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Mira Sucharov


By Mira Sucharov

Although Chanukah cheerily breaks through the early winter gloom, and Purim features tasty hamentaschen (what could be better than prunes and short-crust pastry?), my favourite Jewish holiday has long been Passover.

While Passover has a certain ascetic aspect to it, given the denial of yeasty creations in favour of stomach-binding matzah, there are still many delicious foods associated with the holiday: haroset, salted hard-boiled eggs, and matza brei paired with fruity jam, to name three. But the main reason I love Passover is for the spirit of free-wheeling, heady engagement it can foster – a practice of conversation that seems to be quickly fading from contemporary society.

The seder, by definition (the word means “order” in Hebrew) is quite structured, opening with one of four cups of wine and proceeding through another thirteen steps before culminating with the declaration “next year in Jerusalem.” Yet despite this structure, there is much room within the ritual for spiritual creativity.

I have attended seders in at least eight cities across three countries (plus one kibbutz). And while not every seder featured passionate discussion, all had the potential to do so. From my understanding of the seder’s purpose, the exchange of ideas is a central part of the evening.

In what Deborah Tannen has memorably called the “argument culture” in Western society, the sort of free exchange of opinion in a respectful environment is becoming a lost art. Instead of sharing and listening, intellectual conversation has become debate. At the extreme, the result is that anyone wanting to explore a possibility that isn’t accompanied by air-tight reasoning is likely to feel alienated by such an atmosphere and keep quiet.

Even the most public of subjects – that of politics, as I suggested in a column in the Ottawa Citizen  last year, has degenerated into either meaningless punditry or nasty attempts at insulting the prime minister – neither of which help advance our collective knowledge on the topic.

There is an additional, Janus-faced factor hindering what could be a more fruitful exchange around the seder table. That is the dominant role of Judaic teachings that frame the haggadah and have set the tone for seders over the generations. In my view, strictly Orthodox seders can fall into the trap of allowing for discussion within only narrow confines – repeating a particular rabbinic drash (interpretation), for example, rather than bringing personal experience and more wide-ranging thought to the issue.

Yet more secular seders can suffer from a related problem. Seder-goers who feel that their level of formal Judaic literacy is low may think that they have little to contribute beyond what’s written in the text -- again contributing to a tendency to slavishly follow the haggadah, without bringing the content to life.

Both of these approaches fall short, in my opinion. I’m not saying that we should spend the evening “talking about” the holiday rather than “doing” it. Such an approach would be entirely cerebral and could leave the participants feeling spiritually empty.

But I would propose that given the existing structure of the haggadah – and there are literally thousands of haggadot to choose from (The Forward newspaper reported in 2009 that there were nearly 3,500 versions), one can speak creatively and personally about the many themes contained within.

One year my husband and I assigned a theme to each guest in advance. One friend, a high school teacher who is not Jewish, reflected on the concept of “punishment.” He spoke about a recent student-led prank. We then discussed the dilemma of how to reward youthful energy while curtailing anti-social behavior.

Other years we’ve placed a thematic word at each place setting – words like justice, spring, freedom, and leaven. When we reached a given point in the telling of the Passover story, we paused to brainstorm on that concept. (The lack of preparation seemed to lessen the pressure to be “profound.”)

At your seder, consider taking inspiration from the historical model of a “salon” – the quaint 17th and 18th century European practice, where friends would gather in someone’s home to examine issues of the day.  Last year, for example, the New Israel Fund encouraged Canadians to host living-room salons around Passover to discuss two pressing social and political issues: migrant workers and Arab-Jewish relations in Israel.

Life is busy. Technology dominates. Many hours are spent in the car, shuttling to and fro. Amidst filling the seder plate, poaching gefilte fish, stocking up on matzah and macaroons, and polishing the silver, consider the role of lively, embracing and intellectually stimulating reflection in defining the two nights (only one for those in the Holy Land) of solemnity and celebration.

Former Winnipegger Mira Sucharov is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carlton University in Ottawa. 

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