Monday, April 23, 2012

My Passover Story

While I don’t necessarily observe all the Jewish holidays, Passover (or Pesach) is one that is always important to me and I try to always celebrate it with my family (yes I realize that Passover ended over a week ago, but now is when my post was finished, so here it is).  Even when I was living away from home I would usually try to get home for at least the Passover Seder, which is on the first night (well technically there are two but we’ll get back to that).  We are not an especially traditional family and, though we have altered some of the ritual practices to find a tradition that works for us, we do keep more of the traditions here than at other times.

Passover celebrates the freedom of the ancient Israelites (the forerunners to present day Jews) from slavery in Egypt.  It also serves as a holiday to welcome the arrival of spring and, in ancient times, even served as the start of the Jewish Year (though now the accepted New Year is Rosh Hashanah which occurs in the fall).  While the exact timing will always vary, Passover is often close in time to Easter, and this is no coincidence.  It is generally accepted by biblical scholars that the “last supper” of Jesus and his disciples was actually the Passover Seder.

The Passover Seder itself is a ceremonial meal replete with symbols representing the story of Passover and the purpose of its existence is to tell the story of Passover to the next generation.  Most often, we read from the Haggadah, a book that sets out the specific order in which things are done and which prayers are said at what time.  Now my dad is definitely not into prayers so, although we used a traditional text for some time in my early years, we switched to something more progressive many years ago.  From about the age of 10 until my Bar Mitzvah I received my Jewish education with a Toronto-based organization that billed itself a Secular Jewish Association.  What this essentially meant, is that while they kept a Jewish identity and some traditions, there was pretty much no discussion of God and almost no purely religious aspect.  It was with this group that I had my Bar Mitzvah which would really be more accurately described as a school graduation ceremony. First it was a group event.   No Torah readings, no prayers but plenty about what we have learned about Judaism and being Jewish.  I must say that I really needed that school at that point in my life, as I really didn’t understand what it meant to be Jewish; all I really comprehended was that I was not Christian like everyone else at school (hmm, knowing I’m different but not knowing how - it seems this pattern keeps coming up through my life!!)  But this experience taught me to have pride in my background and allowed me to define myself not by what I’m not, but by what I am (again, great practice for coming out - it just took me a really long time to see it).

So where were we?  Oh, that’s right, Passover.  Before I got off on that tangent, I was going to explain that when we joined that organization, they had produced their own Haggadah and the content seemed to reflect our values very well and that is the version we use to this day.  The point I’m trying to make by telling you this is that sometimes we can get bogged down by the old traditions that we do just because we are supposed to do them and this can obscure the intended objective of that tradition.  I have a guess that this is one reason I am meeting so many people who still claim to have a spiritual side but have pretty much abandoned established religion.  I think that learning about Jewish traditions and history has taught me that letting go of that identity has imperiled the survival of the Jewish people so, even if I do not accept some tenets of the faith or some of the ritual practices, I am and will always be Jewish.  I might suggest that an alternative to just declaring oneself non-religious might be to take a closer look at your faith and do some cherry-picking; making your own traditions by keeping what works and either eliminating what doesn’t or changing it so that it does.  In fact, a family member shared something recently from a rabbi that advocates doing exactly that, albeit with a starting viewpoint quite a bit different than my own.  I will provide the link here though you should be warned that those of you who do not know much about Judaism and all the traditions associated with Passover will likely be lost.  There are even some things in there that I don’t understand.  But the basic point he is making is that we should be examining the Seder traditions and, for it to be meaningful, we cannot get stuck in an endlessly repeating pattern but instead we should be fulfilling the goal of retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt by making sure we do not turn it into a bore or a meaningless rite, but make it a time for learning and truly examining the lessons of not just this holiday, but all our religious practices.  To read the article click here

It seems this post just does NOT want to be about the Seder itself.  Oh, well I bet this is more interesting anyway.  Still, I wanted to share a bit about the Seder itself because Passover is about telling the story and explaining the meaning of everything that is done.  Very briefly, it is the story of the Book of Exodus: the Israelites were enslaved by Egypt in the days of the Pharaoh and it came to be that Pharaoh wanted to keep this slave population from growing.  Then Moses received a command from God to lead his people and demand their freedom from Pharaoh (this part is not really mentioned in our Haggadah, but reference is only made to the people being oppressed and demanding release).  The story goes that, when Pharaoh refused, 10 plagues beset the Egyptians and Pharaoh relented.  All the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry.  But then Pharaoh reconsidered and pursued the escaping Hebrews to the Sea of Reeds (or possibly the Red Sea - there is a certain vagary in the translation and in reconciling with a physical location).  Then, miraculously, the waters parted allowing the Israelites to cross then, while the Egyptians were crossing, the waters came back drowning the pursuers. 

