education, social capital
Comments 4

civic culture begins at dinnertime.

I want to tell you today about my favorite holiday. It’s Passover, and while I’m no longer a practicing Jew (in fact I consider myself a Humanist) I’ve found that having a Seder is still extremely important to me. As an adult living away from my family, and just beginning to build my own, I’ve found that the Seder is a ritual that invites me to think, and rethink, my commitments to friends, to tradition, to food and to meaning.  Every year, it means something different.

This year, it’s meant thinking about what it takes to produce meaningful conversations about identity and history.  In part, that’s because I’m working on some non-Passover projects about this myself: I’m finally launching Terroir Studio, a kind of roving collaborative initiative for exploring how we can use food and meals to help us create a sense of community and learn about the places we call home.

Another reason why Passover has resonated so much with me this year is that  Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander have released their New American Haggadah, prompting a broader conversation about the role of a text, and the discussion and telling of stories, in family and community traditions.  Foer perfectly summarized my own feeling about the Seder in an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin: “While it is possible for a family to gather for an extended meal and a discussion about individual and community identity, most people won’t do it without the impetus of a religion.”  The Seder dinner is an invitation to discussion, to argument, to critique and close reading, a call to reflection for Jewish families and their friends — Jewish or not — around the world. Nathan Englander in interviews has explained the importance of this project for his own personal spiritual journey — he’s an atheist, though raised an Orthodox Jew — recalling the Jewish tradition of debating the words in a text and translation and its relationship to his own love of language.  I think it’s incredible that this holiday is designed specifically to create an environment in which all members of a community (including the very youngest, who has a special role as question-asker in the Seder ritual) must hash out the stories that they tell about themselves and what they mean for their future.

In fact, Passover is a living ritual: it is meant to be recreated every year in a way that will make it relevant to the present day.  Every family celebrates in a way that is meaningful to them, though they maintain a fellowship with the many other Jews in many other circumstances who celebrate on the same evening, and who have celebrated in the past.  This is no surprise, for a holiday that tells the story that has inspired so many social movements throughout history.  Liberal and secular Seders often go even further, incorporating the traditions of other social movements into the celebration of Passover itself, including slave songs such as “Let My People Go,” putting olives on the Seder plate to symbolize hope for Middle East peace, reading the words of Martin Luther King. Even a traditional Hagaddah, like Englander and Safran-Foer’s, allows for the tradition of contemporary interpretation alongside the text, providing opportunities for discussion, questioning, and illumination based on themes, even as the ritual is preserved as originally designed.  This kind of evolving experience, based on a text, a collective sense of history, and a set of values, is the power of the Seder.

This year I attended a Humanist Seder with the Chaplain of my community here at Harvard, which really hit home how the Seder can create an amazing framework for conversation.  In this Seder, the Passover story was barely even part of the conversation; we treated it as a piece of literature, a prompt towards a structured discussion about slavery, freedom, and shared identity.  Two of our guests were not Jewish and had never celebrated Passover, so the story of Moses was conveyed through storytelling rather than ritual text.  But our dinner table conversation included the challenges of race in America, the role of religion in our own lives, the practice of Easter and its liturgical and experiential practice in the Catholic church, as one of our attendees had lived in Rome for many years.  I can’t think of another time that I had such meaningful discussions with peers, not to mention strangers!

To me it seems no surprise that this conversation takes place over a meal, in the home, as opposed to in public.  And I think this is an important takeaway from the Seder.  We have this idea, many of us, that the civic sphere, where we discuss important topical issues with those of a like and a different mind, is something that is public, that these kinds of conversations are what take place at public meetings, rallies, neighborhood parties.  I think I think that, or at least, my writing on this site probably suggests that I do.  But much of the civic capacity in a country is actually (or at least, historically has been) built around the conversations we have at the dinner table, with family and friends.  When done well, these kinds of conversations help us to define and debate our values, tell stories about our past and our identities, to learn how to speak our minds and listen to others, to welcome guests of different backgrounds and different stories.  What would it take for us to have Seders more than once a year, whether we’re Jewish or not?

Stay tuned as Terroir Studio tries to answer that question!




  1. As Passover ends (for me, at least) without a Last Night Seder, it’s great to read your thoughts on its power and to learn of the Terroir Studio project. That resonates with a series of CityLab7’s Fertile Grounds Pop-Ups, as well as mobile interventions where I imagine we could collaborate.

    • Diana Limbach Lempel says

      Stephen — Fertile Grounds sounds incredible. I would love to find more ways to incorporate sustainability conversations into the Terroir Studio work.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of the dinner table in building civic society. Breaking bread together is an amazingly powerful tool and I would like to be someone who fosters this sort of interaction in whatever communities I am part of ongoing. People love to eat, and all it seems to take is someone who is willing to bring together a group of people to share with one another. Rock on, Diana.

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