Take Me Out
To the Seder

Last month, I took my Downser son Aaron to a community Passover seder. Now, since he is diabetic, we must follow a fairly rigid schedule in regard to the timing of his insulin injections and consumption of meals. The only community seder that fit reasonably well with our schedule was one held by an outfit which I will call the Jewish Progressive Circle, a modernizing group combining Jewish cultural remnants with Leftish American impulses.

There were many innovations in their haggadah, the text of the seder service. I was moved by a few of them, such as singing the WWII Yiddish Partisan song "Zog Nit Keynmol." I could only shudder, however, when they went on to sing "Take Me Out to the Seder" [to the tune of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"], with stupefyingly silly words by one of the JPC activists. I have little objection to the change they made in the wording of every brocho [blessing].

All blessings in Hebrew are directed toward adonai elohenu melech ha'olam, which means "Lord, our God, King of the Universe." The Jewish Progressive Circloids changed this to chayim ba'olam, meaning "living beings of the universe." I agree that the "King of the Universe" phrase is a trifle archaic. On the other hand, pronouncing reverence only for "living beings" reflects a view of the universe that Einstein, for one, would have found excessively narrow and perhaps a little dopey. Is there more holiness to be found in gnats than in galaxies?

One traditional passage in the seder refers to our ancestors as Avosenu ["our fathers"]. This was amended of course to include Imawnu ["our mothers"] as well, thus transcending sexism. Too bad Hebrew does not include a single word for "forebears." I wonder if one might approximate it with dovimenu, which means "our bears," if I remember my long-rusty Hebrew. I guess this wouldn't do for the purpose, as it would open us to the charge of speciesism.

What tipped their haggadah over into self-parody, on the whole, was the strained attempt to merge the traditional seder service with bien-pensant Leftism. One powerful part of the traditional seder is the retelling of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. The tale begins with the meaning of matzoh: haw lakhmo anyo, ["this is the bread of affliction"] which commemorates the time when avodim hoyinu b'Mitzrayim ["we were slaves in Egypt"].

The PJC Haggadah immediately piles on to this story every other historical connection it could possibly relate to: the African slaves in America, of course; the conquest of the American Indians, of course; the oppression of the East Timorese; the poverty of the Third World; and, in fact, every other instance of oppression, exploitation, insensitivity, backwardness, etc. etc. on the planet. I restrained myself from asking why we neglected to mention the linguistic oppression of the Flemings and the Cornish, not to mention the somewhat earlier elimination of Neanderthal Man by Cro-Magnon Man.

And after the recitation of the ten plagues, the Circloids really ran amok. In the traditional service, we intone each of the ten plagues in Hebrew, at the same time flicking a drop of wine into a saucer. The PJC Haggadah, like that of Reconstructionists and other modernizers, quickly mentions the plagues that God visited on the Egyptians, but then hurries on to apologize to the Egyptians for the inconvenience of plagues. After all, what could be more politically incorrect than a plague? But, come to think of it, if there is no King of the Universe responsible for sending the plagues, on whose behalf are they apologizing?

The Circloid seder did retain the drops-of-wine-in-a-saucer ritual, but invested it with a new meaning altogether. After mentioning and apologizing for the plagues of Egypt, they next intoned a series of contemporary social ills taken from any issue of The Nation magazine, and faithfully dripped a drop of wine for each of these: Militarism! (drip) Racism! (drip) Sexism! (drip) When they got to Homophobia! (drip), I could no longer contain myself, and shouted out: Telemarketing! (drip)... Several of the people at my table chuckled, but most of the congregants flew on to Destruction of the Environment! (drip) I gritted my teeth and waited for Insensitive Language! (drip) and Suburban Sprawl! (drip)

One of the social plagues they intoned was: Economic Inequality! (drip) The notion that economic inequality belongs in the same category of things as boils, darkness, and slaying of the first born explained where the Circloids were coming from. There is no doubt that they are prepared to march, protest, and demonstrate against the horrible system in which fully half the population earns less than the median. In a general way, this outlook descends from the Jewish Arbeter Bund in the old country, and the socialist tradition amongst the Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe and their first generation offspring. This, of course, includes such postwar epiphenomena as Camp Woodland, the Labor Youth League, the Daily Worker, and the notion that Channukah actually commemorates the birthday of Paul Robeson.

In line with this outlook, they even added new words to the old Passover song "Dayenu." They sang new verses about one Utopian dream after another (perfect peace, perfect equality, perfect collective solidarity, perfect free dental care, etc.) ending each verse with Dayenu v'lo dayenu ["enough and not enough"]!

I found this vaguely touching, although the congregants seemed to take it entirely literally, without the clear note of Jewish humour that I remember. In my youth, people would say: after the Revolution, everybody will eat strawberries with whipped cream. What if someone doesn't like strawberries? "After the revolution," the answer used to go, "everybody will eat strawberries, whether they like them or not. Or else." The Circloids, or at least their activists, would not understand such ironies. I scratched my head at this thought. Jews without irony? Gevalt, who are these people?

Still, despite moments of silliness, a little of the old magic still remained in their seder. I found it especially in my favorite part: the moment when the door is opened so that the prophet Elijah can enter and join the seder. I was afraid that the Circloids might announce that they were really opening the door for the ghost of Earl Browder. But no, they did say Elijah, even using the Hebrew designation Eliahu ha novi. This part never fails.

It was also a favorite moment when we used to do seders at my son's group home, Tikvah House. David A., one of the other residents, invariably stationed himself at the door at this point, to make absolutely certain that Elianovi would find no difficulty in joining us. And David was always especially delighted to find that the liquid level in Elianovi's wineglass had mysteriously diminished by the time he returned from the door. Aaron never told him who really drank it.

I must add that the Jewish Progressive Circle's potluck meal could have been better. There was, luckily for Aaron, one chicken dish and one grilled fish dish. But all the rest were, of course, vegetarian. For the strictest congregants, one section of the groaning board was even VEGAN. I wondered, as we indulged in the two non-vegetarian dishes, whether we were expected to offer a few words of apology to the chicken and the fish. Are they not, after all, as much "chayim b'olam" as we are? Maybe more so.

But things will be better in the Radiant Future. Comes the Revolution, not only will we all be above average (as Garrison Keillor might put it), but even inequalities amongst animals will disappear. All of us, including our brothers and sisters the chickens and the fish, will take each others' hands (or fins as the case may be) in a great circle and we will all sing "Take Me Out to the Seder" together.

--- Dr. Phage

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