The fifth question
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The fifth question

What new traditions will come out of this second pandemic Pesach

Merrill Silver’s mother, Evelyn, and her husband, Andy, as Elijah in the early 1990s.
Merrill Silver’s mother, Evelyn, and her husband, Andy, as Elijah in the early 1990s.

After I sweep away the last crumb of matzah and store the last Pesadicha plate in the basement closet, I exhale, change hats, and become the family archivist. I open the Passover folder on my computer and add a new file.

What do I write about? First of all, I take attendance. Who was at the seder table? Who was missing this year and whom do we miss every year? I describe the menu — the dishes everyone expects and the dishes that are new. Was the main course turkey or brisket? How much did it weigh and how long did it take to cook? I write down all these important things.

Passover is “Chag Ha-Aviv” — the holiday of spring. So I write about the weather. Sometimes it feels like winter and the radiator is clanking to the tune of “Avadim Hayeenu.” Other times it feels like summer and the windows are wide open and the neighbors can hear us singing. If we’re lucky, the weather is just right and it feels and smells like Chag Ha-Aviv.

I write about the actual seder — how we retell the story of the Exodus and how we update it. Unfortunately, there is always a new modern-day plague to add. We also express hope that oppressed people in our own country and around the world will experience liberation.

Finally, I glance at last year’s seder notes. Is there some insight I can glean from the previous year? Inevitably, I anticipate next year’s Seder with the optimism of a gardener planning a future harvest.

Keeping notes for posterity is one of my many Passover traditions. Like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” who asks how the tradition of covering our heads and wearing little prayer shawls got started, I also ask myself how some of our family traditions originated. And like Tevye, I shrug and reply, “I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.”

With two new babies in the family and with generational roles shifted this year, I suddenly want to add a fifth question to the Haggadah, about tradition. What exactly does it mean? How do we create one? Is there a precise moment when something becomes a tradition? Does it have to pass a test of time? Is it intentional or accidental?

For example, when my husband dressed as Elijah 35 years ago, he took the meaning of a participatory seder to a new level. While he stood outside the door waiting to surprise our little children, did he know this would become a favorite family tradition? The costume — simply a cotton ball beard, bedsheet, and a long branch — has seen better days, but practically every family member has enjoyed wearing it over the years. One might think college students would be too sophisticated for this entertainment, but even they shrieked with delight one year when Elijah suddenly entered the dorm room during a seder. And last year, like a Candid Camera episode, guests at several seders were bewildered when “our” Elijah unexpectedly appeared on their Zoom screens.

One of Merrill’s sons tries on the costume, some 30 years ago.

This year, Micah, our 16-month-old grandson, danced with delight when he helped us greet Elijah at the door. I literally felt the tradition pass to the next generation. It also has spread to other households, with satellite Elijahs popping in to drink their special cup of wine and deliver news of a better world to come.

Will the afternoon “Baby Seder” we introduced this year become a tradition? I don’t know, but it has potential. Micah and his 1-year-old cousin, Isaac, love Shabbat and birthday candles, so candle-lighting with their parents on our deck was a good way to get their attention and begin the seder. We made kiddush. No matter if sippy cups were filled with water, and the water was all over the table. Some of us picked leaves off of a homegrown celery root and dipped them in salt water, while others yanked the leaves with their tiny fingers and scattered them in the breeze. “Dayenu” was a big hit, especially since Isaac could say “Aynu” and clap his hands. “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands” was another winner, as we added “eat your matzah,” and “jump like a frog” to the familiar lyrics.

Finger puppets of the Ten Plagues wiggled in every direction and matching masks accompanied by sound effects captivated the kids’ attention. Overhead birds and planes diverted their attention, especially when Micah would point to the sky and say, “Buh” and “Puh.” Maybe we can figure out how birds and planes fit into the story of Passover.

We read Passover stories over and over again. In one story a dinosaur helped the family prepare for the holiday. When Micah and Isaac saw a dog at that family’s seder, they barked with delight. And how hilarious it was to recognize our own reflections in Grandma and Grandpa Bunny. Bubbe serving chicken soup and matzah balls at the family seder. Hey, that’s me!

We ended the seder with the babies making handprints on fabric. Will we measure their handprints year after year, or will this activity not pass the test of time?

While Isaac returned to Saba and Savta’s house, Micah stayed with us and joined the “official” seder at 6 p.m. Here, we introduced him to some family traditions. Perhaps he wondered about the emerald-green Depression glass dishes that adorned the table. The plates and bowls are square and tiny. It’s difficult to drink out of a square cup, but it’s part of my Passover DNA. One day I will tell him about his great-grandmother who used these dishes for Passover. I’ll tell him about the square matzah balls she made, and the pyramid matzah balls his own mom made.

Charoset made with ginger and dried fruits, as well as traditional ingredients, was a new twist on the seder plate this year. The brisket made with a coffee rub instead of dried fruit was also a new recipe. Will they appear next year and become new traditions? The verdict is still out. On the other hand, the apple farfel kugel had its usual place on the table and never will be retired.

Andy Silver ­— whoops, Elijah! — greets a grandson this year.

We always include live music at our seders. We’ve been known to dance, too. This year, we missed our guests playing flute, guitar, saxophone, piano, and even cello, but Micah ran around the table “playing” my old wooden recorder (and holding his stuffed monkey). Thanks to him, we were able to keep our musical tradition alive. And the monkey? Maybe we can count on him next year, too.

My kids reminded me about other family traditions: new guests at the seder table alongside the core group each year, fights over who found the afikoman first, and singing familiar songs to conclude the seder. Their memories of breakfast at the local diner with their grandparents the day of the first seder made me wonder if Micah’s pre-Passover sleepover would become a holiday tradition. Maybe next year Isaac will join him, too.

I wish my Fifth Question about tradition had a clear-cut answer like the Four Questions and answers in the Haggadah. On the other hand, the rabbis always encourage new questions and commentary. Isn’t that the point of the seder?

So without a satisfactory answer, I must be content just having these traditions and the potential for new ones. In keeping with my tradition, I look at last year’s notes, written on April 8, 2020:

“It was one of the few beautiful days of the past month. I remember how the sunlight danced on the table, coming in from the porch and the dining room window. Emily [our daughter] showed us her golden chicken soup with carrots and matzah balls via Zoom…. Micah, wrapped in a blanket, wearing a matzah stocking-cap, drank from his bottle. His first seder was full of love and closeness, even though everyone was far away….

“So — what’s the bottom line for Passover 2020? We are blessed to have four children and two grandsons. We are blessed that the babies won’t remember any of the horrors and dangers of covid-19. We hope we all live to see next year’s seder and that we will all be there together, in person. It feels like the future is one big uncertainty with red danger signs written all over it. I’ll look back at the pandemic seders and all I will see is a computer screen with little frames of people.

“But I will also see our kids being parents, protecting their new babies, loving them to pieces and determined to have them celebrate their first Passover. It does not get better than that.”

And now, before I click “Save” and file away my Passover 2021 memories, I write about how I am filled with gratitude for this year’s seder. We missed our extended family and friends, but the nuclear family was together. In person! Next year, I hope to be one of the sheep in the children’s Passover book — the sheep that scrambles for more chairs as guests arrive late and unexpectedly, to celebrate the holiday together. In person!

Merrill Silver of Montclair is a freelance writer and she teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com

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