Tag Archives: seder

Passover Remixed

by Amanda Walgrove

For thousands of years, the Passover Seder has evoked universal themes of personal liberation and religious freedom. Each generation tells and retells the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. But the annual remembrance also has a history of being a uniquely malleable occasion that can be customized to certain values of an individual or household. From its conception, Passover has been a holiday predominantly based on interpretation of Bible narrative, using an aggadic midrash as its leading text for instruction and discussion during the Seder. While tradition has always been an important aspect of Jewish practice and ancestry, how much wiggle room is there to expand upon and perhaps amend certain traditions?

The adaptation of the Passover Seder is commonly accomplished through the modification of two main tools used during the annual observance: the Haggadah and the Seder plate. New songs and activities to include in Passover celebrations abound on the Internet; Each new year delivers a fresh batch of innovative variations of these iconic objects, and with the development of technology and the continuing exploration of certain core values, 2011 is no exception.

Seder plates, now used as microcosmic edible message boards, have a history of being modified with new foods that represent certain values and causes. Oranges have been known to symbolize the power of Jewish women, olives as a call for peace between Israel and Palestine, and an artichoke for the interfaith-friendly plate. Activists have grabbed onto the plate phenomenon as well. Last year, the Progressive Jewish Alliance put together a “Food Desert Seder Plate” that replaced the traditional items with ones symbolizing lack of access to fresh food in low-income neighborhoods.

Feminists have also latched onto the opportunity to emphasize certain values and key figures in the Passover Seder. “Jewesses with Attitude” (JWA) recently debuted a short video highlighting Miriam’s role in the Passover story, her legacy as a leader, and the contemporary Jewish women who follow in her footsteps. While Miriam may be the only Biblical woman who is “not described as somebody’s wife or mother,” she is absent from the traditional text. But this hasn’t made her famously essential role in the Passover stories any less profound. Now, many observers include Miriam’s cup in their Passover Seders, representing “the recognition of women’s contributions and the commitment to inclusivity more generally, making sure all Jews have a voice.” JWA is teaming up with JewishBoston.com—which has already released a free, downloadable, customizable Haggadah—to produce a Haggadah that celebrates the contributions of women to Jewish life.

In the virtual Haggadah department, DIY Holiday Co. just released their first product, Do-It-Yourself Seder, which allows families to create their own personalized Haggadot. Offering content relating to current events, foodies, kids activities and songs, the new project serves to broaden the Passover tradition with an interactive and creative approach. Similarly, Haggadot.com, winner of the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund award, allows users to cut and paste their own Haggadot. The Forward compares the process to Amazon.com, which has thousands of retail partners from which you can mix and match. Users can add their own photos and stories, pull from those others have shared, paste it all together, print it out, and upload it for others to ponder.

For fans of the most traditional form of Passover capitalization, the overwhelmingly popular Maxwell House Haggadah has been given a makeover to go along with its first new translation since its original printing in 1934. Conforming to contemporary vernacular, “thee” and “thou” have been replaced with “you.” God is also no longer gendered by the proper pronoun, “He.” Along with the new cover design, the text will also be larger, and the layout easier to navigate.

The message of Passover hasn’t changed, but the ways in which we retell the stories will continue to evolve for each individual, family, and generation. If you ever remember acting out the Passover story in Hebrew School, now you can see it all through your Twitter feed as @twitplaymoshe, @twitplaypharaoh, @twitplayammon and friends reenact #exod2011. While some may fear that “watered down” versions of the Haggadah and internet fads can damage the observance of the holiday, a sense of community and accessibility is important during a time when Jews give thanks for religious and personal freedoms. With the internet on board as Moses readies himself to lead the Jews out of Egypt once again and Jake Gyllenhaal preparing to hide the afikomen on “Sesame Street,” all we need now is the iPad and Kindle to consider joining the Seder so we can say, “Passover?” “There’s an app for that!”

For Refugees, a Modern Exodus

By Adam Chandler

Before escaping to Israel in 2003, Ephraim lived in a camp with 15,000 other Eritreans. Like a growing number of refugees from Eritrea as well as the Congo, Darfur, and Southern Sudan, Ephraim set off to evade the lethal farrago of political unrest, genocide, and deprivation that has come to typify the drought-laden portions of Eastern Africa. He left when he was 19, some seven years ago, a decision he says he made “to preserve life.”

