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Voices Fall-Winter 2008:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Ritual and Storytelling: A Passover Tale” by Barbara Myerhoff here.
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Voices FW2008


Volume 34

Ritual and Storytelling-A Passover Tale by Barbara Myerhoff with Introduction by Steve Zeitlin

I was privileged to meet anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff on two occasions prior to her untimely death at the age of fifty in 1985. The first was when my wife, Amanda, and I invited both Myerhoff and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett to a consultants’ meeting at our Washington, D.C., apartment for a project called the Grand Generation. I can vividly recall Myerhoff’s remarkable beauty and her humor—and I fondly recollect these two brilliant women bragging to one another about the bargains they had gotten on various items of clothing they were wearing at the time.

I met Barbara Myerhoff again at a second meeting after I had moved to New York. She was already an iconic figure, having completed Number Our Days and a film by the same title, which won an Academy Award in 1976. I remember asking her if success had changed her. She said, you know, it’s at the point now where I walk into the restroom at the university, and students follow me in and keep talking right through the stall. Today, as her students, we’re still doing that: continuing the conversation across death. I also remember her telling me that people in academe put so much emphasis on writing and not enough on talking—and talking is so important.

Myerhoff’s astonishing talk, “Ritual and Storytelling: A Passover Tale,” published here in an abbreviated version, captures the rhythm of her words and her vivid and distinctive train of thought, bringing the reader into the classroom of one of the discipline’s finest lecturers. As an anthropologist with a poet’s gift for language, she utilizes the tools of ethnography—a remarkable ethnographic eye—to explore the familiar: a Passover seder. In adapting the piece for magazine publication, I had to cut Myerhoff’s essay in half; I urge all of you who enjoy this abridged version to buy the book from which it is excerpted, Stories as Equipment for Living: Last Talks and Tales of Barbara Myerhoff, where you may read it in its entirety.

Some months after Myerhoff’s death in January 1985, we held an event in her honor. It was City Lore’s first public event, and Myerhoff’s ideas of “re-membering” and her vision of the way culture is transmitted set forth in this essay informs our work, always.

I would like to talk to you about a ritual that is built around storytelling. It is what we would call a meta-story—that is, a story about telling the story, about passing on to the progeny the experience of the ancestors, and it’s a familiar one to many of you. I like working with familiar materials because there are almost always elements whose specialness and profundity we have overlooked, and I think that looking at familiar materials retrieves them and gives them to us with a freshness that makes them more intense and more effective. The ritual I’m going to talk about is Passover....

The work I’m going to describe comes out of a longer study of yiddishkeit called the “Transmission of an Endangered Tradition.” A number of us at the University of Southern California studied the transmission of yiddishkeit through various means—ritual, story, performance, and folk art. We videotaped many events and then proceeded, over the course of two years, to look at them and look at them and look at them. This, then, is what I’m going to tell you: the story of a Passover seder that we videotaped. It’s a four-hour–long tape that we looked at again and again to try to figure out what was going on there. What makes this so important is that this is, indeed, the study of the transmission of culture....We look at their world as a set of meanings, a web of understandings, that they somehow have to animate. And this, then, becomes our task: to see them seeing themselves.

Now as we looked at this ritual—this storytelling ritual, this performance of a story—trying to figure out what was going on and how to tell other people what was going on, what quickly became apparent to us was that we were struggling to tell two stories at the same time. One is the chronological story of the ritual which has a certain set of procedures, of fixed events that have to occur in a given order, and the other is the story of the family that is performing the ritual. And every family performs it differently, and every year it is performed differently, although one of the great myths about ritual is that it is always the same. This is the essence of ritual. It is the story that says: This is always the same.

But of course it isn’t. Common sense— which ritual banishes, and which it is supposed to banish in order to induce belief— tells us that, if we look at it immediately, every ritual has to be different. There are different performers, it’s a different world, a different year. And yet we accept the claim to perpetuity that ritual makes. Because it is rhythmic, because it is repetitive, because it uses a special vocabulary, all ritual takes ordinary things and makes them extraordinary. The means it uses are everywhere the same. Whether it’s an African initiation ceremony in Botswana or a Jewish storytelling session in Los Angeles, ritual sets the ordinary apart by its use of language, gesture, costume, posture—sensuous things. And those sensuous things are very persuasive and invite us to suspend disbelief, exactly as we do in a theater....

