Sederim Without Extended Family

My children feel sad every year when Pesach comes around, because they are in yeshivas where they are surrounded by friends who talk about their excitement about Pesach Sederim, and all the extended family who will be there. My children have grown up with their grandparents never at the Seder table, or any extended family for that matter, and this is how it will be until Moshiach comes. Sometimes I would try to console my children with the tried and true BT speech: “Some day you’ll be grown up with children, and I’ll be the Bubbe at your Seder table!” Lately, I don’t give that speech. I just hug them and say, “I understand. I miss having family at the Seder table too. I wish Grandma and Grandpa, and Nana and Papa, and your cousins could be there too.”

The key is, I miss the concept of having family at the Seder table. It’s a beautiful, sentimental idea that belongs with Pesach, like it was written into the script. But I don’t miss having my family at the Seder table, or my husband’s family either for that matter. That’s when the rosy picture breaks down. When I wrote the book, “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, a Guide for Newly Observant Jews and Their Lesser Observant Family Members,” I had a conundrum when I got to the chapter on Pesach. First I tackled Pesach as a cheerleader: You can do it, you can have Seders even in your mother’s non-observant home, or you can join together with your secular sister and her kids. Here’s how! And for some families, these compromises and adjustments are a small price to pay for the pleasure of being with family on Pesach, and it is a goal that can be accomplished and relished. To those families who have figured out how to bring together observant and non-observant (or lesser observant) families at the Sederim, G-d bless you. In some families, compromises won’t work, and true harmony is only reached by making a mutual decision that on this holiday, or for this simcha, or in this circumstance, we just can’t be together. We still love each other, but we have to separate from each other at this time. And so it is, in our family, for Pesach.

I remember when my husband pointed out to me that all of my life, I had never actually experienced a Pesach Seder on Pesach. When we were growing up in our secular home, we knew we were Jewish because we celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas, and Passover instead of Easter. Our Seder took all of twenty minutes. We used a booklet produced by the Reform movement called, “The Concise Family Seder”, and my mom cooked a delicious (non-kosher of course) brisket and bought a box of matzoh. We dipped the parsley, recited the plagues, ate the horseradish, sang “Dayenu”, and got right to the meal. Every Seder, and its accompanying meal, was over before Passover actually began, because who’s going to wait until 9 PM to start? I’m sure we were eating bagels the next morning, and there was no meaningful discussion at the table. What was meaningful was that this completely secular family was still holding on to this annual ritual of the Passover Seder. It wasn’t what the Seder stood for that really mattered; what mattered is that we still identified as Jews, who therefore, did three things: circumcised our babies, avoided Christmas, and then sat around a Seder table reading stories of our ancestors to remember that we are Jews. Even when I was away at college, and an adult in my twenties before marrying my husband, I came home for the Seder.

For the past fifteen years, my husband and I have been conducting the Pesach Seder in our own home. We don’t join with other BT families (as many do, to relieve the sadness of loss of family and to celebrate together in friendship), but instead, we give our three children ample time at the Sederim to share over the volumes of learning they have brought home from Yeshiva. Getting together with family is not an option for us. Going there is impossible because there would be nothing kosher about it, and no willingness to accommodate to the extent we’d need. So then, why not invite family to our Sederim? We’ve always done so, but the answer is always no, and I understand. To them, it looks like a punishment. You don’t start until 9 PM? You spend two hours with all of the rituals before you get to the meal? Instead of nachas over the children’s excitement and learning, there is something between distaste and disdain, and who needs that at the Seder table?

I feel sad when I see the children’s excitement at the Seder table, and I know that their grandparents are missing out on all this nachas. I feel sad when I know that all of our family members choose to separate from us on the most family-centric holiday of the year. I feel sad when I’m going through the sometimes-exhausting Pesach preparations, and I dream about what it would be like to have a mother or sibling to share it with, or at least someone who could even relate. It can be a lonely time, Pesach, one that really reminds me how far we have moved away from our families of origin.

