Passover Reflections

Passover, one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays, has always been a time for gathering, innovation, and reflecting on Judaism’s commitment to freedom and social justice. Throughout history Jews have created new seder rituals, updated the haggadah, and created new haggadot, in order to make their celebration of the holiday more meaningful. Secular Culture & Ideas asked secular Jews to reflect on their Passover traditions, innovations, and practices.

Passover has always been my favorite holiday. Maybe it's the food—I've always been a sucker for gefilte fish (which, my father told us, was caught from the Great River Gefilte during Purim by old Jewish fishermen waving hamentashen over the river while calling, in thick Yiddish accents, "Here little fishy…")—or maybe it's something more. Maybe, it's that for me, Passover always embodied the greatest of all Jewish values, social justice. Growing up, I always admired the struggle for freedom that Passover emphasized, and I appreciated that we never put our freedom above others'—that we always reminded ourselves that there were still people in the world who were not free. And not only did we remind ourselves of them, but we also aligned ourselves with their struggles, making them our own. Today, this applies more than ever. At our family seders, which often border more on disorder than order, we make certain to acknowledge the struggles of those who still suffer in bondage of all forms—around the world and in our own backyards. Now is a particularly exciting time to be thinking about these things, as my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter looks around the table at her two dads and talks with us about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. So, now truly is a time to celebrate our amazing advances in freedom, in liberty, in opportunity, in justice. But now is also a time to remember those who still are not free, and to make certain that, for all of us, the call to rise up against injustice does not go unheard, unheeded. Passover is a time for celebration, yes, but, more so, a call to action.

—David Ross Fryer, Ph.D., Fellow, Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought, Temple University

My atheist, left-wing parents—lifelong, fiery champions of the oppressed—didn't celebrate Passover when I was growing up, didn't discuss its meaning, never even used the word "seder," as far as I can remember. Their strongly held Jewish identities were as secular humanists, rebels, and freethinkers. As an adult, I followed in their footsteps, feeling no need for Jewish ritual, ceremony, or community beyond what the vibrant literary streets of New York City provided me with. But that abruptly changed when, after two decades of a contentedly child-free-by-choice marriage, my equally secular husband and I had a radical change of heart and became the ecstatic, first-time parents of a little girl whom we adopted from Guatemala, and who—to our own surprise—we felt a fierce desire to raise as a Jew, although we weren't sure how to do so in a way that reflected who we were. Fortunately, because sometimes it really does "take a village," we discovered and joined a secular humanistic congregation in New York City. Here Jewish holidays are celebrated as "cultural expressions" connecting to Jewish history, ethics, and art. Although I'm still a long way (if ever) from wanting to host a seder in my own home, I'm very happy each year to participate in my congregation's secular seder where I am, in so many ways, as much of a newcomer to the poignant and joyous celebration of Passover as is my five-year-old daughter. At this seder the words of the haggadah, written by our Rabbi, make overt and specific connections between the historic oppression and liberation of the Jews and the oppressions of people all over the world today. At the seder we also partake of a wide variety of delicious charoset, culled from recipes from all over the globe!

—Janice Eidus, novelist

Passover has always been my favorite holiday. I love its traditions, history, imagination, playfulness, symbolism, food, and rituals. It is the one time of year that I get to play rabbi—an agnostic rabbi, that is. For a number of years, my family has hosted large seders for Jews and non-Jews alike. To make the holiday meaningful, to make it resonate with our diverse crowd, we have written our very own haggadah (there are over 3,000 haggadot in existence, what's one more?). We incorporate modern music with ancient melodies—we actually have a band!—and make sure that all of our guests have an opportunity to participate. As for the prayers, I re-wrote them so that instead of focusing on God, we redirect our attention to humanity and to the always-relevant theme of freedom: existential, psychological, political, and spiritual.

