69: The Slacker Seder

69: The Slacker Seder

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

The Slacker Seder

Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.

~W. Somerset Maugham

Since I was born, every spring, the family piled into the car and we drove up I-95 with the rest of the Jews who had left the motherland of New Jersey. Every car on the Turnpike was stuffed with antsy children, tired parents, and boxes of matzoh, schlepped up from Washington, D.C. as if we’d somehow be unable to find suitable matzoh once we crossed into the Garden State.

We went to New Jersey because my great-aunt hosted the entire family for the first seder. Four sisters gave birth to many children who gave birth to many more children, therefore, her house was so packed that the seder table traveled through two rooms, down a hallway, and in some years, even had satellite island tables shunted off to the sides in order to accommodate all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

This is what I did for twenty years, even after I left home to go to college. Being part of the tradition was important to me; it was the comfort of ritual, the reconnection with family. The few times that my great-aunt couldn’t host, another person in the family opened up their house and we still had the same meal, read from the same hagaddah (the book used during the seder), and laughed over the same inside family jokes.

Until my senior year of college.

Through a strange glitch in timing, Pesach didn’t align with spring break. I went to college in the Midwest, making it difficult to swing by New Jersey for the yearly seder. My mother told me that I was just going to have to skip it this year; everyone would understand.

They might understand, but what was I supposed to do? Sit in my apartment and think about all of them enjoying themselves together while I was stuck in snowy, lake-frozen Wisconsin? Many of my East Coast friends were in the same position. We were all stuck in the Midwest, cut off from the Jewish motherland of New Jersey, with only the tiny Hillel on Langdon Street to keep us company.

Someone suggested that we go to the Hillel for the first night and hold our own seder the second night. It made sense — I often held dinner parties at my apartment and what was a seder if not a large, complicated, flour-free dinner party? My friend, Ari, was the son of a rabbi and he could lead the service. We invited all of our Jewish friends who remained in town, a pathetically small handful of people, and then started adding in their non-Jewish significant others. Once we already had a critical mass of Catholics, it seemed silly not to keep adding to the guest list. Curious Episcopalians and never-been-to-a-seder-before Methodists and college-variety atheists were all included. Very few people knew each other before they stepped into my living room; their only connection was through Ari or me. And none of us knew the random cute boy I met at the first seder the night before, who I threw into the mix because there were already too many people to fit comfortably in my tiny apartment anyway.

The day of our seder, Ari came over with an egg. He told me that we needed to roast it for the seder plate. Having never held our own seder before, and egg roasting not being a skill mastered by the average college student, we shrugged our shoulders and stuck an egg into the preheated oven. It promptly exploded, filling the apartment with the stench of burnt shell.

This facilitated the first of many phone calls back to our parents that afternoon. How did one make charoset, the apple and nut mixture served during the seder? And what sort of wine did one serve with matzoh ball soup? And how does one clean an egg explosion out of a very hot oven?

Several hours later, the guests arrived and dutifully sat on the floor, Ari’s Xeroxed seder booklet in their laps. The Catholics fumbled over the transliterated Hebrew, the Jews reminisced about the seders they were missing back home, and everyone politely refrained from mentioning the stench of burnt egg in the air.

The meal was equally eclectic — vegetarian matzoh ball soup and various salads and a plate of French fries and a potato kugel courtesy of a falling-apart cookbook I found in the Hillel library. There were more drinks than there was food. Someone inexplicably contributed an enormous Tupperware filled with baked apples for the meal. Upon reflection, there did not seem to be a main dish or any protein whatsoever. No one made dessert because we weren’t creative enough to come up with an alternative to our usual cakes or cookies.

It was nothing like my family’s seder. It was chaotic and wine-soaked and contained one thousand percent more curse words and college-related gossip. Yet there is nothing like being in a room with people who have nowhere else to go and yet find themselves exactly where they want to be. It may not have resembled the traditional seders of my childhood. The seder plate may have been made from paper and decorated with Magic Marker drawings of parsley and horseradish. We may have left the shank bone still encased in Styrofoam and plastic wrap since no one wanted to touch it. We may have had more salad dressing options than protein in the meal. But I still cherish the pictures I took that night as well as all the people who joined in keeping me company when it was too far for me to travel home.

~Melissa Ford

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