So a vegan walks into a Seder . . .
It sounds like the start of a not very funny joke with the punch line “the duck quacked up!” Unfortunately, this is not too far from the facts.
On the first night of Passover, I attended a community Seder with my parents at their local Chabad House. The rabbi, his wife and their children live there; the synagogue is in an unused bedroom and the Seder was conducted at long tables pushed together in the living room.
The Seder was advertised to begin at 7:15 pm. As we are well aware that dinner is not served until an hour or so into the service, we ate at home beforehand. It’s a good thing we did.
7:15 came and went with everyone milling around and chatting. About a quarter to eight, the rabbi called everyone into the synagogue for a pre-Seder evening service. He personally herded in all the men in attendance to be sure of a minyan (religious quorum) being present. Only a few of the women entered the synagogue room to sit on the opposite side of the divider (men and women are required to sit separately). Most of the women remained in the living room, socializing.
The Seder actually got underway a little after 8:30. After the opening prayer, we sipped wine and ate a tiny piece of potato dipped in salt water, representing the contrast between the tears shed during our 400 years of slavery in Egypt and our freedom today. From thence, approximately two more hours elapsed until dinner was served. This was largely because the service was drawn out unnecessarily by interruptions for the playing of guessing games and other such palaver designed to make the proceedings more “meaningful.” The prayer book (called a Hagaddah) used for the service, which tells the story of our exodus from Egypt, was in a similar hippy-dippy vein. Traditional translations were mangled into unrecognizable mush. For example, “the wicked son” (part of the parable of the four sons) was translated as “he who is totally chilled out.” And “pillars of fire” was translated as “mushroom clouds.” I half expected to find “Dude!” or “Far Out!” in place of “Amen.”
The rabbi presided over the service from the head of the table, while I ended up seated at the far end of the long living room, nearly at the door. The hubbub of dozens of conversations buzzed all around me, as if no one were paying any attention at all to the service. How rude! The combination of the cacophony and my distance from the rabbi meant that I was barely able to hear anything that was going on at the head table.
Meanwhile, people were getting hungry and therefore dug into the Seder plate and the appetizers that had been set out in advance, taking no notice of whether or not it was the correct point in the service to do so.
Dinner began coming out to the tables shortly after 10:30 pm. The first plate served consisted of a slab of salmon, some egg salad, a lettuce leaf and a slice of tomato. Being a vegan, I passed my plate on down the table.
Next came the gefilte fish. Pass it on down.
Then came the chicken soup. Pass it on down.
By this time, some of the guests sitting near me were concerned that I wasn’t eating anything. “Are you a vegan?” one of them asked. Answering in the affirmative, my predicament was passed on to the rabbi’s wife and her assistants in the kitchen. Thus, when the entrée came around (roast beef and turkey), I was handed a plate with some glazed carrots, a piece of yam and a pile of beets that looked like chopped-up escapees from a recent batch of borscht.
Fortunately, there were little dishes of guacamole and ratatouille on the table, and I ate a lot of this slathered on matzo.
I should report that the next night turned out much better. We held the second Seder at my parents’ house, with just the three of us in attendance. My mother announced that she was too tired “to make a production” and that dinner would consist of a boiled egg and gefilte fish out of a jar.
At least I knew what to expect. We started the service at a more reasonable hour and reached the dinner service about an hour later. I had prepared my own baked eggplant, tomato and mushroom dish (with plenty of onion and garlic) and took it out of the oven piping hot just before it was time to eat.