Post­ed by Nat Bernstein

I’m afraid to admit it, but I have lit­tle patience for Passover. Almost none. And the seder least of all.

Don’t get me wrong: I observe the hol­i­day to the let­ter. I clean out the house, sell my chametz, and sub­sist on a stan­dard diet of matzah, cream cheese, and eggs with the vari­able veg­etable and odd pro­tein for the entire week, and I not only endure but par­tic­i­pate in both seders with my fam­i­ly as I have done since the good ol’ Ma Nish­tana days. And I hate every minute of it.

Part­ly, I just don’t do well with struc­ture. As both a prod­uct and pro­po­nent of alter­na­tive edu­ca­tion, I strug­gle with the hours of pre­scribed order” that we’re all forced to adhere to on this so dif­fer­ent a night: stand up, sit down, lean to the left, say this, drink that, eat this, eat that, now sing… It feels more like a rigid sec­ond grade day school class­room than a meal, let alone a cel­e­bra­to­ry feast. And, much like that same sec­ond grade class­room, the strict­ly reg­i­ment­ed agen­da doesn’t yield pro­por­tion­ate effi­cien­cy — in fact, it feels, just the opposite.

Main­ly, though, it’s the rep­e­ti­tion that gets to me: the required regur­gi­ta­tion of the same sto­ry year after year. It’s gone from bor­ing to insuf­fer­able and at some moments even oppres­sive — and that’s just the impa­tience, before the late hour or phys­i­cal hunger sets in — but I bear through the retelling two nights in a row every year because that part is unques­tion­ably essen­tial to Judaism and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty — for, as we know all too well, in every gen­er­a­tion one must see one­self as though they, too, left Egypt.

There are many in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty who have cho­sen to inter­pret that imper­a­tive as a sum­mons to reflect on the events and ills of our life­time and more recent his­to­ry: col­lege chap­lains orga­nize free­dom seders” join­ing Jew­ish and black stu­dents on cam­pus; women con­vene on fem­i­nist seders and fam­i­ly mem­bers clash over cur­rent Israeli poli­cies; rab­bis at the pul­pit bring up the uncom­fort­able real­i­ties of slav­ery in our time — on that note, if you read one oth­er essay today, make it this one (although I’m pret­ty sure it wasn’t writ­ten by a rabbi).

The seder also becomes a fer­tile mil­len­ni­al are­na for the social jus­tice ben­der Jews in their twen­ties and thir­ties are on with renewed fer­ven­cy at the approach of every hol­i­day. This year more than any oth­er (yet), social media housed count­less queries and respons­es for social jus­tice hag­gadot and sup­ple­ments — Jew​school​.com, for exam­ple, assem­bles their top ten picks of new social jus­tice-themed Passover resources each year—and that’s a won­der­ful thing. But even with the obvi­ous par­al­le­lable nar­ra­tives of free­dom and oppres­sion, there’s some­thing curi­ous about an entire gen­er­a­tion insist­ing on telling a mul­ti­tude of oth­er peo­ples’ sto­ries on a night we’re sup­posed to focus entire­ly on our own one. Is the Exo­dus some­how less mean­ing­ful, less crit­i­cal to Jew­ish his­to­ry or the mod­ern expe­ri­ence, if it isn’t direct­ly relat­able to the world around us and its vic­tims? Why on this night do we con­tin­ue to lay­er sto­ries on top of the one we’re required to tell?

