Passover: Thanksgiving’s Jewish Cousin
I’ve never attended a Passover meal before. In my non-religious upbringing, the word conjures up something to do for the dying. I see people sitting vigil for someone who’s about to pass. While the origin of the name of the holiday does have to do with death, Passover is a celebration of liberation and a reminder to never take for granted your freedom. I think of Passover as something like a cousin to Thanksgiving. Both holidays focus on food and family and are based on the idea of freedom from oppression. I think Thanksgiving tends to focus more on your blessings of the past year, while Passover seems to be more of a reminder to examine freedom for each generation and what it means it means to be oppressed.
Jews refer to the holiday as Pesah. The first Pesah was observed on the last night the Jews were slaves in Egypt. Moses asked Pharaoh to free the Jews and was refused. God then sends ten plagues to prompt Pharaoh to free the Jews but they remain slaves until the final plague — death to all male first-borns. The Jews were instructed by God to sacrifice a lamb and place some of its blood on each Jew’s doorpost so their firstborns would be “passed over” and spared by the angel of death.
In the US, most Jews kick off the holiday with at least one Pesah Seder, or meal (although many celebrate with two evenings of Seders) and the entire holiday lasts 8 days. Pesah is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the US; even many non-observant Jews attend at least one Pesah Seder each year. This I imagine is because it’s like Thanksgiving, it reminds one of family and friends. One food I think everyone associates with Pesah is Matzah, unleavened bread. When Moses led the freed Jews from Egypt, there wasn’t time to let the bread rise so they had to eat flatbread. To remind Jews of this sacrifice, during the entire holiday they abstain from eating anything with leavening (bread, pasta, oatmeal, beer, etc.
Now let’s talk about the word Seder. It literally translates to “order.” There is a distinct flow for a Pasah Seder set by what I think of as the conductor of the meal, the Haggadah (meaning “Telling”). The Haggadah is a book that guides you through the Seder. You can buy all types of Haggadahs with different themes: feminist, environmentalist, kid-friendly, refugee-related, LGBTQ, traditional, etc; or people make their own. A Haggadah will contain the order of when to eat the Seder foods, sing songs, drink wine, eat the meal, and tell stories. It’s almost like participating in dinner improve with a loose script.
So what’s on the table? Wine. Like all good Jewish holidays there’s wine. But in this holiday you are required to drink 4–5 glasses of wine so be prepared (grape juice is available). There’s also a cup of wine for Elijah and maybe Miriam. In the center of the table, you’ll see a stack of Matzah. You might also find some representations of the ten plagues placed around the table. And then there’s the Seder plate, which should contain some variation of the following. I’ve seen African or Turkish themed Seder plates.
- Beitzah (roasted egg): a reminder of renewal and the circle of life.
- Z’roa (shank bone): represents the sacrifice of the lamb on the original Pesah.
- Maror (bitter herbs, usually horseradish): a reminder of the bitterness of slavery and exile.
- Karpas (vegetable, usually parsley, celery, or potato): something green for spring dipped in saltwater and eaten as a reminder of the tears shed during slavery.
- Charoset (apples, nuts, spices, and wine): its sweetness represents freedom while it also symbolizes the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build Egyptian bricks. I made some Moroccan Charoset for class and it was amazing!
- Chazeret (second bitter herb, usually lettuce): symbolizes the bitterness of enslavement.
I was excited to celebrate my first Passover holiday. I was really starting to like the theme of Jewish holidays — let’s celebrate and eat! After my experience with the Chabad Purim celebration, I decided this time to find a Reform temple to celebrate Passover. Of course, I would’ve preferred an invitation to dinner from my paternal side of the family but I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
I mentioned to our teacher I was trying to decide where to participate in a Seder and the rabbi suggested I purchase tickets from Bet Chaverim. It’s a small temple and I thought it’d be perfect. Marcus had wanted to go with me; however, he was sick so our oldest son accompanied me. I wasn’t sure what to wear but you can almost never go wrong with business casual.
When we arrived, the room was packed with people and rows and rows of tables. We were greeted and introduced to another Jew by choice. Interesting, I thought, to note this particular fact in the introduction to a fellow Jew. Perhaps I should start introducing myself as a Jewish NPE? That would confuse people. Incidentally, when you look up NPE on the Internet, the first result is a plastics show. Now Wikipedia is second, with “Non-Paternity Event.” I like “Not Parent Expected” because there are some who discover they were conceived via sperm donor and it’s more encompassing of all of those affected by the discovery.
After some lite chitchat, we found a table with two free seats and sat down. It was easy to follow along using the Haggadah. And, there was a lot of singing, which I loved. I’m still surprised by how comfortable I am in Jewish settings. And I even liked the Gefilte fish. But, I was a little disappointed in how low-key the event was, how fast everyone tried to finish all of the steps in the Haggadah, and how quickly everyone dispersed once they were finished eating. I am excited to explore more Pesah Seders in the years to come. I would highly recommend attending a Seder if you’re lucky enough to be invited.
On the drive home I was thinking about oppression and today’s world. Some have asked me why I would want to claim to be a Jew when it can be so dangerous to do so. It’s in the memory of my genes. It’s in my soul. I can’t help who I am and I shouldn’t have to. I’ve seen first hand how racism can change the course of an individual’s life. Given the rise of hate around us, we all have to work to keep our freedom — for if my brother or sister is not free, then I can truly never be free too.