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Confessions of a Wicked Daughter

Every Passover, my family makes me the Seder’s “wicked son.” I don’t mind—it’s a part I was born to play.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo courtesy of the author)
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I don’t particularly like my family’s Seders. They are long and boring, and (the year someone brought Ten Plagues finger puppets notwithstanding) each Seder is pretty much just like the last. We always start later than planned, forcing me to spend the first half of the evening starving and sneaking more salt-water-dipped-karpas than is permissible under halachah, at least according to my brother-in-law, our resident Orthodox rabbi. And while I happily comply with the Haggadah’s clear instructions to drink plenty of wine, this particular observance always engenders a certain amount of suspicion at the table. (“Are you sure that’s only your second glass, Deena?”) My usual move is to stay through the meal, “help” my mom with the dishes while everyone is benching, and eventually quietly drift upstairs to my bedroom, where I promptly fall asleep. I remember “Chad Gadya” fondly, but I can’t remember the last Seder when I was awake to sing it at the end.

Just as predictable, though, is what will happen after the salt water and the wine but before my early exit: When we get to the part about the Four Sons, the whole family looks to me to read the part of the rasha, aka the Wicked Son. In one of the best-known parts of the Seder, the Haggadah tells us the story of four children (all male, of course), characterizing them by the questions they ask. The chacham, or so-called wise son, wants to memorize the boring details: “Tell me the laws, the regulations, the ordinances.” The simple son, meanwhile, can only handle the broad strokes: “What is this?” he wants to know. The one who cannot even ask a question has nothing to say; the father has the imperative to open the conversation. But it is the one son who asks a real question, one that requires some original thought and an actual challenge, who we label “wicked.” And the question that has earns him this title? “What is this service to you?” By questioning his religious obligations and adding “to you,” he separates himself from his family and his community. Our response: We shun him right back. (“… because God took me out of Egypt, me and not you.”)

Every year, I’m the wicked one. Always have been. Always will be.

***

I can’t remember when I officially became the family rasha, but family lore puts it at around the time I introduced my third non-Jewish boyfriend. It didn’t matter that I was the only one of my parents’ three daughters with a job, paying my own rent, and headed to an Ivy League law school. Or that I was the only one to reliably send flowers on Mother’s Day, call my bubbe, and buy every single family member a Hanukkah present. What mattered was that I was breaking the cardinal rule of the Shanker household: Thou Shalt Not Have Gentile Boyfriends. Even if we lived an hour away from the closest Jewish community, even if my yeshiva had only one good looking guy in the whole high school (who would later marry Ivanka Trump), and even if my eventual transfer to public high school would introduce me to one cute goyishe boy after another.

But the truth is that I was the family rasha long before I met Andrew, my very first non-Jewish boyfriend, and I will likely remain the family rasha even after I meet the next one. (Sorry, Mom and Dad; I can’t promise the last one was the last. Is it my fault I have a weakness for handsome, hard-bodied men?) The rasha is not wicked for breaking the rules—he is wicked for questioning them, and I have been challenging convention, for better and sometimes for worse, for as long as I can remember.

The rabbis offer plenty of explanations for the nature of the Wicked Son, and the more of them I read, the more I realize that my family has it right about me. I am “wicked.” I do believe, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said about the rasha, that I have “‘progressed’ far beyond [my] elders,” though I don’t think that makes me a “mocker”—just a liberal. I truly do not understand how an animal raised in the torture of a factory farm can be considered kosher, or why the fact that men can’t control their libidos means that women need to cover their hair. I cannot come to terms with Jacob stealing his brother’s birthright by tricking his blind, dying father; and I can’t help but notice that the whole scheme was organized by the one woman in the story, the mother. And I cannot believe that any just God would punish me for marrying a man I love, even if he is not a member of the tribe, has never been to a Seder before, and can’t pronounce l’chaim, chutzpah, or charoset.

