What does it mean for Jews to have succeeded in a particular country?
It’s certainly more complicated than escaping significant harm at the hands of the ruling class, and the oft-cited Nobel Prize total is nice, but hardly a good metric for determining the well-being of an entire people.
Is it Jews in high places? A country where being Jewish is as normal as belonging to any other identity group? A Jewish president?
This was on my mind as I approached the gates of the governor’s residence in Harrisburg for the 2019 mock seder. Gov. Tom Wolf and the first lady, Frances, have now held three such seders, hosting friends (and the Exponent) for a truncated, rehearsal dinner-version of the holiday meal.
When you really step back to consider the historical uniqueness of such an event — the regional, non-Jewish leader inviting Jews into his residence for a celebration of one of their most treasured holidays — you can’t help but be astounded. Imagine telling that to the first person in your family who made the journey to the New World.
Within two minutes of my arrival, I was playing Jewish Geography with the president of a realty company in York, which I have learned is home to quite the JCC (the president was able to deduce that he both knew and mentored someone I went to college with). After milling about for a bit, the governor’s security team came and led us inside the mansion, which overlooks the Susquehanna River.
As the lobby of the governor’s residence began to fill, the depth of my unpreparedness for the evening become more apparent. I was the only man in the room without a tie; my hair had more or less wilted in the sun while waiting outside; I hadn’t even remembered to shave that day.
When a woman asked me my name, I told her, and then, being well-trained, asked her the same. “Frances,” she said, taking a beat. “Wolf.” Ah. The first lady. I was off to a roaring start.
I had expected a large dining room, where the governor might spend a little time saying hello, reading a prayer, and then going off to do undertake more governor-ly duties. To the contrary! There were about 25 people in attendance — a significant number of them personal friends of the governor and the first lady — and I found myself seated to his direct left. So much for taking notes on my phone throughout the evening.
The governor gave a lovely, short address about his continuing tradition of hosting a seder, along with a host of other holidays — Easter, Diwali, Eid, etc. With that, the seder began.
We were led by Rabbi Jeffery Astrachan, an enthusiastic rabbi from Temple Beth Israel in York, who created a shortened, bound Haggadah for the occasion (Shulchan Oreich, page 15; end of seder, page 20). On the front page, it read: “Ensuring our future!”
He passed around Maxwell Haggadahs that were close to a century in age, and gave a detailed background of the meaning of the word “Afikoman.” It was around here that I remembered that past JE representatives to the seder had been made to recite the Four Questions for the assembled, and I sent a silent prayer: God, God of our ancestors, do not make me do that tonight.
My prayer was answered, but I was not out of the woods. Passing parsley to the governor, I dropped a small sprig on the floor; without thinking, I quickly picked it up and popped it into my mouth. Yes, the governor is now aware that as a law-abiding citizen, I stringently observe the five-second rule. I also nearly knocked my glass of wine his way when he asked me to pass him a piece of matzah. To his credit, he also claimed to really enjoy the Hillel sandwich, a taste I’ve never acquired.
In lieu of pouring a new glass of wine with each cup, we were invited to pour our own wine into each other’s glasses, as a way of creating a “new” glass of wine. The governor and I did not even make eye contact during that invitation, and it’s for the better.
Before long, it was time for the festive meal, which I am contractually obligated to say was not in the same league as my mother’s. Putting that aside: we were served a truly delicious meal, with all the classics. Matzah ball soup, brisket, salmon (I think), asparagus, kugel …
The quiet rumblings that happen during every seder finally turned into full-blown conversation, and everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves.
I learned that the governor is reading and enjoying There, There by Tommy Orange, recently a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and that Frances Wolf had already read and enjoyed it. My seatmate to my left, Rhoda, told me about the school she had worked at for decades, and her stupendous vacation to the Galapagos Islands. At dessert, Frances Wolf very kindly, very discretely, let me know that the thing I was eating with a fork and knife was, in fact, a finger food. That’s what I get for erring on the side of caution.
Astrachan led us through the abridged latter part of the seder, and we gave a standing ovation to the chefs and service staff. The governor thanked us all for attending, and we all began to file out.
To be successfully Jewish in a land not quite our own: show up, act like a bit of a schlub and still get invited back next year. Kind of like family.
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