Now let me briefly say what Passover is. This is a formal holiday celebrated each spring by Jews since the time of the dispersion from Palestine, after the destruction of the Temple. They are admonished to assemble to retell the story of their deliverance from Egypt and from slavery. This is the heart of the story: the release from affliction, the release from oppression. This leads to a reaffirmation of the wandering through the desert where, at the end of forty-nine days, they receive the Covenant on Mount Sinai, and the Torah is given, and the Jews come into being as a constituted entity. The Bible requires that this account of exodus and freedom be repeated. The parents tell it to the children every year when the children are told to ask, “Why do we assemble?” They are asking: What’s special about Passover, in addition to that historical or mythical event, so that this is the only formal holiday of this seriousness that takes place in the home, instead of the synagogue? Friends are there, family members are there, personal ties give the whole thing its context. It takes place among one’s primary group, so that sacred beliefs are again put in touch with the ordinary people of one’s life, and those ordinary people take on an extra dimension. They become the characters in the great drama itself. And this revitalizes family relations. It doesn’t always make them harmonious or even affectionate, but it certainly intensifies them....

Let me tell you about the text. It is called the Haggadah, which means, literally, “the telling.” There are many versions of this book. Now people write their own to suit their present circumstances. Different families have their own version, and they don’t like the others. Within families, there are often arguments about which version to use. If the critical one got lost, this is a big problem. But no matter what the version, there is always some written text called the Haggadah, which will always be followed. And that is what you call, in anthropology, part of the Great Tradition. This is the allegedly permanent, official, written record of how the story is to be told, with stage directions: Now you drink a glass of wine. Now you hide a piece of matzoh.

Then there is the oral tradition that goes alongside this. “Well, this is the part we leave out.” “That’s where Aunt Sadie put in this other part.” “Aren’t you going to do this one?” “No, we don’t have time for that. Let’s do this one instead.” Often the agreements that come out of these differences get penciled in. And so a family’s history can be read in and through its Haggadah. We have a group of people who are doing this together year in and year out. The participants are always changing somewhat. Someone has died, someone has been born, someone is out of town, someone brings a guest. But there is some stable group of people who are always present year after year, and they, in effect, become the elders who guard the tradition.

So their family story over the years, their oral stories, their particular histories go along with this Great Tradition. The Little Tradition of local people on the ground, alive in time, goes along with the Great Story, and they intermingle, contradict one another, and jog along more or less side by side, hopefully ending at the same time. So these two stories, then, are simultaneously told: the Great Story, which is in the Haggadah and which is written down, the written tradition and history of how the people came out of Egypt and received the Covenant, and the individual family story. And these become inseparable, because you cannot understand the one without the other. You are reading both stories at the same time. The seder is contrapuntal.

The other thing that makes this a special event, a particular kind of ritual, is that the children must be present. The whole point of it is for one of the children—allegedly, the youngest son—to ask the leader, “Wherefore is this night different from all other nights?” This is the first of the Four Questions, which the child asks at the beginning of the seder. This is a marvelous piece because it permits the child to say, “Why are we doing this? What’s this ritual for? Why do we lean tonight? Why do we eat bitters? Why do we eat of unleavened bread?” All these questions are saying: What’s all the specialness for? And this is a set-up. You can almost hear the voice of the Great Tradition say: Ah, I thought you’d never ask. It’s what makes the whole thing happen....

Children are obviously very symbolic. They represent many things: the future, innocence; above all, they are symbols of perpetuity. So the children have to be present throughout the seder. Ideally, they should be awake, but because the seder goes on a long time, it’s not guaranteed. So various devices are put in to make sure the children are awake throughout. There are songs, there are riddles, and there are all sorts of opportunities and invitations for misbehavior. It is understood that the children will get drunk because everyone present has to drink four cups of wine. The children usually tipple throughout the evening. They spill and they drink, and they spill and they drink. There is an opportunity, which I will describe later, when they are actually encouraged and allowed to spill. This is quite a thrill. And then there is an actual ransom of a piece of matzoh.

