From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Let Freedom Ring in Iowa City

The essence of religion is the human quest for salvation.

Mordecai M. Kaplan

“It’s about freedom,” my daughter Nicole explained to each of almost twenty non-Jewish guests she was inviting to her Passover Seder. “Therefore, you should bring something that represents freedom to you. It can be an object, a song, dance, poem, quotation—anything that you want. Sometime during the evening, I’ll ask you to share what you brought and what it means to you.”

Unusual Seders such as this one were a fixture in our lives. They began the year Nicole shared an apartment with four other young female students at the University of Iowa. None were Jewish, and two were fundamentalist Christians. But Nicole was eager to share her roots with her many friends from various ethnic backgrounds, including her new African American boyfriend. So “Shlep-a-Seder” began in 1992 with my loading boxes of matzahs, Passover staples, dishes, tablecloths and Haggadahs into my car and driving five hundred miles from Southfield, Michigan, to Iowa City. Wine was the only item well-stocked in the college town—evenMogen David wine—and all of the guests were happy to contribute some.

There were nine of us that first year. By 1995, the Seder participants expanded to twenty-three. To accommodate them, we put all the living room furniture in the outer hallway—it looked like a doctor’s waiting room—and rented some tables and chairs and set them up in a U-shape, with chairs on the outside and inside. We squeezed together joyfully.

Nicole made a supplemental Haggadah with many meaningful excerpts to add to the New Model Seder book. People of Chinese, Mexican, Tanzanian, Egyptian, African-American and corn-bred Iowa backgrounds, all wearing yarmulkes, sang choruses of Dayanu. They ate haroset, and bitter herbs, and dipped parsley and eggs in salt water. Ahead of them would be other strange delicacies like gefilte fish, carrot kugel, matzah stuffing and flourless cakes buoyed up by egg whites.

I was stirring the soup in the kitchen as the youngest at the table, Scott, my apostate son, struggled with the four questions in Hebrew. Nicole, his older sister valiantly tried helping. I kept thinking, Why don’t they fake it? No one at the table would know. Then, soup ladle in hand, I entered and announced, “Not one of you can appreciate how much time and money went into Scott and Nicole’s being able to recite those questions in Hebrew.” I heard someone say, “I’m not sure you got your money’s worth.”

Nicole decided it was time to intervene. “This would be a good time for someone to share a freedom idea with us,” she declared. And, good students and professors that they were, most had completed the assignment. Throughout the evening, we witnessed a delightful parade of cherished items. There was Sarah’s paintbrush that allowed her to express who she really is; Derrick’s meaningful quotations about freedom, including some from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Then there was Scott, playing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and Blandina, talking about her husband’s love and friendship as the ultimate source of freedom. My own contribution was to tell the story of “The Golem of Prague.”

“And now we open the door for Elijah,” Nicole announced. Before anyone got up, the door opened and twenty-three of us stared as a petite, blonde, young woman entered. She was either ditzy, dizzy or drunk— she had no idea where she was but that didn’t seem to faze her. She just smiled and wandered out again.

While we all suppressed laughter, I thought: Why not?

We had assembled such an unusual population, a patchwork quilt, for a Seder, why couldn’t Elijah, the one who heralds an age of peace and proclaims the Messiah, be a tipsy sprite from Iowa? What is this Seder all about, anyway?

I spent the rest of the Seder answering my own question. In part, it was about blonde Kiki from Iowa, majoring in African-American studies, leaning over and saying to me, “I think that Nicole’s lucky to have a mother who goes to all this trouble to bring everything here year after year so that we can learn about her heritage.”

I replied, “I think Nicole’s lucky to have so many friends who want to share her tradition.”

In part it was about the love and warmth extending from tiny Blandina, a Swahili professor, as her strong fingers massaged my aching neck and shoulders. It was about AJ’s Asian features relaxing and smiling. It was about Darcey bringing a piñata she had made to brighten the room, and Hanley struggling on braces up three flights of steep stairs. In part it was about Bassel bringing more than his share of wine and holding his infant daughter, Rakaya, during a story of Jewish bondage in his ancient Egypt.

But it was more than all these things. Before we closed with a tape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech, Andrea said, “I didn’t know what to bring. I told my father about my Jewish friend Nicole, how I was going to her Seder not knowing what to expect, and I was supposed to bring something that represented freedom to me.

“My dad said, ‘Andrea, a Seder is something I’ve never experienced. And the one you’re going to would never have happened when I was your age. That Seder itself is what real freedom is about!’”

Let freedom ring.

Corinne Stavish

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