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“A Bit of Home”: My First Seder

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on April 5, 2010 1 Comment

Last Monday, I joined in the Jewish ritual feast of Seder, an event which marks the beginning of Passover. It was my very first time being a part of the celebration of Seder, and so I “prepped” by thumbing through a pop-up explanatory children’s book (in English): and of course, Wikipedia was an obvious go-to for more. In brief, Seder takes place on the first night of Passover, and the word Seder

סדר—derive[s] from the Hebrew word for “order”, referring to the very specific order of the ritual.

The table is elaborately set up, and, during the extended meal, as Wikipedia again helpfully informs us, “the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold using a special text called the Haggadah.”

By late Monday afternoon, the dining table stood transformed with vibrant, colorful table settings neighbored by personal (Hebrew/English or Hebrew/Spanish) Haggadahs; multiple crystal glasses; shiny, silvery Kiddush cups; fine china; a wooden Lazy Susan piled high with veggies and sauces; and of course, the commandingly majestic Seder plate. The men wore the traditional kippahs, and we were all dressed semi-formally (I wore a hot pink gold-embroidered churidar kurta, but that’s probably another post-or no post at all).

Once we were all seated, the head of the family began leading Seder. It was quite an experience hearing him rapidly chant/recite the Hebrew, and to listen as others followed along with their own texts. This was the first time I had ever really encountered the language, and I was mesmerized by its soft, dulcet sounds. I tried to keep pace with the English translation juxtaposing the Hebrew text in my illustrated Haggadah, though initially with some difficulty. One of the first issues was my orientation toward the physical text itself: the book has to be read from back to front, and right to left, and remembering to turn the page the “other way” took a little getting used to. However, everyone understood that I might be lost, and paused frequently to act as textual GPSes to pinpoint where we were in the text, or indicate the breaks between chapters. About a quarter of the way through, though, I figured out that the word “Mizraim” referred to Egypt, which was fascinating because that’s very similar to the word we use to refer to Egypt in Bengali (Mishor) and Hindi (Misra). After that, it was infinitely easier to keep pace with the text. Many of the chapter readings were conducted in both Hebrew and English, and this transformed my experience: there is reverence, a solemnity in the text when it is spoken out (even in English), that a simple visual scanning does not convey.

The chanting of the texts was punctuated by the ritualistic-and reverential- consumption of chazeret (romaine lettuce), z’roa (lamb shankbone), charoset (date syrup with crushed walnuts, and date paste), maror (horseeadish), karpas (parsley), and beitzah (buttery, hardboiled eggs), Matzah, washed down with the mandatory four cups of the sweet Israeli port. The idea is to ritualistically relive the history  through the partaking of those foods in a particular order, and the consumptive act made the narrative come alive for me in ways a simple recitation would not have.

There is much of that experience that I can’t articulate simply because there is something in ritual for me that is expressly, inescapably, ineffable. The narration of history, the ritualistic performance of the narrative…defy entextualization. What I walked away with that I can narrate, is the experience of being momentarily immersed: immersed in the customs and ways of a culture not my own, yet strangely familiar in its ritualism: immersion in a language that is alien to my ears, yet strangely recognizable and meaningful. Sometimes, in the midst of otherness, unfamiliarity, and the “strange”…we find a bit of home.

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One Response to ““A Bit of Home”: My First Seder”

  1. daveski on: 6 April 2010 at 12:14 am

    It was very nice to read this and feel how it subtly points back to a lot of posts that you have written before here on FIT, while at the same time looking forward to new, unexpected, uncharted experiences… I had the distinct feeling of being able to see, rather than read, the text. 🙂

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