Read­ing The Lost Book of Mor­mon (it’s a Jew­ish book — very Jew­ish, I promise, bear with me here) I was inspired to think of the social jus­tice seder phe­nom­e­non in terms of a book — more accu­rate­ly, in terms of a book series, or any nar­ra­tive-dri­ven fran­chise. In relat­ing new sto­ries and new strug­gles to the Passover nar­ra­tive, these sup­ple­ments cre­ate a sequel to the Exo­dus. Seder par­tic­i­pants take one of our most glo­ri­ous tales and stretch it across cen­turies so as to con­tin­ue to enjoy the orig­i­nal by con­nect­ing with not only to the sto­ry but the sto­ry­telling itself. As Avi Stein­berg observes in in his new memoir:

Maybe our ten­den­cy to make sequels is some­how embed­ded in how we think. Just as we want and need a sto­ry to end, we also want and need a sto­ry to nev­er end. We make sequels as a way of bring­ing our sto­ries clos­er to life. As a mat­ter of con­ven­tion and con­ve­nience, sto­ries have end­ings, but if we were to tell them hon­est­ly, sto­ries would nev­er end, just like life, whose dra­mas dip in and out of time and mem­o­ry, are recalled, shared, stolen, reprised, recov­ered, revised — any­thing but neat­ly con­clud­ed. A sequel may well be a deformed kind of sto­ry, a pale like­ness — as its crit­ics have long charged — but even if it’s sil­ly or trag­ic or nobly delud­ed or taint­ed by a shame­less prof­it motive, or, more like­ly, all of these at one, then all the more is it like life.

Steinberg’s rumi­na­tion on the sequel began with watch­ing new episodes of The Simp­sons at his laun­dro­mat and real­iz­ing that in two decades since the show pre­miered, noth­ing in the ani­mat­ed world of Spring­field had ever changed, its denizens stuck in a bright, eter­nal Ground­hog Day:

Sequels don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly believe in progress, but they do insist on the pass­ing of time, or at the very least a change of place. By con­trast, a ser­i­al like The Simp­sons can remain in a state of ani­mat­ed paral­y­sis for eternity.

Crit­ic Ter­ry Cas­tle has described sequels as trag­ic because they are moti­vat­ed by a des­per­ate human need to repro­duce the orig­i­nal sen­sa­tion of some plea­sur­able expe­ri­ence, an impulse, a mad hope,” she says, that is fat­ed to mis­er­able dis­ap­point­ment. But when I saw Bart still throw­ing spit­balls at Spring­field Ele­men­tary over twen­ty years lat­er, that to me seemed like the tragedy of rep­e­ti­tion: Sisy­phus on a skateboard. 

At the Passover seder each year, Judaism makes that same attempt to repro­duce the orig­i­nal sen­sa­tion of one of the great­est mir­a­cles ever wit­nessed by our ances­tors: the Israelites’ lib­er­a­tion from slav­ery, by the hand of God. But the hag­gadic retelling isn’t a sequel; it’s a loop; it’s Bart Simpson’s same old antics week after week; it’s forty years cir­cling the same patch of desert. We know that expe­ri­ence all too well — and how it can lead to com­mu­nal loss of faith, rebel­lion, kvetch­ing, and even idol wor­ship [see: Gold­en Calf].

In find­ing a sequel to the Passover sto­ry — in the his­to­ries and cur­rent issues of Civ­il Rights, fem­i­nism, and mod­ern social jus­tice move­ments — per­haps we restore our faith by break­ing out of that cycle, just enough to bring it clos­er to life. It rei­fies that the sto­ry didn’t end — that the sto­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple didn’t end — with Exo­dus, that it is an evolv­ing lega­cy rather than an out­grown or out­grow­able child­hood tale. We want to relive the expe­ri­ence of leav­ing Egypt with­out despair­ing of it, with­out grow­ing bored, with­out los­ing appre­ci­a­tion for this among the nar­ra­tive pil­lars of Jew­ish history.

The pow­er of the sequel, Avi Stein­berg dis­cov­ered, meant that the old bib­li­cal saga wouldn’t sim­ply replay for­ev­er but some­how, some way, find a way out, maybe even a way for­ward. It bold­ly reen­tered the orig­i­nal and steered it in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion. Maybe the sequel isn’t the tragedy of rep­e­ti­tion: it’s a solu­tion to it.”

So maybe I just need to find my Passover sequel. Maybe one day I’ll write my own.

Relat­ed Content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.