By Neil W. Levin
The peculiarly American annual communal event known until recently as the “Third Seder” emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as a secular (sometimes even antireligious) Yiddish cultural and perhaps socialist alternative to the traditional, biblically based home and family ritual that constitutes the core of Pesach observance. The Third Seder was so named to distinguish it from the traditional seders conducted on the first two nights of Pesach in the Diaspora (only on the first night in the Land of Israel). It has been held customarily either preceding Pesach (often on the preceding Sunday) or during the intermediate days of the Festival, in part to accommodate those who, even as members of organizations that did not observe or had renounced the religious dimensions of Jewish life might still want for social or familial reasons to partake of traditional seders with friends or relatives—or even, out of habit, to host modified seders or festive dinners on those nights.
By definition and design, Third Seders are public or quasi-public, communally shared, and only partly interactive productions. Through their altered, reinterpreted, and reinvented literary and aesthetic Passover-related content, and with the elimination of all religious and theological references from their versions of the Passover story in terms of its evolving historical and social significance, they reflect the ideological orientations and cultural predilections of their sponsoring organizations. They may thus be said to be organizational by nature. They do not have a private home counterpart. To the contrary, the Third Seder relies on a communal experience that transcends individual families or small circles of friends, and—without negating collective participation in certain readings and songs—it requires a performer-audience format for the prepared choral, dance, and dramatic components that are central to the program. Moreover, the institution itself has always been an educational vehicle, so that performances by children’s choirs and dance groups from the organization’s schools—and sometimes stage sketches or skits—play an important role.
The Third Seder sprouted as an institution among elements of eastern European Yiddish-speaking immigrants and their next generation that had already consciously abandoned the religious dimensions of Jewish life and affiliated themselves with organizations that advocated ethnic-cultural along with socialist aspects of a veltlikhe yidishkayt (secular, or worldly Jewishness). Yet many of those Jews still wanted to preserve vestiges of the major holydays that most of their grandparents—if not their parents—had observed in Europe; and they sought ways to perpetuate some of the most entrenched and attractive customs and ceremonies by reclothing and reimagining them in secular terms and in ways that would pertain as well to current circumstances and issues. Passover, with its theme of liberation from bondage, offered an ideal opportunity for secular reconsideration and cultural reinforcement. The traditional narrative of the Haggadah, with its biblical basis and rabbinic accretions, could now be revised and supplemented as a heroic legend with contemporary relevance, without its centrality of Divine intervention. Ironically, there could be heightened focus on and even identification of the very leader (Moses) whose name is deliberately absent from the Haggadah—precisely in order to preclude any tendency to give ultimate credit for the Exodus to anyone other than the Almighty. This new version of Passover could then incorporate and inspire Yiddish cultural creativity.
The full-scale Third Seders for adults as well as children evolved from earlier model school seders within the educational wings of secular Yiddishist organizations. That origin ensured the maintenance of the educational parameters and the involvement of children from those schools in the later, more elaborate public events.
By the 1940s the Third Seder, in all its sumptuousness, had become the prominent independent production of two separate secular Yiddishist and socialist-leaning organizations—each of which devised its own version according to its orientation: Farband, the Labor Zionist Order, and the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle). As productions of a non-Zionist organization, the Arbeter Ring seders naturally avoided references to Zionist history or modern Hebrew culture (although after 1948 some sympathetic strains began to creep in, with decreasing objections). The Labor Zionists, on the other hand, who represented a synthesis of socialism and Jewish nationalism, logically included interpreted links between the Passover themes and the enterprise in Palestine and, later, to Israeli society—without relinquishing the primary focus on Yiddish culture and working-class aspirations.
In New York, from the late 1930s through the early 1950s, the two events could be publicized with equal fanfare, attended by roughly equal numbers, and presented with more or less equal pizzazz. But in some years the Farband Third Seders were the more prominent and more lavish of the two, with sensational promotions and advertisement. Important Yiddish writers were commissioned to create new texts and readings, and there were famous actors and actresses from the Yiddish stage and also well-known and even celebrity singers, accompanied not only by a professional choir (together with the Farband choir) but also by an orchestra. One year Richard Tucker sang at the Waldorf Astoria; another time Frank Sinatra made an appearance and was honored for a contribution he had made to a hospital in Israel.
In other cities across the country (especially outside the greater New York area, where the Labor Zionists’ activities were usually more concentrated and more conspicuous than elsewhere), where the Arbeter Ring enjoyed far greater public presence, image, and numbers than the Farband, the Workmen’s Circle’s Third Seders had the limelight. Indeed, common perception now associates these events specifically if not exclusively with the Arbeter Ring as their progenitor. Even past the 1960s its branches continued to present the seders in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, albeit to dwindling numbers and in a significantly abbreviated format—in the last case, as late as 1978, several years after the Workmen’s Circle had already vacated and disposed of its Chicago facility. In cities such as New York and Boston, however, the Arbeter Ring’s Third Seder thrives in the second decade of the 21st century. Recently renamed a “Cultural Seder,” it is now updated to incorporate hopes for “liberation from the tyranny of poverty, the tyranny of war, the tyranny of ignorance, and the tyranny of hate.” This is of course completely consistent with its long-established humanistic perspectives on Passover, and religious elements are still entirely absent. Some English has been introduced, along with a few contemporary songs. But Yiddish language, poetry, recitations, and songs still predominate as the major features.
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