The (Pesach) Dinner Table...
April 21, 2022 | 20th of Nisan, 5782 | Pesach פֶּסַח
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
Moadim l'simcha! With seders behind me and only a couple of days of Pesach left, I am thinking about the mark I hope Pesach makes on the year going forward. In fact, the Book of Shemot refers to this month of Nissan as the first month of the Jewish year. It feels like a good time for a new New Year's resolution given this tradition and, of course, the fact that I have already dropped my other new years' resolutions.
Every year we turn our lives upside down for Pesach, cleaning our homes, changing our foods, gathering in unusually large numbers, and adding all sorts of weird rituals just so the children will ask. When I was little, my mom would start preparing for Pesach the day after Purim, and our house was literally turned upside down. All that was on the ground floor was packed into a very small and terrifying Los Angeles basement (these are not East Coast livable basements!) as Pesach was dusted off and brought up to the main floor. As soon as the chag ended, my mother would pack Pesach back into boxes, staying up until it was completely put away and the house was back to its chametz ways. A week of intensity, connection, and, inspiration locked in the basement until next year.
So what should we take with us into this "new" year that starts with Pesach, now almost back in its basement?
This year I'm thinking about setting the table. There is so much that goes into setting the Seder table, of course including the quired elements, but also extending way beyond with additional creativity and beauty. Our Seder tables have been Instagram-worthy for thousands of years. For the first time since the pandemic, my family shared Pesach with my husband's entire family, including eight first cousins in a rural cabin while it mostly snowed and rained. Needless to say, there has been a lot of table setting!
In 1979, the artist Judy Chicago completed her iconic feminist installation, The Dinner Party, which lives at the Brooklyn Museum. This piece consists of a large triangular table with 39 magnificent and unique place settings, each for a different historic woman from Hatshepsut to Georgia O'Keefe. This installation clearly explores the idea of who has a "seat at the table" by celebrating specific women in history who had held a seat of power. Nonetheless, like all art, the experience of the viewer and the intention of the artist does not always line up, and the experience of each viewer is different. I have always experienced The Dinner Table as a Pesach Seder table, set with silver wine glasses and all the pomp that such a table deserves. I connect to it as a Jewish feminist, thinking about the Seder as a time when the "head of the family" was traditionally a man leading the Seder. I look at the The Dinner Table and feel blessed and excited to live in a time women have an equal seat at the Seder table, and in other Jewish realms. When I have visited the installation, I always wish I had the courage to leave an orange on the table on my way out. Probably not worth getting arrested for, but it would be cool.
This year our wonderful art educator, Wendy Friedland (who also happens to be the parent of two Beit Rabban alumni) worked with K-8 students to create a Pesach version of The Dinner Table. Students crafted every aspect of the installation, including plates, cutlery, decorations, and flowers. Each student brought their own interpretation and inspiration to their contributions. On the last day of school before Pesach break, classes took museum walks through our social hall to visit the exhibit, to see their work and their friends' work come together into the most welcoming and powerful, collectively curated, triangular Seder table. The best part of it for me is that it was somehow a surprise! I have no idea how I didn't realize this was happening, but I couldn't believe that one of my favorite art installations, that I have always connected to Pesach, had inspired Wendy and our students to create their own Dinner Table under our very own roof in honor of Pesach.
I keep thinking about this installation, and I have decided it is the inspiration I want to take from Pesach into the rest of the year after we pack up our car with all the pots, pans, dishes, haggadot, and Pesach shtick and drive back to New York City to continue our routine leavened existence. I want to prioritize setting the table and inviting others: to my home, to our school, and to our community. I want to invest in thinking about what the table needs to look like to welcome everyone, how to invite someone to return after they have left, how to keep expanding the guest list, and how to transform the table from "my dinner table," to our "dinner table" where we each person belongs and also feels the sense of ownership that obligates them to welcome others. This feels particularly poignant this year both as a metaphor but also in a literal sense after we have spent the last two years at small tables, where we have not been able to invite others in to break bread or matzah. I am ending Pesach even more committed to expanding the table and working hard to make sure each of us, and those who discover us over the next year, find the place setting with their name on it, welcoming them home.
Wishing all an inspiring last days of Pesach, and an easy return of all that is Pesach to the basement.