- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 3/29/21
On Saturday our family gathered around the table for the traditional Passover Seder. It was a surreal experience. After a year in the “bunker” here we were, 12 people in one place (outside and distanced, of course, along with several others connecting in on Zoom). Imagine that…other people at dinner! (Yes, the few that weren’t vaccinated were kept appropriately separated). The difference between this year’s celebration and last year’s was palpable. Last year, our nuclear family gathered around a computer screen, connected with far-flung family members—some even a mere few miles down the road—sequestered and separated, connected on-line for an abbreviated pandemic celebration. It was a far cry from 2019, when the world was “normal.”
Saturday night, I had an overwhelming sense of belonging and connection—certainly always experienced at special gatherings but even more so this year. It’s not that our connections to each other waned during the pandemic, but the lack of physical proximity took its toll. There is something about being in the yard at tables, breaking bread, drinking wine and telling stories—in person—and in three dimensions—that felt so warm and comfortable. One got the sense that this truly was a celebration on multiple levels.
WE EVOLVE AND THE HOLIDAY EVOLVCES WITH US
The differences in the seders of the last three years, and our responses to the events around us, certainly was stark. But this is not to suggest that these annual events haven’t evolved over time prior to the pandemic, as we and our seders shaped by events, feelings, attitudes and personal journeys. Ten years ago, we started interspersing the game show “Jew-pardy.” And because Passover incorporates universal themes, we’ve always had readings of notable figures associated with freedom, like Gandhi, Jefferson, Douglass, Mandela, Anne Frank, Victor Frankl, and Havel. A number of years ago, we were all feeling pretty existential, so Sartre and Camus creeped into some of the supplemental readings. 2017 brought us our “Biggly-est Haggadah Ever” with comedy and spoofs around the recent election of Donald Trump.
Part of the reform tradition is that it allows the religion and observance to evolve with the times—not change in its basic framework—but change in ways that differ from prior years and other people’s interpretations in ways that make it “our own.” We are not alone in this. I had conversations with several friends Passover eve morning to discuss their plans for this year. One thing was certain—we were each going to terrorize our families with our respective creative spins on a familiar experience.
HORIZONTAL AND VERTICAL CONNECTIONS
Marc Gerson suggests in a Wall Street Journal article a week ago that the Passover Haggadah and its regimen creates what he calls “horizontal and vertical connections” across time and space.
The horizontal connection is that families around the world this past Saturday evening gathered around tables similar to ours to tell the Passover story in their own way, yet in the same basic format. The vertical connection is the connection to families throughout history, who have participated in this event under different circumstances, but fundamentally engaging in the same story of freedom with their families and friends. Gerson goes on to say that this horizontal and vertical connection means that a 10th century Yemeni or a 19th century Russian could come to a seder in Miami or San Francisco in the present day and, while the seder has changed (especially for reform Jews who attempt to bring modern readings and current events into the discussion), they would recognize what was taking place and could participate.
OTHER WAYS WE CONNECT
While Passover is a Jewish holiday, I’m willing to bet that Christians feel the same connection around the world and around time when they celebrate Easter. Ditto for Muslims at Ramadan and Eid and Hindus over Holi. Major events, too, provide us connection around the world and throughout time, as we read of COVID outbreaks in India or peruse sepia photographs of people wearing masks during the the 1918 flu epidemic. One of the few positive things about the pandemic is that it reminds us of our inter-connectedness with each other—horizontally and vertically. Although feeling this connection is far less traumatic and a whole lot more fun when dealing with holidays!
MUST MYTHS BE TRUE TO IMPART TRUTH?
Besides Passover, Thanksgiving is my other favorite holiday. I joke that it’s because they are both holidays focused on food. But it’s more than that (although the food is a big deal…). But both holidays are focused on family and familiar traditions.
Rituals shared with others are a form of glue that binds us together. And while Passover still performs the act of binding the Jewish world together, Thanksgiving has lost a little of its luster in the debates surrounding the Native American experience. As opposed to using current events to “reform” the way we contemplate the holiday, the holiday instead is denigrated by some when interpreted through our current lens. Thanksgiving is described as a mythological depiction of the European-Native American interaction. True, we cannot forget that there were despicable acts committed by Europeans (and a few committed by Native Americans as well—inhumanity, after all, is something that sadly is practiced by many humans). But Thanksgiving celebrates a singular evening when that wasn’t the case—when people all were sitting together, breaking bread together in thanks. That is what we celebrate. Not the blind acceptance of a fantasy, but the elevation of a mythic ideal we have yet to achieve. Was the Thanksgiving story even true or just an idealized fantasy? Probably a bit of both. I have no more idea whether the first Thanksgiving was as described than whether Moses even existed. But these myths are foundational and provide lessons for us and our children and so they are to be treasured.
It is our duty to continue these traditions and “tell the story,” so that we keep this connection to our forebears and our descendants vertically, and to our neighbors horizontally.