Kramer at the seder: Pop culture jazzes Haggadah



LOS ANGELES (JTA) — This year at your Passover seders, as you metaphorically depart Egypt, consider that you may also be leaving Kansas and traveling nonstop to the Land of Oz. Or that matzah in hand, you and your guests are heading into deepest space, going where no one has gone before.

This year on the seder nights of April 8 and 9, a magical world also awaits. If that sounds a bit much, how about exiting Egypt only to wind up in a show about nothing?

The seder is a journey, with treks and flights long and short, and if you are leading or following one, you may be seeking ways to make the trip engaging, full of scenic views and intriguing side trips.

Tired of Uncle Irwin looking at his watch every five minutes and asking “When do we eat?,” or the kids being so engaged in the seder that they put the adults to shame?

Regain your enthusiasm: Pop your Haggadah.

For seder participants from many backgrounds, pop culture can act as a well-known path to the maggid, the telling at the heart of the seder. For a different “different” night, introduce books, movies and TV shows that have engaged the popular imagination as a way to connect to the Haggadah text.

Tell the child and the child in you on that day: Turn the page, press the button, connect anew.

Our chance comes early on in the seder, when we reach the part of Haggadah-town where the four sons dwell. We knock. We know they live here — the wise son, the simple, the haughty and the one who does not even know how to ask a question.

We knock again. Just our luck — the haughty one answers the door.

“Can you describe who you’re looking for?” he asks, smirking, knowing we can’t.

Fact is, to get into the Haggadah’s door we need to know more, have a better picture, of these four that we read about every spring.

The origins of the four sons are four passages found in the Torah in Deuteronomy and Exodus. Since there are four, let’s look at that number of pop culture sources to help bring them to life: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Trek,” “Harry Potter” and “Seinfeld.”

You can begin by asking, “Which character in the ‘The Wizard of Oz’ most resembles the simple son? He’s the one who sits at the seder and asks, ‘mah zot, What’s this?’ ”

Most of us have followed the yellow brick road so many times that it’s a question easily answered. In fact, we know enough to answer in four distinctive ways based on a Jewish method of textural interpretation called Pardes: an acronym for the Hebrew words “phsat,” “remez,” “drash” and “sod.”

In Oz, who is the simple son? The easy answer, the one that literally follows the text, the pshat, is the scarecrow. He’s the one who announces in song and dance, “if I only had a brain.”

The second answer, an interpretation, the remez, provides a hint of the scarecrow’s true nature: “He seems simple. He’s in search of a brain, yet oddly enough, he has enough self-awareness to know he needs one. Maybe he’s not so simple, after all.”

Another answer, the drash, opens up the text for discussion, providing points of view and a teaching: “No one wants to be thought of as simple, yet there is a Jewish value about simple living called ‘ho’da’ah’; that is, being thankful for what you have.”

Then there is the interpretation that speaks of a secret meaning, or sod: “Perhaps the scarecrow will not always be simple. By joining with others, he does finally find what he’s looking for.”

From the four answers, the simple son begins to appear. Now we can say to the haughty one blocking the door, “He is not so simple, he has goals and awareness and is able to learn. Let us in.”

Next at the seder, you can ask: “In the ‘Harry Potter’ novels, who is the wise son? According to the Haggadah, the wise one asks, ‘What are the precepts, laws and observances which God commanded us?’ ”

Is Harry, the character who breaks all the rules and makes his own, the one to whom we can thoroughly explain the Passover laws? Or is the wise one the much better student Hermione?

Perhaps now is the time for a drash on who is “wise.”

Reach to the heavens for the wicked one, the rashah, the contrary one, the one who excludes himself from the seder by asking, “What is this observance to you?” Which character in “Star Trek,” the original series, strikes you as the eternal outsider?

Are you feeling your ear as you answer Spock? He’s the character who always sets himself apart from the rest of the crew.

“But he’s not wicked,” some will answer in protest. “He’s coolly intellectual, unemotional. Does that make him rashah? Why don’t you look to one of the episodes with a villain, like Trelane from the Squire of Gothos, for the wicked one?”

Many have feelings about the Spock character, and soon around the table a debate could ensue delving into the sod, the secret meaning of his nature. Prepare to dip at least twice. You might even come away with a new appreciation of how the five rabbis stayed up all night at Bnei Brak.

So who is the one who doesn’t even know how to ask a question? The one who you must take by the hand and lead out of Egypt?

May I suggest Kramer from “Seinfeld” as the befuddled one? It’s not so much that he can’t ask a question, it’s the questions he asks.

Drash: Imagine Kramer on the great day of the Exodus asking about a shortcut, or if he can borrow your matzah.

Can we add a fifth son, like George from “Seinfeld,” who asks too many questions? Does the scarecrow intrigue us with a sense of his hidden potential? Is the tricky Captain Kirk really the contrary one? And is Albus Dumbledore really the wise?

Another four questions for your seder.

But that’s another story.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.)

Recommended from JTA