I’m not going to end this essay with a “rah rah” sentimental speech about how good my husband and I feel as observant Jews, and how this makes up for all of the sadness, etc. This is what is true for me. Sometimes the path of the BT is a lonely one, especially when it comes to family. Sometimes I ache for my family to join me. Sometimes I’m angry that they aren’t here. Sometimes they are angry that I am not there. Sometimes I miss the good old days when I didn’t know any better, and I didn’t have to clean out the whole house for Pesach, and the Seder was over in twenty minutes. . . let’s eat. But there’s no going back. What there is, after fifteen years on this path, is increased pride and conviction of where my husband, children, and I have gone – no turning back – and increased acceptance that this has meant a necessary separation from our families of origin. This is what it is. It isn’t perfect, but this is it, so we live with it and make the most of it. And sometimes we cry. While my husband’s eyes are brimming over from too much horseradish, mine are sometimes teary from being lonely for observant family to join us. G-d receives all of our tears, whatever their origin. A very famous alcoholic came up with an expression I find very true everytime Pesach rolls around: “G-d grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen!

First Published April 14, 2008

20 comments on “Sederim Without Extended Family

  1. Hi all,

    I only know of seders for the most part that have been small….even when we went to friends’ houses, it wasn’t that i don’t feel that I am missing too much with big sederim..

  2. It is so interesting (and often frustrating) to see the wide range of differences between how family members accept you when you become frum. In my experience I found that some are very agressively against it, others are more “if YOU want to, but it’s not for me” and some others may actually partake in some of it. I have one cousin who won’t talk to me anymore and another who is going through the BT process. Most seem to fall in the middle category though. The “the Seder is too late for me” reason might be an actual realistic concern that some have (it is too late for me too as I tend to get stomach problems), but for others it is simply another weapon in their diatribe against observance.

  3. On the idea of having some connection with family before Pesach, such as starting the meal earlier and doing some of the seder before sundwon, as” I”m Jewish” suggests in the last post, this is an idea that some famlies try, to address the late start that turns off many secular Jews. I discuss this option in my book, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” It can work for some families. Doesn’t work for ours. Our family won’t come within 100 miles of us anywhere around a Jewish holiday. For us to get together before Pesach, it would have to be something like having dinner two weeks before! But thanks anyway for the thought!

  4. A beautiful post, Azriela.

    I have a thought. For some non-observant families, the meaning of the Seder is indeed as they describe — some matzoh, some parsley, some abridged readings, and a nice dinner.

    Is it possible that you could have such a dinner with them BEFORE Pesach? There wouldn’t be a halachic problem with eating matzoh prior to Pesach, or reciting abridged versions of the prayers? That way, they can still have the joy of having extended family together, and you wouldn’t be compromising what needs to happen during Pesach?

    Just a thought / suggestion.

  5. Touching post Azriela. It helped me appreciate what we had for the short time we had it.

    Our parents lived about 4 miles apart. So each Pesach we would be at my wife’s parents for the first seder and mine for the second. Both our moms were very accomodating with our special kashrut needs, and we, in turn, tried to minimize any unecessary demands. There was always an uncle or cousin who would balk at the late start time, but often it was those very people who kept the seder going late with their extra questions!

    My wife’s intent was never to make her own seder while our moms were still able to. Unfortunately they both passed away at relatively young ages and the seder was thrust upon us much sooner than we had hoped.

    Even though we now live in Israel and have a “frum” seder with our FFB neighbors every year, we wouldn’t trade those early sederim with our parents, with our kids with their grandparents, with all the compromises, for anything.

  6. When I was growing up my family was traditional (some stuff, yes, other stuff, no), but we were kosher all year as well as for Pesach. So the first night we had my aunt, uncle, and cousins on my Dad’s side, which everyone grinned and bore Manaschewitz hagadda style until 9:00 when my uncle observed it was getting very late, and they’d go home. What we kids enjoyed was the second night, when my mom (who’d lost her family in the Holocaust), invited a couple friends and neighbors whom my parents enjoyed being with. That helped establish my own minhag as an adult, especially after my parents passed away, i.e. inviting friends and singles who otherwise would not have a seder. That even more recently includes some non-frum friends who don’t ask and don’t tell how they’re getting to us (I learned this method from our friendly local Chabad rabbi). Especially after my divorce, I learned the hard way that since no yomtov was going to be Jewish storybook perfect I’d better take care of myself and make sure that the Seder would be as enjoyable as possible for me and my kids so it wouldn’t be so painful.

