Taking on Tradition

What do you do when you suddenly realize you’re the leadership body of all that is Jewish in your family? The family looks to you for decision making, taking a lead on practice and celebration, and generally waits for you to make a move when it comes to holidays. That’s pressure, right?

It didn’t happen overnight. What was sudden was the realization that the initiative now needs to come from me. I can’t sit around waiting for holiday celebration to just happen. For the past few years, I’ve been the resident mashgiach (kosher food supervisor) to my mother and sister. As I write this, my sister texts me about whether or not she can eat particular foods this Passover. Holiday dinners are often catered to my own practices, not the practices of the host (I have conflicting feelings about this but ultimately feel honored and cared for). Three years ago I was living in a somewhat oversized apartment in Brooklyn (and paying through the nose for it, don’t kid yourself). It simply made sense to use the space for a Passover Seder, so along with a friend and former colleague, we put something together.Generally speaking, my mother’s family, my Jewish side, is not so observant. Growing up, Passover Seders–this was the event that sparked this post so it will continue to be my example–happened with family friends, rarely with family. We have some distant cousins (distant only by technicality, they’re as close as family gets on my mom’s side) who have hosted a Seder every year as long as I can remember. They’ve since taken to hosting Seder on a Saturday night near to when Passover happens regardless of the date. While this doesn’t meet my observance needs, it does meet my familial needs. I also truly admire how they took a holiday and a tradition and molded it to meet their needs (weekends are the only way in which their kids and grandkids may participate, what more reason do you need?) and I’m glad they’ve continued this way.

I go out of my way to say this because it’s important to note that we didn’t inherit anything. My mom’s mother died before I was born and my mom’s dad just wasn’t a part of our lives. I don’t entirely recall when, but possibly in middle school my mother decided we were going to start hosting Seders. The first few years, the Seder happened at our place but my mother outsourced leadership. I think this was a smart move. Get comfortable in your own house first. A few years in, she took on leadership herself. While we naturally inherit general Jewish tradition and practices of the Seder, my mother had to invent all that would be unique to the Wilkenfeld family Seder. (My dad is not Jewish and they were divorced by the time all this happened. He’s the most supportive non-Jew of my Jewish observance in my life but that’s another post). With nominal help from my sister and myself, my mom hosted Seders for 20-plus people in our dining room, often beautiful mixes of Jews and non-Jews, the most engaging Seders I’ve ever been to, and completely kid friendly.

Once my sister left for college and I was finishing college, there wasn’t really help around the house. Regardless of the mental energy that goes into hosting a Seder, there’s just a lot of cleaning, lifting, and general schlepping. That’s what kids are for. My mother began to ease off from hosting and who could blame her. She had done her time; above and beyond the call of duty. A few years she joined me at Hillel (both when I was a student and later when I was an employee). My first year in New York, I co-hosted, in that oversized Brooklyn apartment. It was my favorite Seder in recent memory and it ended up being a one-off instead of the start of something new.

Last year, in a very last minute way, my mother and I held an intimate Seder at her place with her boyfriend, my father, and his partner. It was perfect, it was necessary, but for me it wasn’t enough and it should have been the wake up call. This year was the wake up call. A week or so in advance of the holiday, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even begun the conversation with my mother or my sister to figure out what we were doing, if anything. My mother and I will likely be doing another “intimate” Seder the first night and attending the Seder of one of my coworker’s the second night. It will be wonderful and I’m so happy it’s all happening. But I want more.

Among other holidays and observances, Passover Seders are now my responsibility. I need to start the conversations rolling, deciding what we’re doing and where we can hold the party. My mother and sister look to me to energize them and take that initiative. It’s not a point of conflict; they’ll support what I want to do. In the spirit of getting-things-done, I’ve marked my calendar for 2 months in advance of Passover 2012. Decisions don’t need to be made then, but that’s when the questions need to be asked. I won’t know where I’ll be living, who will have the space, who will want to cook, or who will be around to attend. I do know that I will want to do something and I’ll be upset with myself I don’t. I do know that the sooner I start asking the questions, the sooner I can get my mother and sister on board, the more people I can invite, and the more meaningful Seder I can plan and deliver. In the mostly matriarchal liberal Jewish world, I’ve become the patriarch without any effort. I don’t foresee this changing anytime soon.

I see this as an opportunity. Next Passover falls on a weekend so there’s a chance to invite those who might not be able to travel during the week. I don’t know that I’ve ever (EVER) done Passover with my cousins on my mom’s side (or that my mom’s family has every done a seder together). Don’t mistaken this for any type of kiruv thing, or any self-righteous need to deliver this stuff to anyone. It just means a lot to me and I want to share with the people who mean a lot to me. No one can make this happen but me and no one will challenge me to do it besides myself.

What are you doing to bring meaningful Seder experiences to you and those who are important to you?

Chag Pesach Sameach, Happy Passover

After writing this, I immediately felt the need to come out and say that I could not have written this had my mother not provided me with experiences, education, and inspiration. Had she not laid the groundwork, I would not be in a position to think these issues through.


  1. Jake, I love this. I love the motivation and realization. I want to be where you are Jake, jewishly. I’m sorry to say that since I stopped working for a Jewish community, I’ve lost touch my how I want to implement my Jewish identity. I’m glad that you are still rocking yours (one realization at a time)!!

  2. Beautiful and thoughtful. It’s a strange thing to think about the ways in which we become adults in our families, and it’s also interesting to be self-aware enough to know what you need spiritually.

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