Now matzoh, which is unleavened bread, is the symbolic food that is eaten during the eight days of Passover. There is a very important piece of matzoh called the afikoman, which is understood as dessert, and it is broken. The ceremony cannot be completed until its two halves are reassembled. So it has become the custom for the leader to break this piece of matzoh and put it in a conspicuous place where a child will see it and steal it and hide it. And the child holds it for a ransom. After dinner, when there is more ceremony to do—by then it is usually very late, and everyone is very tired and impatient—the seder cannot be completed, and the Messiah will never come, unless the afikoman is recovered. But the child does not give it back until the leader pays for it, and the payment varies with the times and the economic community. It can be a bicycle, and it can be a quarter—it all depends on what you can get away with....

All this brings us to a particular Passover, the four-hour one we taped. It was a fourgenerational ceremony. It took place in the home of an old couple—East European, Yiddishists, not Orthodox people. Arnold was then ninety-two, Bella was eighty-nine. He was something of a poet and a writer, a philosopher. She in old age had become an artist, and a rather serious one. Their daughter, who is my closest friend and my age, was then in her middle forties. Deena is a feminist, a poet herself, divorced. Her two sons, Marc and Greg, were twenty and nineteen at the time. A non-Jewish girlfriend of one of the boys was present. They were both religiously ignorant, with the same nostalgia, yearning back to the tradition but feeling they did not really possess it—really lost as to their own way, but full of desire for something Jewish that was their own. I was present with my husband and my two sons, who were then six and nine. There were a bunch of older people who dropped in during the course of the evening, Yiddishists, all of them, who had carried on a long conversation, day in and day out, with the old couple....

So there we were, all assembled. Now for many a year—I have been going to these seders for many a year—Arnold has been flirting with some essence: he has begun the seder by saying, “This will be my last seder.” And that is difficult to receive on many levels. It has to be treated with respect and also with a measure of skepticism. He announced it this year as he had in the past....

Arnold was very aware that his grandsons didn’t know anything Jewishly, and he wanted this tradition passed on. So after saying the opening prayers, he introduced his older grandson and said, “My grandson Marc will lead the seder.” Greg had been given a chance to lead the seder a couple of years before. So Marc was expecting this, and he said under his breath as he came into the house, “If he tells me to lead it and breaks in and interrupts it and takes it over, I want you to know I’m leaving.” He said this to his mother as we all went in. So we were all very tense. This combination of intentions does not make for a relaxed evening, but seders are never relaxed.

It was a sacrifice for the old man to give up leading the seder because it was something he loved to do, but he was doing this to assure that his grandsons would be prepared to carry it on. What happened during the course of the evening was that the boy slowly changed into a man. You could see it happening before your eyes—this is the wonder of working with videotape—and it became a rite of passage for him. It was the bar mitzvah that, in a sense, he had never had. He began the seder as an ignorant, unsure boy, and by the end of the evening he was commanding the situation with a good deal of authority.

It so happened that by the end of the evening, he was rather drunk as well. So the videotape has this wonderful mixture of authority and slippage. When his grandfather put him in charge of the seder, he began to take a lot of wine because he was very nervous, and his grandfather turned to him and said, “You can’t do that, you’re supposed to have four cups.” The grandson said, “Look, these are my sacred cups, and then over here I have my other cup. I’m drinking from that one, and I do the required four cups at the right time.” And the grandfather said, “That’s an interesting idea. Do you think I could do that too?” And so an innovation was made that you knew was going to get passed down, and that generations from now in this family they would tell the story of how this came about....

I said before that anthropologists and others have not studied the transmission of culture systematically. We have a rather mechanical view—we get it from the secular world—that education is something like a bag of potatoes in a relay race. One generation hauls it forward, and the children pick it up and continue with it, as if it were a mechanical thing that you thrust onto the youth, and they take it and continue it. But this is simplistic and erroneous.

What happens when we view the transmission of tradition in the context of this Passover seder? Mind you, we are dealing here with family and with sacred materials. Again, I say “sacred” meaning a form of authority that does not come from God; I mean what carries authority because it goes to the heart of what makes you a human being, it’s what you carry with you all your life. And that isn’t something you take dutifully and receive, and then you say “hank you” and go on. Anyone who is a parent knows this. That is not the way you teach your child to be a mentsh or the way you teach your children to do what you do or teach them what you believe in. Not at all, on the contrary. Common sense tells us that socialization—which is the teaching of sacred things—is ambivalent, it is a struggle. And the problem is how to get the children to receive what you have to teach in some form that you consider valid and recognizable, and to take that version and make it their own. That is the struggle of the parent or the one who is passing it on.

