April 21st, 2011


Jewish mimetic tradition and the 10-minute seder

I meant to write this post last year, or maybe even two years ago, but never got to it. It's basically my personal response to biqoret's 3-part rant on Jewish mimetic tradition, and especially part 2. (1, 2, 3. This is one of my favorite blogs on the internet, even though it has barely a dozen posts and nothing in over two years, solely on the basis of these three posts.)

My family has a short seder. No, really short. No, seriously, shorter than that. It's the shortest seder you've ever been to. For a few years we were using a haggadah designed for an old-age home, and we skipped about half of it. I can remember exactly once that we did any of the after-dinner part of the seder, and we don't do most of the before parts either. We only hit one of the four cups of wine, and this year, in the 10 minutes we were doing the non-eating part of the seder, we almost skipped that one.

For the first 15 years or so of my life, I didn't really know any different. That's what a seder was. When I was about 16, I went with friends of mine to their extended family's seders out of town, and fell in love. 5 hours, into the night, telling and debating and discussing the story, singing, jumping rope (family tradition), and basically celebrating freedom. I've been back to that seder every few years since, and when I don't go, I always attend a second seder (my family's down to just doing the first night these days) that's a bit more full than what I'm used to.

As I added more aspects of Jewish practice to my life, I got more and more frustrated with my family's seder. I had long ago stopped attending the family break-the-fast dinner after Yom Kippur, being as it takes place while the sun is shining and several hours before I end my fast, so I was down to only Rosh Hashanah as a Jewish occasion that I enjoyed spending with my family.

Things didn't change dramatically. There wasn't a "click" or anything. But over the past few years, probably not coincidentally since biqoret wrote about mimetic tradition, my views have done a 180. I really appreciate the seder now in a way I haven't since I was 15, or really ever. It means more to me than other seders, and more to me than extended-family get-togethers for birthdays or other occasions. I don't just tolerate the seder that starts early and skips many of the parts I find important. I embrace it. This is my family, and this is how we've always observed this holiday that's in some ways the most important, and certainly the most family-centric, of the holiday year.

And more than that, my current Jewish practices, though very different from mine growing up and from most of my family's, still came from my family. Now that I, as an adult, have chosen to incorporate more Jewish learning and Jewish practice into my life, it's still a product of my upbringing. My parents raised me to be curious and to make my own decisions. Both of my parents went to professional school after college and value education. I attended a Jewish preschool and then an after-school Hebrew school that eventually led both me and them to realize that I have an interest in Judaism and Jewish practice. All of this led to where I am today. I can no more easily reject the 10-minute seder than I can reject all of that.

And anyway, this year worked out especially well. Due to two of my cousins each attending seder with their kid under age 5, we started even earlier in the day and went even a bit quicker than usual. (Last year, this post would've been called "Jewish mimetic tradition and the 15-minute seder".) In a vacuum, these two factors would annoy me even more than in previous years. But it actually meant that, even though I drive on Jewish holidays, I was still able to attend my family's entire seder, drive back to Center City, and walk into my friend's apartment right as they were about to recite the first page of the haggadah for their seder. I told them I'd attend the "second half" of their seder, which ended up being the entire thing. This meant that, from the standpoint of fulfilling the Jewish legal obligations that one fulfills at a seder, I don't even need to think of the family seder as my "real seder"; it could just be a fun meal I went to before my "real one". I had my four cups of grape juice and first matzah of the year at my "second first seder", we went way into the night retelling the story and discussing and debating and singing, and then I went home satisfied and free.

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