  7. Azriela,

    Certainly less guilty because I don’t want to have my parents having to spend Pesach all alone. It is all a matter of perspective I guess.

  8. My compromise is to visit with my parents shortly before Passover. A seder with them would be impossible, so we have our “family time” early. Having my parents visit before hand also helps me get my cleaning (at least the spring cleaning part) done early.

  9. Albany Jew – you feel less guilty because your brother still goes to your parents? When I hear about how the WHOLE family is getting together for Passover, and how sad it is that we won’t be there, I just feel worse. But this has really changed over the years, I must say. In the very beginning, when we stopped coming to the family seder, oh, it was SUCH a big deal. Like there were five empty chairs at the seder table. Each year since, it’s gotten easier because now no one expects us to come, and I must say, we’ve even transitioned into new territory over the past few years – something like gratefulness that we aren’t there so that we won’t subject them to our mishegas. So eventually, in some cases like mine, the non observant family moves from resentment that you aren’t there to “whew!”

  10. I think as the years and the observance progressed and we had the meals at my parents, it became more and more difficult. This was obviously seen by my parents and it almost became mutually agreed (albeit unsaid) that we just couldn’t do it anymore.

    year 1) Mom buys a kosher Turkey and cooks it
    year 2) we order food from mealmart, parents don’t like it (the taste).
    year 3) we build Tin foil structures in their house to protect the food on a newly bought heating tray on a timer and eat at a separate table (pushed next to the big one. We start the Seder at 8:30. No one is too happy about that.
    year 4) Oh forget it.

    My brother and his wife still go there, I guess that makes me fell a little less guilty (but how happy should I be that he is not observant?)

  11. My parents will be at the seder, but they threw a few “conditions” in. We need to eat a small meal at 6 (the kids will probably be hungry anyway, and my dad needs food with his medicine, which has to be taken at certain intervals, so not a major issue anyway), but they wanted to be sure I wouldn’t try to coax them to go to shul (never have, it’s their call if they want to go or not), or wouldn’t make comments if they used the computer, TV, or drove. Again, their call. The kids already understand that different Jews observe at different levels, and grandma and grandpa don’t observe at the same level we do. I’m just glad they will be there. Of course they’ll have to put up with our version of the seder. (they are used to the “Happy Passover, let’s eat!” version. I go for the more unabridged version ;-) )

  12. This post has to hit at the solar plexus of any thinking BT or any FFB whose views are more mdakdek than his or her parents and who find such practices foreign to their own. There simply is no easy answer to the issue but one can and should look back at the Avos and Imahos, Moshe Rabbeinu, R Akiva, Resh Lakish and the Ger from Vilna as one’s spiritual parents. RYBS related a story about how the Gaon of Vilna comforted the Ger Tzedek of Vilna at his most lonely night-The Ger Tzedek asked the Gaon who would mourn for him. The Gaon responded by quoting a verse from Isiah 44.6 and stated that God is a father to everyone who has no father and is a son to someone who dies childless. I think that this Dvar Torah rings very true for BTs who face far more in their lives in dealing with family members who simply have no comprehension of what a Torah observant life is and who have adopted heterodox practices and lifestyles. Consequently, BTs develope close friendships with rabbanim and chavrusos, etc, almost out of need. Ultimately, the raising of a family of one’s own and becoming integrated into the Torah observant world, with or without one’s family of origin, are very important factors that simply cannot be understated in importance.

