Let me try to keep some of the Pesach spirit alive by beginning this column with a multiple choice question: Change is (a) good, (b) bad, (c) scary, (d) difficult, (e) all of the above, or (f) all of the above plus some more adjectives I want to save for use later in this column
While there is, of course, no one correct answer to this question (as was true of the LSAT questions in my day, when they used to tell us to pick the best one), my answer is, to no surprise, (f). And for me, it’s not simply that different changes have different answers. More interestingly, it’s that the very same change can have different, and perhaps contradictory, answers.
So, for example, as I sat with my wife and daughter at this year’s Teaneck Yom HaShoah commemoration (deeply meaningful and moving, as always, though a bit too long), I noticed that when the survivors in the audience were asked to rise, their numbers had diminished dramatically from previous years. Also, when the six three-generational families (survivor, child, and grandchild) slowly ascended to the stage to light candles in memory of the six million we lost, there were now six chairs, so each of the survivors could sit. I remembered, though, that in past years there had been no chairs or only one or two were necessary. We were confronted visually with the sad change that time often brings.
And yet, I also noticed that some of the six families are now four-generational, with great-grandchildren of survivors also participating — a sign of the ultimate Jewish victory over the Nazis, albeit at far too great a cost. And so this change also represents survival, endurance, pride, and hope.
My family also has experienced change in yom tov celebrations. In the first years of our marriage, we would spend the yomim tovim at our parents’ homes, always being careful, of course, to alternate the venue. But as our family grew and the pull to create our own chag grew stronger, we began sharing Pesach and Sukkot with my wife’s sister and family who lived a short and pleasant (when the wind off the river wasn’t howling) five-block walk down Riverside Drive. Pesach sedarim and meals were in Andrea and David’s apartment, with its larger dining room and kitchen, while Sukkot meals were in the sukkah in our building courtyard, which was quite roomy and thus could accommodate our growing families more easily. (Note: both families shared the shopping, cooking, and cleaning-up chores, no matter the holiday or location of meals.)
And when we moved to Teaneck, we kept up this holiday-sharing practice, though it all moved to our house, where accommodations were easier to find for the visitors and we had our own private sukkah. This wonderful family tradition thus continued, with the addition of children-in-law and grandchildren, for 33 years. At some point during that time, our parents and some other siblings and families began joining us.
Starting this Jewish year, however, it became too difficult for our Manhattan relatives to spend the holidays with us. We didn’t feel this change too much at Sukkot (other than my wife taking on all the preparation duties, aided by our daughters), because our new sukkah, which we bought about seven years ago, is far more spacious than our dining room, allowing us to fill it with guests for each meal.
But when we sat down to the first Pesach seder, the change was palpable. Instead of the two tables we previously crammed into our dining room to fit in at least 15 and often many more boisterous relatives (necessitating us to move our sideboard to our living room for the duration), our single table (with the sideboard in its usual place) was surrounded by just the five immediate family members living in the area. (My Toronto daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren didn’t join us until chol hamoed.)
It was a very different seder. We missed the loud singing, cajoling the youngest child to say the Mah Nishtana in Hebrew, and having the questions then repeated in French, Yiddish, Japanese, American Sign Language, and any other tongue someone knew or just learned. This year it simply was ASL signed by our daughter, who is a teacher of the deaf, and Hebrew recited by the youngest “child” — our 27-year-old daughter. We also missed hearing the various divrei Torah the children had learned in school, and we missed laughing as our nephew entertained us with his revised version of a seder story I taught him, a story that my grandfather told every year when I was a child.
But together with what we lost there was much we gained. The lovely, sweet, intimate atmosphere allowed all to participate actively and remain engaged with one another, kept side discussions to a bare minimum, and eliminated disruptive political arguments. And we still sang all the traditional songs (“traditional” includes “frogs here, frogs there” even without younger children present, and a Yiddish version of Adir Hu taught to me by my grandfather) and ate all the traditional foods (“traditional” includes chicken marbella at dinner after the matzah and marror) — all with gusto. Magid was faster, we cut out the dessert course at the first seder (helping us to hopefully meet our goal of fitting into our wedding attire at the end of June), my afikoman was still where I placed it when we reached Nirtza at the second seder, and no one conked out in the middle, because we finished by midnight rather than our usual 2 a.m.
We also were honest enough to realize that the aging process meant that without the help of our wonderful children we could not do all the physical labor required to prepare and turn over the kitchen twice and set up and break down all the boxes in our garage, where we stack many of our Pesach pots, pans, and utensils on tables during the holiday, retrieving them as we need them, replacing them when we’re finished. (Our kitchen is small!) And while that’s a difficult fact to confront, it came along with the realization that our children are perfectly capable of carrying out the traditions and hard work that go into making a family yom tov and thankfully have absorbed the values that make all that work worthwhile
Our seder and Pesach preparations certainly have changed, but these changes had both sad and heartwarming elements at the same time.
One adjective I did not use in my question at the top of this column but will add now is “inevitable,” since as long as we breathe and think we will continue to experience change in many forms and be affected by it in different ways; we are never, as the saying goes, able to step into the same river twice. And that’s one more thing that makes life and change — and here’s my final adjective — so very exciting.