Passover and the “Multi-Generational Self”

So much about Passover is likely to be different this year for most of us—and yet, this fundamental idea will be exactly the same. We are commanded to tell our children and to remind ourselves of wh...

Growing up in a kosher home in Charlotte, North Carolina I thought of myself as a “gefilte fish out of water.”   I remember so vividly the moment I first pulled a box of matza from my backpack onto the cafeteria table of my large public high school.

The questions from my friends flew fast and furious–Why are those crackers so big? Is that a Jewish thing? Are they like communion wafers? Can people who aren’t Jewish eat them?

Answering these questions inadvertently turned my lunch period into a mini-seder populated by me and the flock of Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, and Hindus around me.

I recently shared memories of this mini-seder with my own children. And since they (usually) go to schools with many other peers who schlep matza in their backpacks, they were amused by the questions that my friends posed. I realize that to them, this is one of the many stories I tell about being a minority –living as a Jew in the South. As I attempted to reenact my friends’ curious inquiries, I caught myself in one of those meta-parent moments “Am I passing down this story so my children will tell this story to their children?”

Pesach is the official time of the Jewish year when one generation passes down personal stories to the next. In the original narrative of the festival, we are taught that parents should turn to their children and speak in elaborate detail about the harrowing escape from the slavery and chaos in Egypt not as something that happened long ago, but in deliberate first-person terms. In Hebrew the phrase that we are instructed to use is “b’tzaytee mimitzrayim” – when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8).

This time of global pandemic will bring a particular challenging Passover – one where many families will be physically apart from one another, only able to celebrate together via phone, Zoom, and Skypee, and Gchat. But it should not prevent us from passing down stories. Rather than focus on the ways that this may diminish the seder, we can accept this as a challenge to create a more personal and interactive seder.

Research by the Family Narratives Lab at Emory University shows that children who know family stories of triumph over hardship demonstrate higher well-being, with higher self-esteem, academic and social competence, and fewer behavior problems.

Even a simple question, like “Do you know what illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?” can spark stories of resilience that may have never been shared.

Based on this academic research, Moving Traditions staff designed a multi-generational seder activity based on family stories that can be used in a virtual seder. (It can be found here.)

This Passover, as difficult it may be, is the perfect time for us, both individually and collectively, to focus on the role of these family stories, particularly the stories of resilience. May these stories illuminate our seders this year, and may we all return to a time when we can celebrate with friends, extended family, and folding chairs.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner is the Chief of Education for Moving Traditions.  This piece was adapted from a longer commentary posted on JFNA’s Ideas in Jewish Education and Engagement.