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The Ancestral Homeland is Moving to Our House

Yehuda Kurtzer`s musings on taking over Passover from his mom in a piece from The Forward`s &quotWho Sets The Table?&quot project
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in


Originally published in The Forward , as part of the Who Sets The Table? project.

This year, Stephanie and I are hosting my family’s Pesach in our home. And unlike a few years in our 20s when we hosted seders when my parents lived overseas — makeshift affairs in which we did the best we could with our small kitchens and random assortment of utensils — this year feels like a seismic shift in the familial center of gravity. The ancestral homestead has moved to Riverdale.

And so we upgraded the guest mattresses to accommodate my parents and siblings more comfortably, and bought a Pesahdik food processor to cook in industrial quantities for our massive seders and to last for years to come. I introduced draconian anti-hametz purchasing measures weeks in advance, and have devoted my long commute in extensive menu planning. I am taking three days off next week to handle the exciting task of tackling scratch-made gefilte fish in addition to the standard charoset-blitzing (Ashkenazic and Sephardic to honor our dual heritages), horseradish-peeling, and liver-broiling.

This feels like a big deal, and a turning point. Lately I have been thinking a lot about the transitions of time and the ways in which I reflect and embody my parents and their values, even as I struggle with whether I am doing right by them. I think that the great irony of adulthood – that we leave our parents’ home, cleave to a spouse, and create a household of our own — is that all of us eventually become our parents in one way or another. I have caught myself a few times lately in a mirror and have done a double take upon seeing my father looking back. In how we look, how we talk, and our overlapping career interests, I take a lot (proudly, I might add) from my father.

But this seizure of Pesach — my need to ask my mother if I could start hosting the seder — signaled to me that it might not be my father who I am becoming. I am a little older, but not by much, than my mother was when she took over the seders from her mother – a transition that was expedited in part by my grandfather’s premature passing. I tried to probe why it was so important to me for my children to feel the drama of the build-up in our household, the clatter and chatter of a hopping kitchen for several days beforehand, the feeling of at-home-ness sitting on their bedroom pillows while reclining around the seder, the warmth as the host of nesting our family and friends in a raucous, endless evening around our long table…and I realized that all of this mattered to me because in more respects than I realized, I was my mother’s son. These feelings of managing domesticity were and still are the aspects of the holiday that most mattered to her and gave her the best sense of ownership and pride. Now they matter most to me as well.

My life as the parent in charge of the kitchen is totally unremarkable to my children, for whom gender categories when it comes to cooking are incomprehensible. I went on an extended work trip a few years back and my son looked at Stephanie in horror when I left and asked “But what are we going to eat?!?” (Secret: Stephanie is actually a great cook, even if she doesn’t love doing it.) I think it is all still a little weird to my parents, who raised me in a relatively traditional household when it came to gender norms. It is going to be especially interesting to figure out how to share in running the “content” side of the seder together with Stephanie – which interests me seeing as, in my day job, I dabble in Jewish education – while also taking on managing the soup, the incessant setting and clearing, and the serving a wildly ambitious take on “karpas.” And honestly, sometimes it feels that the absence of clear gender roles in our household (and in synagogue) is more challenging than the good old days of our upbringings, though I like and appreciate that we both do what we enjoy and are good at, and are living up to our values. I feel that I am trying to embrace becoming my parents, while at the same time challenging some of how they managed some of their specific choices. Becoming my parents doesn’t mean imitating them.

So I hope this year’s seder — and maybe many more in years to come — is a love note to my mother. Even as this embrace of my inner ballabusta displaces my mother as the brisket-platter carrying hostess, it is an embrace of my upbringing, a tribute to what I have learned. This Passover, I am celebrating the passing of time, in this festival of memory that fuses the past from which we come with the people we are becoming.

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