Custom has it that on a Passover Seder you set a place for a stranger.
Adding another plate should be natural. But sometimes people forget their welcoming customs.
When my brother Jonathan was living in Santa Monica after college and wasn't able to fly home for Passover, he asked my aunt, my father's sister who lived in Brentwood, if he could bring his then-girlfriend along for the Seder. My aunt said no, repeating an insult she had committed decades before. In the 1970s, she refused a dinner invitation to my maternal grandmother who came to visit Los Angeles.
Ah... so now, "why?"
It would take a lot of history to explain why my aunt's heart contracted the ways it did. There was the Depression and poverty in the 1930s and 40s, there was early loss of her father (my aunt was only 9 at the time) to lung cancer, and there was the instability and cruelty of her mother, my paternal grandmother, who once welcomed me into her home in Culver City by hanging up the phone with that very aunt and asserting "she's a bitch," before even uttering a "hello" to greet me. A lot of layers of deprivation and pain there -- like an onion. However, even knowing my aunt's backstory, I'm still baffled by her refusal to set a place for another guest to join the table. For her, there just wasn't room.
My aunt had her reasons. She was actually highly intelligent. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College at 18. She was actually politically progressive and active in civil rights causes. Yet as the years wore on, she concocted fantastical scenarios and could drone on for hours about of the righteousness of her convictions. Anger and deprivation can lead people to build walls for protection.
Facebook provided an image that succinctly captured my aunt's dinner guest problem. The words: "when you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence" were superimposed over a photo of a table covered by food and flowers with laughing people seated on both sides. The image was meant as a rebuttal to Trump's proposal to build a wall to keep out Mexicans. Those who need a meal and safety are often the first to be criminalized. Separating and dehumanizing others is all too familiar to those of us who celebrate Passover, those whose relatives were refugees in the Second World War. I've seen the numbers tattooed into the arms. Art and speech can be rejected art as "degenerate" (as Giuliani did when Mayor of New York). But Passover tells a story of freedom. The refugees wandered and found a home. During a Seder, we set a place for a stranger, extend the table, and break down the walls.
My aunt meant and did well in many areas of her life but she forgot to extend a place at her own table. Amassing a lifetime of grievances, it was no longer in her nature to do so. A lot of people seem to be forgetting their welcoming customs as they claim deprivation, fear, and anger. But while the RNC hate-circus at Cleveland was underway, an act of resistance was going on in Vermont, a kind of Seder of diverse faiths.
On a farm on a mountain overlooking a vast expansion of land and free roaming cattle, horses and vegetation, a group of people gathered for a meal and discussion. The topic at hand: How to help welcome refugees? Around tables covered in wildflowers (picked by yours truly in the mist of brambly fields under the hot sun - I even fought a bee for one unique purple blossom) discussion percolated. There was Christopher Louras, the Mayor of Rutland Vermont, who is leading his town in welcoming 100 Syrian refugees. There was Hans Van de Weerd, Vice President for US Programs for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). There were professors from Dartmouth, MIT, and Harvard Law School. There were philanthropists and farm hands, teachers and aid workers, and there were many children. Summer thunderstorms temporarily threatened to blow down our tent, but dinner guests grabbed the wooden poles and held the dining hall together until the sun returned.
The hosts of our IRC Room At the Table event are the kind of people who always welcome another guest at their table. They remind me of the Righteous Polish Catholics, Irena Zawadszka and Zophia Olzakowska, who hid and saved my cousin Rachel during the Holocaust. Both women answered me so simply when I asked "why did you risk your life to do what so many did not?" Their answer: "It was natural."
My aunt couldn't set a place at her table for her sister-in-law's mother or her nephew's future wife because deprivation and hardship hardened her heart. Maybe it's too crowded in the room or the food budget is already stretched too thin. My uncle, who was older and stronger, had beat up my aunt and my father for a piece of food. The effects of that abuse lingered. Maybe the conversation could lead in unpredictable or scary directions as new minds and ideas add to the mix. She have felt threatened by my grandmother or by Jonathan's girlfriend. But as the signs at the DNC convention read: "Love Trumps Hate." I wish we could find it in our natures to set a place for the stranger.