Belgrade: "Don’t be offended," said the rabbi’s wife on the telephone, "but…" It was the part after the "but" that had me worried.
It was a few hours before the first night of Passover last week, and I was to lead a young adults seder in the Jewish community building. A few dozen members of Serbia’s small Jewish community (late teens to late 20s) would be there. Many had attended a more-modest gathering as part of the community-wide seder last year, but they didn’t have an extensive background in Jewish tradition and might not have a long attention span. Hence, the rabbi’s wife’s advice: keep it short.
The seder would start at 8 p.m.; the meal, according to the community bulletin, at 8:50.
"The challenge is keeping the audience after the meal," Isak Asiel, the Serbian-born chief rabbi of the country, had warned me in an e-mail message. "If you can find a way to make them stay, kol hakavod [congratulations]."
I brought a list of questions about the seder to discuss (I realized that the give-and-take of U.S. seders would be unlikely), a gift for whomever found the afikomen (a book of Jewish questions), a bag of Pesach plagues (tchatchkes like a toy frog and sunglasses to illustrate what happened in ancient Egypt) and a Maxwell House Haggadah (tradition is tradition, even so far from home).
They used a photocopied Serbian Haggadah prepared by Rabbi Asiel.
It would be as much a learning experience for me, my first time leading such an introductory Passover meal, as for the high school and college students who would walk up the three flights of stairs to the meeting room set with white tablecloths across two long tables.
Since the fall of Communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe’s Iron Bloc countries in the early ’90s, the communal seder has become a highlight of the Jewish calendar in large cities and small villages.
"From 25 Jews in Prizern, Kosovo, to 500 Jews in Magadan, Siberia, a place so remote and frozen that it is accessible only by sporadic flights, what I see in common is that all who are spiritually hungry can come now and be Jewishly nourished," said Steve Schwager, JDC executive vice president. "This is a special dimenson of ëfrom slavery to freedom.’"
Belgrade has had one communal seder (as in many venues around the region, the holiday meal is held only one night) since Rabbi Asiel assumed his post here eight years ago.
The Serbian seders, in Belgrade and in several smaller communities, were sponsored this year by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas arm of American Jewry. Scores of similar seders in the various once-communist lands, and in German communities where thousands of Jewish emigres from the FSU have settled, were also held under the auspices of Yeshiva University’s YUSSR student organization, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement. Sometimes local rabbis and educators lead the seders; sometimes, Jews from abroad.
Often the communal seders attract Jews who don’t show up for other Jewish events during the year.
They come because it’s a popular social event, because few people learned enough under Communism, or in the subsequent decade-plus, to run their own seder.
This year, the young adults of Belgrade would have their own seder.
This year, Rabbi Asiel would conduct the main seder for some 100 people, an older crowd, in the first-floor conference hall.
This year, most of the participants went first to erev yom tov services in the Belgrade synagogue, a 10-minute walk away through the capital’s Mihailova Street pedestrian mall.
The kids (to me they are kids) showed up in Dockers and sweaters, skirts and blouses.
"Where are we tonight?" I asked as soon as they were settled.
"Belgrade." "The Jewish community." "The third floor."
"Wrong," I told them. "You are in the desert. If you want to appreciate the seder, you have to think of yourself as a former slave. Your parents and grandparents were slaves. You just crossed the Red Sea."
They nodded, humoring me.
Then some commentaries, weaned from a year’s research about the seder’s symbolism. Kiddush. Karpas. Four Questions.
They listened politely, but passively. People with experience in Eastern Europe prepared me not to expect much interaction ó some of the Jews are embarrassed about their lack of knowledge; those who do know were educated in schools where such student initiative is not encouraged.
We came to The Four Sons.
"What do The Four Sons symbolize?" I asked. No hands went up.
"It’s about individuality," I quickly explained.
I asked if there were any teachers in the room. A few women raised their hands.
"How many students do you have?" I asked one teacher, in a red sweater. "Ten."
"And do you treat them all alike or as individuals," I asked rhetorically.
"I treat them all the same," came the answer that night and the next night at a community seder in Zemun, a suburb an hour-and-a-quarter’s walk from Belgrade along the Danube; it’s a carryover from communism’s all-are-equal ethos.
"No!" I shouted both times in mock horror. "That’s the wrong answer." I explained how the Haggadah recognizes the uniqueness of each person (four is simply a symbolic number) and encourages the leader of the seder (a metaphor for educators everywhere) to teach according to a student’s inclinations.
We went on, paraphrasing parts of the seder. No one asked questions. But no one seemed restless. There was little background talking. My own shul should be so quiet.
Came time to spill ten drops of wine. I passed out the plastic insects and Styrofoam balls and explained that they exemplify the plagues, tools to capture the attention of children, whenever children come to the communal seder or the young adults hold their own seders at home.
A rubber elephantine nose, representing the stricken animals in Egypt, was particularly popular. Everyone wanted to tie it around his or her face.
Everyone was still there.
I had feared a re-enactment of the Exodus by the time the chicken soup was served.
I needn’t have feared.
There was no chicken soup: the holiday fare, prepared under the supervision of Rabbi Asiel, was tasty but limited. Some roast. Some salad. Some puffy dessert. None of the 10-course cuisine to which American Jews are accustomed.
And there was no exodus.
The kids ducked out in the hall for a smoke during the meal, but nearly everyone came back for the second half.
I explained a little more symbolism. We drank the third cup of wine. And the fourth. We sang a few Passover songs: many of the young adults had gone to the summer camp in the Hungarian countryside sponsored by the JDC and Lauder Foundation, and knew the melodies better than I did.
They started leaving.
Was it a success? I wondered. Did my descriptions of the beauty of a seder in one’s home, the toys I had brought to show how children should be involved, reach listening ears?
One woman, with prematurely gray hair, who came over to thank me, answered my question.
"Do you have any more of those insects?" she asked. "I have two young children at home…"