Ren­dez-vous de chas­se, Isaac Israëls, 1928, detail via Wiki­me­dia Commons

I’m host­ing a seder at my home in Los Ange­les, and read­ing the first para­graph of the Hag­gadah aloud — some­thing about the impos­si­ble con­di­tions under which we have gath­ered to tell this sto­ry in the past, and how we are doing it again now. I am cry­ing and it is embar­rass­ing, but I am always cry­ing and it is always embar­rass­ing. I look up at my father and his eyes are filled with tears, too — it’s from him that I inher­it­ed these over­ac­tive tear ducts, this bent to feel every­thing. Our watery eyes meet and we both laugh. I think it’s the first per­son plur­al that does it, the melt­ing of the into the we, the col­lapse of time as we claim to remem­ber we were there. Both of us feel it intensely.

I’ve long since left the Jew­ish sub­urb of Detroit where I grew up, but the seder is the one Jew­ish tra­di­tion I’ve clung to. I love every­thing about it — boil­ing a mil­lion eggs, smash­ing apples and dates togeth­er into a mor­tary paste, and get­ting drunk on wine. But most­ly I love the inten­si­ty of the belief in sto­ry­telling itself. It’s the seder that has taught me how sto­ry­telling can com­pose a group iden­ti­ty, a self.

We tell sto­ries to solid­i­fy col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty all the time. We repeat sto­ries with part­ners and friends about how we met, when we knew we loved each oth­er. And we feel fat­ed, feel the des­tiny of our pair­ing. But no sto­ry­telling except dur­ing the seder con­vinces me to be sub­sumed into such a big we.

There is both plea­sure and dif­fi­cul­ty in latch­ing myself to a we, merg­ing with it. As a queer per­son and an acad­e­mia-trained writer, I’ve learned to ques­tion every social con­struct, to attempt to chart new and indi­vid­u­al­ized paths. It is almost amaz­ing to hear my voice blend into the plur­al first per­son. I am a per­son whom my great-grand­par­ents prob­a­bly could not have imag­ined or fath­omed, and yet at the seder I am speak­ing in uni­son with them, and with my ances­tors who came before and before and before them. The we of the seder offers a kind of mag­ic: a smear­ing of the I, a way of mak­ing the past and present porous. This is how a lot of Judaism works, I think, or at least the parts I like the most. Insist­ing I was there.

I’ve long since left the Jew­ish sub­urb of Detroit where I grew up, but the seder is the one Jew­ish tra­di­tion I’ve clung to.

It’s also how writ­ing fic­tion works. Some­times peo­ple ask me about Sarahland, my book. How much of it is real? Most fic­tion writ­ers hate this ques­tion — they want to be seen as inven­tors of worlds, in con­trol. But I don’t hate the ques­tion, depend­ing on who is ask­ing it and how. For me, writ­ing fic­tion is a process of chan­nel­ing, of remem­ber­ing even if the mem­o­ries aren’t real or aren’t mine. For me, the answer to the ques­tion How much of this is real? is either I don’t know or All of it.

I’m pret­ty sure every­one I cel­e­brate Passover with believes the sto­ry of the part­ing of the Red Sea is a fic­tion, and yet we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly agree to believe it is fact — agree to share this par­tic­u­lar his­to­ry as ours. Maybe it works because we start hear­ing the sto­ry before we even have con­scious lan­guage, and then we build on it togeth­er. Each time we speak it out loud we make it real.

In a way, Sarahland has seder aes­thet­ics. It is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries about char­ac­ters, or a sin­gle char­ac­ter, named Sarah — a delib­er­ate­ly blur­ry dis­tinc­tion — in search of a we from which to speak. The book begins with a we nar­ra­tor com­posed of cliquey sub­ur­ban sep­a­ratist Amer­i­can Jews in which pre-queer Sarah feels uncom­fort­able and con­strained, part of a we at whose edges she push­es. She breaks loose: the book’s last we is Sarah and a queer part­ner trans­mo­gri­fy­ing into trees, attempt­ing to merge their we with the earth itself. In between are oth­er wes: a group of gos­sipers work­ing their way toward a shared under­stand­ing of a com­mu­ni­ty breakup, the claus­tro­pho­bic we of a dys­func­tion­al cou­ple, a group of lis­ten­ers inher­it­ing the real sto­ry of Sarah and Abraham.

It feels like the seder could or should do that, too. I invite a lot of queers and artists and non-Jews to my seder, but my dad and some­times my mom and broth­er and cousins fly in as well. It was weird at first, mix­ing my Los Ange­les com­mu­ni­ty with my sub­ur­ban Mid­west­ern fam­i­ly, but it’s begun to feel increas­ing­ly right to me, like this is what a seder should be: a mot­ley col­lec­tive. Every­one. I like that the queer fem­i­nist orange isn’t just on my own seder table, but also now on my cousins’ kids’ tables. I enjoy push­ing our we beyond com­fort­able homo­gene­ity but cre­at­ing, at least at moments, a uni­fied voice.

Many of the uncom­fort­able polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with my father have emerged from my seders. One friend made a joke about men—anoth­er insist­ed we talk about Pales­tine. These con­ver­sa­tions turn my father into one of the four chil­dren — the angry or resis­tant one — and we spend the days after our seder going to brunch, my father with a box of mat­zo tucked under his arm, argu­ing, some­times emo­tion­al­ly, about patri­archy and Israel. Push­ing our way toward being able to speak in uni­son again next year.

Sam Cohen was born and raised in sub­ur­ban Detroit. Her fic­tion is pub­lished in Fence, Bomb, Dia­gram, and Gulf Coast, among oth­ers. The recip­i­ent of a Mac­Dow­ell fel­low­ship and a PhD fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Cohen lives in Los Angeles.