Jenn Hoos Rothberg -

Apr 22, 2024

Not Knowing How to Ask

communities gathering and building

Tonight, my family will gather for my favorite tradition, the Passover Seder. The smells and sounds of this holiday bring me so much comfort and nostalgia. There’s just something about the predictability of ritual that fills me with a sense of calm amid chaos.

The days leading up to the seder have been filled with preparations, starting with my mother’s text to our family group chat. “Grandma Fannye’s tomato!” she captioned the photo of a simmering pot of chicken stock waiting to be transformed into her matzo ball soup. (For the record, our Trustee, David Einhorn, is preparing his famous matzo ball soup today. He shared with me that his is the best. I have yet to try it, so David, let me know when I can come over.)

I have fond memories of accompanying my mother to the grocery store to prepare for Passover. I watched her pick the most beautifully ripe, gorgeous red tomato in the bunch, waiting to hear the story of how my great-grandmother Fannye taught her the recipe.

“Her secret was to add a whole ripe tomato to the pot,” my mother would say. “For that golden color.”

The word seder means “order” to note the specific sequence that needs to be followed during a Passover ceremony inclusive of food, storytelling, prayer, music, blessings, conversation, and reflection. While the ritual is almost the same for everyone observing the holiday, there are particular moments that show up around our family’s Passover table every year that make this evening all the more meaningful for me:

Seeing my mother become verklempt (the Yiddish word for overcome with emotion) as she lights candles to remind us of our loved ones who are no longer here.

Listening to my father’s commentary of how nearly all the plagues the Egyptians experienced could be explained scientifically “except one!”

Engaging in the predictable banter with my two sisters about who-knows-what, but quickly reminding me of my birth order. (Yes, I’m the middle.)

My husband’s refrain when he tastes the flourless chocolate cake, “It tastes like Passover but it’s pretty good considering.”

Aside from our family’s peculiarities, one of the universal parts of the seder is the telling of a story from thousands of years ago – the same story told and retold at every Passover table, every year – of the Israelites’ enslavement under Egyptian rule and their exodus to freedom and liberation.

The purpose of retelling this story each year is to ensure everyone who is at the table can pass the story on to the next generation, and the generation after that. Kids play a central role in the storytelling, and as such, about halfway through the seder, we tell the story of The Four Children. It’s a reminder of how our youngest participants are likely to show up at our table.

In the story, one child is deemed as wise, one rebellious, one simple, and one silent. The wise child asks about the meaning of Passover, representing our desire for intellectual curiosity and a never-ending quest for truth. The rebellious child questions the values and importance of Passover, representing our skepticism of the unfamiliar and mundane. The simple child asks a straightforward question, standing in for our sincerity and desire to understand the world around us for what it is. And the silent child says nothing, for they do not know how to ask.

For most of my adolescence, I strived to be a wise child, always ready to ask questions and engage in a productive, thoughtful way. I worked hard to keep the unruly parts of myself at bay, though, of course, the rebellious child would make their appearance now and then… like my summer in D.C. armed with my older cousin’s driver’s license.

When I was younger, I could quickly identify with the wise and the rebellious. But as I’ve gotten older, and especially as a parent, I’ve trained myself to pay equal attention to each “child” when I see these personalities show up in myself and others. This practice has helped me understand people’s needs, meet them where they are, and respect how differently we each see and experience the world.

Yet, for the last six months, somewhere in the chaos of war and the ruptures taking place across college campuses, online, and in real life, I’ve found myself particularly drawn to and worried about the silent child.

Through our work in higher education, I’ve been told about the many students who are afraid to speak up and ask questions for fear of being ridiculed and ostracized. They are putting their heads down and retreating to their corners, believing silence offers them a sense of safety, acceptance, and belonging – no matter how tenuous.

Shira Hoffer made the plight of the silent child even more top of mind for me when we last spoke. A college junior at Harvard, Shira founded the Hotline for Israel/Palestine in the wake of the October 7th attacks in Israel and the ongoing war in Gaza. Shira shared that one of the biggest fears her classmates have is the fear of asking the wrong questions about the conflict, so they end up not asking any questions at all. The adage I heard growing up that “there are no wrong questions” seems to have died on the vine.

This is the campus climate college students are navigating today, and it’s in dire need of fixing.

I believe that young people have the power to change the world, but I want to take the burden of fixing harmful campus culture off their shoulders for a moment. I’d love to figure out how we – the adults on campuses and in the lives of young people – can create the culture and environment (the social container, if you will) that provide students with the social permission to ask open, honest questions and seek out a multiplicity of answers.

Whether you are standing at the front of a classroom or boardroom or leading a university, what might you shift – or what might shift inside you – as you turn your gaze toward the child who doesn’t know how to ask? What might it look like if every program, practice, and policy tended to this child’s needs? How might we, as Irshad Manji of Moral Courage College puts it, develop not only the courage of our convictions but also the courage of our confusion to help the silent child raise their head and their hand?

Before I close my laptop to put the finishing touches on our Passover preparation, I want to leave you with a piece of wisdom from the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. “What keeps my heart awake is colorful silence,” he wrote. “It’s on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way.”

Tonight, we will set out placemats at our seder table for the wise child, the rebellious child, the simple child, and the silent child. Wherever you might be on this night, I hope you are surrounded by an abundance of quietness and compassion, so that the courage to ask questions may emerge.

May we find each other in the multiplicity of answers and the colorful silence of life.

Jenn Hoos Rothberg leads Einhorn Collaborative. Learn more about our work and more about Jenn. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jenn’s blog posts.