By Leigh Goldenberg, Marketing and Public Relations Manager
Each spring since I’ve lived on my own, I’ve hosted a Passover Seder for friends and family. My hosting involves the cleaning, setting the table, and leading the pre-dinner service. My mom does all the cooking. We find it to be a fair division of labor for a holiday that encourages relaxing (and drinking four glasses of wine.)
If a Seder is not familiar to you, here’s a quick explanation. (You can find more extensive information in the Curriculum Connections for The Whipping Man) Seder is the ceremonial meal during which we retell the story of the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Moses and the Pharoah are the main characters, and plot twists include ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Seder translates as “order,” so most every Seder follows the same steps, each with meaning and symbolism attached. Many of these symbols reflect the springtime occurrence of the holiday, focusing on rebirth in a way that will certainly be familiar to those that celebrate Easter. (In fact, Jesus’ Last Supper was most likely a Seder, and Easter is the only Christian holiday that corresponds to the lunar calendar as all Jewish holidays do.)
Just like having Christmas in July, you can imagine it would be odd to have Passover on the wrong time of year, at the start of autumn when everything begins to die and hibernate. Yet, we are opening The Whipping Man this week and none of the actors who have a Seder on stage each night had been to one before. Hosting an October Seder felt necessary. The script walks the actors (and in turn the audience) through many of the steps and symbols, just like a Haggadah (the book we use on Passover).
My mom happily baked two kinds of kugel, a brisket, her famous matzah ball soup, and allowed my dad to make a plate of gefilte fish. My parents, husband, brother, and fellow member of the Arden marketing staff Ryan Klink sat around the table alongside the three actors in the cast (Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., James Ijames, and Cody Nickell) as well as Director Matt Pfeiffer, Stage Manager Stephanie Cook, and Assistant Director Eric Wunsch (the lone member of the team who grew up with Passover). The Goldenbergs were excited to share one of our favorite traditions with the artists that bring it to life on stage.
My family’s Seder might be more casual than some, but we follow all the steps and then infuse off-key singing, props for the ten plagues, and allow time for plenty of discussion. I always look forward to the connections my dad makes between the holiday and whatever is on our minds. The Whipping Man was ripe for this commentary, as the connections between the African American slaves and the Hebrew story we retell each year are numerous. At this special Seder, he pointed out that Passover, like most holidays, can be taken as a metaphor, having the Hebrews stand in for really any group of people that do not experience true freedom. My dad also pointed out one of his favorite things about Judaism in general, with Moses as a prime example: Jews argue with God. We don’t just accept and listen, we question and argue back.
A week later, as I watched The Whipping Man with its very first audience, my dad’s words were almost repeated verbatim by Johnnie’s character Simon. Simon’s pride in being Jewish was so similar to my father’s and his desire to host a Passover Seder in any given circumstance echoed my mother’s. Cody’s character Caleb and James’ character John, both Jewish men around my age, question their faith and aim to reconcile it with the other aspects of their life in a way that was also extremely familiar to me personally (not to mention anyone that saw My Name Is Asher Lev).
Like any favorite holiday, I could write pages on the stories and connections. But what I’m really interested in at each Passover when we invite friends to their first Seder, just like at any play when we invite our first audience, is the conversation. What connections do you see in your own life to this story of Jews? Of newly freed slaves? Of Americans looking to reconcile their religion, their politics and their family?
I know this is a discussion I can’t wait to have with my family once they’ve seen the play. And again at our next Seder in the spring.