When I was about seven, I vaguely recall going to my maternal grandfather’s house on Seaver Street in Roxbury for the Seder. Back in the early 1950s, there was still a large Jewish population in Roxbury and Dorchester. Nearly everyone was Orthodox, and that meant the men led the Seder, and it was mostly in Hebrew. I didn’t understand much of it (although I did enjoy singing Dayenu). I also recall that it seemed very long (they read nearly every page of the Haggadah). I knew it meant a lot to my parents that we attended, but I’d be lying if I said I looked forward to it.
Don’t get me wrong: even as a kid, being Jewish was important to me. One of my earliest memories is of my mother lighting the Shabbos candles. She was a very spiritual person, and I recall how radiant her face was as she said the blessing. We kept a kosher home (which I still do, to this day) and we observed the major holidays. But when it came time for Passover, we went to my grandfather’s house, or to the home of one of my uncles. I recall wishing we could do our own Seder, which I hoped would be a little shorter and a lot more interesting. Back then, I guess I saw Passover as an obligation: it was something I was expected to do, so I did it.
After we moved to Roslindale and my sister was born, we eventually began doing our own Seders. My father led them, and while they had a little more English, they still were in the traditional style, and not very participatory. It was not customary to bring in new readings, nor were the women expected to play much of a role. It was the mid-1960s, and I remember going through a period when I felt alienated from organized religion. I’m sure my parents worried that I’d become an atheist or leave Judaism entirely, given how skeptical I had become. Truth be told, I didn’t want to be anything other than Jewish; I just didn’t feel that traditional Judaism welcomed someone like me.
By the 1970s, I had left Boston to pursue my radio career, but I always tried to find a Seder to attend; I told myself it was out of respect for my parents, but it just didn’t feel right if I didn’t observe Passover. It was while I was living in Cleveland, New York, and Washington D.C. that I first encountered Seders that incorporated different styles and customs from what I had seen growing up. I saw people honoring the tradition while modernizing how the Seder was done. I also saw a woman leading a Seder, which was quite unusual back then. When I moved back to Boston in 1979, I asked my parents if I could lead our Seder.
Looking back on it now, I understand it was an audacious thing to ask, given my father’s Orthodox upbringing; but for some reason, he accepted it. And that is how I began bringing in additional readings, making sure the Seder had lots of opportunities for participation, and creating a Seder that was true to the Passover story yet relevant to today.
After I married and became a professor, my husband and I began inviting my students to share Passover with us. We often invited Jewish students who couldn’t get home for the holiday, but we also invited young people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds. Many of them had never attended a Jewish religious event before, and it was wonderful to introduce them to Passover. My husband and I made sure to explain the reasons for each custom, and we tried our best to make everyone feel welcome. We are also the advocates for a young man with autism: one of our proudest moments was when he voluntarily read from the Haggadah.
These days, it’s easier to keep kosher for Passover; the food has really improved over the years. There is also more understanding about including women, and it is no longer unusual to use readings that apply the Passover message to current events. I understand that to some people, I probably sound arrogant – how dare I want to change the traditional Seder? (I can hear my father saying, “It was good enough for my father and good enough for his father.”) And yet, the fact that I encountered feminist Seders, and Seders about welcoming immigrants, and even vegetarian Seders showed me that people can love Passover in different ways; and there’s nothing wrong with bringing in different perspectives, while still being true to the Passover story. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Passover is no longer an obligation for me; rather, it’s an opportunity, and I feel grateful to participate in it every year.
Donna L. Halper is an associate professor of Communication and Media Studies at Lesley College.