If I want to learn about a topic, I look for stories to teach me. The story sought is usually in written form and told to me by an author, but visual stories such as movies are effective. Pictures in a PowerPoint presentation can also get the job done. As long as there is character development, a plot with a beginning, middle and end, and a little suspense thrown in for good measure, I am likely to remember the information conveyed.
My predilection for learning through stories is not unusual. Scientific studies have shown that stories are more effective in helping people remember critical information than almost any other form of communication. Stories have been used as a teaching tool dating back tens of thousands of years, when life-or-death messages about hunting or berry gathering were relayed to community members.
STORYTELLING COMES IN DIFFERENT SIZES AND SHAPES
Over time stories have taken on different forms. Early on, they were conveyed through pictures painted on cave walls or carved into trees. Stories told through music and dance also have pre-language roots. With the advent of the alphabet and sophisticated language, stories have taken on the more familiar written and oral forms.
What is consistent, no matter the mode, is that stories cut across all cultures. When told while surrounded by food the audience, by accessing the feelings of intimacy created while sharing a meal, is more apt to be swept into the narrative.
A PREFACE TO THE STORY
The synergy of storytelling and food is frequently seen in religious and cultural celebrations. Because storytelling is such a powerful teaching tool, it is often used to reinforce cultural traditions and values. This is certainly true in Judaism.
While almost every Jewish holiday and major life event is marked with food, Passover is the one I remember best because of its storytelling. For me, the thought of Passover is associated with Polaroid images of tables cobbled together loaded with fancy dishes and accompanied by the din of constant chatter. For many of my growing up years, my memories include my family of six expanding to include cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Our home, which was usually quietly inhabited by my parents, my three sisters and I, became the center of whirlwind action caused by the arrival of our four boisterous boy cousins, among others.
For those needing an introduction to Passover, simply put the holiday’s ritual dinner involves the retelling of the story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt as described in the Torah.
At the heart of the celebration is the Seder, a home-based service and ritual meal with foods of symbolic significance commemorating the Jews’ liberation. The Haggadah is the evening’s script and retells the story of the journey from slavery to freedom. With the aid of ‘stage notes’ also found in the Haggadah, and using food as props and metaphors, rituals, debate, and song, the guests act out sections of the Passover story in an order prescribed in the Haggadah. The goal is to have the guests connect to the story and personally feel that they too have come out of slavery.
There are over 3,000 editions of the Haggadah catalogued in the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The different editions appeal to diverse political, spiritual, and age groups. Throughout my life I have read from at least a dozen different Haggadot, at least one of which was home made, but none of which tell the story of the journey from slavery to freedom, from start to finish. The Haggadot assume that certain story elements are known by its audience. I did not and to a large extent still do not know these elements.
“PASSING OVER” THE STORY
As a child, in the hours before the Seder began, the last of the food was cooked, the food props arranged, and the table was set. Until we sat down, I waited, paced, and hovered, eagerly anticipating the start of the Seder. After arranging our large crowd at the table, my excitement for the festivities quickly dissipated. It did not take long after we gathered at the table for me to start asking, “How much longer until we eat”? Or “How many more pages do we need to read?” I tried to focus on the familiar highlights: the 4 questions, the plagues and of course, singing Dayenu. Despite my good intentions, I was unable to connect to ‘the story’. I could not, had I been asked, explain the plot. And I could not, had I been asked, list or describe the story’s characters. I was definitely disconnected.
Is the disjointed presentation of ‘the story’ found in the Haggadah purposeful? The Seder is meant to spark discussion and prompt questions. Is this an intentional strategy to prompt Seder participants to share their own stories and connect them to ‘the story’ of Passover?
I may not have been connected to the story of Passover, but I did and still do enjoy the traditional foods served at a Seder. Keenly mindful of both the symbolic and traditional foods of the holiday as a child, the culinary cultural traditions of Passover are my focus as an adult. I recently set out to understand why food is so central to this particular holiday.
FOOD AS THE PROTAGONIST
Passover is not a holiday with a meal, the meal is our holiday. The food-laden Seder is how Jewish history is transmitted. Is this purposeful and intentional?
Food is so central to many Jewish holidays and major life events that there are running jokes about it: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” I concede that the symbolic foods used during the Seder are apt visual aids and enhance the story, but the story could very well stand alone. I set out to learn the answer to my questions and of course searched for stories to help me.
The (very simplified) story within a story: From 515 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., the Second Temple in Jerusalem was the central place of worship for the Jewish people. Upon the destruction of this Temple by the Romans, the Temple’s rituals, personnel, sacred space, food, blessings, and prayers, disappeared or were dispersed. Instead, every home became a sanctuary and every family table an altar. The Talmud, Judaism’s primary book of Jewish legal theory says, “Every home a temple; every family a sanctuary; every table an altar; every meal an offering; every Jew a Priest.” In this manner, Judaism became portable and less vulnerable to attack.
Time at the family table was a time for intimacy, communion, and rich discussion.
FOOD ALONE ISN’T SUFFICIENT
My ongoing uneasiness about the disjointed telling of the story of Passover each year does not impede my enjoyment of the holiday. The culinary cultural traditions are my focus in the days leading up to a Seder, but there is now more. When participating in the celebration of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, instead of focusing on the plot or character development, I now focus on the universal themes of the story: justice, equality, and freedom. And I welcome the Seder as an opportunity to satisfy my hunger-to-belong and feed my heart and soul – as well as my stomach.