Years ago, when I was in the throes of a fervent Ashtanga Yoga practice — one that cast me to India for a month, one that had me wearing purple saris and posting pictures of Indian gurus on my refrigerator; one that influenced what I ate and drank— evidenced by some of the contents of my fridge during that time— a large glass jar of ghee, soy milk, carob almonds. It’s no wonder when my eldest son who at around six when he was asked by an acquaintance his religion he replied, “My dad is Jewish and my mom is a vegetarian.”
I am reminded of this story today as I spend time searching online for a family friendly Haggadah to use for Passover Seder I am hosting. I want the book to be relevant and lively and reflective of my current family’s values —a kind of modern-day rendering of the story of Exodus that might spark more than vague curiosity from my nine-year-old son who grew up with his dad and me teaching Yoga and singing chants about Hare Krishna and lighting altar candles for our impressive bronzed deity collection. I wonder, today if he too was asked about his religion if Jewish would be his first or only response.
After scrolling through a few elaborate pages of various pdf files, I settle on a Haggadah compiled for an interfaith family despite the fact that everyone attending my Seder is Jewish. I chose it more for its aesthetic simplicity and coherent storytelling than for its cultural politics. I chose it because unlike the glossy beige generic four by six booklets I grew up leafing through, this DIY Haggadah has warmth. Someone put a lot of time and love into assembling the pages of songs and ceremony and It fulfilled an urge I had for my son to understand what the story was all about. Why are we doing this? Which is a fair question since my nod toward my faith pops up only intermittently in my son’s life—the occasional family Bar-mitzvah, and the lighting of a menorah during Chanukah which is set near the counter behind which a fully decorated Christmas tree stands, something I consented to since my Jewish husband grew up having a “Chanukah bush”.
Passover in my family was about as reformed as it gets. I suspect my mom who grew up conservative felt a loyalty to her Jewish upbringing. She plopped our tired Haggadahs on our plates where the lump of gefilte fish sat with the bright red horseradish bleeding onto the rims. Reading the Haggadah was a rushed affair. Rather than spend hours recounting this age-old story of our peoples’ freedom from slavery which was something many of my more orthodox friends were obliged to do, my dad in his effort to ward off everyone’s hunger complaints, assigned random parts for us to read out loud. He skipped pages, and paragraphs and whole parts of the Seder ritual. Which I find ironic since the word Seder itself means “order”. Despite the haphazard way I understood the whole ceremony, it made enough of an impression on me that I find myself wanting to reenact it every year around my dinner table—including the abrupt edits of the community reading.
When I was in India during my devoted years of practicing Ashtanga yoga, I walked to the shala in the early morning hearing the Brahman’s chanting of the Vedas over a loudspeaker. The voices seemed part of the warm breeze that blew the leaves of the palms trees and the dust around the dirt path I walked. Regarding the Vedas, I learned later on, that it is not in the words where the meaning and potency lies, but in the ritual of chanting them out loud. Brahmans believe that singing the Vedas are what keep the world going.
The Passover Seder, like yoga, brings a ritual into my life. One that not unlike my yoga practice, I have adopted and adapted to keep a kind of faithful order going. My Seder is perhaps less about the words themselves and more about the doing it. My dining table transforms into an altar. The parsley, the egg, the salt, the Matzot, the wine, the candles – They are also transformed from ordinary things into something meaningful where for today they each become a part of a greater story to tell.