The Empty Seat at the Seder Table: Keeping the Memories of Loved Ones Alive
Passover is a celebration of remembrance and renewal. Jews gather with family and friends at seders to recall their ancestors’ redemption from slavery to freedom. It is a holiday that is rich with family traditions, rituals, and special foods. While it can be a challenge to those who have lost loved ones, it presents special opportunities to lovingly remember those who are no longer here. It is actually the perfect time for those who have had losses to draw upon the healing power of living and loving memories. Here’s an article that I wrote about this topic: The Empty Seat at the Seder Table: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.
As a little girl, my mother took me to see Marjorie Morningstar, a movie about a Jewish girl, played by Natalie Wood, who wants to follow an unconventional path in the late 1950s. When Marjorie’s Uncle Samson, played by Ed Wynn, died suddenly of a heart attack at the summer camp at which Marjorie was working, I was shocked and upset.
When Marjorie’s family gathered for a Passover seder the following spring, there was a pillow in an empty seat at the table that was left as a memorial to Uncle Samson. I remember crying hysterically at the symbolism. It’s probably no wonder that years later when I asked my mother whether we should have an empty chair for my father, who had died days before Passover, she responded with a resounding, “Oh, NO!”
I’m not a big fan of the empty seat either, but now that I’ve lost both of my parents, and most of my other relatives who were also members of the Greatest Generation, my mission has become to keep alive the memories of my loved ones. For example, ever since my mother died nine years ago, we get all the adults and children at our seder table to try to recite “Who Knows One?” in one breath. My mother was the master of this family custom and each year we all try, but lovingly acknowledge that no one can do it as well as she did.
In loving memory of my mother, we also pass around a dark chocolate seder plate at the beginning of the seder. My mother loved chocolate and we tell our grandchildren — most of whom were born after she died — that we are remembering her as we taste the chocolate. We also point out that one of the ways this night is different from all other nights is that we are starting with dessert!