Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

International Pesach consultant to Scandinavia

Word to the wise: if anyone asks you to lead two communal seders on two consecutive days, in cities several hundred miles apart, do not agree! Seriously, I had a lot of fun, even if it was completely exhausting.

I travelled up to Copenhagen on Wednesday; it's just under six hours on the train. So I got there with just a couple of hours to spare before I had to arrive for the seder. Happily the Danish community had thoughtfully provided me with someone to meet me at the station and show me around, so I could use the time with maximum efficiency. I did feel like a VIP being met from the train and shown to my hotel; my host even got up early the following day to make sure I caught my train back to Stockholm successfully! Since it was gloriously sunny, I asked to just wander round the city on foot a bit rather than try to go to any museums. Copenhagen is pretty in a completely different way from Stockholm, and I got enough of a foretaste that I'd like to spend some proper time there some time. I didn't see the little mermaid, but did see Tycho Brahe's observatory, which is more cool in my book.

When I got to the seder several of the organizers were extremely relieved to find that I actually exist. I hadn't been extremely good about replying to email in the weeks leading up to Pesach, which means I'm not as good as I should be about being professional and collaborating with a team, but everything was ok in the end. I mainly spoke to the musician who'd agreed to help me with the singing, very sweet woman. We went over the service and checked everything was ok, and then we both felt better. Other members of the board rushed around sorting out practical things, and guests arrived, and suddenly it was time to start.

Of course, the moment I start speaking in front of a crowd I forget about being nervous. They were a really receptive and friendly group, it was a joy to work with them. I tried to mix silly games for the kids, with actual deep discussion for the adults, while keeping the whole thing short enough to start the meal within about an hour. A bit of a balancing act, but I think I succeeded. And I made the beating people over the head with spring onions work extremely well; I timed it just right, so people had forgotten my big setup for something unexpected coming up, and it got a great reaction!

When it came to the meal, things went wrong in a way that was thankfully more funny than awful: I gave my little spiel about how we start the meal with something round, such as boiled eggs or gefilte fish, as a sign of death and rebirth. Right on cue, plates were handed out with small round balls and a relish of carrots and onions. The hungry guests started tucking in to their gefilte fish, and there was a sort of embarrassed silence followed by a buzz of people whispering to eachother. No, it's not just you, these fish balls aren't fish balls, they are, um, soup dumplings... But where is the gefilte fish? I'm sure I saw some round things floating in the chicken soup... The community are going to be dining out on this story for a long time, I think.

The other place I went slightly off plan was in making the timing of the meal work. That of course is harder to coordinate when I'm not directly in charge. But some people were happily relaxed into chatting and eating, while others, particularly the parents with young kids, were wanting to wrap things up so that they could get home and get to bed. Since technically you're not allowed to eat any more after the hunt for the hidden matza that finishes the meal, I couldn't just carry on talking and teaching while people finished up their desserts. So the second part of the service was a little ragged. Still, I got people into silly games and songs and perked even the over-tired kids up a bit, and we were out of the door by 9:30, which isn't too bad. I made them do the animal impressions for One only kid and race through Who knows one? at top speed in four simultaneous languages, which went over very well.

The musician and I had agreed not to try to sing Go down Moses as we both felt that was inappropriate, but some of the community present insisted on it. She sang very well; though her background is opera she does gospel style with great verve and panache. And I sort of understand why the editors of the hagaddah (it's the UK Liberal one) included it. But really, there's something rather distasteful about using a Spiritual in the Seder service, given that there are still African-Americans alive who were born into literal slavery, never mind all this metaphorical imagining ourselves as if we were in Egypt stuff. I should have put my foot down more firmly about that, I feel.

The meal was insanely over-catered. Not just the usual Jewish thing of making sure there's enough for seconds and thirds, but really twice as much food as we could possibly eat, even stuffing ourselves in honour of the festival. To my extreme relief, the organizers were able to make contact with a men's homeless shelter who were more than happy to take the leftovers. I'm talking three kinds of roast meat, easily enough for 50 people, plus accompanying vegetables, salad and kosher for passover cake. I don't think I could have lived with myself if we'd thrown away that much food, and I was very worried that a shelter wouldn't be able to take meat if they couldn't guarantee it had been kept at the appropriate temperature.

Then I went back to the hotel and slept and just had time for a bath (yay baths!) in the morning before jumping on the train back to Stockholm. I had just two hours to collect my breath at home before going out again to the Stockholm seder; I used some of it to call my parents as being away over Pesach is making me really, really homesick. The sibs had already dispersed so I didn't get to talk to them, sadly.

Stockholm was very different from Copenhagen, most notably in that we didn't really have any kids. Again, the committee had done all the practical stuff, so I just settled in and led the service. In spite of our worries there was nobody present uncomfortable with English, so that made things easy. And we used the lovely Denna afton, a Swedish version of Noam Zion and David Dishon's A different night, the most fantastic modern hagaddah I've ever come across, one that works well for experts or clueless amateurs, and has scope for a totally traditional ceremony or a very modern, alternative one. With an entirely adult seder, I was able to go in to a bit more depth in discussion and people weren't terribly distressed that we slightly overshot the planned one hour of ceremony before the meal. About 50 people were present, a mix of Progressive regulars and new people, and apart from the unfortunate lack of children, covering a range of ages. As in Copenhagen, I included a reference to hatam_soferet's idea about matching Pesach spending with donations to anti-slavery organizations; for me, if Pesach doesn't give you a real sense of commitment to social justice, it's not doing its job.

At the end of the second seder, I got a round of applause, which was a bit embarrassing because, really, guys, religious service, not performance! But it was kind of gratifying, especially when several people told me it was the best seder ever and begged me to come back next year. They also presented me with a seder plate made by one of the members of the community who is a potter, a really pretty thing with each section like the petals of a flower.

You would not believe how tired I am, though. Even by yesterday, I was randomly falling asleep in the middle of conversations (sorry, SA!) and generally feel a bit as if my immune system is protesting at what I've put it through in the past few days. Oof. Happy Easter Christians, and chag sameach frum Jewish friends who should now be back online after three days of festival + shabbat.
Tags: jewish

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