The trek itself was a life-risking gambit. He paid smugglers to take him north through a maze of menace filled with unceasing obstacles. Those who don’t die of fatigue, starvation, or dehydration on the way must make it through the Sinai Desert where an Egyptian policy of shoot-on-sight claims dozens of lives yearly. Women making the journey are frequently raped, sometimes by their handlers, and refugees often face financial extortion by a cast of profiteers.

Once the refugees enter Israel, they begin the daunting task of acculturating to life in a new country, looking for jobs and shelter. Some of the women who arrive widowed or pregnant with the children of their assailants end up sleeping in places like Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv’s seedy Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. This is often where Nic Schlagman  finds them.

Schlagman, 30, first became aware of the community of African refugees simply by walking through the neighborhood surrounding Tel Aviv’s decrepit Central Bus Station. Separate from Tel Aviv’s beach scenes and chic Bauhaus buildings, South Tel Aviv is home base for an ingathering of migrant workers from far-flung countries and exiles who come to Israel to work or start a new life. Israel, a Westernized country boasting a strong economy, has become a prime destination for both.

According to government statistics, there are more than 215,000 foreign workers in Israel, just under half of them working without a legal permit. Schlagman estimates the population of African refugees living in Israel numbers around 25,000. But beyond the hope for work and stability, Schlagman believes the appeal of life in Israel has a deeper resonance for refugees like Ephraim.

“It all began with the Seder.” Schlagman says.

Struck by the narrative of the migrant community in Tel Aviv, Schlagman began working with the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) to provide food, shelter, and cultural immersion assistance for African refugees in Israel. On a spring day in 2009, some of the volunteers were talking about their plans for the Jewish holiday of Passover. The refugees were familiar with the story of Moses leaving Egypt, but were curious about the Passover ritual of the Seder, a ceremonial recounting of the exodus into the Promised Land.

“As we were explaining the festival, it occurred to me that this wasn’t just our story, this was really their story. They literally, in many cases, walked through Egypt crossing the Sinai to flee oppression, hoping to find freedom. We had this idea that we would try to create this Seder together.”

The Seder was held in Levinsky Park and drew 1,000 people, an even split between refugees, curious Israelis, and a melange of contributing community activists and volunteers. The pastor from a refugee church brought in a choir to sing traditional Passover songs with a choir from a nearby Jewish seminary. The event, which aimed to bring about a broader consciousness regarding the refugees, combined the normal order of the Seder with the opportunity for Africans and Israelis to explore parallels between their stories.

Despite the commonalities in narrative, Israel’s policy regarding the refugees is a confusing one. After their status as asylum-seekers is determined, refugees are granted “temporary protection,” which ensures that they are not arrested or deported for three months. At the end of three months, a rubber stamp re-extends their stay another three months. Throughout these periods, refugees are not issued work permits. While the Israeli government doesn’t prosecute employers for hiring illegal labor, the refugees are frequently resigned to working menial jobs without the inherent protections that a work permit provides.

The debate about the refugees inspires much theater. Right-wing Israeli politicians label the refugees anything from infiltrators and security threats to the xenophobic extreme. As Israel faces a demographic problem vis-a-vis its Jewish character, even the idea of naturalizing a relatively small non-Jewish community remains politically unpopular across the spectrum. Calls from the largely-marginalized Israeli left wing argue that Israel was founded as an asylum for those fleeing oppression and genocide, but go largely unheard. Schlagman adds:

“It begs the question, what was the point of coming here? If this land doesn’t allow us to flower from the experiences of our history as wanderers for 2000 years, then what have we learned?”

In the meantime, activists like Schlagman and volunteer groups like the ARDC go about their work. Grassroots efforts have given some refugees a safety net to acclimate to life in the country. And while in limbo, refugees manage a precarious life. Some find better work and even open small businesses. For four years, Ephraim’s family didn’t know where he was. He now works a sanitation job from the early evening until five in the morning. He then goes to class on two hours’ rest and tries to stay awake. Ephraim, who secured a large scholarship at an Israeli university, has found a poetic topic of study: government.  When asked about his long-term plans in Israel or abroad with his family, he explains he doesn’t have any.

