As this site’s resident Jewish mother (whom you never visit nor call), I feel it is my responsibility to honor this special time of year. We’re in the middle of Pesach, or Passover, which honors the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Obamas held the first Seder in the White House attended by the President.
It’s always been one of my favorite holidays. The December when I was in first grade, our sweet, Quaker teacher (who had us reading the Bible aloud every day, despite the recent Supreme Court ruling) once asked us what holiday we liked best. Most kids said Christmas or Hanukkah (there were only a handful of non-Jews in my class), and I said, “Passover.” When she asked why, I said, “Because we get to dip parsley in salt water.”
As I’ve matured, I’ve expanded my affection to other aspects of the season. Passover, like Easter, probably has its roots in pagan festivals that celebrate the life-affirming aspects of Spring. Everything is newly green, sprouting, promising the pleasures of the summer. Unlike Easter, Passover is a celebration of freedom.
The ceremonial aspects of it – the Seder meal – are celebrations of freedom. The purpose of the Seder is to teach children the story of the Exodus. Starting with Moses in the bullrushes, and continuing to his rise in Pharoah’s court and his rebellion, through the Twelve Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, the service chronicles the events through songs and fables and most of all food. Matzo reminds us that the Jews had to leave Egypt so quickly that there was no time for the bread to rise. Charoses — a mixture of apples and honey and sometimes almonds — represents the bricks the Jews made to build the pyramids. Maror, the bitter herb (horseradish, in my family) represented that pain of slavery. Karpas (the parsley) dipped in saltwater symbolized the tears of the slaves. A lamb bone represented the lamb sacrificed to God, whose blood was smeared on the doors of the Jews so the Angel of Death would Pass Over their homes on the night of the last plague, the killing of the first-born. This scared the hell out of me, as the older sister. Also, we have a ceremonial egg, but we don’t paint it.
The adults drink four glasses of wine during the course of the service. We sing songs about goats. We open the door for the prophet Elijah, in case he decides he’s hungry, and we make sure a place is set for him at the table. We hide a piece of matzo and make the kids find it (probably so the adults can drink more wine). We make the youngest ask the Four Questions.
Done properly, Seders are really fun. Older participants tell stories about their turns asking the Questions. The kids get to show off. There is laughter and macaroons.
In my house, we also had politics. My earliest memories of Seders were in the early 1960s, when we saw civil rights marches on the evening news the way kids today see bank failures. The parallels between what the liberation of the Jewish slaves and the Southern Negroes (which is the term we used back in the day) were undeniable. My parents made it quite clear that one could not be a good Jew and also participate in the oppression of any other peoples.
When I had my own family, I wanted our Seders to be fun and educational, too. I found lots of different Hagadahs (the prayer book used for the service), some that stressed human rights, some that stressed feminism, and some that were pro-environment. We’d jumble them up until we found a mix that worked for us.
We didn’t have a Seder this year. It’s a lot of work, and we have no children in our home who require a lesson on the value of Freedom. If we did, we’d discuss the seat for Elijah as an allegory about opening our doors to share with people who have less than we do. We’d talk about how Moses’ sister, Miriam, fought for freedom right next to her brothers, and how a Miriam is needed now to lead a revolt against the Taliban. We’d argue about health care and tax reform and job stimulus because it’s my family, and this is what we do.
I don’t know if the entire First Family attended the White House Seder, or just the President. I don’t know if Sasha had to ask the four questions. I don’t know if they got their parsley from the new organic garden in the back yard. But I do know that, if a new generation is learning the story of the Pass Over, it’s good for the Jews. And Americans. And humans.
Media Goddess Martha Thomases especially enjoys the matzo made by her local bakery.