By Jim Schutze
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We begin to contemplate the 10 plagues--blood, frogs, locusts, boils, darkness, etc.--listing them in both Hebrew and English while dipping a finger into our wineglasses and spilling one drop per plague onto our plates. For the first time I learn the reason: Removing wine (joy) from the glass takes the gladness out of suffering (the 10 plagues). Freedom has its price, and no one should rejoice at another's misery. We sing; we read responsively, exploring the symbolism behind other foods on the Seder plate: apples, nuts, horseradish, matzo--mixing joy with sorrow as we eat the bitter with the sweet, a decidedly Jewish view of life. Curiously, I look at the rabbi-to-be. He is giving meaning to what has always been for me empty ritual. My brother-in-law is losing ground fast; this guy is good.
About an hour and 45 minutes into the Seder, we do something we have never done before: wash our hands. It doesn't sound like much (unless you're my son), but when done ceremoniously, pouring water over each hand three times, there is a connection to antiquity that seems undeniable. All must remain silent for the next several minutes, which is no easy task for a roomful of Jewish lawyers.
Enter the meal, finally, deliciously, although there will be more praying following the feast. First comes the gefilte fish, which must be bathed in enough harsh-tasting red horseradish to open up the sinuses, water the eyes, and get a traditional holiday yelp out of my brother-in-law. Next comes the matzo-ball soup, a sweet but plump dumpling surrounded by a chicken broth that's to this day touted in some parts of Latvia as a cure for the common cold. No matter that the matzo balls might have enough bounce to get endorsed by Andre Agassi. No matter that the fish might taste too hard or too pasty or, dare I say it, too fishy; heaping high praise on both are as obligatory on Passover as drinking cheap Manischewitz wine.
As the soup plates are cleared away, enormous amounts of food are placed simmering behind us. My mother directs everyone to stand in the buffet line, which, at times, can get downright vicious. Three kinds of chicken, two kinds of beef, stuffed cabbage, sweet-potato pudding, noodle pudding, buttered asparagus, grilled mushrooms, zucchini casserole, squash casserole, tossed salad, and two kinds of Jell-O molds dot the liturgical landscape. The Seder meal has something for everyone: It's high in fat, high in protein, high in carbohydrates, and high in cholesterol.
By 9:30 p.m., an air of informality seizes the room: Ties are loosened, jackets removed, belts unbuckled. Talk turns to newborn babies and wedding plans, recent illnesses and sudden deaths, Bill Clinton's high approval rating and freedom. With my parents and their European friends being Holocaust survivors, the line between Egyptian slavery and German genocide is easily drawn. And living in America, the land of the free, and Dallas, Texas, the land of free enterprise...well, you get the picture.
No matter the leader, the end of our Seder is always the same: singing "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem, followed by "God Bless America." The two songs reflect the strange duality of the American Jewish experience, at least at my parents' house. My brother-in-law makes the grand gesture, offering his future son-in-law a permanent gig at our Seder table. His suggestion is backed up with a round of applause from all those still capable of consciousness and dessert.
As I help myself to several of the seven cakes (made special for Passover) that now adorn the buffet line, it makes sense to me, what the rabbi-to-be has been telling us. Why hurry the ritual to get to the food when it's the food itself that's the ritual? A link between the past and the present, the desert and the dining room, the material world and the spiritual. Amazingly, as I take the last bite of my mother's coconut-cream sponge cake, my thoughts turn to the afterlife. I'm so stuffed, I'm ready to roll over and die.
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