The Seder


The Seder

By Adam Katz


At the head of the table, a man nearing the end of his middle years sat in starched shirtsleeves; a dark grey sport-coat hung on the back of his chair. One square cufflink glittered gold as he picked up a sprig of parsley from the plate before him.
Why do we eat parsley on Passover?he asked.
One of his children from the extreme other end of the table chirped: It reminds us of spring!
Very good. And why do we wash our hands—without the blessing—before eating the parsley?
Another voice: It encourages us to ask questions.
Thats right,said the father. “Rabbi Sherman was saying last week: ‘The Seder is a transformative experience. We begin the Seder as slaves and we end the Seder free.’
About halfway down the table, sitting in a chair set between the chandelier and one of the heavy-curtained windows, the correct answers thumped unbidden inside someones head:
Because its customary to begin a Greco-Roman symposium by rinsing your hands and eating green vegetables.
Because, in the northern hemisphere, parsley is often the first green vegetable this early in spring.
Not everyone foregoes saying the blessing on washing the hands.
A woman in her mid-twenties; a guest of the eldest son. She had told her friend two weeks before about her plans falling through. In truth, she did not have enough money to get back to Pittsburgh, nor to take the extra two days off from work. But also she was curious about his parents. About how he, and they, lived. Now, having seen—silk sofa cushions, prints and paintings framed on the walls—half of her wanted to retch; the other half felt like a pebble among pearls. Gerry, sitting next to her, did not have a job to take two days off from. That thought came unbidden as well, but she swatted it flat like a moth.
Except these thoughts must have rippled the surface of her face, because Gerry murmured: “What’s on your mind?” So, walking toward the kitchen to wash their hands, they chattered back and forth about parsley and hand-washing. She left her finances unstated.
Gerry splashed water on his hands with the silver cup, then filled it; Gina did the same.
While she was giving the cup to the next person, her attention was diverted over her shoulder by the sound of Gerry greeting the brown-skinned woman by the stove: “Comment allez-vous, Madeline?” She was dressed stylishly: bright, button-down shirt, slim, dark jeans, short hair treated with gel to lie flat. A denim apron covered her from shoulder to knee. 
Madeline was answering: “M’ap viv, mesi.”
And he: “Vous êtes ts vif. Je vois.”
Back at the table, one of the uncles noted: “You speak French with…?”
With Madeline? I try to.
Madeline speaks Kreyol, not French!said one of Gerrys younger brothers.
Crayola isn’t a language,said a cousin.
The mother at the head of the table said, loudly but without severity: All right. We need to get moving so Madeline can get home tonight.
The dad lifted the middle matzoh and broke it, sliding the larger piece into a silk bag.
Four Questions,he announced.
Five minutes of shrill refusals later, they had gotten the youngest to mumble the Four Questions in Hebrew. The next to youngest followed in Yiddish. 
Then Gerrys father raised his full glass and intoned the section starting: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…When he finished, his second-youngest piped up: Was Madeline a slave, too?
Gina stifled a laugh, but could not avoid darting a glance to the head of the table.
Not Madeline. Her ancestors, maybe.
So why is she in the kitchen?
Hey. Thats not an appropriate question.
Someone was tapping a foot against the floor. It was the only sound. Then it stopped. A woman across from Gina and to the left said: Well. It was a really long time ago. Maybe
Gerry piped up: As opposed to slavery in Egypt which was last Tuesday?”
No, its just
Gerrys dad intervened: We arent just commemorating that one episode. The verse says: ‘In every generation someone rises up to destroy us and the holy one delivers us from their hand.
Gerry said: Sure. But the parallels! The Hebrews were immigrants! They fled deadly conditions in their own land. The Egyptians mistrusted them. Mistreated them. Sound familiar? Like how the United States is currently treating Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees?
Gerrys dad made a face. Its not the same. Jews are not Guatemalans and America is not Egypt.
Well, there are Central American Jews, right?said Gerry.
If they want to come, thats a different story,said his dad.
You dont think thats a littleum…” Gina could hear the word racist forming on his lips, unspoken. Was this an important moment for him? Or the latest repetition of a ritual?

