I used to dread all the Jewish holidays, especially Passover. At my supermarket in Tel Aviv, days before the Seder, I would see gray-haired women and families with children pushing carts filled with food, knowing they would be hosting a brood. Everyone I knew seemed to be planning to joyously celebrate Passover with family.
Everyone, except me, my husband and two children who had no relatives here. Even our relatives abroad couldn’t help us. We had both grown up in assimilated Jewish families who weren’t interested in marking Passover.
We felt completely alone for a holiday that isn’t meant to be celebrated alone.
Sure, we had friends who occasionally invited us to their family Seders. There we sat, the lone outsiders sitting awkwardly amongst the many aunts, grandparents and nieces. Those Seders made me feel homesick for a Passover I never had and feared I never would.
Eventually, being in this family-centered country during Passover became too much for me to bear. I wanted the holidays, especially Passover, to go away. Barring that, I wanted to go away. So rather than take our annual spring trip abroad before or after the Seder, we travelled during it. Having a Seder while visiting a foreign country took on a different spin. We were no longer surrounded by families preparing for the holidays so our small Seder for four seemed, well, less pathetic.
One year, we rented a farmhouse with exposed wooden beams near Lake Garda, Italy where my young daughter made soggy pizza from amongst the multiple boxes of Matza we had brought with us. In French chateaux country, we ate poulet with Charoset and classic French meringues, big as footballs, for dessert. In London, our rented apartment featured a small garden whose wrought iron table was just large enough for our Marks & Spencer takeaway and Seder plate.
We didn’t know it then, but that London Seder was our last as a family abroad and the beginning of another kind of Seder altogether.
Less than two months after my husband died of cancer, Passover loomed before me and my two children. We had been four people struggling to mark the Seder the best we could; now we were down to three. Yet, expectations were higher than ever to properly mark this holiday.
My teenage son had become religious and celebrating Passover was hugely important for him; therefore, it was important for me. I wanted, especially after his father’s death, to give him the Seder of his dreams.
That first Seder on our own we decided to go with the only real Passover tradition we had – decamping abroad. We went to the United States where non-religious relatives kindly let my son lead the Seder with their friends in their home. But the Seder had to be shortened and rushed to accommodate the other guests and my son felt dissatisfied.
The following year, we decided that foreign travel was no longer an option. We lived in Israel and we wanted to have the Seder here. Friends who invited us were not religious enough for my son. We even considered going to Chabad, but I couldn’t face the prospect of such an impersonal event.
Finally, a rabbi my son knew finagled us an invitation. It was not just any invitation. We would attend a Seder at the home of the head of a yeshiva, who lived with his family within walking distance. My son told me we were honored to be invited. Warned that we would only start eating very late, I ate a big pre-dinner snack and put on my most modest dress. During that Seder we once more felt welcome as guests who were clearly not family. When we returned home at 1 AM, having left early, I felt that next year we would have to do better.
By the third year without our family patriarch, I had unlocked a secret that had somehow previously eluded me: There were others here in Israel also without relatives. I assembled a group of them around my dinner table for Passover. My son led the service and, as the youngest attendee, also asked the four questions. And so, our new Passover tradition was born.
Hosting our own Seder hasn’t always been smooth. The first time, several guests felt the need to strike a more humorous and rushed tone than my son had wanted. The following year, one of our guests stood up during the Haggadah reading and, complaining the Seder was taking too long, left before the meal was served. This year I’ve made sure all our guests know what to expect in advance.
And so, I head for the supermarket with my long list of food items. I fill up my cart with bags of apple I’ll need for my Passover Kugel and the jumbo packs of Matza that will go, among other places, into my chicken stuffing. And I long to tell the other shoppers:
“This is for my Seder, the Seder I’ll be hosting.”