A New York Times article about Passover dated April 9, 1855, possibly
the first mention of Passover in that newspaper stated: “(Passover) is an
imperishable record of the unaltered nationality of the Jews.”
And so it has been. For
over 3,300 years, Passover has played a central role in the ongoing history and
culture of the Jewish people. The Seder ritual, with its curious mixture of
customs and laws, created and evolved over many centuries epitomizes the Jewish
communal experience. Passover’s theme of
redemption and freedom is reenacted at the Seder with lessons and songs,
feasting and solemnity. The Passover Seder is ageless. It is at the same time, both
scholarly and popular, ancient and contemporary.
According to the Jewish
National Population Survey, about 68% of Americans who identify themselves as
Jews routinely hold or attend a Passover Seder, in contrast with the 46% who
are actually members of a synagogue.
Clearly, the observance
of Passover in some form is very close to the hearts of a great many Jews. For
some, this occasion is marked by scrupulous adherence to special Passover
preparation and Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws); and to customs particular to
certain individual communities and groups.
For others, it can be
just simply getting together for a Passover meal on one of the nights during
the holiday observance. Most often these meals include nostalgic dishes that
may remind us of our childhood: gefilte fish with horseradish, chicken soup with
matzo balls, brisket or turkey and macaroons… even matzo lasagna for Italian
Jews who are accustomed
to regularly observing Jewish law and ritual, and who are familiar with Hebrew,
generally have an easier time executing this holiday. The traditional text of
the Haggadah, the ritual manual for the Seder, is carefully recited in its
entirety. Traditional Seders can last for hours with deliciously prepared food
and deep theological discussion and prayer. It is for many of those families
the highlight of the year.
I am an avid collector of
Haggadot and books about Passover.
Recently, I came across two books, one called “Haggadah: A Passover
Seder for the Rest of Us” by Henry Kellerman Ph.D., and “Pesach for the
Rest of Us” by Marge Piercy.
I found it interesting
that both titles contain the same words:
“the rest of us.”
I would assume that the
“rest of us” pretty much know who we are. We are Jews who are trying to figure
out what it means to be a Jew; what it means to believe or not believe, to doubt
and to reason. We are Jews who are trying to figure out what it means to live
in a world that is constantly reshaping and redefining itself. Many of us are
looking for ways to avoid slipping into a cultural ghetto of our own devising,
while seeking to develop a Jewish consciousness for ourselves and our children
that will survive the scrutiny of both science and reason.
Many of us Jews who fall
into the category of the “rest of us” may be uncomfortable observing Passover
at all, because we cannot connect with concepts assumed to be “religious.” We
prefer calling ourselves secular or cultural Jews, and we generally do not
adhere to the precepts of organized denominational Judaism. However, we do have
strong connections to our Jewish identity and to what we consider Jewish
values. We appreciate having been raised in Jewish homes where there were
unique attitudes and interest in things such as politics, education, literature
and the arts, Israel, and the Holocaust, even in Jewish languages such as
Yiddish and Ladino.
This Jewish connection
does not require acceptance of any religious belief. Unlike other religions,
Judaism does not have a specific dogma, but rather a set of customs. There is
no one way to be a Jew, and that definitely has been one of Judaism’s greatest
The Passover tale, like
all good stories is both timeless and instructive. And although there is no
firm historical evidence for the Biblical narrative, the quest for freedom and
justice that forms the basis for the Exodus from Egypt has been and still is, a
universal model of inspiration and hope for generations of those suffering the
pain of oppression and injustice.
Some of us may find the
concept of the “Chosen People” exclusionary; or are uncomfortable with
conventional definitions of G_d. We may be atheists or agnostics. There is no
reason why we all cannot connect with our tradition in meaningful ways, without
sacrificing the integrity of our beliefs.
Since the first Passover
Haggadah was printed in Spain in 1482, there are now over 4,000 different
versions of this book, and there are more published every year. There are
hundreds of editions of the traditional version, many with interesting
commentaries. There are many unique versions of the Haggadah that address our
own particular way of being Jewish. There are secular humanist Haggadot such as
Dr. Kellerman’s mentioned above, feminist and egalitarian, gay and lesbian.
There are African-American, Christian and ecumenical Haggadot. There are even Haggadot
developed especially for vegetarians.
A quick online search of
Haggadot will give us access to many downloadable versions, We can find
instructions on how to write our own or easily find a version that speaks
especially to us. We have come a long way since 1482.
The Passover celebration
is rich in symbols, sounds, and stories. It has been evolving for thousands of
years, and will continue to evolve. Passover can be a wonderful holiday for the
rest of us if we allow ourselves, whether we believe in a Supreme Being or not,
whether we believe in miracles or not, to take that time-honored journey
through the Haggadah, with our families, friends and loved ones on our own
terms. We can even write our own chapters as we find ways to extend the
concepts of freedom peace and understanding, so intrinsic to the Passover
story, to our own generation, and generations to come. A Sweet and Happy Passover to all!
Rabbi Frank Tamburello, Westchester
Community for Humanistic Judaism, Westchester County, New York.