Alef Betty: Modern Hebrew Arts

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First Seder

Today's story comes from Arielle Mir, with whom I'm collaborating on the Urban Family Passover Haggadah.

Summer of '74. Suzanne Lutwick in Kansas, en route to California.

It wasn’t until I began this Haggadah project that I thought to ask my mother, Suzanne Lutwick, about her first Passover seder. I never really considered that there was a part of her life when she wasn’t convening family and friends for holiday meals. It would seem that she was planning elaborate Passover menus in utero.

But there was life before Suzanne’s holiday table. Unlike my siblings and I, my mother didn’t grow up a New York Jew. She grew up outside of Toronto, the daughter of a British war bride and an Italian Catholic from Des Moines, and she found her Judaism as a young adult.

She attended her first Passover seder in 1969 while she was in nursing school. Her boyfriend at the time invited her to join him at his family's home for the holiday. She didn’t know what to expect, but she knew that a Passover seder was a special occasion. To show her excitement, she got all dolled up. She chose a navy blue velour mini dress and a fancy necklace, borrowed from a classmate named Poppy. That day, she went to the salon and had her hair done up in curls.

Suzanne remembers that night vividly – sitting at the long table set up in the living room, amidst parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles, and following along with the traditional Haggadah. It was quite possibly the first brisket she had tasted. Though she did not know the tunes to the songs and was too polite to search under the couch cushions for the afikomen, she did take away from the evening a strong sense of the warmth and connection that can be created when food, family, and tradition intersect.

She met my father, Larry, in San Francisco in 1971 and converted to Judaism soon after. In the 10 years that followed, my parents lived in 4 different cities - none close to home or family. But most years at Passover, they were welcomed guests at the homes of friends and colleagues. At those seders – with her urban families of sorts – my mom began to learn more about Passover traditions and the many ways the commandment to retell the story of the Exodus can be fulfilled.

When our family moved to New York in the 1980s, my mom began to host her own holiday meals. Each year, she performs stunning feats of physics, squeezing more family, friends, and lovingly prepared foods into our dining room than the previous year.

Now that my siblings and I are grown and we have begun to host our own seders, around our own crowded tables, we follow in her footsteps. Every time I drag out the folding chairs to fit just one more guest, I channel her unshakeable verve for gathering and nourishing. And every time I learn to interpret the Passover tradition in a new way, I know I am on the right path.

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