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Bound by blood and kneidlach

Learning from a daughter with autism that sometimes asking the Four Questions is beside the point

When I was a kid, I must have read the Four Questions at our family’s Seder until I was in my twenties.

It was the curse of being the youngest child and grandchild at the table for years upon years. It took until my older cousins and brothers started the next generation until I finally got to relinquish my choke hold on the Four Questions.

I didn’t come from a religious family. My grandparents were raised Orthodox but broke free from traditional Judaism when leaving their home in Radoshkovitch, a small town between the cities of Minsk and Vilna, to marry in Paris and start a life in France. Their experiences during the war, hiding with my dad and aunt in Vichy France and the fact that none of their family, let alone Radoshkovitch, survived the war, made their departure from traditional Judaism complete.

Still, when it came to the Jewish Holidays, my grandmother returned to the traditions of her youth and what was familiar. Her house and our holidays were steeped in the tradition of her youth in Radoshkovitch. She once told me that cooking the same foods her mother and grandmother did made her feel connected to them on the holidays and made her feel like she was linking all that was good in her American life back to her family, and by doing so, the family that she lost and the family that she built were being forever bound to one another.

When I had my daughter, I couldn’t wait until she was old enough to be able to recite the Four Questions at our own family Seder as I had done for so many years.

My daughter is 9, she is autistic and has learning difficulties and struggles with reading.

So, she’s never done the Four Questions.

Last year on the first night of Pesach we decided for something different to attend our synagogue’s Seder and I was so proud of her for sitting through the more than 2 and a half hour Seder, without a meltdown.

The shul gave all the kids at the Seder a Pesach CD of songs, including the Four Questions. On the way home in the car, I had an idea, if I could get her to memorize the song, maybe this might be a way that I could get her to read the Four Questions at our own Seder.

I put a plan in motion.

So, every few weeks throughout the year, at bath time or before bed, I’d put the CD on and slowly but surely she started to memorize all the songs, including the Four Questions.

My daughter’s particular brand of autism is one where unfamiliar situations can be very stressful for her, so in order to minimize her anxiety, we always try as much as we can to prepare her. So, just like in other years, I sat down with her and told her again about the Seder and I explained to her that it was traditional that the youngest person at the Seder table reads the Four Questions.

Her eyes immediately darted from me to the floor.

“Mommy, I don’t read so well, what do I do?”

I told her again that the Four Questions were in the song Ma Nishtanah which she now knows by heart, and sung from start to finish on Sunday night in the shower all by herself. My daughter also doesn’t like to sing in front of people or doesn’t like it when people sing to her, so I was ordered before she sang it, to not listen.

I asked her to think about it whether or not she wanted to try and sing it at our Seder. I promised her that I wouldn’t make her do it, so she could change her mind anytime and if she didn’t want to do it, it was okay, I would do it. I tried to reassure her by telling her that it would only be her father and me and her grandparents at the table, and that all of us knew she didn’t like to be looked at when she was singing and I promised her we wouldn’t look at her if she decided to sing it, that we would keep our eyes down the whole time.

She told me she would think about it.

So this year, as I cooked for the seder, as I filled my house with the same smells of kneidlach and tzimmes as my grandmother had so many times before. As I set the table with my grandmother’s silverware, under the watchful eyes of her family photographs and did just what my grandmother did, bound my daughter to her own great grandparents and their families, I hoped she would want to do it.

My daughter came in from school and I asked her if she thought about it. She told me that she didn’t want to do it, that she was afraid. She asked me if I would read the Four Questions like I always do, and she asked if she would hold my hands while I read them, that might almost be like she was reading them too.

And I realized, it didn’t matter whether or not she did the Four Questions. It didn’t matter if she didn’t follow the traditions exactly. What mattered is that she was surrounded by her family, that she enjoyed her Seder as I did the Seders of my youth and that she take her place bound in the generations of our own family and our own traditions.

Because what she would carry with her are those memories of these Seders, not whether or not she read the Four Questions.

So, just as I had all those years ago, when I was the youngest in the family, I read the Four Questions and my daughter held both my hands tightly when I did it, and while I read them, I saw her, silently mouthing the words along with me.

I think my grandmother would have approved.

About the Author
Dana has made it her habit to break cultural barriers and butcher languages wherever she goes. Born in Pittsburgh, Dana lived and worked in Tel Aviv for five years, before moving to the Netherlands where she lives with her husband and daughter in Amsterdam.