The Bread of Affliction

Growing up, Passover was my favorite holiday. My parents hosted the first night Seder and the table was actually a mash up of many tables, one from our dining room, one from the basement and one from my grandparents regular card games. There were hand scribbled place cards, homemade matzoh covers and bottomless decanters of grape juice. My extended family was there, as well as my parents’ community of friends — an ex nun and ex priest who were married, my father’s friend from his medical training, Marian, an former college football player and Deacon in the AME church, a man with the most melodic bass voice, that I think he’s the reason I went into radio. There were strays from my mother’s work as an activist and my father’s life as the doc-on-the-block. My maternal grandfather, who had left Russia/Poland for Canada as a child, sat to my father’s left and served, as he did in nearly all of our family matters, as Yoda, the wise, often unintelligible advisor. You knew the meal was going well if he cried from the strength of the bitter herb on his Hillel sandwich. My mother was an early adopter of the Feminist Haggadah even as she spent days in the kitchen with her sister and her friends, preparing the symbolic food and heavy meal.

I sat with my siblings, cousins and the various other children who wandered in at the far end of the table, waiting mostly for the chance to find the Afikomen (a piece of the matzoh that is hidden during the pre meal ceremonies and found after the meal.) Or, to be honest, for the chance to collect the crisp $20 bill my grandfather presented to the finder of the Afikomen. The Afikomen is broken off of the middle piece of matzoh in a stack of three. Early in the proceedings, my father, as the leader, would, with great fanfare, stand, raise the piece of matzoh to the ceiling and bellow, “Behold, this is the bred of affliction” then, grunting ridiculously he would break that piece in two and spirit one half to my grandfather who would hide it.

Well into my disaffected teenage years, that moment, that sentence, that performance, “Behold, this is the bread of affliction” remained spellbinding for me. I’d say it was the drama, or the formality of the word “Behold,” or my father’s playfulness combined with how my grandfather nodded profoundly in response, as if he had been there, in the desert for the 40 year slog and the invention of the no-time-to-rise bread. My father brought the holiday to life, but my grandfather gave it depth.

In college I teamed up with a friend who, decades later, became a rabbi, to host Seders that best resembled a teach-in with wine. We moved the furniture out of our communal house and everyone sat on the floor. The food was passed around family style, our homemade Haggadah was also passed around.  Mostly I remember it as improv, many people riffing on each other, the story, the ceremony, the earnestness, the hypocrisy, the truth.

When I was in graduate school I hosted a Seder in my apartment a few months after my father passed away. Most of my guests were not Jewish but like me they were hungry for ritual and meaning. Again the table was a mash up of borrowed tables, people brought food, wine and their own chair. Again I made a Haggadah and again I lead the service. At the end, when I finished the final reading, I kept my head bowed and thanked everyone for helping me through my first Passover without my father alive, When I looked up I was not the only one crying. After that my Seders took on a life of their own and in my final year, a friend volunteered his large, empty house and more than 30 people sat on the floor and wept with me through the story or loss and liberation.

I haven’t hosted a Seder since.  I’ve been back to my mother’s for Passover, I’ve been traveling, visiting friends and working. Some years I’ve missed it and some years I’ve been grateful to miss it.  With Milo it was something to get through. He wasn’t particularly interested and had permission to sit it out in a different room with a book or a screen. But as he has matured, and as his medication has helped him focus and reflect he’s attempted to participate in more community gatherings. So this year, noting his interest and anticipation, for the first time ever, I dreaded Passover.

On the first night we went to E’s house. I made matzoh ball soup which isn’t hard, but labor intensive. I not only lack confidence as a cook, I’m also rather terrible at it, so I had to concentrate. E’s house is in the woods. It’s airy and open and one of my favorite places. We celebrate the High Holidays with her family, usually in her vast wooded yard. Being there feels festive and comfortable.  Her table was beautifully set and as is customary she gathered friends, neighbors, Jews and non Jews. Her homemade Haggadah is rich with historical analysis and contextualization. She’s a litigator and lobbyist and encouraged debate.

On the drive over i gave Milo an extra dose of Ritalin to help him focus. Milo sat between me and his father. He paid attention to the proceedings, occasionally brandishing a plastic sword and demanding that either me or my husband, “Let (his) people go.” On my other side, sat a young man, B, who was in from California, visiting his parents who live near E. During the leisurely meal B found my daughter looking disgruntled and isolated on the couch and engaged her in conversation. He came back to the table and told me how delightful she was. He’s right, at least with people who aren’t her mother.

A little later B found Milo on the same couch, focused intently on Minecraft on my iPhone.B tried to engage Milo as he had my daughter, but Milo wasn’t interested. So B kept trying, playfully tapping Milo’s foot with his own and suggesting Milo look up certain words he was using. Not long after B returned to his place at the table, Milo was behind us, announcing in his clenched jaw stage whisper, “I don’t like THIS guy.” I turned to my husband, we gathered the kids and left. No reason to push through. We had eaten, participated the bulk of the ritual and the people who knew us were familiar with our sometimes sudden exists.

That night I gave Milo an extra large dose of Melatonin. He takes a small does every night, not to put him to sleep but to help regulate his rhythms. I was worried the evening Ritalin would keep him up. The next morning he was enraged. He stomped into our room before 6 furious with the world. His face looked dark, his eyelids droopy and his skin sallow. He was a mess, a dervish of anger until he was a heap of self loathing and despair.

I kept him home from school and did some research. I had overdosed him, not once, but twice. Too much Ritalin is like too much of any stimulant (duh, idiot mom.)  And too much Melatonin in children can cause epic mood swings, as if Milo doesn’t have epic mood swings  based on his own chemistry alone.

I put aside my to-do list. We walked the dog. We went out for his favorite lunch. We talked about Passover and how to get through that night’s (the second) Seder.

Will B be there?


Will anyone even remotely like B be there?

I doubt it.

Do I have to participate?


What if I want to participate?

It’s up to you Buddy.

I like the plagues.

Me too.

I like the part where the red sea swallows the Egyptian army.

I think that’s a metaphor.

For what?


I’m sorry I made us leave early last night.

I’m sorry I gave you too much medicine and screwed with your chemistry.

I’m glad I didn’t have to go to school today.

That night Milo opted out of the second Seder by hanging on the back porch playing Minecraft or daydreaming on the couch. I was fine with it. The kid doesn’t need a story or a metaphor to understand affliction.






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