An Austin Seder

by Robin Chotzinoff
Illustration by Hillary Weber-Gale

When preparing for the Passover seder, I let a few tweaks on traditions and freedoms guide me. Freedom from bondage is the point of this beloved holiday, after all, but the Jews didn’t escape from Egypt alone; the Torah says we brought along “a mixed multitude” of all religions and races—all of whom had pressing reasons to get out. This is why I have about 100 people, Jewish and otherwise, at my backyard seder every year, and why we play mostly reggae music—the Rastafarians knew their exodus—and old-style African-American gospel (because I’ve never heard a better song for Passover than “Wade in the Water”).

\Of course, 100 people means 200 matzo balls in both chicken and vegetarian soup. It also means a raucous potluck, and I’m not talking about gelatinous macaroni salad on a paper plate, but about things far more indulgent. And while I may surrender some control over the menu as a whole, I never forget that my late father always made roast chicken, and my late sister—a wine writer—turned the obligatory four glasses into a true tasting that went from sparkling brut to deepest port. And each year, I long for the sorrel soup my Russian-Jewish relatives drank. It was cold and bright green and seemed to go directly into your veins. My grandmother pronounced it shchav and she purchased it in quart-sized mason jars from some long-gone deli. 

These days, my husband grills salty-sweet salmon fillets; my daughter Gus makes macarons—no flour and with awesome Middle Eastern fillings—and I get very into the bitter-greens thing; Arugula, pansy flowers, kale, chard and spinach are still going strong in the garden. And we have an in-house version of the Haggadah (basically, the Passover script—complete with story, song lyrics and prayers—that’s read at the seder), as well. My husband and I rewrite it each year—drawing from Maimonides and Mel Brooks and Langston Hughes and the borscht-belt comedians, among many others. I’m always very proud of it.

I don’t think a seder should be solemn. No guest should worry about unwittingly breaking some sacred Jewish rule, though it’s very Jewish to argue about which rules are sacred and which are meshuggah (a Yiddish word that means exactly what it sounds like: crazy). My only Talmudic credential is the rabbinic license I got online from the Esoteric Interfaith Theological Seminary, but so what? And our seder plate—the ceremonial, often-heirloom platter that holds the symbolic foods of the Passover story—always features an unorthodox orange, a tradition dating to the early 1970s when an Orthodox rabbi allegedly stated that a female rabbi belongs in the synagogue about as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate. Seemingly overnight, every liberal Jew’s seder plate acquired an orange. 

The seder is a reliving of the escape from slavery into freedom that anyone can relate to, and I believe it’s meant to be shared with all types of people in a hedonistic, downright indulgent atmosphere—as in: Once we were slaves, now we’re reclining like Roman big shots in padded chairs, drinking umpteen glasses of wine, eating all the best springtime foods and singing. We are commanded to welcome the “stranger in our midst” more now than any other time of year, and the sentiment ought to be as Isaiah said, “Come, let us reason together,” and let’s do it about this matter of freedom, which somewhere nearby, is not going the way it should. And let’s wrap up by raising a glass with this toast that’s older than the leftover matzo in my cupboard: 

“THEY TRIED TO KILL US, WE WON, LET’S EAT!”

 

PERMIT ME NOW TO EXPLICATE THE MEANING OF THE SEDER PLATE 

by Robin Chotzinoff

 

The egg, it is round, the egg, it is springy.
Life is a circle and that sort of thingy.

Charoset is here to represent glue
Which was spread into idols by some ancient Jew.
A miserable job! No need to tell you!

The bone that you see is the shank of a lamb
To remind us of lamb blood spread thicker than jam
On the doors of the Jews, so that Death would go scram.

The Matzoh appears at each Passover season
To show us flat bread, the usual reason.
We eat these here herbs and we dip them in brine
Because bondage ain’t blissful and life is unfine.

And finally the orange. This one is great!
The feminist jewel of the whole seder plate.
Once orthodox pundits grew kvetchy and crabbi
At the thought that a woman could serve as a rabbi.

On a bimah a woman should never appear
Anymore than some citrus on this plate right here!

So fine! We’ve put oranges here since that day
And women all over are rabbis. Hooray!