The Passover Seder is a highly ritualized family event, during which children must wait patiently to eat dinner until the last plague is listed, the last bite of horseradish is choked down, the last prayer is read, and the last song is sung. Depending on how hard core the leader of the Seder service might be, this event could stretch out for hours. In my family we sometimes did “the long version” but—thankfully—we often did “the short version.” To be fair, some parts of the Haggadah (a tradition-laden booklet that is a mash-up of exposition, prayers in Hebrew and English, the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt and their freedom from slavery, the modern interpretation of Passover, several very long songs, four essential questions; and specially timed cues for drinking glasses of wine, hand-washing, and tasting some of the symbolic foods presented on a special plate in the center of the table) you just can’t skip over, even when there are fidgety kids itching to slide under the table in search of The Missing Matzo.
When my sister and my cousins and I were kids, our grandfather led the Seders.
My whole family sat at a long table that stretched out into the living room. As the night wore on, we kids slipped out of our folding chairs and started making mischief. It was the one night where we got away with these lapses in decorum. We giggled and goofed around, and reappeared when it was time to hunt for the afikomen—a piece of matzo that one of the adults had wrapped in a napkin and hidden somewhere in the house. We never saw anyone sneak off to hide it— ever. Was our grandfather a magician? We looked everywhere until one of us found it and was rewarded with a silver dollar for our efforts.
(I wonder what my grandfather would’ve thought about the orange on the Seder plate and the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, two things I learned about from my daughter. I’m sure he would’ve approved of the present I sent her during her first Passover at college: an inflatable beach ball patterned with the unmistakable perforated lines and brown spots of that gut-busting unleavened Passover staple: a “matzo ball” for some post-Seder recreation.)
Years later, my father took over the duties of leading the Seder and we spent many Passovers seated at a long table at my parents’ house.
Younger kids attended, and they were the ones scrambling around searching for the hidden matzo and answering the Four Questions as part of the service. I remember being relieved when I was no longer the youngest person at the table, no longer called upon to read that “youngest son” question. When I had kids of my own, however, I joined in the praise as one after another of them read from the Haggadah and didn’t stumble over words they had never seen before, like “pestilence” and “Egyptian.”
One of the dangers of being invited to a family Seder at my house when my dad was the leader: he saw the whole thing as a “teachable moment,” so if it was your first time, you could expect the long version with a great deal of explanation and history. This was the case the first time we invited my non-Jewish in-laws to celebrate Passover. They did their best to follow along in the “reading from right to left” Haggadah, but the looks on their faces when they tasted their first sip of Manischewitz Concord Grape wine, poured from that distinctive square bottle, were priceless. My father-in-law didn’t exactly do a spit-take, but came damn close. My husband and I still laugh about it. In recent years the “Kosher for Passover” wine selection has left poor Manischewitz off the table in most households, I would venture to guess, and even the most selective wine connoisseur can find something suitable to fill everyone’s cup—including the one for Elijah the prophet, for whom we symbolically open the door, but who never ever shows up.
My husband and I took over the hosting duties when my mother was no longer up for preparing her traditional meal, which typically included gelatinous gefilte fish (from a jar—Manischewitz, again) nestled on a leaf of lettuce next to a few round pieces of carrot and a hardboiled egg; chicken soup with matzo balls; roasted chicken or overcooked lamb, a tsimmes (casserole of baked potatoes and carrots), and her trademark Pesach sponge cake for dessert. What with the fish, matzo, hard boiled eggs, charoseth (the Ashkenazi version, made with chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon and a few other things—my specialty), and the actual dinner, no one ever walked away from the table hungry.
One of my mother’s tricks was to use the same roasted lamb shank (one of the symbolic items on the Seder plate) year after year, just wrapping it up in plastic wrap and sticking it in the freezer until needed the following spring. She was always in charge of this, so I had never roasted a lamb shank and didn’t have a clue about what to do. My first time on shank duty, I went to my local market and approached the butcher.
“I need a lamb bone, shank, whatever,” I said.
“What do you need it for,” he asked. Not an unreasonable question.
“Uh, Passover?” I said. “I need to roast it or something. I’m really not sure what to do with it.” (In my defense, this was pre-Google and YouTube, and besides, how hard could this be?) “So, I’m asking.”
“Are you Jewish?” he asked, unnecessarily I thought.
“Yes,” I replied, “but I’ve never actually done this before.”
So he kindly explained what temperature and for how long, and I slunk away with my very first lamb shank, which I did not stick in the freezer later.
Why is this song different from every other song? So many ways to answer this.