Saturday, April 28, 2007

EdoA, Day #3 (Random): My Passover Seder

Well, I completely forgot to write the random post for yesterday! Whoops! So here it is instead. =)

A couple of people had asked me about what I did for Passover, which was at the beginning of this month, and what traditions my family followed. I only ended up going to one Seder this year, due to some circumstances beyond my control, but it was a hilarious one as always.

Now for those that don't celebrate Passover, the real quick summary is that a Seder is a ritual meal you eat on the first two nights of the holiday, to commemorate the Jews' flight from Egypt and escape from Pharoah's reign, eventually culminating in... yes, you've guessed it... the ten commandments! Remember the Charlton Heston movie that they show around Passover and Easter every year? The story goes pretty much like that... except, of course, we don't get a gorgeous Yul Brynner sitting at the table with us during the Seder. =)

For as long as I can remember, we have always celebrated at least one Seder per year with my mother's brother and his family, who live on Long Island. We alternate who hosts it each year, as it's quite a bit of work, and since last year was my mother's turn, this year we trooped out to Long Island. In traffic. Lots of traffic. But that is the NYC metropolitan area for you.

A key component of the Passover Seder is the Haggadah, which is essentially a guidebook for what you should be doing during the Seder. We read aloud from it during the meal, using it to tell the story of Exodus, and to teach the younger generation about what "happened".

(We'll take a brief tangent here, where I explain that the Haggadah is based around the concept that G-d was the one who made the mass exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt possible with the whole talking to Moses thing. I'm not entirely sure that's true, given my agnostic leanings. None the less, there is actual historical evidence that Jews were slaves in Egypt in the past, and that they did eventually leave the country.... we built the pyramids, people. There's also been anthropological studies done, on what the possible origins of the Ten Plagues are. So needless to say, I think it's a very cool event that we celebrate the fact that my ancestors were able to escape from slavery, even if perhaps all the details are blurred a bit.)

Back to the story! There are as many different Haggadahs as there are stars in the sky, and each family uses their own particular favorite. My father's family, for example, uses the venerable and traditional one produced by Maxwell Coffee (I kid you not; these exist!). When we host the Seder at my mother's house, we use the very old and very yellow Haggadahs that she used as a child in the 1950s, of which I am inordinately fond, despite their very archaic language. At my uncle's house, where we were this year, we use these bright pink Haggadahs that are, let us say, progressive.

Despite telling the traditional Passover story, along with all the necessary Hebrew and English parts of the ceremony, my uncle's Haggadahs are scattered with footnotes and quotes from famous people who "fought for freedom". These are by their very nature, amusing, since they don't really belong in a traditional Seder. Two of my particular favorites are by Winston Churchill, specifically:
  1. "We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."
  2. "Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry."
My uncle's Haggadah also includes such choice pieces as the part where they instruct you to sing the spiritual, "Let My People Go" (we don't), as well as interesting English transliterations of the Hebrew text. For example, in the passages about Joseph going down from Canaan into Egypt, we are told that he tells his dreams to the royal butler, who has been imprisoned in the jail with him. Really, thousands of years ago, they called them "butlers"? I don't buy it. =)

My very favorite part, however, is the Matzo of Hope. The pink Haggadahs were printed in 1991, at a time when most Soviet Jews were still quite oppressed. So, being the progressive version it is, it instructs us to set an empty place for someone at the Seder table, and place a plate with one sole matzo on it, to serve as the Matzo of Hope. It even recommends getting a commercially-prepared placard to put on the seat of that empty place, so that no one will ever doubt that we are praying and hoping for the freedom of the Jews.

We all find this hilarious, and never actually "participate" in those directions. =) It is particularly funny, you have to understand, because my family lives in an area of NJ where there are many, many Russian Jews. And they are all wealthy, by and large, and not oppressed in the least. In fact, we had a great deal of fun mocking the Matzo of Hope this year, as we "sincerely" offered our prayers for the Russian Jews of Marlboro, NJ, who are so far removed from those that the pink Haggadah wants us to commemorate.

And that, in a nutshell, is the highlight of my Passover Seder this year. And Susan Helene, in answer to your original question, a long time ago, my family does the apples-walnuts-cinnamon-sweet Kosher wine version of charoses. I adore eating it. =)


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I'm going to have to go back to the apples charoses next year; I had an allergic reaction to (I think) the dates in the Moroccan!

I've vowed that one day I'll write a Haggadah, one that tells the story as a narrative yet encompasses all the parts we're supposed to include. That day's probably not so far off at this point!

quietly writing said...


Thank you so much for sharing this. I am a born again believer in Jesus Christ, and I have a deep and abiding love for Jewish people. We share a common faith heritage and I love learning about Jewish traditions. Also, each of my children bears one Hebrew name, either first or middle. It's just that important to me.

About the "butler" thing -- well, ya, he wasn't a "butler" -- he was the king's cupbearer. But since a lot of people (who obviously don't read enough!) probably have no idea what a "cupbearer" is, the term is often translated as "butler" today, especially in things like children's bibles. I, of course, have always used the term "cupbearer" with my own children, since I can't stand it when things are "dumbed down."

Butler, indeed. :)

Thanks again for this wonderful, personal, and meaningful gimpse into your family's Passover traditions.

Yahzi said...

Though academics debate if the Israelites were indeed in Egypt, they are in agreement about one thing: The Israelites did not build the pyramids.

Agnosticism might be the better part of valor here; the Bible as history is an assumption, not a scholarly conclusion.

stacy said...

I thought the empty chair was supposed to be for the prophet Elijah--the one who precedes the Messiah (not speaking of Jesus Christ necessarily, speaking of the Messiah I thought Jewish people still believed will come someday). Wow, things change depending on when and who is celebrating, huh?

Jenny Rappaport said...

stacy, my family has never left an empty chair for Elijah (we use the Yiddish pronunciation of his name, which I can't spell for the life of me). Instead, we fill a very large goblet with wine for him, which sits on the center of the table. And at the appropriate place in the Seder, someone goes to open the door (it was me this year), and he "comes in the house and drinks some of the wine". There's a certain trick to it all, which you don't tell the young kids, so they really think he's drinking.

Kimber An said...

Very cool, Jenny.

I think Yul Brenner is quite possibly the hottest actor who ever lived.