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Writing the book on a new haggadah

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Despite her agnostic Jewish upbringing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Smartmom loves Passover, the only Jewish holiday her family ever celebrated.

And believe it or not, she’s a real purist when it comes to that day. That’s why she got a little nervous when someone sent her a copy of the “Haggadah for Buddhists and Jews.”

Okay, everyone knows that Smartmom likes to practice Buddhist meditation on her bright red meditation pillow listening to the sounds of a sustained singing bowl drone from Thich Nat Hanh’s Plum Village.

But on Pesach?

Sure, Smartmom’s family of origin rarely went to synagogue and didn’t even light Hanukah candles — they actually celebrated Christmas, although both of her parents were Jewish.

But for Buddha’s sake, Passover is Passover — and you don’t mess with it.

Privately, as a child, Smartmom had intermittent longings to be more Jewish than her family. She secretly tried to fast on Yom Kippur — though she was rarely able to make it through the whole day.

During Passover, she tried to skip the Pepperidge Farm white bread in favor of matzo, but it was hard to resist the French toast her mother prepared for breakfast in the morning.

Smartmom has early memories of sitting with her mother’s extended family at the large modern dining room table of their Riverside Drive apartment listening to her grandfather read from a Maxwell House haggadah.

Though less than 6, Smartmom could tell that something important was going on because her normally gentle grandfather adopted a dramatic tone that conveyed reverence and gravity.

This night really was different from all other nights.

When Smartmom became an adult, she learned that there were as many styles of Passover Seders as there are Jews.

In college, she attended lefty Seders with a group of self-styled anarchists, Socialist Zionists, and atheists, who emphasized the struggles of all people to be free.

Later, when she became obsessed with the Holocaust, she attended a Seder, which incorporated the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the words of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.

During a year-long sojourn in Israel, Smartmom celebrated a secular Passover in a Kibbutz dining hall with hundreds of kibbutzniks.

When she neared the age of 30, Smartmom’s family Passover Seders stopped. Her parents were divorced, her grandparents were dead, and her cousins were developing new traditions with their own families

Then, she married Hepcat, a WASP farm boy from northern California brought up as a Presbyterian by a mother who describes herself as an animist.

After Teen Spirit and the Oh So Feisty One were born, Hepcat was open to as much Judaism as she wanted to dole out. He finds the whole religion thing to be an interesting adventure (Hepcat just loves to wear a yarmulke and prayer shawl at bat mitzvahs — and they are flattering on him).

Needless to say, it was up to Smartmom to “produce” the family’s Seder. Whether they were having family, friends, or just themselves, she always led the Seder and selected the haggadah they were going to use.

While Smartmom’s seders are a little offbeat, they do hover closely to certain traditions. Passover — from buying the matzo, the gefilte fish, the sickly sweet Manischewitz wine; chopping apples and walnuts for the chorosis; roasting the brisket; setting the table with their best plates and silver and the Seder itself — is when Smartmom instills a modicum of Jewish tradition into her children.

So it was with some trepidation that Smartmom approached the “Haggadah for Jews and Buddhists,” an attempt to express the universal theme of Passover to traditional Jews, Buddhists and people of diverse spiritual leanings. Yet Smartmom’s trepidations melted away she found herself intrigued by the idea of trying something new.

Right from the beginning, this haggadah, written by Elizabeth Pearce-Glassheim, speaks to the symbolic power of the holiday as it describes the enslavement of the Jews and their journey to freedom as a metaphor for consciousness and their striving for release from attachment towards spiritual growth.

Whoa. The age of the new-age Seder has really arrived.

While this hagaddah is structurally the same as most Reform-style haggadahs and includes all the familiar sections, it’s the language and interpretations that makes all the difference.

For example: “Passover embodies our desire to connect with all facets of our lives, to remember that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, and to help us to remember all the way that we enslave ourselves when we are not deciding with our right mind and when we lapse into automatic, familiar thought patterns.”

(Smartmom can almost hear Groovy Grandpa: “Where did you find this meshuganah haggadah?”)

And then: “We enslave ourselves when we remain in the mitzayrim (the narrow place) of confusion and disconnection with our own and others’ essential nature.”

(“What is this, Passover or therapy?” Smartmom could imagine Diaper Diva saying.)

Smartmom jumped ahead to the Four Questions, probably the most important part of the Seder for the way that it represents the Jewish tradition of questions and dialogue.

In this section, the author speaks directly to the traditionalist, the humanist or secular Jew, the Buddhist, and non-Jewish friends, a thought-provoking attempt to explain the universal meanings of Passover to a diverse group of people.

But as Smartmom read the haggadah, she recognized that her Buddhist self has everything to do with her secular Jewish self.

Smartmom has found that meditation has provided her with her first experience of a divine power. Meditation offered her access to the universe, to God, to “whatever” — something she never felt in a synagogue.

And yet, her experience with Buddhist meditation has helped her to understand the meaning of prayer and reflection for Jews and others.

Practicing Buddhist meditation hasn’t made Smartmom feel any less Jewish or any less capable of passing on Jewish history and my brand of secular Judaism to her children.

Now the really big question: Does she want to integrate these two traditions and conduct a Seder using the “Haggadah for Jews and Buddhists”?

“Hell no,” Teen Spirit said (he doesn’t like change). “I like Passover just the way it is.”

Still, Smartmom thinks it’s worth a try. If she can communicate Passover’s message of freedom while conveying her growing interest in self-discovery and spiritual growth to Teen Spirit, OSFO, and even Hepcat, she says, “Why not?”

Whatever happens, it should, at the very least, provoke a great conversation over the gefilte fish.

Haggadah for Jews and Buddhists, by Elizabeth Pearce-Glassheim (Modern Haggadah Distribution, 2006), can be downloaded for $7 from www.modernhaggadah.com.

Louise Crawford, a Park Slope mom, also operates “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.”
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