Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Pre-Passover Prep: The Ceder

Passover is less than 2 weeks away. You can bet that I'll have some stories to tell after three Ceders with my family. But first things first. I'm about to attempt a Passover Primer for those of you unfamiliar with the holiday.

For the sake of clarity: I do not practice the Jewish religion, but I am of Jewish background and culture. My only Jewish education is what I've picked up from being around my family, who range in devotion from moderate to orthodox. I'm not an expert on the subject, by any means. I know just enough not to look like a total doofus in front of my observant relatives.

So the story goes, around 5 or 6 thousand years ago, the Jews were slaves of the Pharoah in Egypt. Of course they wanted to escape and find somewhere they could live as a free people. With the help of God's intervention, they got their wish. We commemorate and give thanks for this every year at a ritualized dinner called a Ceder.

If you want to know all the details of the story of Passover, crash a Ceder. The whole evening is a re-telling of the Passover story. In an orthodox home, you'd sit down around the table at sunset, tell the story in exhausting detail, and if you were lucky you would finally be ready to eat dinner around midnight. The kids would be asleep in their chairs. This is how it was for my mom when she grew up in her grandparents' house.

Neither of my close family units does a full Ceder as I've just described. We skip through the story, stopping only at major plot points and interesting rituals, and generally get to our dinner within an hour of sitting down.

There is one challenge with our abridged version.

The Ceder story is scripted, with stage directions for rituals and consumption of symbolic foods, in books, each of which is called a "Haggadah". These books are written in both English and Hebrew, usually in two columns or on facing pages. Because Hebrew is the primary language, and Hebrew is read and written from right to left, the pages of the books are numbered in what would appear to be reverse order. Additionally, no one household has a full, matching set of Haggadahs. Each one is paginated differently, and the English translations are idiosyncratic. So every time we try to skip ahead, with ten people around the table, it goes like this:

"OK, we've done the four questions. Now we're going to skip ahead to the plagues."

*sound of pages flipping in ten different books*

"Is that before or after the second washing of the hands?"

"After. But before Dayenu."

"Where it says about the wise son?"

"No, look here, just find the picture of the locusts."

*more flipping*

"No no! Pass it to me - you're turning the pages the wrong way again."

Then people start trading books, pointing over each others' shoulders, and arguing about what we're supposed to read next. It takes so long to get everyone back on track that we may as well tell the whole story.

We do eventually get through it all, only to reconvene and do it all over again the following night. Why do we insist on doing it twice? That's a whole other story...


Warped Mind of Ron said...

LOL, sounds interesting. I'm not much for ritual. I think the gathering of family and maybe an informal recounting of what's important is the primary goal, but something can be said for a ritual to make it feel like a more bonding experience. Hmmm... maybe I should crash a cedar and see what it's all about.

Nilsa S. said...

How timely! I brought my Presbyterian fiance to an Interfaith Seder last night at the synagogue where we're borrowing a rabbi to co-officiate our wedding. I consider last night practice, since we have two more to go - one with my boss's family and one at my aunt's house!

San said...

I'm glad to see you guys are loose enough to just fast forward to the plagues. Why does that sound so ominous though?

The closest I've come to crashing a Ceder is attending a bar mitzvah for a friend of my son's. Once a neighbor had us over for Hannukah lattkes. As you can see, I am an ignoramus with regard to Jewish traditions, but what very little I've experienced has felt genuine and powerful. I believe ritual is important.

Stewie said...

Why skip the plagues?

Wouldn't that be the best part?

My sister used to read the Bible when we were kids. But it was only Revelations because it was the best part.

Christopher said...


R.E.H. said...

Sounds like a very interesting dinner celebration to attend. I hope laughing isn't frowned upon, because I would be liable to chuckle a little during those page flipping sessions ;)

I've heard of Ceder - didn't recognize it by word, but the reading of history I've heard of.

Sparkling Red said...

Ron: I always like having newbies at a Ceder. It's more fun to re-tell the story when there's someone present who hasn't heard it all dozens of times before. :-)

Nilsa: That must be one awesomely cool synagogue. I only wish there was more tolerance for inter-faith relations in the Toronto community. Sometime I'll have to post about my efforts to find a rabbi to marry myself and my ex, who wasn't Jewish. It was near to impossible!

San: Mmm... Latkas... ;-) Orthodox Jews would certainly frown on how lightly we take the Ceder in my family, but we enjoy it all, even the plagues.

Stewie: We don't skip the plagues - we skip other stuff so we can get to them faster. There's a ritual around reading them, but I'll save that for another post.

Christopher: Hi! Thank you for your phonetic interpretation of Haggadah.

R.E.H.: My grandmother insists on solemnity for certain prayers, but we take the rest very lightly. There is much chuckling.

Karen said...

That was a great lesson for me. I was at a Ceder once (though I thought it was spelled Sedar) and I had no idea what was going on.

Sparkling Red said...

Karen: Did they do the whole thing in Hebrew? Because I don't understand a word of Hebrew. All those parts fly right over my head.

Aurora said...

I'm very amused by the page-flipping. It's good that you all take it so lightly. If only all religions could be like that. "Okay, after you're finished your jokes, please pass the incense." Dinner rituals are a great way to ensure a sense of tradition and family. That said, my perfectionist presbyterian self would want to get you all the same edition of your books, as a Christmas gift...

Jenski said...

That is a funny image passing around books with differently paged stories that tell the same thing.

Thanks for the prep! I may be attending my first (barbecue) Ceder this year so now I know a little more.

Sparkling Red said...

Aurora: I've often wondered why the family has never invested in a matched set of books. At this point, I think the chaos has become part of the ritual. :-)

Jenski: A barbeque ceder? I've never heard of such a thing. It sounds like fun! I hope you do go, and have a good time.