You dont think thats a double standard?
Gina wanted to say something. She wanted to support Gerry’s voice—or was it Madeline’s?
We are finally discussing the question at the heart of the Seder.
True, Madeline isn’t a slave.
But her ancestors were.
Then again, Madeline probably makes much more money than I do. A housekeeper in an apartment like this?
Anyway, it doesnt matter if she has more money. Shes still in there and Im out here.
But what would I say? Theyre my hosts. Sure, Gerry is making points, but…
I wish I knew if he is just trying on left-wing politics. Like a scarf that looks dashing but might not go with his coat.
I should support him.
I shouldnt be trying to embarrass his parents.
If I just blurt something out
Maybe Ill think of something to say for tomorrow night.
Gerry’s mom said: Theres nothing wrong with taking care of your own first. Charity begins at home. Then she excused herself to the kitchen.
Its good wine. Wheres it from?the woman across the table, on the left, blurted out.
Its not good,chuckled Gerrys dad. We get the sweet stuff because Linda… Anyway. Where were we?
And just like that, the moment passed. Someone took up the next paragraph: “It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria
“What’s a zaria?” Gerry’s little brother.
“He plays Moe on The Simpsons,” Gerry answered.
“What’s The Simpsons?”
The retelling of the story went quickly, unhindered by needless interruptions. Except the little ones saying: When do we eat?Before anyone knew it, Madeline and Gerrys mother were passing out a platter of hard-boiled eggs and bowls of bright yellow broth. When the aunt who had been pointedly interrupting anything political got up to help, Gina did, too. Gerry did not, until Gina gave him a look. They brought out platters of chicken schnitzel, ratatouille, and cauliflower. For some time there was no talking.
As the sounds of eating gave way to low murmurs of conversation, an uncle asked Gerry and his siblings if they wanted to join him in the sitting-room to catch up. But Gerry looked in her direction as if—what? It would be impolite to leave her alone? She might put her foot in her mouth?
Her gesture said:Go. Ill be fine.
Gerry, his uncle, and his brother started walking to the double doors that separated the dining room from the large vestibule, with the living room on the other side. Gerry wrapped an arm around his brothers waist and picked him up like a duffel-bag with broken straps. His brother giggled as he bounced all the way to the living room.
When Gina turned back, Gerrys father was gesturing her to his wife’s vacant seat. Gina couldnt think of anything to say, but managed: “I’m a bit surprised theres no rice. Didnt Gerry say you were part Sephardic?”
Linda’s family is Italian-Jewish. Rapoport. They dont eat rice, either, though. That would be so much easier.
Maybe not,Gina said with a smile. I have classmates who are Sephardic. They just complain about having to check the beans and rice before Passover. I think its not important which custom you keep, as long as you complain about it.
He laughed.
Gina, right?
Yes. And what should I—?”
Alan is fine.
Alan. Well, thanks for—” She gestured around. “On such short notice. You have a beautiful home. Everything was so delicious. I mean—
You’re very welcome! Madeline knows her business. She's a real gem. Her aunt used to work for us. She retired back to Haiti.”
Earlier, Gina had not announced her concerns to the whole table because she did not want to raise tempers. But she might be able to mention them here, tête-à-tête.Surely she could. The purpose of the Seder was to be transformative, wasn’t it?
We are reliving that moment.
Going from slaves to free people.
Surely that includes reexamining misconceptions.
It’s a mitzvah—a commandment.
A little thought intruded: If you mess this up, you can say goodbye to the possibility of tutoring his kids, or their friends. Gerry said he would bring it up with his parents after they’d met her.She dismissed the thought as unworthy.
They won’t hold such a thing against me.
Two Jews, three opinions. Everyone knows that.
Gina took a deep breath and made her face look bright and cheerful. “So, I dont wish to open a can of worms, exactly. But you know. I hope to run my own sedarim one day. So how does one address the issue of modern-day slavery?
Well. Haiti is hardly modern-day.
So hed been thinking of that moment, too.
Should I press on?
No. Youll just say something foolish.
Damn it. I’m supposed to take risks, right? Im in my twenties!
She decided to try: Depends on how you think of it. They only finished paying their reparations in—I think 1948. Which is a significant year.”
Yeah. That part isn’t widely taught. Haiti won independence from France in 1800 something. 1804, maybe? In 1830, a French armada just floated up to the harbor at Port au Prince and demanded reparations for the lost property. You know. Plantations. Slaves. Their own lives they had to pay for. A protection racket, basically. Over a hundred million francs, which is billions in todays money. And then if you count, you know, things their poverty made them vulnerable to: Papa Doc. That earthquake…
The smaller children snuck past with a white silk bag, going to hide the afikomen.
Alan had not noticed.How do you have so much information about one country?
Oh. I took a class in American history and the professor spent some time on the Caribbean.
“Huh. Interesting.” Alan’s brow was placid. Gina was at a loss as to how to interpret that expression.
This waswhere?
“Penn State.”
Hmm. Well. You were saying?
Well. When people talk about things like reparations, its usually not a straightforward subject. I mean, how do you put a dollar-amount on slavery? Not saying reparations shouldnt be considered here. In the United States, I mean. Just that its complicated. But with Haiti, theres a pretty straightforward argument. The money was paid from the Haitian government to the French and American banks. One of those banks was Citibank! I mean. The entities involved are still around! So, at least in theory, you could take all of those old payments, convert them into constant dollars, and order the governments and banks to pay it back over a certain amount of time.Gina forced a weak smile.
Alan’s answer came quickly: Allow one set of reparations, youre opening the door. Its why the British Museum doesn’t return the Elgin marbles. They’d be pressured to give everything back.