Depending on whom you asked and when, Rabbi Yitzchak Sender’s explanations for the Wicked Son also work as descriptions of my own lifestyle choices. I might have outgrown the bacon-cheeseburger phase of my Jewish rebellion, having given up kashrut to become an unapologetic omnivore, before morphing into an ethical meat eater and then deciding to become a vegetarian who occasionally eats fried (organic, local, humanely raised) chicken. But it wouldn’t be off the mark to call me an “unregenerate heretic,” who despite being “educated in the ways of Torah … willfully and spitefully … reject[ed] everything [I] learned.” After all, it was me who, at 13, sat in the back of my yeshiva high-school classroom and challenged the rabbi to explain what was really so “blasphemous” about gay sex. And it was me, years later, learning Torah with my father and his rebbe, who explained—to their shared amusement—that I rejected the Torah’s notion of gender roles, and would never marry a man who wasn’t willing to help around the house. A product of both Solomon Schechter and yeshiva, I was always encouraged to ask questions—they were just supposed to be the right ones. (“Why do we have two Seders? Can’t we just have one?” “Deena, the real question is why we have any Seders at all.”) Sure, my sisters went through their own “rebellious” phases in high school; but even if they occasionally violated certain tenets by drinking too much on Simchat Torah or even eating hot wings at Hooters, neither veered as far as I did from the Nice Jewish Girl path—which I did by questioning those basic tenets altogether.

Sender’s other exposition of the Wicked Son, that he “has become blinded to the truth as a result of his having become accustomed to a lifestyle characterized by addiction to his own desires without restriction,” is also a fairly apt description of my lifestyle. But I don’t think my vices have blinded me to the truth so much as they have opened my eyes to it. It was only after smoking a pot-spiked hookah in my Hebrew University dorm room that I realized that a career in Middle Eastern politics would be futile for me, that the conflict was too entrenched, and that a Jewish girl from New York, no matter how well-meaning, was never going to be seen as an impartial peace broker. And as a strong believer of in vino veritas, I’ve come to consider alcohol a critical component of my writing career. (Hey, it worked for Hemingway.) If these things make me wicked, then wicked I am. But also fun-loving, truth-seeking, and honest.

Lucky for me, though, not everybody is so hard on the Wicked Son. My favorite interpretation comes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who tells us in a Chabad Haggadah that “there is only a slight distance between [the wicked son] and his [wise] brother.” My family has not officially chosen our chacham, but it seems like my brother-in-law, the Orthodox rabbi who comes to every Seder equipped with an all-Hebrew Haggadah penned by his grandfather, has more than earned the mantle. I might roll my eyes when he scolds me for eating too much karpas, but I also recognize that there are reasons behind the limits he is imposing, and that they were probably discussed, dissected, and ultimately determined by a long series of arguments based in both Torah and logic. But while I appreciate that there are people learning all of these rules, I also want to thank the Lubavitcher Rebbe for recognizing that we rashas could memorize the laws and regulations, too; we just choose not to. Like the great rashas before me, from Betty Friedan to Larry David, I know the social norms and conventions; I simply reject them. Any chacham can learn the rules of kashrut, tzniut, or a conventional marriage. But it takes a rasha to ask why we have these rules at all.

***

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No, the chacham should ask the basic questions as well. But the difference between the chacham and the rasha is that the chacham doesn’t reject the answers before they are explained. (Alternatively, the chacham will not reject the religion if the answers aren’t to his/her liking, but will find a more knowledgeable person to ask.)

Deena, Love your article, you are a talented writer. I don’t think anyone (especially your lovely family) thinks you are a “Rasha”. The Rasha of the Hagaddah interrogates with a tone of scorn and ridicule. The difference between the Chacham and Rashah is the way the question is asked. The Rasha never questions with a genuine desire to understand. The freedom to confront and challenge is part and parcel of Judaic tradition. Those who question are still engaged in Jewish life and Judaism is richer for them. But through the millenium the Jews would cease to exist if we were not united. As I see it, the Rashah’s sin is that he/she does not see themselves as part of the Jewish community and excludes himself/herself from Am Yisrael.

