My family’s been fractured for years now, and the youngest of us still on speaking terms have been grown-ups for even longer, so like many empty-nested Jewish families, our holiday gatherings of late have had a certain post-observant, Diasporic ennui about them. We did our time in temple, in Hebrew School, and reclined our way through interminable Seders with gasbag uncles and diva sisters who couldn’t let the “Four Questions” solo gig go to the rightful singer without a fight. (Full disclosure: the diva sister was me, but mine was not the hogging that triggered the infamous inter-familial Seder fist-fight.)
Then our family had kids. Okay, my brother and sister-in-law had them, technically, but they’re ours in the all-important spoiling and non-diaper-changing senses. Suddenly, holiday dinners felt different. Someone was looking. An impressionable someone. And we started wondering what kind of crazy mispachah we looked like.
For my parents, the focus was on the Judaism. Their grandchildren wouldn’t be getting a formal religious education of any kind, just whatever stereo in-house Chanukah/Christmas, Passover/Easter celebrations their parents and their parents’ respective families of origin could cobble together. I was interested in the Judaism, too, but my Judaism has been inseparable from my feminism since the day I learned my temple didn’t let Bat Mitzvah girls face the ark like the boys did.
So last week when my mother said she was studying up on ways to make the Seder more accessible and child-friendly, I was supportive.That alone is a biggie for me. To say my mother and I have had our differences is like saying Pharaoh had a bone to pick with that pesky dude Moses. But nowadays, with my family’s newest eyes watching—my sister-in-law’s, my husband’s and my nephews’—I make a conscious effort not to let any lingering resentments I have towards the woman who had the decidedly mixed blessing of giving birth to me look like a blanket dismissal of all the women in the world who were less lucky.
This meant for this year’s Seder we could wonder how my mom was going to incorporate the finger puppets of the 10 plagues into the Passover narrative (Would there be voices? What did boils sound like, anyway?), but we were coming dressed as requested—ready to reenact a long, hot trek through the Sinai desert. And when my mother started her shpiel, we were all quieting down and paying attention.
Getting the attention of two toddlers is almost as hard as keeping it. It helps to be flexible and open to improvisation. Our trek through the desert had a four-year-old knight sussing out the evildoers hiding behind the sand dunes and a camel with no humps but a talent for sitting when treats are dangled within sniffing distance. Did Sir Slays-A-Lot understand why matzah is the bread of our affliction? Probably not. But he ate some, and he found the afikomen. Did he hear that Moses’ big sister Miriam saved him from Pharaoh by putting him in a basket and setting him afloat? If my big sisterly oohs and aahs were worth their salt (or was it shmaltz?), he’ll never forget it. He may have even caught the part about how we put an orange on the Seder plate now to celebrate our solidarity with those traditionally marginalized in the Jewish community–lesbians, gays, and women.
Or maybe that was just me.
What he did see was my mother running the show and the rest of the family listening. Does that even qualify as progress? Or a feminist act? I suppose the answer is my fallback equivocation—yes and no. But it’s more than I saw when I was my nephew’s age, and I’ve been a rabid feminist almost as long as I’ve been talking.
This year I’m thinking Elijah’s glass of wine is half full.
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.