The Empty Chairs

First published in Mishpacha Family First, Pesach, 2010

I remember my surprise, the first time, 17 years ago, that I learned that there were TWO Sederim for Pesach. And the seder isn’t twenty minutes long? And what’s this about eating no chometz for 8 days, and separate dishes, pots, and pans, and you can’t start the seder until 9 P.M.? This was not the Passover of my upbringing!

My secular family held on to two Jewish rituals – my brothers were circumcised with a mohel, and we always gathered for the Passover seder. I had no idea, growing up, that the twenty minute – dunk the parsley, break open the one box of Manischewitz Matzoh bought for the occasion, and then sing “dayeinu” – seder of my youth was a poor substitute for the real deal. In my family, Passover lasted as long as the seder, and we came from the “is it over yet, when can we eat the meal?” perspective. I will never forget my first frum seder, and oh, why didn’t anyone warn me? I arrived hungry, had no clue that we wouldn’t be starting the matzoh ball soup until way past 10 P.M. and couldn’t fathom that this was the same Passover seder I had supposedly participated in all of my life.

The Passovers of my youth are now long gone. My husband and I became frum, are raising our children frum from birth, and it’s been 16 years since we’ve spent Pesach with our families of origin. We went through the painful and necessary separation from our families, and came to peace with the reality that it is entirely impossible for us to spend Pesach in their homes, or to join them for their version of the Passover seder. We invite them to our seder every year, and every year they politely decline. Some BT families manage to find some form of compromise to allow for family togetherness on Passover. In our family, we stick to Thanksgiving and the summer time share vacation as those opportunities, and when it comes to Pesach, the secular families stay far away, and we can’t convince them otherwise.

When you’ve been ba’al teshuvah for as long as we have, there are certain realities you get used to – certain holidays come around every year, with the same result. Every year my children feel sad when they hear of their friends who are looking forward to Pesach at Bubbe’s, or hanging out with the cousins at the Pesach hotel, or Zayde leading the seder. It is the annual reminder for our children that as frum as they are, their seder table will be absent, once again, any grandparents, cousins, aunts, or uncles. It will be a stark reminder to them that we are the only religious family in our entire extended clan.

I say the words out loud to them every year, and I mean them, even more so, now that my children are now teenagers: “Very soon, Tatty and Mommy will be Bubbe and Zayde and you’ll be here with your children, who will have frum cousins to play with, and grandparents at their seder, you’ll see. . .. “

B’ezras Hashem, it will be. It is this vision that my husband and I cling to when the BT journey is arduous. And still, although I try to be upbeat in front of my children, I also feel sad. I, too, miss a generational seder, with my parents, their grandparents, present, and with frum cousins making a ruckus. As I am starting to feel a bit melancholy, I make myself think about it in a whole new light:

I am writing family-commissioned holocaust memoirs; my mind travels to the five survivors whose life stories I’ve written thus far. I think about their first Pesach after liberation. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, gone. Ripped away from the annual Pesach seder, murdered, with no warning that the last seder enjoyed together before Nazi terror would be the last.

Empty chairs at the seder.

The pain, unimaginable, impossible to accept.

Every one of the five survivors I’ve come to know are now, Baruch Hashem, leading Sederim with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren squeezing into the seder table, and Bubbe and Zayde, survivors, brimming with Yiddish nachas.

There are no more empty chairs at their seder tables. Their beloved, lost relatives live on in their namesakes. Sweet revenge.

My children escaped from the holocaust of our generation – assimilation. The empty chairs at our seder table will be filled in one more generation, B’ezras Hashem!

7 comments on “The Empty Chairs

  1. Thanks so much for writing this. My children are still little but I am anticipating the day when they ‘get it.’ And I certainly do have that lonely feeling missing family even though I know its impossible to go to them — and they have others they feel ‘responsible to’ so they cannot come to us. I will try to hold on to your future-focused approach to quell the lonely feelings.

  2. My mother a”h used to come to our seder every year, although she was not frum, we loved having her there and she seemed to enjoy being with us. We don’t see any other relatives for the seders, and I also have 2 children who were pulled away from frumkeit and will not be at my seders.
    BTW, Bas Yisroel, if you didn’t see the Hamodia newspaper, there was a fairly extensive supplement this week on “at risk”. Particularly the introduction struck a chord; at last someone is clearly articulating the painful experience of families in this status, esp. during holidays.

  3. Great article. Last Sunday, we had a brunch in our house for my side of our family who range from traditional CJ to now traditional and almost LW MO but who cannot envision themselves ever spending Shabbos, let alone Pesach with us or vice versa. We all had a great time, especially since our daughter, son in law and grandaughter were and are with us and our Mechutanim on their Bein HaZmanim break from their first year in RIETS’s Gruss Kollel in Israel. A dear friend and chavrusa once told me-kids are nachas, with all of their ups and downs. Grandchildren are sheer peiros.

    Thanksgiving and Channukah are IMO the best times to get together without Shabbos or YT causing any familial angst.

  4. My wife and I are at least fortunate that my non-frum in-laws come for the seder. But they are not always happy about it, and seem to be even less so every year. My kids are glad to have them, but both my in-laws and my kids wish that we could go to them, but it is not workable. My kids clearly long to go away to relatives for Pesach.

  5. My husband and I, married 34 years, have reached that point which you dream of: being the Bubbie and Zayde that everyone goes to for Pesach. Yes, I am still a little sad that my nonreligious sister and her husband refuse to join us at the Seder table. But I am more than compensated by the bright eager faces of my FFB grandchildren, ready to say the Mah Nishtanah and recite all the things which they learned in Yeshivah. Im Yirtzeh HaShem By You! Chag Kasher v’Sameach!

  6. Beautiful article. I too took comfort during the holidays, especially on Pesach, that I would one day have my own family and children and great grandchildren with me for the sedar. That is why it is painful for me that my adult daughter will not be with us for pesach as she is not frum. But I do count the many blessings that I do have. Chag kosher vesamaech!

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