Friday, April 03, 2015

Passover, 2015

The Passover celebration -- from the Barcelona Haggadah, ~1340 in the British Library.
Many illustrated Haggadahs survive from past centuries, and there are
many varied modern editions in use, reflecting Jewish diversity today and in the past.
Tonight, April 3, is the first night of Passover. We plan to be at my sister's house for our own version of the Seder, the traditional Passover meal.

A simple summary: the Seder commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. Using a book called the Haggadah, those present read this story and celebrate that Jews in the post-Egyptian world are free, not slaves, because Moses -- with the help of his sister Miriam and brother Aaron -- led them out of Egypt. We remember that Moses then received the Torah; that is, the first 5 books of the Bible. The religious tradition is that all Jews from all ages stood with the Jewish ex-slaves and witnessed Moses's return from Mount Sinai.

Although this may sound ponderous, the celebration of Passover is actually a lot of fun. Special parts of the ceremony are designed to amuse children, who go on a hunt for a hidden piece of matzah and get prizes. There are traditional songs for the musically inclined. People cook together and get together with friends or family. (OK that can be a mixed blessing for some families -- I'm glad my family is quite close).

Passover also might mean a number of serious things even to a not-religious Jewish family like mine -- besides simply preserving traditions that were present in one's childhood. Here are some Passover ideals that I find important:
  • Most important is freedom. "Go down Moses" is a spiritual based on the Exodus story from the time of Black slavery in America. It's been adopted into the Seder because it's about the same yearning for freedom.
  • Besides the memories of the Jews fleeing Egypt to attain freedom, many Haggadahs add passages about other struggles. We remember the Jews in the Concentration Camps, we remember other people who even today live in fear and poverty, and in many cases by the end of the Seder we feel some sort of new commitment to a better world. Though the feeling may be only fleeting, it's powerful. This year, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I hope at many Seders the participants will commemorate the victims of this injustice.
  • Also, on Passover some people think about the role of charity. Historically, communities took responsibility for providing food and matzah for their poorest members. Sometimes almost everyone was poor.
Then there's food! The Seder is above all a ritual meal:
  • The Seder plate has several compulsory items. The most important food here is matzah, the "unleavened bread" symbolizing the bread that didn't have time to rise as the newly-free slaves fled from Egypt. During the ceremony we taste sweet and bitter herbs (usually parsley and horseradish), symbolizing their good and bad experiences. We dip herbs in salt water symbolizing their tears. Also, we eat an egg representing spring, the season of the holiday and charoses, a paste of apples, nuts, honey, and wine, reminding us of the mortar the slaves used by to build the pyramids. A roasted bone on the Seder plate recalls the Pascal Lamb in the Exodus story.
  • Many other traditional foods are on the menu after the ritual readings from the Haggadah. Usually women and sometimes men get together to cook many dishes from family recipes or from one of many Jewish cookbooks -- or now from hundreds of websites with Passover food ideas. These recipes generally comply with a complex practice of avoiding anything that could be "leavened."
  • Nostalgia for old-fashioned Passover sweets, such as dried-fruit compote, fruit-jelly candy, and sticky coconut macaroons also plays a role in this enjoyment. Very sweet Passover wine also appeals to some of us (though not, I admit, to me).
Elijah the Prophet, from a 16th century Haggadah. The traditional belief is that Elijah will herald the coming of the Messiah.
To welcome Elijah (should he be around) a cup of wine is left on the Seder table -- "Elijah's cup" -- and near the end of the
ritual, someone opens the door, inviting him in, all hoping that his arrival is immanent.

Finally, a challenge: if we're feminists or just highly aware of women's roles, we have to deal with quite a few favoritisms towards men in the traditional rituals. For the Seder, men were given a pillow to remind each one that he could recline as a free man. Putting Moses's sister Miriam more into the picture is one of the ways we deal with this; also adding an orange to the Seder plate to symbolize that women have a role in Jewish life.

No matter what their religious beliefs, most American Jews (60 to 70%) celebrate this holiday with some version of the ritual meal, or Seder. Actually, the number used to be higher, as much as 90%, but religious practice is declining. Like us, many of these people observe few other Jewish rituals, but consider Passover to be special and meaningful.


Debra Eliotseats said...

Good food, good fun, family cooking together....perfect holiday. Have a wonderful time with your family.

Geraldine Saucier said...

Wishing you and your family a wonderful Passover.