Rabbi Daniel Brenner is chief of education, Moving Traditions. He brings us this piece of Pesach Torah, which emphasizes the idea from the holiday that we are, through the Passover story, sharing our family’s narrative with our children.
So much about Passover is likely to be different this year for most of us—and yet, this fundamental idea will be exactly the same. We are commanded to tell our children and to remind ourselves of who we are. What happens when we take away the trappings of cooking an elaborate meal, of getting out our fancy Passover dishes (maybe we should do that anyway!), and of all of the tasks of hosting—what happens when we focus on the intergenerational transfer of identity? Can the story itself get bigger when we’re just telling the story?
Growing up in a kosher home in Charlotte, North Carolina I thought of myself as a “gefilte fish out of water.” I remember so vividly the moment I first pulled a box of matza from my backpack onto the cafeteria table of my large public high school.
The questions from my friends flew fast and furious–Why are those crackers so big? Is that a Jewish thing? Are they like communion wafers? Can people who aren’t Jewish eat them?
Answering these questions inadvertently turned my lunch period into a mini-seder populated by me and the flock of Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, and Hindus around me.
I recently shared memories of this mini-seder with my own children. And since they go to schools with many other peers who schlep matza in their backpacks, they were amused by the questions that my friends posed. I realize that to them, this is one of the many stories I tell about being a minority –living as a Jew in the South. As I attempted to reenact my friends’ curious inquiries, I caught myself in one of those meta-parent moments “Am I passing down this story so my children will tell this story to their children?”
Pesach is the official time of the Jewish year when one generation passes down personal stories to the next. In the original narrative of the festival, we are taught that parents should turn to their children and speak in elaborate detail about the harrowing escape from the slavery and chaos in Egypt not as something that happened long ago, but in deliberate first-person terms. In Hebrew the phrase that we are instructed to use is “b’tzaytee mimitzrayim” – when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8).
When some rabbis argued that converts to Judaism should not say “When I left Egypt,” the 12th century sage Maimonides argued that the moment one converts “there is no distinction between you and us in any respect” so it is appropriate for converts to say “When I left Egypt.” For hundreds of generations, Jewish grandparents and parents have passed down these personal stories of escape from Pharaoh and his armies to their children.
This time of global pandemic will bring a particular challenging Passover – one where many families will be physically apart from one another, only able to celebrate together via phone, Zoom, Skype, and Gchat. But it should not prevent us from passing down stories.
Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, two professors at Emory University, have spent the last two decades studying storytelling and the power it holds within family systems.
“Through family stories,” Duke observes, “children develop a sense of what we call the multi-generational self, and the personal strength and moral guidance that comes with that. When something challenging happens, they can call on that expanded sense of self to pull through.”
Duke and Fivush have focused research on seven types of family stories that are passed down: stories of surviving discrimination or disaster, tragedies, journeys away from comfort, recovery from illness or injury, financial success and failure, comedy, and rebirth. Each of these seven types of stories plays a unique role in our lives.
Fivush points out that it is not the “specific facts” that are important to impart upon the next generation but rather “it is the process of families sharing stories about their lives that are important.”
Duke is emphatic that “research shows that children who know a lot about their family tend to be more resilient: higher levels of self-esteem, more self-control, better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes when faced with challenges.”
This Passover, as difficult it may be, is the perfect time for us, both individually and collectively, to focus on the role of family stories, particularly the stories of resilience. Fivush shares that even a simple question to a child, like “Do you know what illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?” can spark stories of resilience that may have never been shared.
My colleagues and I at Moving Traditions have been developing new tools for guiding conversations and story-sharing between parents and preteens. In Moving Traditions B’nai Mitzvah Program, our innovative family education program for 6th and 7th graders and their parents, family members learn how to communicate better as they prepare to become and raise teens. One preteen who recently participated in a family education session shared that the best part of this experience was “learning about my parents’ childhoods.” This year, my colleague Rabbi Tamara Cohen has designed a multi-generational seder activity based on family stories that can be used in a virtual seder. (It can be found here.)
In the Passover seder, we vacillate between telling the story of “I” and the story of “We.” We say “Hotzatee” I was brought out, but we also say “Avadeem Hayinu” – we were slaves. One other element of the “multi-generational self” concept is that when the self feels at home in a diverse family, a family that has life-experience and wisdom based on a narrative of ups and downs, a story of “we” emerges.
This idea, that a diverse mix of stories form the “We” can have tremendous power for not only families but for communal organizations that serve to support, care for, nurture, protect, and inspire the Jewish people. Those of us who work or volunteer in Jewish life have our own “seven stories” that cover the challenges that this work brings, the successes and failures, the stories of struggle, the comic moments and sad ones, the stories of change and rebirth. May Passover be a time when we take a cue from the Haggadah and “elaborate on the stories in our retelling.”