The struggle from the children’s point of view is how to take that stuff and make it have something to do with their lives, how to adapt it, how to make it useful, how to make it speak to the world around them. If either of these tasks fails, the whole thing fails. If the children take the traditions and change them, bowdlerize them, alter them too profoundly, so that the older people say, “I don’t understand what’s going on. I don’t recognize this, it has nothing to do with us,” then from the parents’ point of view this has been a failure, they don’t care any more. If, on the other hand, the children have had something imposed on them that doesn’t speak to them, that is not vital to their lives, then it’s a mechanical act of obedience, and it’s useless.

So that means there is a built-in tension, a built-in antagonism between the generations about the sacred word that has to be passed on. So there has to be some negotiation. Both parties have to give something up, and both parties have to agree in the end that they recognize what it is that has been given and received. This is a very different model from the mechanical one that goes “here it is” and “thanks.” This, again, is a dialectic. And that is why Passover is such a useful thing to study as an example of socialization. The children come in and say, “What is going on here?” And working that out, then, becomes what the evening is for.

The first fight that took place was a fight about language. This issue is probably a very common one, the issue of what language to have the ceremony in, anyway. “Is this in Hebrew or in English?” The older people, of course, want to do it in Hebrew, which is the sacred language, the language of their sacred youth, and the children don’t understand Hebrew, so there is a struggle. On the videotape, we hear the grandson who is leading the seder saying, “I have to do this in a language I understand.” And Greg, the younger brother, who turns out to be more of a traditionalist, saying, “But I don’t like the sound of it in English, it doesn’t sound like what even I remember when I was a kid. Even if I don’t understand it, I still want to recognize the sounds.” And the old man saying, “What kind of seder do you call this if it’s not in Hebrew, if the prayers aren’t in Hebrew?” So there’s a tussle about language.

Meantime, the older man and the older woman, whenever they come to a stumbling point and they want to have a little argument aside, talk in Yiddish. This brings in all their cronies from their own generation, and all the children are then left completely in the dark. They are very annoyed; they say, “Come on, come on, let’s have this in English, we want to know what you’re talking about.” So there are three-way struggles there....

Then came the issue of the ten plagues. This is the recitation of all the afflictions that the Lord visited upon the Egyptians. Deena said, “Now we get to my favorite part of the seder, and I see that my father has just crossed it out. He wants to leave it out for all the right reasons because we don’t want to talk about the suffering of our enemies here. But I must say that I always liked this part because it keeps us from being sanctimonious, it reminds us that we are all in symbolic Egypt, we are all suffering, and I really feel this should be put in.”

A big argument develops around this question: What does it mean to talk about these plagues, anyway? And they are terrible plagues: they are vermin and boils and locusts and cattle disease and blood and slaying of the firstborn—really horrible things. So a big discussion ensues: What are we doing when we talk about all this? Her son Marc says, “Look, there is nothing wrong with including this. All we are doing is saying that these things happened to our enemies, and because they happened, we do not fully rejoice.” Now what happens when you say the names of the plagues is, traditionally, you put your finger in your cup of wine and take out a drop, and you drop it on your plate for each one of the plagues, as you recite them: “Boils...murrain...locusts...frogs...” So Marc says, “We’re not celebrating these afflictions; we are simply making our own rejoicing less, we are making our cup less full because our enemies suffered.” He is moved by the nobility of this. And Greg says, “I don’t think that’s what we’re doing here at all. We are rejoicing. We are saying: ‘Look what we did! Look what happened to our enemies!’”

This went into a discussion of who are the Egyptians. Who is the “us” and who is the “them”? This is the point in the seder where we acknowledge that our enemies are part of humanity—they are like ourselves—and that is why we are diminishing our cup: what happened to them happened to us. This, then, is the “humanism versus particularism” issue.

As soon as it is raised, someone inevitably chimes in and says, “Yes, and we also diminish our cups for the Vietnamese.” Someone else says, “South Vietnamese or North Vietnamese? Or all the Vietnamese?” “What about South Africa?” “What about people of color here in America?” “And women!” All those present bring in their favorite groups of the oppressed. “Students!...Children!” My children always say that to be a child is to be oppressed. And what happens is that this list of the oppressed enlarges and enlarges until it finally verges on being absurd, then everyone pulls it back in. But before they do, there has been a big, very big, discussion of boundaries, and the boundaries have been moved by force of these questions: Who is “them” and who is “us”? Are we Jews? Are we human beings? Who are our co-sufferers?...

