Monday, April 18, 2011

Passover (April 18-26, 2011)

Passover is a holiday for all Jews. I've read that more Jews in America participate in a Seder than in any other Jewish ritual. The Haggadah -- which can be rewritten to reflect a huge variety of philosophies, including secular ones -- tells us that all Jews came out of Egypt and then stood with the former Egyptian slaves when Moses delivered the law. Who knows, maybe we believe it in some secular way or another.

I can think of a number of reasons why Passover appeals to secular Jews like me. First, Passover is a family holiday, celebrated at home. The rabbis and other synagogue authorities don't play a role. Their dismissal of secular Jews as  not being real Jews, or their wish to change secular Jews into ones who act more like them, can't reach you at your own dining table. Also, they can't bore you to death.

Passover appeals to secular Americans because it commemorates freedom from tyranny and the values of a free society. For religious Jews, it may have additional meanings, but the value of freedom resonates for many secular Jews and other Americans as well. For example, recent feminists have added some details to their Seders that put women's rights into the spotlight. The Seder's flexible nature allows one to have independent ideas, to be as religious or irreligious as one likes, to choose elements of tradition, and also to maintain a Jewish identity. Of course this also depends on one's guest list or host's ideas too -- I don't mean to imply that this is an exercise in giving offense.

Passover has fantastic food traditions. The challenge of giving up bread and other leavened foods inspired cooks for generations. The holiday falls at the most food-deprived time of year in Eastern Europe where most American Jews originate. However, the importance of the holiday meant that poor people were supplied with food or money, and that people of modest means saved up some luxury items from the previous growing season. Insight into history of Jews in other times and environments is embedded in the food traditions.

Some secular Jews may give up bread, but you don't have to do so to enjoy the joyful and generous foodways of the holiday. My father, who was an inventive secular Jew, always bought a few rye breads from the local Jewish bakery before it closed for Passover, and stowed them in the freezer so he wouldn't have to give up anything. The holiday wasn't originally held at a time when food was scarce, but that was the case in the Shtetls -- giving up bread was a really serious sacrifice in my father's childhood. I view the holiday as a time to think about the old days, when food was less abundant, as well as about other traditions -- see Passover in my food blog.

My father also maintained that a Seder should last no more than 10 minutes. An Israeli expert making suggestions for broadening tradition at secular Israelis' Seders almost agrees. He pointed out that the Haggadah became longer and longer over the centuries stating: "In the ninth century, the Haggadah could be read in 20 minutes."

Passover's appeal to secular Jews reminds me of something that I heard at a seminar about Jewish languages a few weeks ago. Being secular (whether in the context of language or another context) is done within the context of a religion. When you are a secular Jew, that means you are some kind of Jew, not a nothing. The speaker, Anita Norich, pointed out that some people said that in the Yugoslav war, the battle was between those who didn't go to church and those who didn't go to the mosque. I'm a Jew who doesn't go to synagogue, but like many others, I celebrate Passover at home in my own way.

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