Several years ago, when the children were scattered in far away places and we were alone in Harrisburg PA with Esther’s late Mother, Dora Sawicki, living adjacent to us in her later years, we decided to invite some African American friends to our Seder. Esther and Dora lovingly spent a good bit of time preparing the wonderful Seder delicacies for us and our guests who were both former students and colleagues of mine who had become friends in the community.
As I explained to our guests, the purpose of the Seder was to tell the story of our Exodus to from Egypt to Israel and to have discussions of the story relevant to the events of the day in between the telling of the story. These were friends with whom we had always had deep and meaningful discussions, always edifying each other on important perspective and extending ourselves in lovingly receptive ways.
When we got to the portion of the Seder and asked the Four Questions and answered them, it suddenly dawned on me in running the Seder that perhaps our guests may have had grandparents or elderly relatives who may have passed on stories of slavery in their families and so I asked a Fifth Question….”On this night we recount the story of when we were slaves and of our deliverance from slavery to freedom, perhaps our guests have similar stories in their past and so, do any of our guests have any family stories and histories and recollections of slavery, they could share tonight?”
Much to my surprise, it appeared that I may have thrown our guests a curve. I knew our guests to have made long family histories in the area going back at least to Reconstruction and had thought there might be some stories that had been passed down from generation to generation. But apparently that was not the case and I struggled as to what direction I wanted to go with the question given that our guests honestly could not respond.
And then it dawned on me and I asked those assembled, “Well, then in the absence of stories to share, let me ask, in all of your experiences have you ever met someone, perhaps not a family member who had been a slave?”
Now everyone, including Esther, at the table was a bit confused and looked at me quizzically as I had gone far off script. Meanwhile, Dora, who chose to keep helping to serve during the dinner because she was pretty hard of hearing was bringing in plates of food, while I was conducting the Seder and was seemingly not in the loop and the answer to give those assembled the answer to the question.
“Your meal tonight was prepared by someone who had been a slave,” I said. “Your meal tonight is being served by someone who had been a slave,” I added. In what can only be described as a spontaneous revelation, everyone instantly understood where I was going. At that moment, I choked up and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and Dora just kept serving in her dignified and loving way without skipping a beat.
You see, as our friends and family know. Dora and her 10 brothers and sisters and entire family were slave laborers in the Nazi concentrations. Only she and two sisters survived the brutality of those camps. The realization that this woman of valor who had prepared our meal and was serving us had been a slave was a bonding experience for all of us and in our hearts we relive that moment every time we meet. It was an extraordinary moment, a difficult moment but such an important moment for the people at our Seder table.
Dora is gone now, but in her memory each year I now tell the story to those who sit at our Seder table because it is important not just to tell the story of our enslavement and redemption, it is important for us to connect with our guests in a meaningful and impactual way to challenge ourselves to bond with our commonality and archetypal histories. so that we can find common ground.
Wishing you all a meaningful and joyous Pesach.