Making this night different

In trying to make the Seder relevant to unaffiliated Jews, Marge Piercy distorts it beyond recognition.

pessah book 88 (photo credit: )
pessah book 88
(photo credit: )
The Seder night! The very words summon a potent combination of family and faith, one of the focal points of the Jewish calendar. To be seated round the table with its special foods and symbols, an open Haggada before you, is to belong, to have a place in ways difficult to express yet easy to feel. But suppose for a moment that you lack this visceral connection. Suppose that you see the whole evening as something outside yourself, empty words preceding a heavy meal, something to be endured rather than celebrated. This is true of many Jews, and this is the audience that the novelist Marge Piercy wants to engage. Let those who are alienated come, and be satisfied. But how do you satisfy those who do not feel the need to be at the table in the first place? The author, in her own words, wants to make "elements of the Haggada and the Seder rich with contemporary meaning." In sum, "as Jews we need a practice that works for us at Pessah." In principle this is a fruitful idea. There is something to be said for using our oppression and slavery in Egypt to provoke thought at the Seder about modern-day oppression and slavery. The path to freedom that we trod through the Red Sea has been taken, under different circumstances, by other peoples too, something which we should not be too parochial to forget or ignore. But the relentlessness with which Piercy promotes the Seder as a consciousness-raising session to promote empathy with women, gays and minorities in general soon starts to grate. "Do what works for you," is her motto, but plainly what works for her, and for others like her, is a restatement of the political and personal principles that they reached long ago without Judaism's help. Sometimes this approach verges on parody. Her version of "Dayenu" includes the following: "And if we cherish the State of Israel, but we neglect our responsibility to help create a safe and peaceful Palestinian homeland, it will not be enough." This comes off as being both pompous and patronizing, offensive to Israelis and Palestinians alike. What is wrong here? Part of the problem is that Piercy burdens the evening with too much meaning. In the course of a few hours, she uses the Seder to recall, inter alia, the Holocaust, sweatshops, alienation and the environment. She is rightly bothered by the fact that the Seder is the only Jewish event many American Jews attend. But to try to compensate for this by making it bear the weight of all the world's ills is misguided. In fairness, she does say that it is worth talking about why we should remember our own slavery in Egypt and the Exodus. The problem is that it takes her until page 72 to say so. This touches on a wider issue. The author, with good cause, wants to make the Seder relevant to the here and now. This is fine, essential even. What Piercy does, though, is to make of this magical evening a mere parade of the modish, mundane concerns of its well-intentioned participants, tricked out with a smattering of ritual. We all approach the Seder from our particular viewpoints, but to depart from it unchanged denies the transformative power of the telling of our ancient story. The Seder night has this in common with the highest works of art: It takes us out of ourselves, and suggests to us ideas and questions we would otherwise not have had. Piercy understands this intermittently, but she does not grasp that she essentially ends from where she starts. "I want to be inclusive, not hypercorrect," she declares, distancing herself from any suspicion of Orthodoxy. Her point that Pessah often descends into an exhausting and off-putting obstacle course of cleaning and cooking is sound as far as it goes, but she fails to consider that those who put more effort into the festival may actually get more out of it. She underestimates the creativity that committed Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews bring to the Seder. And she goes badly wrong if she thinks that only women in observant households do all the cleaning. I type these words with some warmth, as well as detergent-ravaged hands. The book has a little more to it than this. Commendably, the author tries to grow many of the ingredients for the Seder herself, and gives an entertaining account of her struggles to raise the required vegetation in what passes for spring in Cape Cod. She also includes a series of traditional Pessah recipes that may be of practical use to its intended audience, as well as some of her poems. But in the end, does it matter? I am not her intended audience, after all, and those who follow her suggestions may indeed have an uplifting, even spiritual, evening. I just had the unsettling feeling that something had been left out - passed over, if you like. One couple, whose Seder I attended when I first made aliya, disliked that part of the Haggada where we ask the Almighty to pour out His wrath against the nations that do not know Him. They therefore replaced it with a moving prayer for peace and understanding. I thought it was an excellent idea. But Piercy prefers the traditional text. Why? It is "a releasing of anger against those who have oppressed our people and other peoples over the generations." This covers just about everybody, as far as I can tell. And because it covers everybody, it covers nobody. The prayer, like many other prayers and rituals in this book, therefore becomes meaningless. It is universalized out of existence. May the Seder night always be different from other nights. It is special. This book isn't.