Mah Nish Ta-Nah? The Stigma of the Seder

Posted: April 10, 2011 in Comedy, Culture, Uncategorized

For a child from an observant Jewish family, and particularly a child with a thirst for attention and a theatrical flair, Passover ranks among the “fun” holidays, right up there with Hanukkah and Purim. There is, of course, the marvel of helping Mom “kosher the house” (i.e. papering all the shelves and patting down aluminum foil in the fridge), and assisting Dad in the search for any stray signs of leavened (aka yeast-ridden) bread, before all the yummy Pesach food can be sent in from the local market (for that, read ‘matzoh.’ Lots o’matzoh, besides mandlen and coconut macaroons and Joyva Jell Rings and jellied fruit slices and everything in arm’s reach with a Manischewitz logo, besides assorted other niceties).

But, as any good Jew knows in their little Semitic heart, the best part about being a kid at Passover (or Pesach, as it’s also known), is the asking of the Four Questions. This is a cornerstone of the ceremonial Seder; the youngest person at the table is prompted to ask four questions, which begin with the seemingly-innocent, “Mah nish ta-nah haleilah hah-zay mikohl ha-layloht?” This is translated from Hebrew as “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Clearly a fair question, because it’s very different from all other nights. If you grew up in my house, for example, on all other nights you could eat whatever you wanted for dinner, even if it was a bowl of cereal. As long as we were all sitting together as a family and sharing our experiences of the day, my folks were delighted. You also didn’t have to wear your scratchy wool suit every night at dinner, but you had to for Pesach because “company’s coming.”

However, the bright spot in all of this, as always for a kid, was the Four Questions, which comes rather early in the ceremony. It begins with the aforementioned “Why is this night…?” and then asks why on all other nights we eat both regular bread and matzoh but tonight we only eat matzoh, then asks why on this night we eat bitter herbs, then why on this night we recline in our chairs after dinner, and all kinds of other things. Which, for the rest of the evening until dinner is finally served (always the hallmark of a Hebraic affair, after all), is answered by an endless litany. BUT…for those few minutes, asking those four questions, the stage is yours and yours alone. You revel in it. You bask in it. If you’re really clever, you not only recite the questions but then follow up by doing them all over again with a melody you learned in Hebrew class after school. And it’s not just for one night, but TWO. Oh, sure, after that you’re stuck listening to the absolutely banal portion that begins with “Slaves were we unto Pharaoh in Egypt,” until your great-aunt or whoever finally brings on the matzoh-ball soup and the gefilte fish and the party really gets started, but when you’ve got the attention of the entire table to yourself, it’s even more intoxicating than Kedem Extra Heavy Malaga, or whatever your family chooses to use for the customary four cups of wine and to fill the Prophet Elijah’s little Holy Grail.

Unfortunately, one day a few years later, you become an adolescent. Now you no longer see the allure of the Four Questions. Your hormones are raging, you’re very rebellious, you’ve got sex on the brain, and more than anything, you actually feel indignant at the knowledge that you’re the youngest person at the table and you’ll be stuck asking the four questions YET AGAIN, even though you know all the answers. But of course you also don’t want to disappoint God or your family, so there it is. “Mah nish ta-nah haleilah hah-zay mikohl ha-layloht?” You no longer sing it, either; you just sort of zip right through it to get it over with as quickly as possible, and by the time the head of the table starts saying “Slaves we were unto Pharaoh…” you’re praying for the Ten Plagues to actually fall upon the earth, or another glass of Kedem if not something stronger.

It is, therefore, extremely disconcerting, to find oneself in their early forties, as your humble writer just happens to be, and receive a phone call from a relative. “Drew! Darling! Will you be bringing your mother to the Seder this year? It would be so nice to see you both! And of course we want you to do the Four Questions, since you’ll be the youngest family member there! Everybody’s always loved how you do them all these years.”

Me? The Four Questions? Again? “Mah nish ta-nah haleilah hah-zay mikohl ha-layloht?” Oh, God, no. I am forty-freakin’-something years old and this is NOT fair. I don’t want to do this. I do NOT want to do this. But because I have such issues and I don’t want to disappoint God, I walk over to the local synagogue, the synagogue where I was barmitzvahed in the early 1980s, and request a few minutes with the rabbi, who has known me since childhood. Let me explain that I was raised in a Conservative Jewish household, but I haven’t been particularly observant for almost all of my adult life, except on High Holy Days and when there’s a funeral. I explain my position to him, that I’m very uncomfortable with being my age and still having to ask the Four Questions, and I ask him if there’s any possible solution.

He thinks about it, and solemnly responds, “Well, I suppose you’ll simply have to marry a nice Jewish girl and have a child very soon who can take over the Four Questions for you. Otherwise, I’d say you’re stuck.”

Mah nish ta-nah haleilah hah-zay mikohl ha-layloht?

  1. Stephan says:

    Maybe you can bring one of the muppets from Avenue Q to sit on your lap and they can ask the four questions. And after the seder, you can sing about your girlfriend in Canada.

  2. sonofthecucumberking says:

    Even with your kvetching, you make Passover sound like more fun than I remember having. Well done.

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