One thing ya gotta love: our tradition never questions the rasha’s right to be at the table. In fact, it wouldn’t be a traditional Passover Seder without him. Maybe that’s what the Lubavitcher Rebbe meant when he said there was only a slight difference between the wise and wicked sons. The wicked son might be only one Seder — or one question — away from feeling more connected to his people and tradition.

exasperated says:

One (sephardi?) commentator put forward that the four sons are actually different stages in a person’s life; all necessary and natural. The rasha is not extraordinary for WHAT he’s asking, but for HOW he’s asking it; arrogantly and with (ironically) a sense of holier-than-thou indifference. “I also recognize that there are reasons behind the limits he is imposing, and that they were probably discussed, dissected, and ultimately determined by a long series of arguments based in both Torah and logic.” I think that just says it all. You seem to be fully aware of the fact that throughout the ages, people have been asking “why we have these rules at all.” The rasha is not a lovable, forward thinking liberal; he’s an immature adolescent.

It’s too bad that Ms. Deena Shanker got so much so wrong. But that doesn’t make her a rasha or even a simple child. (In the conservative movement we use “child” instead of “son”) These days it just makes Deena a typical liberal/progressive American Jew. She is not (as the Israelis would say it) yotzei min ha’Klal – out of the ordinary – Deena IS the klal – or she represents klal Yisrael b’Amerika. As David Brooks wrote – these days it is the observant Orthodox who are the counter-cultural folks. Renegade Jews like Deena are a dime a dozen.

In fact the reason the Rasha child is called out is because she (or he) removes herself from our people by asking “What does all this mean to YOU” – instead of “what does this mean to US.” Everyone should know that Judaism encourages, invites and even demands questioning and arguing. That’s part of our tradition! The fact that Deena never got any satisfactory answers to her questions is a shanda on her teachers, her rabbis and he family. But I suspect that she liked it that way and would have settled for no reasonable answer had one been given.

Having read her delightful essay, I’m sure that Deena prides herself on being a Jewish rebel with many causes. It’s just too bad that real enlightenment and the survival of the Jewish people are not two of those causes. Maybe one day she’ll figure that one out all on her own.

Chag Pesach kasher v’sameach!

The Lubavitcher Rebbe also said that there is a “fifth child”–the Jew who is not at the seder table, the one who might not even realize it is Passover night, the one without any Jewish education–and we should reach out to fill his/her empty chair. I’m sure your parents were glad to have you at the seder table.

herbcaen says:

Have you considered converting to Islam? If you really want to shock your parents, it would be the ultimate. Otherwise, you are promoting a product with not much market value, as the Forward runs about 5 stories per week on Jews rejecting Judaism

surfer_dad says:

“Is it my fault I have a weakness for handsome, hard-bodied men?”
I’m sorry Deena that you only see us Jewish boys for our Yiddische kopf’s — I guess that’s what causes our ‘ugly, pudginess’ in your mind? Are the rare good looking Jewish boys just too fought over in your world to bother with?

In your assumptive, grossly stereotyped world, maybe when you DO run into a handsome, hard-bodied JEWISH man you just don’t recognize him.

I don’t see you as the “wicked child” at all, you seem much more the “simple child” to me.

cipher says:

I realize this is a year-old article, but the comments posted by the politically and theologically conservative are tiresomely predictable, and remain so year after year.

@Michael Jay Winakur: “These days it just makes Deena a typical liberal/progressive American Jew… In fact the reason the Rasha child is called out is because she (or he) removes herself from our people by asking ‘What does all this mean to YOU’ – instead of ‘what does this mean to US.’ ”

If Brooks/Prager/Krauthammer-worshiping folks like yourself represent the Jewish people, I happily remove myself.

Berge says:

Well, that was precious.

A lot of non-profits ask you to help with food or children they do that every year. Some have even done it for 100 years or more. These nonprofits are maintaining the problem rather then solving the problem. If the nonprofit cannot solve the problem it should stop asking you to help. (Feeding children one year then allow them to die the next year, is just plain cruel).

The Israel Longhorn Project is setup to solve the cattle and food production problem in Israel, Jordan and East Africa.

Do you want to use your money to solve a problem or to maintain problem?

http://longhornproject.org

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Confessions of a Wicked Daughter

Every Passover, my family makes me the Seder’s “wicked son.” I don’t mind—it’s a part I was born to play.