How to Make Your Passover Meal Last Three Hours Longer04/22/2008
By Jennifer Morrow
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we eat either leavened bread or matzah; on this night, why only matzah?
On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs; on this night, why only bitter herbs?
On all other nights we do not dip even once; on this night, why do we dip twice?
On all other nights we eat either sitting up or reclining; on this night, why do we recline?
The traditional Passover Seder is an hours-long remembrance of the Exodus out of Egypt, punctuated by wine-drinking, horseradish-eating, a traditional song about a dead goat, and a matzah hide-and-seek game. Consequently, the heart of any Seder, the ritual which is never eliminated from even the most unconventional celebration, is the Four Questions, where the youngest child present turns to the leader of the service and, speaking on behalf of all those present, asks “WHY?” What does this all mean? Why do we do such strange things?
That last question could just as easily be posed to Murray Spiegel and Rickey Stein, authors of 300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions: From Zulu to Abkhaz. This is their 35-year labor of love, an attempt to assemble translations of the Four Questions in almost every language of the world. (They also include a fifth, occasionally used, alternative question: “On all other nights we eat in any ordinary manner; on this night, why do we dine with special ceremony?”) There are the obvious choices (English, Chinese, Spanish), the interesting choices (Norwegian, American Sign Language, Navajo), the funky choices (Tuvan, Cornish and Xhosa, which is the so-called African “click” language), and the downright weird choices (Middle Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Semaphore, Klingon). And I haven’t even touched on all the material in the accompanying CD, which includes spoken-word recordings of the translations, folk songs based on the questions, trivia games, videos of the Four Questions signed in ASL, and even a version performed in halting Hebrew by 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirls.
There’s a lot to like about a project like this. For one thing, it's the perfect Seder novelty gag, even if no one at the table would actually be tempted to prolong the lengthy pre-dinner ceremony by playing the suggested “guess the language” games. This stuff has also got to be catnip to a linguist, as each translation comes with background on the speaker, the history and prevalence of each tongue, and fascinating footnotes, like the one about baffled translators from rice-based cultures giving up on the concept of “unleavened bread.”
Still, you have to wonder what was going through the heads of Spiegel and Stein all throughout the creation of 300 Ways. Sure, it’s nice to have a hobby, but few people spend decades involved in extensive research and coordination with international sources, exhausting money and manpower alike, just to push a longstanding personal in-joke as far as it can go. For that’s how this all started: two language geeks improbably realized that they had a shared secret obsession with collecting international versions of the Four Questions, and decided to join up and become an unstoppable force of … well, of two.
It’d be an almost laughable situation if the result hadn’t turned out to be what can only be called noble. The more you dig into this tome, the more stories you hear about the shockwave of kindness their project left in its wake. Spiegel and Stein may have been on a kind of fool’s quest, but they found thousands of people who were eager to assist them with it—and in most cases, for no greater fee than the satisfaction of a job well done. The authors in turn seem like pretty groovy guys. I got that warm-and-fuzzy Chicken Soup for the Soul feeling upon reading that the poor linguistics researchers from Myanmar and Romania who didn’t have access to recording equipment to use for their translations were promptly showered with electronics.
But the best part, the warmest-and-fuzziest side of an overwhelmingly warm-and-fuzzy book (how warm-and-fuzzy? let’s put it this way—large portions are illustrated with grade-schoolers’ watercolors), is all the good that it seems to be doing for a number of truly endangered cultures. Some of the languages in this book barely have enough speakers left to sustain a conversation. There may be thousands upon thousands of us “Jennifers” in the world, but only 500 people out there actually know the Cornish language from whence it comes. And that statistic is not so shocking when you learn that another Four Questions translation was provided by one of the six (!) remaining speakers of the Delaware Indian language Lenape. It’s not a stretch to think of this book as a kind of lesser Rosetta Stone, chipping out a permanent record of some native tongues that may be gone altogether by the time next Passover rolls around.
And with that in mind, the use of the Four Questions to provide a context for all of this suddenly makes a lot more sense. Passover is all about preserving traditions, in the hope that with the annual repetition of the motions, the rituals and the words, the story of the deliverance will always be passed down and retold throughout the coming generations. At the same time, the Seder is the most ecumenical of Jewish traditions, as there’s a portion of the ceremony where all those who are hungry—no religion mentioned—are invited to join the family at their table. 300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions simply bumps both of those principles to the next logical level, encouraging all those who carry the heavy weight of their histories on their backs to recline at the same table, where others can help bear the load. Those six Lenape-speakers have millions to help bring them out of Egypt, or out of Delaware. The Four Questions, and this book, are the essence of the holiday that's all about freedom.