There were eleven of us on the second night seder I was at.
Amongst the eleven of us, we were born in Canada, Sweden, Russia, Israel and England. Between us, we'd also lived in the US, the Czech Republic, Germany, France. One of us is shortly to emigrate to Vietnam.
I'll get the yiches bit over first. I was sitting next to someone who was in all three series of Little Britain. She told some wonderful stories about being caught up in the cult of Little Britain fandom. It seems to produce the same brand of fanatical know-it-by-heart devotees as Star Trek and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Like the times she's been minding her own business getting through an airport check in, when one of the airline staff recognises her. They then start reciting the scenes they know by heart. This then catches on as others around chime in. Finally, there's the obligatory posed photo of her at the centre of this spontaneously assembled fan club. Most of whom can spout whole scenes of the series by heart.
Besides the Haggoda, we'd read and talked about poems and other writings on the theme of oppression and exile, like Primo Levi's Shema. We talked about Jewish traditions of pursuing justice and struggling against oppression in other struggles than Jewish ones.
Our host and hostess have four grown up children. Only the youngest was at the seder, home from her university studies.
Suddenly, she blurted out, well, I don't think the Jews do care enough about people other than themselves. You all go on so much about our social conscience, but in the area I'm living in near my university, there are people living rough on the streets, and I don't see the Jews there doing anything about it.
And she went on about how much she was always hearing about the conscience of the Jews, and how well off and comfortable they were, and they weren't bothered about the real poverty around them. Even those Jews from their synagogue giving to a weekly drop in for asylum seekers-- well, wasn't that just so much tokenism?
It was certainly ironic. It was as if she'd decided to enact the new take on the wicked son of the four sons that we'd talked about earlier that evening. That instead of regarding that son as wicked, you should take his sceptical and scornful attitude as a challenge to be responded to positively. You should not regard him , as the Hagodah says you should, as having attitudes through which he's ruling himself out of the liberation of the Jewish people.
And it was even more ironic because this was a seder full of middle aged and older people with a long history of radical activism. C, her dad, was a leading light of the Campaign for Soviet Jewry when that was a fairly dangerous activity. Like C, S is an activist of Peace Now and a veteran of numerous skirmishes with the anti-semitic anti-zionist tendency around the Guardian. He talked about how he'd challenged his Yiddish poet activist grandfather in the same way back in the sixties. S hadn't thought he was active enough in the struggle for black civil rights which S was involved in as an angry New Left student. B talked about her sixties radical activism in London.
It reminded me of when I was first involved in teacher training in London in the early 70s, and a particularly self-righteous raging student asked me what on earth I could possibly know about working class people and their lives. Umm, I said then, I grew up in a house with an outdoor toilet, and no bathroom or hot water. I lived in the poorest part of Stepney, just round the corner from the docks. In the primary school I went to, there was a Boot Club. That was where parents put up a few pennies every week so they could save up to buy their kids new shoes once a year. Nobody had their own gym shoes. The school had a bank of them, and when it came to PE lessons, you would queue up to fish out a pair in your own size. So you never wore the same pair twice. It must have done wonders for the spread of athlete's foot. And I thought every primary school had a nurse who came every week to comb through our hair with a comb dipped in disinfectant.
When you're in that early stage of your march through the generations, you still can't imagine that the older people you know were anything other than what they appear to be now. I get it from the right, said S sardonically. My kids just see me as one of the old left dinosaurs. They've been radicalized by the anti-zionist boycott campaigns they met at their universities.
I talked a bit about the experience of having had a whole series of equivalent moral demands thrown at me, and at Jews generally, to demonstrate our worthiness. Join in this march or that demonstration. In the 1970s and 80s, the demands to prove yourself included showing up to support the miners' strike, the anti-Nazi League, and the Grunwick strike.
The young Israeli couple at the seder were just a little older than the youngest daughter. But the young woman had earlier spoken of the impact of the checkpoints on the Palestinians when it was her turn to speak. Her husband was on a three year shared Israeli-Palestinian study and dialogue project running at the City University.
So the youngest daughter was out on a limb. But she kept up her end, till she said, there's one thing that you've done that I haven't. You've said what I've said to your parents in your time. But I haven't yet had the experience of being a parent hearing my children say it to me.
Which is maybe another reason why we end the seder story with the words "Next Year in Jerusalem."