My family doesn’t have a seder. I have zero memories of shoving my brother out of the way for the afikomen. I asked a lot of questions as a kid, but none of them were “Why is this night different than all the other nights?”
My Jewish upbringing was nonexistent. I never envied others who had a bat mitzvah or a giant family seder — I had no idea what I was missing. I first stumbled into a synagogue at 15, when I went with family friends for Rosh Hashanah services. I was totally moved by the traditions, the community and the liturgy.
But I lived an hour from the synagogue, so incorporating Jewish holidays and rituals into my life would have to wait until I was in college.
As soon as I arrived at college, I searched for the Jewish community I didn’t have as a child. I found a few — Hillel, a traditional Conservative synagogue and a post-denominational community led by a rabbi who, looking back on it, reminds me a lot of Rabbi Raquel from “Transparent.” All had communal services and celebrations throughout the Jewish calendar — until Passover. That was the holiday when everybody went home.
I panicked until one of my friends was kind enough to invite me home with her. I spent my first real Passover in Columbus, Ohio, with Monica and 30 of her family members. I was intimidated — I was in a room with dozens of people who had been breaking matzah together for years and I had never seen a seder plate in my life.
I pretended like I knew what I was doing, stumbled through the Haggadah and inaugurated my first Passover tradition: not having one.
The Haggadah says, “Anyone who is famished should come and eat, anyone who is in need should come and partake,” encouraging families to leave a seat or two open for those who don’t have plans or aren’t able to host their own seder.
Thanks to the hospitality and graciousness of strangers, I haven’t done the same thing for Passover twice. Every year, I find myself at a random table taking on new customs for the night.
At Monica’s, I took part in their tradition of cooking fresh matzah buttercrunch hours before dinner started. I learned about incorporating veganism into the seder at Evan’s, where his family substituted an avocado for the egg on the seder plate. Merav’s family each used their own Haggadah and sang the most beautiful tunes throughout the night. At a community seder we discussed feminism and modern-day slavery as we poured a special cup for Miriam and indulged in fair-trade chocolate.
This year, I will be embarking on a three-day Passover retreat that has promised me a weekend of matzah, meditation and a low-ropes course.
Not knowing where I’ll be for Passover can be stressful, and I always worry that I’m imposing by relying on others to host and feed me. However, as the great Drake once said, YOLO. I’m 21, still exploring my Jewish identity, and I don’t feel obligated to follow a single custom. By switching it up each year, I’ve had the opportunity to see the many ways one can be Jewish. Trying on different traditions gets me thinking about how I can host my own seders down the road and save a seat for another curious and college-aged gal looking to diversify her own Jewish practice.
For a lot of people, Passover is about family. While I wish my family came together every spring to feast and retell the story of the Exodus, making new friends and embracing new traditions each year is just as liberating.
Abby Seitz is a freelance journalist in Chicago.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AJP or its publisher, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.