It’s as if I’m paralyzed when I think about this year’s Pesach. I am unable to plan or to get up my usual excitement. Like you, this year brought the passing of a parent and I now face the reality of being the oldest at my family’s table. I do not feel ready to be the next generation —the leader of the next seder. Any words of wisdom to get me to a better place?
What comes immediately to mind is a song that used to play when our kids were little. It was on a tape along with other Jewish songs that were quite fun and lively. But then it would begin to play: Moshe Yess’s “The Zaidy Song.” It always changed the mood. Suddenly the previously dancing, jumping, happy kids were morose and tearing up.
“Turn off the music!” they would cry.
It then became standard practice to always skip that song. There would be the frantic scream as it started to come on, “Run! Fast-forward it! fast forward it!”
The song told the story of a Zaidy, a grandfather, who lived with his family. He would tell them stories about Poland and persecution, teach them Torah and the story of the slavery in Egypt. Zaidy would make kiddush Friday night and lead the seder. Zaidy would make them laugh and cry. And then the kids went off to camp one summer and Zaidy was gone. He had passed away. Here are the lyrics from the last stanza,
And now my children sit in front of me
And who will be the Zaidy of my children?
Who will be their Zaidy, if not me?
Who will be the Zaidy of our children?
Who will be the Zaidy if not we?
It still makes me cry. Find it on YouTube — you can cry too. What an existential angst of a song. Ironically, my father, a true Zaidy, loved that song. He would sing it to the kids over and over, and they would cry out, “Zaidy, Zaidy, stop singing!” In his own way, he was trying to prepare us.
A seder without our parents present is assuredly a coming-of-age experience. Though their place is empty, their presence still fills the room. For now, we can close our eyes and still see them; their special Hagaddah, their kiddush cup in hand, and the certain lilt of the accents from time gone by echoing in our memroies as their voices sing the melodies of their childhoods.
The reality, that the we heard from them year after year must now be told through us, is a sobering one. That something will be lost in translation is a given; just how much is the test of time.
There is no way I can tell my father’s story of how matzoh was made back in Velizh; the holiness of how the men would don white kittels and go out to fields to harvest the wheat, all the while singing Hallel, and how my father would ride on the sled with the buckets of water, the mayim shelanu, taken from the Dvina River that ran through the shtetl. They would break the ice on the river, lower the buckets and then haul them up to the house to remain there overnight — water used for matzot must spend the night having already been drawn before being kneaded into matzoh dough.
Can I describe the improvised tool fashioned from a watch gear attached to the end of a stick that my father would hold in his hand, thrilled to be selected to be the one to run it back and forth across the raw matzoh dough, creating lines and lines of holes, ensuring that the dough would not bubble up and rise. How can I tell that story the way he would tell it?
For that matter, how can I give over the poignancy of my mother’s rendition of the exhilaration of the mitzvah of baking matzot; the magic of rising early to bake the special matzoh baked on erev Pesach itself, called matzot mitzvah, because it was baked at the very same time the Pesach offering would have been brought in the days of the Temple? These stories are of a previous generation. Is it really possible to tell them over?
Yet we are told by the Haggadah that each of us is obligated to see one’s self as having come out of Egypt. The task for each of us sitting at the seder is to assume the mantle of Israelite slave refugee; bearing witness to the bitterness of the oppression, to the triumph of ten plagues, and to the drama of the miraculous splitting of the sea. Our tradition was confident that we would be able to transcend the bounds of our specific moments in history and be able to the savor taste of freedom baked into the matzoh at our very own table in time.
In the book, The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel draws from the work of Abba Kovner and tells us of the distanced decline through the generations:
We no longer have the power to go to that forest and to light the fire there, the ancient prayer has already been forgotten and we do not even know the location of the place. But we do know what happened, we know the story and that we can tell it and it must be sufficient. And it was.
This telling of stories is a potent gift. It can bridge vast distances of time and place. And so in this regard we have hope. We are empowered by our heritage to tell the story, generation to generation, dor l’dor. Overwhelmed, overcome and feeble though we may feel, it will be, I hope perhaps slightly more than sufficient.