Getting Memory Right: Preparing for Yom HaShoah

Tonight I will be reading aloud the names of strangers.

The annual “Reading and Hearing of the Names” is coordinated by the JCC in Manhattan in honor of Yom HaShoah — Day of the Shoah, the holiday created in 1953 to commemorate the cataclysm.

“Shoah” literally means “catastrophe” and “whirlwind.” There is no way to do justice to it. But I want to mark it ritually somehow, so I will show up at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, where the names will be recited all night long.

When I started researching Yom HaShoah, I assumed that, despite our people’s penchant for dispute, its origin would have been uncontroversial. Who could argue that the 6 million do not deserve a separate day of remembrance?

But argue they did. When Israel decided in 1948 to pick a date for memorial, those Zionists who had been part of the underground Nazi resistance wanted the new holiday to fall on the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising — April 19 — so that it would honor Jews’ strength, not just their slaughter.

A (Third) Seder of Her Own

I ducked the fifth fast by shunning my feminist roots.

All firstborn sons are supposed to fast on the eve of Passover to remember that God saved the eldest Jewish boys during the 10th plague; some Jews interpret the mandate to apply to women as well. My mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an un-shy feminist (and loving nudge), assumed I would fast as part of my holiday trek. “I’m not a firstborn son,” I replied petulantly (I frankly didn’t relish starving all day before the first bite of karpas).

She retorted, “But you’re a firstborn!” (Well, barely: I was born just one minute ahead of my identical twin sister.)

I didn’t fold. “The 10th plague smote all Egyptian firstborn sons,” I said, leaning on Exodus. “I think the gender matters here. It doesn’t apply to me.”

The upshot: I did not abstain on April 3, the day that led to the first Seder, nor did I study a tractate of Talmud, which is the accepted alternative to fasting. But when a place opened up at The Feminist Seder on Sunday night, April 5, and my mother invited me to fill it, I accepted.

Even though I had barely recovered from our family’s two large, lively and lovely Seders and I was still reeling from the planning, cooking and cleaning up (not to mention the mega-Manischewitz hangover), I went not just to atone for my non-feminist non-fast, but also because I hadn’t been to The Feminist Seder since I was in college, and I remember how powerful it was in my youth, when I would go every year.

I capitalize “The Feminist Seder” on purpose. Because although there are now hundreds of feminist Seders around the world, this is the original, the revolutionary ritual started in 1976 by the late Esther Broner — a giant academic and spiritual presence — in collaboration with a group of women that came to be known as the “Seder sisters” and includes my writer mom.

The Feminist Seder reimagined a ritual that had largely sidelined women in the Bible, the Haggadah and the Seder itself, one that left it to the men at the table to pray, recount, sing and discuss. This innovative women-only ceremony was a highlight of my youth in the 1970s and ’80s, when I was still wearing the Danskin pantsuits Mom insisted looked good on me.

Each year, after the family Seders at Aunt Betty’s and then Uncle Danny’s, I looked forward to a whole new world the third night in New York City’s SoHo or Chelsea: the improvised “table” set up on the floor of someone’s loft, the pile of pillows we all brought to sit on in a circle and the myriad dishes the 30-or-so guests brought for the potluck meal.

I remember being soothed by Esther Broner’s ethereal voice, being amazed at her poetic asides, pushed by her incisive questions.

I felt privileged to be a “Seder daughter,” sitting among such giants of the women’s movement as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug (who always needed a chair).

I remember listening attentively to the teachings of writer Phyllis Chesler, artists Bea Kreloff and Edith Isaac-Rose, filmmaker Lilly Rivlin — cousin of the current Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, and the director of “Esther Broner: A Weave of Women,” a documentary that chronicles the Seder’s evolution.

But for reasons too complicated to enumerate here, one year the Seder daughters were not included, and that sadly ended a precious tradition for me. I suppose I could have invented my own version as an adult, but life gets in the way.

A Seder Shouldn't be Flat as Matzo — Try This at Home

There’s no excuse for a boring seder.

The Passover story is too dramatic, its themes too urgent, and the energy of guests too opportune for the ritual to be about simply “getting through” the haggadah to make it to the matzoh ball soup.

And yet so many Jews confess to streamlining the first stretch of the service to hasten the meal. So many tell me they wish they could engross the children. So many admit to reciting the same text the same way every year without noticing that their guests have stopped listening to the words.

So this is the rare column where I’ll morph from reporter to evangelist: A seder should be captivating and it’s not so hard to get there.

Okay, if not captivating, at least really interesting. Even memorable. Especially for the children.

And not just because it’s a warm-and-fuzzy goal to get the kids involved. It’s because the children are the entire point. Just ask the rabbis.