  13. Thanks for the empathic responses. I usually try to write more upbeat cheerleader kinds of posts, and so this one was a risk for me, and I wasn’t sure how it would go over. I see that the responses are small, but the empathy is high, so I know that a handful of people needed to know that they aren’t the only ones who experience this. I think it’s important not to whitewash some of the more painful aspects of the bt process, and to stop pretending that somehow, discovering the Torah compensates for all loss. Loss is loss. I am still convinced that we made the right decision to go on the path we’ve gone, but I can still, at times, feel sad about what and who I had to leave behind to do so. And yes, as so many have agreed, Pesach is a particularly poignant time to be without family, especially when that family isn’t deceased, but rather, just not interested. I appreciate those of you who gave an honest response. Many blessings to you and yours on this journey.

  14. Thanks Azriella; I’ve wanted to write a post like this one since BBT began….I related strongly. It’s too bad there isn’t some organized group of BT’s who can do sedarim together each year. It’s not family, but it could fill the empty spaces a bit.

    Bas Yisrael: Thanks for pointing out the silver lining. Hakaras Hatov is what it’s all about.

    Chag Kasher v’Sameach to all.

  15. Azriela, this is very compelling. It is painful to read that your parents will not tolerate the traditional seder, even if they don’t quite eat the shiurim or stay up till the “bitter” end.

    I must admit that to some extent, however, I think dealing with this is just part of growing up — and not just for BT’s and their children. I remember when I was little, thinking that everyone had a mother, and a father, and a grandmother, and a grandfather, as I did. And then I was confused because my cousin had two of each kind of grandparent. Why didn’t I also have two sets of grandparents? Well, I just didn’t, just as one of my parents just didn’t have two parents, or, later (but much too soon), any. I think it is to my parents’ credit that they didn’t make a big deal about it. This is the life, and the family, God has given us.

    Surely your children are being taught that they should be grateful that they have loving grandparents in the first place who most likely did not have the situational and educational opportunities to make the decisions about religious commitment that you did.

    And I am sure you teach them, too, that whatever your parents’ limitations, the reason you are making the seder at all and that the children are there with you to celebrate it in its full glory is that those same impatient, “intolerant” parents passed onto you, somehow, that spark of commitment to being Jewish, or that sense that being Jewish meant something special, or something somehow positive about Judaism or even about Hashem, from which you were able to draw and light the flame of Yiddishkeit that warms all their lives on these special nights.

    This way your children understand that their grandparents are in some way really always indeed really with them, “in their way,” and their participation in your life, and theirs, can be appreciated positively, and they can be even more grateful to have grandparents at all.

  16. Wow. Excellent. I never knew anyone else felt that. Pesach is always hard for me, because my family will have nothing to do with me either. TG my parents are great, and come in to visit often. But Pesach time? NEVER. Its interesting because everyone always says how the Pesach seder is one of the only Jewish traditions that is done pretty much by everyone. This is a double edged sword. Because my parents have their traditional pre-pesach seder/dinner, they feel they could never give that up for what I do. Growing up Pesach was a great time with my cousins, and I do miss that… But at the same time, I think what disturbed me so much about Reform Judaism was the encouragment to “pick and choose” observances. So.. like they say, I have come to realize I can’t have my cake (chametz free of course) and eat it too.

  17. I have not been home with my parents for thirty years for a pesach sedar, it is a hard time of year for me. As for my kids, all year round they do feel different then their friends, but I think they are happy for the things they do have, like the amount of attention they get at the sedar. Plus they are not working so hard getting ready for all this company and babysitting for neices and nephews. great post, thanks for writing, I can REALLY relate. The lack of frum family is something I truly miss all year round, but I try to focus on what I do have, which is alot.

  18. Your situation sounds a lot like ours, with one key difference – the grandparents are all nifter. Although there are other frum people in the extended family, my husband’s cousins are quite busy with their own rapidly growing (B”H) branches, and their own cousins have relocated to OOT. So my kids will again hear the same mantra as yours have. They’re so used to not having family that they don’t even care about it at this point. I’m the one with the problem!

  19. Agree completely — very sad. Gives new insight into the medrash that only 1/5th of the Yidden came out of Mitzraim. I imagine there was a general sadness or even anger at those friends and family who couldn’t deal with the emunah, or whatever was required to be one of the yotziim.

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