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Passing Down Passover
A daughter modernizes her family’s holiday traditions
Passover Seder is the ritual Jewish meal commemorating the Israelite exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt. Custom calls for the youngest child at the table to recite questions that frame the evening’s ceremony, beginning with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Last year Miriam Karp, a middle child now fifty-seven years old and raising a teenage daughter, decided to recast that query for herself: “How might this Passover be different from other Passovers?”
For four decades Karp’s parents orchestrated the family seders, held each spring during Passover’s eight days, at their house in Buckhead’s Mount Paran neighborhood. Her mother, Hazel, prepared an annual menu of mostly Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European Jewish) specialties: soup with matzo balls, made from crackery unleavened bread; gefilte fish (pungent fish patties served cold) on lettuce; beef brisket on the first night, turkey on the second; tzimmes, a sweetish vegetable dish of carrots, prunes, and potatoes; dairy-free sponge cake with strawberries for dessert. As a nod to the South, she would also slide in kosher squash casserole. Up to three dozen relatives and friends, both Jewish and Gentile, would cram into their living and dining rooms. One year Pat Conroy joined the feast, after Karp assisted the novelist with research on Holocaust survivors for his novel Beach Music.
The reading of the Haggadah—a text that recounts the story of the Israelites’ journey to freedom, interwoven with blessings, commentary, songs, and instructions for consuming symbolic foods—provides the seder’s ceremonial structure. Karp remembers her grandparents racing through this part. Her father, Herbert, approached the ceremony with much more solemnity when he took over. Passover begins at sundown, but his seders could last until midnight. Despite grumbles and rumbly stomachs, the actual meal (which is served about two-thirds of the way through the order of rituals) sometimes didn’t appear until 9:30.
Karp’s parents advanced into their eighties. In 2010 the gathering moved to Karp’s house for the first time, but her father still insisted on leading the seder. Last year, when he turned ninety, Karp and her older sister, Beth, grew adamant: The two of them would start leading the service. “I told him, ‘Dad, this is your chance to sit back and pass this on to another generation, and you should feel very proud that you have raised children who want to do this,’” Karp says. “When I was growing up, this was a really joyous holiday for me. For the last few years, it had become laborious, and I thought, ‘Let’s bring some of the joy back.’”
Some of her happiness, she knew, might come as an adjustment for others. Karp sticks to a mostly vegetarian diet, only occasionally eating fish. The brisket—the linchpin for so many seder meals—would have to go. Salmon with asparagus replaced the beef. She kept the gefilte fish and the matzo ball soup (subbing vegetable broth for the usual chicken stock) but also introduced quinoa salad, Moroccan carrot salad, and chocolate–olive oil mousse. Charoset, a coarse fruit and nut paste that signifies the mortar used by the enslaved Jews to construct Egyptian buildings, is a delicious crowd-pleaser despite its weighty symbolism. The sisters laid out three variations, including a less common but sublime version made from bananas and pistachios.
As she modified the menu, Karp equally reconsidered the Haggadah. Numerous interpretations of the ceremonial text reflect different families’ convictions or interests. Amazon.com sells dozens of versions: some scholarly and orthodox, others progressive and nontraditional, and several designed for brevity to keep the attention of small children. Karp wanted to compile her own adaptation, mixing and matching writings that reflect the liberal thinking of Congregation Bet Haverim, the synagogue she attends. Late at night in the weeks before Passover, after her daughter went to sleep, Karp combed through works by feminist poet Marge Piercy and found relevant quotes from Milan Kundera and Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein to fill her Haggadah’s margins. She finished compiling the fifty-four-page booklets at the nearby FedEx office fifteen minutes before the seder was set to start.
By then two dozen guests—including her parents—were taking their seats at tables pulled together in her cheery front room, where folky art covers the walls. (Karp is an artist who paints ketubot, custom-designed marriage contracts.) The seder began by Karp asking, “How did you get here?” Some responses were joking: “In my big-ass Chevy Silverado.” Others inspired thoughtful silence: “My mother came from Bauska, Courland, which you can find on European maps that predate the Second World War.”
The fourteen parts of the seder included dipping vegetables in salt water and eating strong horseradish to represent the tears and bitterness of slavery. Karp called on different people to read throughout the meal. When it came time to symbolically divide a piece of matzo, someone read a snippet from A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices: “The sound of the breaking of the matzo sends us into that fractured existence . . . Yet even here we can find a unique value, as the Hassidic saying teaches us: ‘There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.’ Or, as Leonard Cohen wrote: ‘There’s a crack in everything/That’s where the light comes in.’” Karp, eyes welling, quietly said that last line was her favorite in the whole seder service.
Later, when the full meal was served, no one—not even Karp’s father—missed the brisket.
Photograph by Kendrick Brinson