The Passover Seder Plate
The word balagan has the dual benefit of being both a useful description of Israeli culture and a very fun word to say. Read the word a few times, and notice how smoothly it rolls off your tongue! Say it to Israeli taxi drivers, and they’ll flash you an appreciative smile that says, “Now you understand life here – welcome to Israel.”
Today, balagan is used in Israel to describe a messy and chaotic thing, person or state of affairs. As I learned in this Haaretz article, the word has its roots not in Hebrew but in Farsi. The Farsi word balakhaana means “balcony” or “external room”, and this word was modified and incorporated into Turkish and then Russian, in which the word balagan refers to an attic where comedic performances took place in the 18th century. Over time, the word was used to refer to the type of performance itself – joyful, lively, and disorderly. That theatrical description is applied to the drama of life in Israel.
Balagan can be seen on Israeli roads, which are full of reckless and impatient drivers. It’s there in the supermarkets, where queues are cut, items are misplaced, and old grandmothers hold up the line. I see it outside my apartment, where there is almost always a car parked on the sidewalk and construction work every Thursday night till 2 am. Parliament is fragmented, lessons are interrupted by (often irrelevant) questions and derailed by spontaneous discussions, and everyone has a different idea of what it means to be Jewish.
And yet, systems work, decisions are made, businesses function, and life goes on. Many times, the world’s greatest ideas and solutions emerge from this balagan, as seen in the latest $15.3 billion acquisition of Mobileye by Intel. As someone in my university recently explained to me, life in Israel is “ordered chaos”.
That got me thinking – could it be called “chaotic order” instead? Is there a difference? I think there is. The first word – “ordered” or “chaotic” – is merely a descriptor of the essence captured by the second word – “chaos” or “order”. So the term you choose depends on your perception of the essence of Israeli society – chaos or order.
Thus, I resort to the typical university answer: “It depends.”
In any case, there is one setting in which the term “chaotic order” is definitely more appropriate – the Israeli Passover Seder. The Seder is a Jewish ceremonial meal that marks the beginning of Pesach, or Passover. The meal follows the haggadah, which is an established set of narratives, rituals, prayers and songs centred on the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The word seder itself means “order”. But the Israeli seder that I was fortunate to attend was anything but.
My professor was very generous to invite me to join her family for the Passover seder. I dressed nicely and prepared myself for polite conversation at the family dinner table. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a ballroom with nearly 200 people. It was actually a joint seder with many participating families, dozens of waiters, a pianist and a rabbi.
As I sat at the table reserved for my professor’s family, I heard Hebrew, English and Russian in Israeli, American, British and Russian accents. I was fascinated by the diversity in just one family! Then I looked around the room and realised that I was overdressed as usual. In fact, there was no dress code at all. Some were wearing T-shirts and jeans, some were in dresses, some had mini-skirts, and some were in shorts. But at least one person was dressed as nicely as me – the rabbi.
The rabbi began recounting the story of the Exodus and exhorting others to participate in the night’s prayers, songs and rituals. There was some degree of compliance for about ten minutes, after which things naturally slipped into a state of balagan. People were walking around and chatting, kids were crying, the family patriarchs were dozing off, the matzah was uncovered early, and some started eating the gefilte fish. The noise level was kept in check by the occasional shush, and the rabbi soldiered on.
At the table, someone whipped out his phone and started chatting with a friend. The artist of the family worked on a pencil sketch of his relative. Someone else complained about the rabbi using the word “goy” in the haggadah, calling it offensive and outdated. Another man pointed out that the rabbi had thrown in the towel and skipped a few pages in the haggadah. “The same thing happens every year!” he chuckled.
The noise eventually died down as dinner was served. During my dinner conversation, I learned that I was seated at the same table as a top Google executive, a commander in the IDF’s elite intelligence unit (8200), and the son of a famous Russian poet who was part of the intelligentsia rounded up by Stalin. (This doesn’t really have anything to do with balagan, but it was too awesome to leave out of the story.)
Halfway through the meal, the singing started. The pianist played traditional Jewish Passover songs and the dinner guests sang heartily between bites. Some even decided to add percussion with their cutlery. The family closest to the stage obviously thought it was a music competition, and they belted out the songs with great gusto. At some point, the overenthusiastic family stole the microphone and changed both the song and the key. The pianist tried frantically to follow along but eventually gave up and stared angrily at them. Eventually, the singing died down, dessert was consumed, and families started shuffling out of the ballroom.
What a night! It was one of the most enjoyable dinners I’ve ever attended, even though I often had no idea what was going on. There was no pretence, even in such an illustrious family. There was never a dull moment. And ironically, there was very little order. But I cherished the laughter, the spontaneity, and the balagan.