Table Talk

There is a lot of pressure at Passover time. If you are hosting a Seder there is the pressure to buy the necessary products, organize the house and make sure everything is just right for your guests. If you are a guest there is the pressure to find a place to go and fit in at someone else’s table with different traditions.

Now Arielle Levites adds another layer of pressure to the Seder by arguing that this once a year home ritual can have a significant effect on Jewish identity in teens. She and her colleague Liat Sayfan found that teens who regularly attend a Seder have a stronger connection to their Jewish identity “as well as to their sense of connection and responsibility to others.”

It seems counterintuitive to think that a dinner that only happens once a year can have such a consistent, though small, effect. Generally we think of larger programs as significant to a child’s Jewish development: religious or day school education, attendance at summer camp. But maybe it is the little moments that have the biggest impact.

Many of the reasons Levites presents for the success of the Seder on Jewish teen identity echo the arguments of Marshal Sklare and Joseph Greenblum for why the Seder is so popular in America. Quite simply, this is a ritual that fits our modern American sensibility and lifestyle. Teens want to take ownership of their Judaism and feel proud of their heritage while also engaging with the world around them.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Seder for the teen, Levites argues, is the intergenerational nature of the ritual. This is one of the few times during the year when kids, parents and grandparents sit around the table and engage in serious conversation, but it is a very particular kind of discussion. The Seder is not about adults interrogating children about their lives and asking “What did you learn today?” It’s also not about adults talking among themselves while the children are expected to be silent.

Instead the Seder is a moment for kids to ask questions and adults are expected to respond. It is a night for children to place themselves into the intergeneration story of the Jewish people. They make themselves a part of a ritual that has been going on for millennia, and which they will be expected to lead in the future.

So there is one more element of pressure to add to the Seder. This meal has important implications for the future Jewish identity of the children sitting around the table. Just as the matzah ball soup is prepared with care and love, so too should the conversation. As Levites notes “American Jewish teens, perhaps like all teens, want opportunities to talk with their families about what matters most in life.”

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