Monday, April 05, 2010

Celebrating Pesach

Passover is, without a doubt, one of my favorite holidays. It is a time of renewal and remembrance, a real spring holiday in which we gather strength from the winters of the past and move forward into the summer of the future, if you'll forgive my grandiose description. But Passover is grandiose. It is a celebration of the single most important historical event int Jewish history, the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites went from a ragtag bunch of slaves to an enduring and powerful people. The seder celebration is thousands of years old. The last supper of Jesus was a passover seder. He celebrated it much the same way as we celebrate it today, with wine and unleavened bread and feasting.

I'm not going to get into the "truth" of the Exodus or not. Whether or not it actually happened, believe it or not, is not all that important to me. So much of history is simply storytelling, collective myth-making, the creation of a cultural identity through a shared past. And that is enough for me.

Passover starts with a massive Spring Cleaning. Every corner must be emptied and cleaned, lest some "Chametz" be found there. Chametz is basically any leavening agent, or anything that has been leavened: bread, pasta, any wheat product that hasn't specifically been created for Passover under strict supervision. So we clean our houses, our cars, our closets, our offices, and we clear out everything. Kosher Jews bring out an entirely different set of dishes and pots and pans just for Passover, items that have never touched Chametz and never will.

After the cleaning, there is the seder on the first evening of Pesach (those outside of Israel have two seders, the first two nights). How can I describe the seder? It is a long, ritualistic commemoration of freedom, in which we who were once slaves are meant to lounge and feast like royalty.

The table is set with fine china and the seder plate, which contains the symbols of passover: Maror, or bitter herbs, symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured in Egypt; Charoset, A sweet, brown mixture representing the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt; Karpas, or parsley which is dipped in salt water to commemorate the tears of the people in Egypt; Z'roa, a lamb shank bone symbolizing the ancient Pesach offering; and Beitzah, a hard-boiled egg also symbolizing the offering. We eat these things, and follow many other rituals: washing of the hands at the table, breaking and eating the matsoh, drinking four glasses of wine throughout the meal, each one symbolizing one act of God's redemption. From one glass we remove ten drops to remember the plagues visited on Egypt, and to remind ourselves that our joy is lessened by the suffering of others, even our enemies.

But the most important part of the night is telling the story. We tell the story of the Exodus, however we want. I've been to seders where the children put on a play; I've been to seders where each participant was given a piece of the story to tell in whatever creative way they chose; I've been to seders where the story was simply read from the Haggadah, which is basically the program for the evening. We tell, we laugh, we ask questions--questions, in fact, are very important--we sing songs, loudly and late into the night. We discuss tyranny and how and where it still exists in the world, and how we as individuals can further the cause of freedom today. And somewhere amid all the ritual we eat until we feel sick. At the seder I went to last week there was course after course, and wine flowing freely, and we were there for five hours, singing and arguing (as Jews do). How could anyone not love this holiday?

After the seder, the festival lasts for eight days. Eight days in which we consume no chametz, only matsoh. At the end of the eight days we are free to eat bread again, until next year.

I love ritual; I love tradition. I know in our age that most people look skeptically on ritual, but I love it. I feel like it connects me to things that have been lost to time. It grounds me and roots me and makes me feel like I belong. It was the seder that first made me want to convert. I was in Israel, and my roommate brought me home with her family. They were all secular, not religious at all, and yet every year they got together and performed these rituals. There were at least thirty people there; it was warm chaos. I loved it. I wanted me some a'dat.

So just add Pesach to the list of Jewish holidays that are awesome. Anyone who wants an invite for next year, let me know. We'd be happy to have you!


Wendy said...

I went to my first seder four years ago, I think it was. I loved the ritual and the storytelling as well. For a theater person it just seemed like the right thing to be doing with family and friends...getting together and telling this ancient and wonderful story as a group. I love how many varieties you have been to, as well. Just grand. Happy Passover to you.

Marie-Ève said...

Super interesting! Thank you for this!

Questions: I'm not sure why Chametz is so bad?

And, after you've eaten the traditional seder offerings, do you eat other things as well?

What a great tradition, anyway.

mrs.notouching said...

I always long for traditions and rituals and really hoping I will manage to somehow create that for my kids.