Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not knowing how to ask questions

A funny thing happened on the way to the seder. We forgot how to ask questions.

The Passover seder has one main objective; to tell the story of Israel's miraculous liberation from slavery and to do it in a way that will involve the whole family, particularly young children. This is why we don't just read the story, we enact it. We eat it, we drink it, we sing it, we mimic it, we even play a game of redemption, hiding a piece of matzah and paying the finders for its return. Involving children is the central component of the seder. The telling of the story gets underway only once the youngest member of the family asks the four questions, famously beginning with, Why is this night different from all other nights? In fact, how to ask the four questions at Passover is one of the very first things a Jewish child learns to do after they are old enough to learn the Hebrew alphabet. It's a rudimentary skill that is often the first public display of a child's Jewish education. But what happens when no child will ask the questions? Nothing happens. The seder grinds to a halt. Well, that's exactly what happened at our family seder this year. It must be said, that our family seders are unique events. We rent out a room at a hotel and typically have 60 to 100 in attendance extending three and four generations. In recent years it has become practice to post a family tree on a wall so that the cousins can locate their relationship to others in the room. Admittedly, asking the four questions at this seder is not for the shy personality. It's an intimidating scenario. There you are surrounded by eighty or so cousins, most of whom you know only vaguely if you know them at all, who are waiting to hear you sing a song in an ancient, tongue-mangling language you've only just begun to learn. And yet, every year one or two or three courageous youngins always step forward. This year, no one did, in spite of much begging and cajoling. Eighty people in the room, many children of various ages, a number of them parochially schooled and fluent in Hebrew, and no takers. At that moment, in the uncomfortable pregnant pause when it was becoming clear that no one was going to volunteer, a question and its implications arose in my mind: Have we forgotten how to ask questions? A quick survey of the room revealed highly accomplished people, doctors, lawyers, business people, three generations of families, all knowledgeable, educated, thoughtful people. And yet the moment suggested something disturbing to me, a prevailing complacency, a self-satisfied and worrisome disinterest and disengagement, and not just with the seder itself, but perhaps with larger dimensions of life as well. The fact that the seder can not proceed without the questions being asked suggests the essential importance of questioning. The ability to question equals freedom. When we stop asking questions we are tactily, either by choice or by force, giving up our independence. We are slaves, either in physical bondage, or suffering from forms of spiritual and mental slavery. The Haggadah (the seder guide) cleverly anticipates the difficulty of engaging younger generations in the seder by describing four sons, one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and even one who does not know how to ask a question. Many rabbis characterize the problem of the fourth son, not as lacking in knowledge, but as suffering from apathy, malaise. It seemed to me precisely the fog that had settled on our seder room. How clever of the rabbis to create a structure and process where, at a single penultimate moment at the outset of the seder, so much would be revealed about where we stand as a family and as Jews. We were rescued from discomfort by my oldest first cousin, a man in his seventies, a grandfather many times over, who stumbled his way through the four questions - he was clearly out of practice, it having been probably sixty-five years since the last time he said them at the family seder, way before my time, when he was the youngest, first grandchild of my grandparents. To be fair, our family seders have never really been about reengaging our religious traditions, culture and history. They've been about re-acquainting with family, getting to know long lost cousins, and introducing new generations to the family, which is important of course. Still, every year that I attend there is a place in my heart where I am hoping that the youngest members of the family will clammer and fight to ask the four questions, that they will see this opportunity to take centre stage in the grand reeneactment of our national story as a privilege and a moment to shine.


Barbara W. said...

My thoughts exactly! We had the same situation at our seder, with 5 11-to-16 year-olds present. To be fair, our kids live larger-than-life lives - omg, a seder for 100? - which may put undue pressure on them. Six strangers at our table of 18 were enough to intimidate the kids into silence.
I'm not sure whether we're over-thinking shyness and hormonal pre-/teen angst into apathy (although we do have good reason to fear the stupefying effects of a hyper-mediated world on young people) or whether it just takes a more intimately-scaled seder table, plus reworking/embellishing of the text to make it relevant to our lives now to move them to take it on (and to mitigate our own ambivalence about this particular ritual). After hosting many seders, I can say it’s still a work-in-progress to find the right formula.
p.s. There was a redeeming moment the second night at our friends' table, filled with kids in their 20s, positively crackling with intelligence and Jewish knowledge, who injected all sorts of interesting, hilarious, subversive twists to the seder. Very inspiring.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

Interesting comment Barbara. You'd think our larger-than-life kids would relish an opportunity to perform before a captive audience of 100. Or maybe you're right, 100 living breathing beings is too much for this hyper-mediated Facebook/Youtube generation of virtual friends and audiences. At our second seder there were only 12of us. All close family. And we still couldn't get a youngster to ask the four questions. We ended up singing them together in unison.

David Hamburg said...

Don't understand how kids could pass on it? At our seders, the kids sing together so they all get a chance....

oscar said...

Glen, a well written piece, encompassing de gansi geshichta. I should of used your Yiddish/English
Times; they are a changing. Our young communicate via an array of devices too advanced for our generation and yours truly, now the oldest of the Rotchtin clan.