Roi Ben-Yehuda, writer

When I was a child, our family's uninspiring and pseudo-traditional Passover seder never recognized that my father’s parents, who joined us at the seder table, had participated in a modern exodus of their own when they fled Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. How different it could have been to the children—all of us now grown and the others now disengaged from Jewish life—had the story of freedom and oppression been brought to life at our table by my grandparents’ experience. Instead we sat through an interminable service, with names of unpronounceable ancient rabbis that had nothing to do with our lives—except that it delayed our getting to the festive meal. Today, as a committed and engaged secular Jew, I love Passover. Friends gather in our home for a secular seder that distinguishes history from myth, includes modern history, modern problems, and modern words to traditional melodies, followed by international and multicultural foods, a lot of noise, and a lot of fun. Several years ago, shortly before Passover, I met an educator from the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Brooklyn. He sent me a note for the holiday, in which he referred to his own community and their personal exodus from Russia in the late 20th century. During our seder I shared this note, which had great meaning for all of us. Jewish culture is not only about history—it’s also about those living it. For my children, Passover is not simply about getting to the festive meal (although they love that, too).

Myrna Baron, Executive Director of the Center for Cultural Judaism, uses The Liberated Haggadah, which was written by her husband, Peter Schweitzer, a humanistic rabbi.

As I grow older, Passover for me has changed in meaning. First and foremost, it was—and in many ways, it still is—a holiday about bondage, i.e., the experience of having been slaves in Egypt and the slow-yet-radical transformation the people of Israel have undergone since then. The lesson is clear: having been subalterns, Jews must be resist all form of oppression, targeted against them or anyone else. It seems to me that the proclivity to engage in efforts of social justice stems from the memory we retain of the Egyptian past. But for the most part, today's Jews no longer suffer at the expense of higher powers. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the facet of nationhood that in part defined Jewish life for almost 2,000 years (along with culture and religion) has been replaced by a pretend "normalcy." Israel is like other nations: autonomous, free, and in the process of defining itself. It has also been the target on never-ending animosity. Thus, nowadays Passover for me is about the recognition that history in general, and Jewish history in particular, is never at a standstill. Things are always changing: once we were slaves, now we are free. So what to do with our freedom? First, we must remember never to enslave others. And second, we must spread the gospel of freedom, cease to castigate others, embrace the values of liberty with our enemies. Egypt must always be within us.

Ilan Stavans, professor, Amherst College

This is how we do it: We assign classic Passover themes to members of our seder group several weeks in advance. Slavery, liberation, plagues, renewal of the seasons, exodus, matzo, crossing the Red Sea, etc…. People bring in art projects, performances, songs, photographs, speeches, and so on, on their assigned themes. Our haggadah consists of a listing/ordering of these themes, and texts for us to read together about any themes that have not been covered (say, the ritual foods or the afikomen). The event is always joyous, highly creative, and bonds our seder group. It’s the very antithesis of boring. For some folks, it’s the only seder they attend; for others, it’s the third seder. In any event, this group has been making Passover together for more than 30 years.

Lawrence Bush, editor, Jewish Currents

Some years I get sick of a scripted seder. So I make a list of questions that allows all of the guests to participate in the seder and explain the meaning of Passover. Here is a sample from last year’s seder:

Person who has been to the most seders: What is Passover about (not the story, but the theme)?

Person who has been to the fewest seders: Dedicate the candles to something or someone who brings light to the world.

Person who was the oldest when s/he attending his/her first seder: Dedicate the first cup of wine to what is necessary for freedom.
(Drink the first glass of wine.)

Person who has changed jobs most recently: Tell about the horseradish and about the people today experiencing the bitterness of slavery and oppression.
(Each person tastes maror on a piece of matzo.)

Person who was born the farthest away: Tell about Miriam (or ask someone else to tell) and tell what people need to make it through hard times.

Person who has done political work most recently: Tell about the ten plagues.
Everyone suggests contemporary plagues.
(Drink the second cup of wine.)

Person with the closest birthday (past or future): Tell the Passover story and answer why this night is different from all other nights, why we eat matzo and dip in salt water and recline.

Person who has been to the most seders in a single year: Tell about Jewish resistance to oppression throughout the ages.
(Pour the third cup of wine.)

Person who has had to stand up for him or herself most recently: Talk about a Jewish freedom fighter and dedicate the third cup of wine.
(Drink the third cup of wine.)

Person who hasn't yet spoken: Talk about those who are fighting for freedom today.

Judith Seid, author, God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community