While the boundaries between Jews and Egyptians are shifting and thickening and dissolving in discussion, the camera is wandering back and forth across the table and comes to rest on my six-year-old son Matthew. He’s doing the plagues. And seeing him do the plagues on videotape, I understand exactly why the plagues will never be eliminated. There he is, sticking his finger in the cup and flinging the wine, so that it hits the tablecloth—the white linen tablecloth, on which the others have been accidentally spilling their wine. But he is allowed to do it—he is even encouraged to do it. He is reciting these plagues in Hebrew and putting these drops of wine on his plate, and some of it gets flung elsewhere. You see why there will always be resistance to making certain changes in ritual, you absolutely see that this is a moment of great excitement and satisfaction for a child. There is this overlay of “yes...yes...friends...enemies....” But what he is really going to remember, besides getting a present and getting drunk, is spilling the wine on the tablecloth and not being scolded for it.

When I moaned and groaned about how badly behaved my children were at this, as at all other seders, a wise friend of mine said: Don’t you understand when you read the text that this is what it’s about, that it has always been this way? From the times of the Temple, as long as there has been a Passover ceremony, it is to keep the children awake, it is to keep them involved. It’s because they’re not behaving themselves and the adults aren’t rebuking them that they really know this night is special, different from all other nights, and they’re given additional energy by this permission. It’s because they do grow sleepy after all the wine and talk that you have to bring them back, to complete the ceremony. So for the ceremony to succeed, the children must be allowed to mess up. This misbehavior—this space for the children’s spontaneity and innovation—is at the heart of the Passover story, which is the story of a family getting its children to pay attention, and this is always difficult. I found this very wise and very consoling. . . .

The evening is by then over. There is a good deal of chaos, and then some silence when everyone realizes it has come to an end, very inconclusively. Enough has been successful so that the grandparents have recognized what has happened, even if they say it isn’t theirs. They have compromised. The children have compromised, and they recognize that this seder has something to do with their lives. The exchange has taken place. We have seen these people for four hours passionately arguing about what is going on there. Every single one of the major people, during the course of the evening, has said, “This is a terrible seder. This is not my kind of seder. I would never do it again. Next year I have other plans.” You know that they’ll all be back. You know that much of this will occur again.

Ritual has the power to generate its own need to be redone. It’s never the mythology that was wrong, it’s not the Haggadah. The family didn’t do it right. So next year you get to do it right. When a medicine man loses a patient—and this is as true of our medicine men as of Indian medicine men—it is never the mythology or the germ theory of disease that is at fault. The question of whether the gods do indeed hear our calls never arises. There is always some reason that explains why it was the practice that was wrong and not the theory or the mythology. So here, too, they don’t look at the Haggadah and say, “There’s something wrong with this text.” They say, “Next year we’ll do it better, we’ll do it different, we’ll do it right.”

And so they conclude. Spoken into the tense silence that then occurred, probably the only little silence that occurred during the evening, are the words that Marc says, somewhat lamely and very touchingly: “Next year in Jerusalem.” This is as close to an agreement and a success as any ritual needs to come. Its very imperfections require that it be done again—differently, better—the following year, and somehow “next year in Jerusalem” will never come, need never come, should never come. And so it is that human beings struggle to reinvent the reason for coming together and performing the great stories that tell them who they are, why they are located in history and in the moment as they are, and what their individual lives with their struggles and their confusions have to do with the great stories of their people.


Barbara Myerhoff’s talk was given at the Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter College on June 6, 1983. It was part of a series of public lectures on late-life creativity, organized by Marc Kaminsky at the Brookdale Center’s Institute on Humanities, Arts, and Aging and funded by the New York Council for the Humanities. The talk has now found a permanent home in Stories as Equipment for Living: Last Talks and Tales of Barbara Myerhoff (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), edited by Marc Kaminsky and Mark Weiss in collaboration with Deena Metzger.

Whether it’s an African initiation ceremony in Botswana or a Jewish storytelling session in Los Angeles, ritual sets the ordinary apart by its use of language, gesture, costume, posture—sensuous things. And those sensuous things are very persuasive and invite us to suspend disbelief, exactly as we do in a theater...

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Fall-Winter 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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