Thursday, March 14, 2013

What Story Will You Tell? Preparing for the Seder

From "A Night to Remember Haggadah"
illustration by Michel Kichka
Cereal has become a scarce commodity in our home. All traces of pasta long since devoured. The pantry is being purged of Hametz, with a carefully timed consumption plan to ensure that by the time Passover rolls around, our home is clear of Hametz. This marks the entrance into the pre-Passover marathon of the next ten days.  Yet while the preparations for Pesach are often clouded by fumes of chametz, frantic menu making and fretful “who are the guests” conversations, all those issues must be brushed aside for a far more important question: What story are we going to tell? If we don’t ask ourselves that question, we might as well not have a Seder at all.
The central mitzvah of Passover night is story telling – the commandment to re-tell the story of our people. We tell it through eating matza, through singing songs, through asking questions. We tell it in our body language and in our rituals. We tell it to our children, we hear it from our parents, but even if we don’t have either of those present, we must tell it to ourselves.
Stories, however, cannot be simply recited. Simply opening up a Haggadah and letting someone else tell the story to us would be the greatest missed opportunity in the world. In order to truly fulfill the biblical commandment of “והגדת לבנך” – “and you shall tell your children” – we have to stop being  consumers of the Passover story, rather become its creators. This is the secret of a good storyteller – she never just repeats by rote, but rather re-creates the tale in a way relevant to her audience each time anew. This is why families often create their own haggadot. As a Haggadah salesman myself, you'd think homemade Haggadot are my greatest competition. Instead, they are the goal of the whole project…  (In this the "debate" between communitarianists and liberals reaches a possible resolution: Seder is a call for creative self authorship of communal narratives).
In any case, faced with the challenge of storytelling, the stressfulness of who the guests will be and what we will cook pales in comparison.
What story will I tell this year? Which story do I need to hear this year? I am still mulling over these questions. My daughters are now 6 and 4, the prime age for storytelling at a certain level. To increase the challenge, we've decided to have a Seder without our parents and extended family, challenging us – the two young parents – to step up to the plate, and allowing our children and the story they should hear to be at the center. But what that story will be, I have yet to figure out.
With 10 days to go, and still unclear about the content of the story for this year, I procrastinate by reminding myself of the importance of the endeavor. I thus offer three quotes on the importance of storytelling in our time: one Yiddish author, one Catholic philosopher, and one rabbi.
Happy Storytelling,

Tomorrow, Today Will be a Story | IB Singer
From "A Night to Remember Haggadah"
illustration by Michel Kichka
When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, humans would live like the beasts, only for the day.
Reb Zebulun said, “Today we live, but by tomorrow - today will be a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”
Children are as puzzled by passing time as grownups. What happens to a day once it is gone? Where are all our yesterdays with their joys and sorrows? To the storyteller yesterday is still here as are the years and the decades gone by. In stories time does not vanish. Neither do people and animals. For the writer and his readers, all creatures go on living forever. What happened long ago is still present.
I.B. Singer, from Preface to Zlateh the Goat, 1966

A Story-Telling Animal | Alasdair MacIntyre
From "A Night to Remember Haggadah"
illustration by Michel Kichka
Man is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, is essentially a story-telling animal, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ’Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters-roles into which we have been drafted -and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. It is through hearing stories of wicked stepmothers, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys […] that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources. The telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues."
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981:216 , Notre Dame)

A Legacy of Luggage | David Hartman
A primary source for evil according to Jewish tradition is the loss of memory. Those who do not build upon their mem­ory and who are frightened and ashamed of their past may man­ifest hostility towards others because their sense of worth and dignity is derived only by manipulation and control of others.
The poor people who prevail through difficult struggles to attain wealth, and then block out the memory of their past become harsh taskmasters. "Self-made men" can be sensitive to others only when they are unashamed to talk about their former destitution. If they cannot bear the thought of their former poverty, they will act with cruelty to those who remind I hem of their former degradation. In recalling Egypt, the Jews are exhorted to remember that they were once slaves. Rather than deny it, they are to incorpo­rate that slavery into their consciousness. Thus, love the stranger because you too were outcasts in Egypt; have regard for the poor because you too were once servants; care for the oppressed because you too were persecuted; aid the crushed because you know what it means to face extermination; be cautious with power because you have suffered the perversions of another's might.
The role of parents is to develop in the identity of the child a sense of history, a temporal consciousness, an empathy for a whole world of experience that was not theirs. Whether these memories are relevant and meaningful, and how the child will live by them, are different issues. The mother's and father's task is not to decide how the children will use their memories. Their obligation is to see to it that the child does not enter into the future without a past.
From "A Night to Remember Haggadah"
illustration by Michel Kichka
Judaism imposes a vital task on the parents: to tell the children their people's story. What the child does with this past, no parent can decree. Parents provide their children with luggage. Whether the child will open up the suitcases and use their contents is beyond the reach of parents. They have no right to enter the child's future. Parents must aim at instilling memories that haunt the child an entire lifetime; their bequest is a weight of generations, an awareness that one's biography began with Abraham and Sarah.
David Hartman | “Memory and Values,” Leader’s Guide: A Different Night, p. 75

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