“I don’t have time to think about that.”

Seders, and the Last Supper, and Jesus! Oh, My!

By Michelle Albert

A recent article on Slate raises the question of a possible connection between the Last Supper and Passover, dredging up a long-standing source for argument and speculation.

On the surface, and indeed to many Jews and Christians, the Last Supper seems to have been a seder. It is generally acknowledged that Jesus was Jewish; in fact, early Christians had to be Jews before they could be Christian. At the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples said blessings over the bread and wine and reclined as they ate. (Though that they ate bread, not matzah, is one mark against the correlation). Three of the four gospels, those of Matthew, Mark and Luke, state that the Last Supper happened after the start of Passover.

We know that the Last Supper and the resurrection happened around Passover – the proximity of Passover and Easter attests to that. But there is plenty of debate whether the Last Supper happened either before Passover started, or on the first night. The fourth gospel, that of John, dates the day before Passover (when the Jews were preparing for Passover) as the time of the crucifixion. And Jesus’ actions, though reminiscent of Passover tradition, also match up with what was done at most Jewish tables at the time. (And remember: bread, not matzah). Continue reading

The White House Seder Used Maxwell House Haggaddah

By Marista Lane

White House Seder

For the now legendary White House Seder, the Obamas used the widely popular Maxwell House Haggaddah, (which we wrote about in our last issue). Roughly 20 people attended the Seder, including the Obama family, White House senior adviser David Axelrod (who helped organized the event), and other White House staffers.

“The sages probably did not intend this.”—Facebook Haggadah

facebook-haggadahBy Marista Lane

For those who can’t seem to pry themselves away from social networking long enough to enjoy a Passover Seder, there is hope! Yes We Conserve, a group on Facebook, created a satire of the Haggadah for the social networking obsessed: It’s designed to look like the homepage newsfeed on Facebook.

“Moses is Departing Egypt: A Facebook Haggadah” begins with an introduction, which cautions us that, “The sages probably did not intend this.” The story is set up in the format of the newsfeed and is told using popular Facebook features, including status updates, wall posts and gifts. The conclusion is especially awesome.

This year our ceremony still contains some time for reflection, and some ability to remain on the same topic for more than a minute or two.  But next year, may our ceremony be faster, divided into bite-sized chunks, and with each utterance no more than 140 characters.  And so we say together,


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Have you checked out Moment’s March/April issue?

0409-coverIt’s on newsstands now!

Check out our cover story on Bernie Madoff, the man who ran what was perhaps one of history’s largest Ponzi schemes, remains a mystery. Rabbis representing the spectrum of Jewish belief reflect on what ethical lessons we can learn from the scandal, and Charles Ponzi biographer Mitchell Zuckoff discusses why Madoff targeted Jewish charities and how ethnicity has factored into the media coverage of the affair.

Also in this issue, we profile minority whip Eric Cantor. He made headlines by persuading his Republican colleagues not to vote for the stimulus package. Is this highest-ranking Jew in the history of the House, and its only Jewish Republican, the Moses who will lead the GOP out of the wilderness to the Promised Land? Former Wall Street Journal reporter Robert S. Greenberger profiles the 45-year-old Virginian.

There’s a lot more to check out in this issue, including Ilan Stavans on Mexico City’s forgotten Jewish past; Deborah Tannen’s conversation with Theodore Bikel; Jews in Chautauqua, America’s Protestant intellectual playground; Great Seder films; Paul Warburg‘s fight for the Federal Reserve; Israel’s lead in the electronic medical records department and columnists Eric Alterman, David Frum, Gershom Gorenberg and Marshall Breger.

Happy reading! And don’t forget to become a fan of Moment on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (MomentMagazine).

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The Google Seder

By Nadine Epstein

The e-mail invitation came at the last minute. Not that Google didn’t know Passover was on its way, but apparently it would have been un-Google-like to plan too far in advance. So the message arrived just a few days ahead of the special evening: “I would like to formally announce this year’s Google seder, affectionately known as Koogle@Google 2008.”

“Google? seder? Google seder?” you might ask. Not many companies (I can’t think of any others) have an official corporate seder. We’re not talking a Hanukkah or Christmas party but a full-fledged Exodus commemorative night at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, a few miles south of Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Continue reading