Maybe they should. Its worth thinking about.
Anyway we should get started again.
Gina smiled with real warmth. I appreciate getting to meet you. And talk with you.”
Alan raised his glass. “I’d like to make a toast before we continue.
You cant have toast on Passover!” one of the younger kids said. Everyone laughed. The little one persisted: You can’t! It’s not kosher!
Alan cleared his voice: To new friends. And a good and blessed year for everyone. And to me finding the afikomen this year. Without having to pay a protection racket.Everyone but Gina laughed again and raised their glasses. Her brow furrowed with his word-choice.
Did he look my way as he said that last part?
Protection racket.
Was he making light of our conversation?
Was it just harmless wordplay?
Maybe I just lodged the phrase in his mind at the wrong moment?
Gerry’s glass is raised, too. Why does that bother me?
And then she and Gerry and the other adults were fanning out into the controlled wreckage of the youngest siblingsshared bedroom. After ten minutes, they started offering gifts in exchange for clues. A moment later, Alan was holding up the afikomen in mock triumph. As they all walked back to the table, he was distributing the matzah among outstretched hands.
When they had finished nibbling at it, Alan poured wine into a large goblet and set it at the center of the table:This is the cup for the prophet Elijah. We hope he comes and rescues us from the cycle of oppression and violence and helps us rebuild the Temple.” He then crossed to the door of the apartment and opened it. Standing at the door, he read clearly but quietly: 
Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name! Since they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his dwellings.
He stood there for a moment, then crossed back to his seat, his words still echoing as if in an empty room.
The family said grace, singing and pounding the table. Gina sang with new gusto.
Another half-hour sufficed to conclude the Seder. When it was done, Gina was feeling wistful and sad.
As she drank her last glass of wine; as she belted out the words to the last few songs; as she said her goodbyes to Alan, Linda, Gerry, the little kids, the nice uncle, the woman  who kept pointedly changing the subject away from controversial topics, and the rest, she found herself just…quiet. Sad. A bit drunk. Wishing the moment could last. Knowing it wouldn’t. But then her argument with Alan still rankled her. And why hadn’t Gerry helped bring the food out from the kitchen?
She went back to the kitchen to thank Madeline. Madeline looked busy. And tired. Hair no longer lying as flat; posture no longer as straight. But moving steadily through the last tasks of the night. Thank you,Gina said. Everything was really beautiful. And tasty.Madeline looked up. Nodded. Smiled. Said: “You are welcome.” Then carried on stacking things in the sink and running water over them. Gina looked at Madeline for some indication of—something. Had Madeline overheard her talking to Alan? Could she talk to her about—? No. Madeline would be tired, this was no time to… She slunk out of the kitchen.
Alan had a smile on his face as he closed the door behind Gina and his son. But his eyes were elsewhere. The Seder had ended. Such endings always filled him with a sense of wistfulness.
This Gina…Smart kid.
And if she’s in a graduate program at JTS… Rowan’s bat mitzvah is a year off. I could ask Gerry if she might—.
But. She’ll end up chatting with Rowan at the beginnings and ends of lessons. Give her half a year and she might have the kid parroting all sorts of propaganda nonsense.
Better Geller again. Then again, showing Gina some regard might help her sand off those rough political edges of hers; the way it does with the interns at the firm.
Well, there’ll be another Seder tomorrow night. Gina will be there. Maybe I’ll push back this time.
She might have derailed the whole Seder, turned it from a celebration of Jewish heritage into a morass of political argument.
And that son of ours. Didn’t have such ideas this time last year. Is it college?
He and Gina aren’t—
Well. It’s probably just a phase.
He wore a look of satisfaction as he embraced and kissed his brother and sister and their spouses and children. And finally shook Madeline’s hand.
His belly was full of chicken and his heart was full of song. It had been a good Seder, on balance. And tomorrow night would be round two.
On the other side of the door, Madeline shook her head as she waited for the elevator. The 4 was running local to the Bronx and, as she turned it from airplane mode, her phone started blowing up with texts—from her husband and her eldest and—. Madeline took a deep breath and then another. “Fatige,” she exhaled, as her thumbs began to tap out replies.
She had heard her name called in the piercing voice of her youngest—and some of the chatter that came after. She could guess the rest. It was not unusual to hear Gerry or Linda start with "You know how Arabs..." and end with "What? It's what they do!"  A job is a job, she would tell herself at moments like this. But usually they at least left her out of it. They had that much sense at least. She was trying to calm her nerves by taking deep breaths; but there was a knot in her chest that would not untie itself.
Gerry reached for Gina’s hand as soon as they rounded the corner from his dad’s building, but Gina waved him off.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked.
“I think we should break up.”

He stopped mid-stride. Then sped up to catch her. The walk home took most of an hour. They argued the whole way, drawing stares from passersby, panhandlers, and from Raju, one of the security guards in the graduate dorm. They were still arguing as they took turns with his toothbrush.   



Copyright © Adam Katz 2024 

Adam Katz was born and raised on Long Island, and has been writing for many years, as well as teaching and tutoring in writing, math, SAT, , and other subjects. He has his PhD in English from Stony Brook University. You can find his work in Spoonie Journal, Door is a Jar Magazine, Academy Forum, and Capital Psychiatry. He publishes essays, fiction, poetry, and a weekly webcomic on his own site,, while also offering classes, writing groups, editing services, and the support of a community. 

Please click here to donate to  
Tax receipts will be provided for both American and Canadian donations.

Please click here if you would like to join our mailing list.