Because they departed in a hurry, the story is that they had no time to wait for their bread to rise before baking it to have food for the journey, which is why we do not eat any leavened products (especially bread) throughout Passover, eating matzah instead.  There is also no baking or cooking with flour or most other grains, and no grain-based alcohol.  For some sections of the Jewish community, rice and legumes are also proscribed.  Despite these difficulties I actually enjoy baking on Passover, particularly because of those very interesting challenges.  But, yes you can bake cake on Passover.  Since no leavening agents are permitted, sponge cake is the method of choice, as the only leavening present in such a cake is beaten egg white.  As flour cannot be used, the substitute is a blend of matzah cake meal (which is matzah ground to meal, then ground further and sifted to make a very fine powder) and potato starch.  Ground nuts are also very commonly used, most often walnuts or almonds.

The matzah is one of three elements of the Seder that are considered especially important to be explained, the others being the pesach and the maror.  Pesach, which is also one of the names of the holiday, refers to the lamb that was sacrificed on the eve of the final plague on the Egyptians.  The Angel of Death was to come and kill all the first born sons of Egypt and the Israelites would sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on the doors of their homes as a sign for the plague to pass over their homes (hence the other name).  In the days of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, animal offerings were made at the temple, and a lamb was offered on Passover.   Finally the maror is bitter herbs, the eating of something bitter at the Seder.  The obvious symbolism is to remember that the lives of the slaves were bitter so we must remember that by tasting the bitterness ourselves.  Different families use different items to represent bitterness, but the most common these days is probably horseradish.  Now the interesting thing is that I don’t consider horseradish to be particularly bitter.  It certainly is very pungent and sharp and it can be painful to eat but the bitterness is not at the forefront.  However, what my family has done (this does go back to previous generations) is to take a whole root and soak it in water at room temperature for at least a couple weeks before Passover, until it begins to sprout.  The germination and growing of sprouts does in fact make the horseradish more distinctly bitter and maybe a little stronger too.  Other possibilities for maror include endive, radicchio or a similar bitter lettuce.  A long time ago, I heard at some point some Jewish families would use romaine as their bitter herb.  Now who really considers romaine lettuce bitter?  I think this was part of a trend to not have anything eaten at the Seder to be the slightest bit unpleasant to eat, particularly for the kids.  But the most important part of Passover is teaching the kids and I think it is a worthwhile lesson that the lives of the Hebrew slaves were bitter and quite unpleasant.  The maror should not be a joy to eat - it is supposed to be reminiscent of the bitterness of slavery.

There are other symbols on the Seder plate too.  Haroset is a mildly sweet paste made of apples, nuts, wine and a bit of sugar and cinnamon (there are other variations too) that represents the mortar used by the Israelites to build monuments for Pharaoh.  It is eaten together with matzah and maror.  There is the z’roah, a roasted shank bone, ideally of lamb, that represents the pesach sacrifice.  Baytzah, an egg, represents new life and rebirth of springtime.  Karpas is a green herb that represents springtime and the new growth.  The Karpas is dipped in salt water when eaten, the water representing tears cried by the slaves.

The Seder Plate - Clockwise from top:  Karpas, Baytzah, Maror, Z'roah, Haroset

There are so many more details regarding the Seder, from the four cups of wine, to the cup for the prophet Elijah, to the afikoman, to the story of the four sons and so much more, some of which varies by family or regional origin.  But for our family, we complete the Seder by following along in the Haggadah, which includes various stories, quotations and songs, some drawing parallels to modern day issues as well.  More traditional Haggadot (that is the plural of Haggadah) would have more of a focus on prayers.  Then we eat boiled eggs also with the salt water.  Next comes chicken soup.  This is quite commonly served with matzah balls, but mostly we just have the soup with crumbled bits of matzah.  Then comes the main course.  Some of the most frequent meals we have are either roast chicken or a pot roast brisket (of course I have recipes now on this blog for either one)

As you can see, I could go on and on for pages and pages about what Passover and the Seder are about and what lessons can be learned.  But since this is getting quite long, and I think I mentioned the most important things, I will simply finish by saying that perhaps the ultimate lesson is to not take our freedom for granted but rather to celebrate our freedom and to work towards a day when everyone can be free.

Oh, wait a minute!  It seems I said I’d come back to the part about there being two Seders.  Yes, tradition does dictate that a Seder be held on each of the first two nights of Pesach.  Now this makes sense if you have a large extended family living reasonably close by so one Seder would be at one house and the second at another house, quite likely with different guests (this is definitely a holiday where hospitality and inviting guests is encouraged).  That does not really apply to our family and doing the same Seder with only the three of us on consecutive days really makes no sense.  So we only have the one.

1 comment:

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