Pesach’s Not-So-Perfect Performers
My grandmother, with her inimitable Hungarian wit, used to say, “There are two groups of people you can’t get to perform on cue: husbands and children.”
She’d say this laughingly when I’d show up to her apartment with my baby, proud and eager to boast about her great-grandchild’s latest chochmos.
“Sheifele, show Bobby how you clap your hands,” I’d coo.
“Cutie pie, show Bobby how you nicely you walk,” I’d urge.
“Tattele, say ‘cookie,’ like you did a hundred times on the car ride over here,” I’d chirp from behind gritted teeth.
Thanks, kid, for making me look like a delusional stage mother, I’d mumble to myself.
My grandmother, far more seasoned at child-rearing than I, would only laugh at my vexation.
“Mammele, he’s not a dog who is trained to fetch a stick just because you want him to. He’s not a performer; he’s just a kid. Trust me, this won’t be the last time he doesn’t listen to you.”
(She was definitely right on that score).
Sadly, it’s been too many years since my Bobby graced our Pesach Seder, but this time of year, it is especially important for me to remember her easy laughter as she cautioned me not to see my family members as perky little puppets primed to perform. Because, let’s face it: for those of us who still spend Pesach with our parents, in-laws, or extended families, the Pesach Seder can feel a little bit like a performance venue. It’s the time of year when our families show up at the table in their brand-new Pesach finery, with their homemade Haggadahs and their endless divrei Torah to be shared with aplomb, and we want nothing more than for everyone to make a good impression. But like my grandmother so sagely warned me, we stage directors (er, moms and wives) don’t always get the scene-stealing performances we were hoping for.
Take the first year I was married.
Clad in his pristine white kittel and equipped with his brand-new matzah cover/pillow cover set, the Seder felt like the perfect showcase for me to display my masmid of a new husband to the rest of my family who were still getting to know him. I knew without a doubt that he would impress everyone – my father, my uncles, my brothers – by regaling them with his brilliant divrei Torah and effortlessly natural delivery.
Married for a little more than a month, I didn’t know yet how sensitive Yossi’s stomach was to sugary drinks – grape juice and wine included. So as Maggid commenced and Yossi gulped down his second kos, he immediately doubled over in agony.
This was not going according to my script!
He couldn’t leave his shver’s table during his very first Seder, so he paced back and forth across the cramped dining room, bent over at the waist, barely able to squeeze out a single coherent word.
So much for pearls of wisdom. So much for an applause-earning performance.
In the years that have followed, Yossi has developed more of a tolerance for drinking wine (living with me will do that to you), so now we can laugh at the memories of those early Sedarim. But I’d be lying if that first-year debacle forced me to finally learn my grandmother’s lesson.
I may not feel the need to showcase my husband anymore, but I certainly feel the need to showcase my children. These are my progeny – a reflection of my parenting skills and my values! I need them to put their best feet forward – and make me look good! Is that asking too much?
My kids seem to think so.
Take last year, when we spent the first days of Pesach at my in-laws’ house. Tzvi was nearly bar mitzvah, and he had a fantastic rebbi who had really sparked Tzvi’s enthusiasm for sharing divrei Torah. Every Shabbos afternoon at home, we were graced with a Tzvi-style oratory performance, and I couldn’t wait for him to bring that gusto to my father-in-law’s table. I was thrilled when Tzvi took a seat right at my father-in-law’s elbow, and I readied myself for a memorable Seder performance.
Except…Tzvi was still a kid.
So instead of making the adults at the table proud, he spent the entire Seder plotting with his younger cousins about where to hide his father’s afikoman. When they settled on inside his own shirt, where the matzah shattered into a million pieces, I knew there was no chance I’d be getting the performance I was hoping for. And, truth be told, even if Tzvi had shared those sterling divrei Torah I had dreamed about, my father-in-law probably wouldn’t have heard him. Because my daughter, whose teacher had given her enough divrei Torah to keep her going until it was time to recite the morning Shema, wasn’t allowing her brother – or anyone – to get a word in edgewise. Every time someone – including my father-in-law – tried to interject, Tehilla broke out in a song-and-dance number that ensured there was no way we were making zman afikoman.
Way to show off your capacity to be mevater, kiddo. And Tzvi, way to make Bubby and Zeidy proud of you.
Wait a second.
In my own wine-induced haze, I forced myself to stop and reflect: why was this bothering me so much? Did I just want Bubby and Zeidy to be proud of me?
That’s pretty embarrassing to admit – I’m supposed to be the adult around here!
My grandmother was right. Our kids aren’t show ponies. We can’t just parade them out and expect them to prance prettily for an audience right on cue. They are kids – mercurial, unpredictable, the perfect mix of hilarious and humbling – and somehow they know to do the exact thing we don’t want them to do at the exact time we don’t want them to do it.
So if your children are anything like mine – i.e. they’ll refuse to say the Mah Nishtanah when it’s their turn, even though they’ve been practicing for months, or they’ll splash each other with saltwater instead of soberly eating their marror in silence – don’t let it shter your Pesach Seder.
Scene-stealing performances or not, their grandparents will love them anyway (just don’t take it personally if they offer to pay for parenting classes as your afikomen present).
We can’t expect our children (or our husbands) to show off the best versions of themselves, just so we can feel good about the best versions of ourselves. Our children’s antics aren’t a reflection of us – they’re a reflection of the fact that they’re children.
Pesach is our Zman Cheruseinu. It is the perfect time to free ourselves from unrealistic expectations, from unreachable standards, from the delusion that we are the directors of our family members’ award-winning performances.
I don’t need to be the puppeteer, micromanaging every scene. That’s an exhausting job.
I’d much rather be an audience member, finding the joy (and the comedy) in whatever show my kids are staging.
(It’s just too bad that popcorn is kitniyos!)
Chag Kasher V’Sameach to you all!