Meanwhile, my daughter put the finishing touches on our festive meal, and my son-in-law read a child's Haggadah to Sasha's not quite two year old
sister, Zoe. Yet something was not right with this idyllic family portrait.
The chametz was in the room: it seemed to hang in the air like a cloud of
bread crumbs ready to rain on the table. Then, my son had a splendid idea:
The pizza box was still in the kitchen, why didn't he and Sasha take it to
the trash compacter and symbolically rid the house of bread crumbs? Sasha
and her Uncle Jason left the apartment, pizza box in tow, with a solemnity
befitting the occasion. They returned light-hearted and smiling as if a
weight had been lifted from their shoulders.
Sasha went back to her task. When she reached her chair, she put a child's
guidebook on it, saying: "I'm learning to read. Maybe next year I can have
an adult one." It's my hope that when she -- and Zoe -- are ready, the
Haggadah I developed will add depth to their experience. But that's down the
road. For today, the preparations were complete -- and it was sufficient.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PHYLLIS B. GRODSKY, who holds a Ph.D. in Social/ Personality psychology, has
previously published in The Jewish Magazine. See:
"In the Presence of the
Rebbe" and "Making Amends".
A picture of Sasha and Zoe can be found on her award winning Web site, "PLAY
IT AGAIN": , which shows grandparents how
to engage in imaginative play with their grandchildren.
from the April 2001 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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