The Most Unusual Seder I've Ever Attended
I’ve attended many seders in the U.S. and several other countries during my 60 years. Some have been memorable, and others have been, well, slightly less memorable, fusing into an abstract painting in my mind.
But the most unusual seder in which I’ve ever participated took place in Belize City, which I visisted during a scuba diving trip to the Caribbean country of Belize. Once a British colony, Belize is on the Yucutan Peninsula, bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south.
The seder in Belize City stands out as extraordinary. The dive trip was one of many coordinated by divemasters Mike and Marcia Goldberg, who also happen to be my son and daughter-in-law. Shortly after eight of us signed on for the trip, I realized that the trip would occur during Passover. As it happened that year, the first seder occurred the evening of the day we arrived in Belize City.
When my fellow travelers and I, all friends and all Jewish, arrived at our hotel, we decided to see if the hotel restaurant might suit our needs. We never dreamed we would find so much help from people who have no concept of what a seder actually is!
It was early evening when we arrived, too early for dinner patrons and very late for lunch. The large windows of the restaurant, covered by heavy curtains, blocked most of the light from the setting sun. The table to which we were ushered accommodated only six, so the staff dragged over an extra table and two extra chairs.
We explained what a seder was and how it commemorated the escape of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in a new land. The people of Belize, now an independent country, who understand the desire for freedom. Once the staff understood what our ritual celebrated, they wanted to help in any way they could.
Because we had planned to hold a seder during our trip, we had brought a few necessary items with us from home, things we could get comfortably get into our luggage. We’d brought along a box of matzah, and I had brought our family haggadot. Still, we lacked several items – and this is where the staff of the restaurant came to our rescue.
We knew no one in the restaurant would have heard of karpas (a vegetable, usually parsley, dipped in salt water) – but when we explained what we needed, we were presented with lettuce, a spring vegetable every bit as green as parsley.
The maror (bitter herbs) were another story, but retelling the Exodus story and recalling the bitterness faced by our ancestors in their time of slavery was important to us. The restaurant didn’t have any horseradish, but they did have a bottle of tabasco sauce, which was every bit as bitter and spicy – and just as capable of bringing tears to our eyes.
Though the charoset (a mixture of fruit and nuts) was a challenge, and the staff came up with a mango chutney, to which they added raisins, walnuts, apples, and wine. They even presented us with a bottle of wine at no charge, and then, perhaps as a sign of respect, they left us while they went back to the kitchen to prepare our meal. There were no other people in the restaurant on that evening, although I do not think we would have been concerned had it been crowded. Since I was the oldest, I led the seder, and the youngest member of the group, who was 35, chanted the four questions.
We started the seder in the traditional way by lighting candles. Fortunately, the staff had plain white candles on hand. After the first part of the seder, the staff served our meal, starting with hard-boiled eggs and a delicious serving of chicken soup. Each member of our group ordered a separate meal. I had sea bass, mashed potatoes, and fresh vegetables, which was not the traditional brisket or baked chicken I had been used to, but which I enjoyed immensely.
At the end of the seder, when we raised our glasses for the fourth time, we were struck by the wonder of our situation. Eight Jews sat at a table in a foreign country, reciting a story that had been told by our ancestors in happy times and in sad, in public and in secret. And here we were, strangers in a strange land, yet at that seder I felt I was more at one with Moses and the ancient Hebrew people than I had ever been in the 50-plus seders I had led or attended. Dayenu – it was more than enough.
Mel Goldberg taught literature and writing in California, Illinois, Arizona, and as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher at Stanground College in Cambridgeshire, England. Today, he lives in the village of Ajijic in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, where he serves on the board of the Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation, an unaffiliated Jewish congregation of about 70 families. His writing has been published online and in print in the United Kingdom, the United States, Mexico, New Zealand, and Australia.