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A Very Untraditional Brooklyn Passover

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On Sunday we gathered with twenty-one friends and family members to celebrate a very untraditional Passover at our home in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. It was untraditional, first, because we were a night early, an accommodation to the modern world were adults have to work. The group ranged in age from 8 years old to ninety-three and included blacks and whites as well as Jews and Christians, truly making it a Brooklyn Seder.

The Jewish Passover lends itself to both the traditional and untraditional. It commemorates the story of enslaved Hebrews fleeing Egypt for freedom in the time of the Pharaohs. The story comes from the Biblical book of Exodus, although there is no independent archeological or historical evidence to confirm that these events actually happened. There are thousands of versions of the Haggadah, literally "the telling," the guidebook to the combination holiday service and dinner known as the Seder. The modern Haggadah probably dates from 13th century Spain and is an amalgam of biblical references and commentaries.

Just as the Seder and Haggadah have evolved over the centuries, they have evolved in our home as we use a series of symbolic items on the central Seder plate and the table to tell the story of the human desire for freedom, not just freedom for Jews, and the need to challenge oppression by any and all.

The best-known symbol of Passover is matzoh, a flat cracker like "bread" baked especially for the holiday. It symbolizes the rush to freedom as the Israelites escaped from Egypt. They left so quickly that their bread dough was unable to rise. I purchased our matzoh at a storefront in Crown Heights, Brooklyn where it is prepared by Hasidic bakers according to the oldest traditions. The storefront and ovens are used for a short time each year just to prepare matzoh for the holidays.

Our table also has a lot of sweet wine to help us celebrate and salt water to remind us of the tears of bondage. We keep an extra glass of wine on the table. Traditionally it is for the Angel Elijah. But in our ceremony it is for all those who cannot share with us and all of those who still struggle for freedom and justice.

The story of Exodus held a special place for enslaved Africans in the United States and in recognition of their hardship and struggles for freedom we sing African American spirituals and freedom songs as part of our Seder. Unfortunately slavery is still present in the world today. The United Nations estimates there are over million people currently trapped in bondage around the world, many of whom are children. We see our Seder as partly a political act, a form of recommitting our selves to a world with justice for all.

Our Seder plate contains a roasted lambs hank bone, horseradish, charosets, a blend of apples, walnuts, and wine, a spring of parsley, a roasted eggs, an orange, and a dish of olive oil.

The parsley represents the coming of spring and the egg new birth and life. The symbols are similar to the symbols for Easter because they are both spring holidays and because Jesus and his disciples were Jews and the last supper was actually a Jewish Seder.

The charosets is supposed to represent the mortar used in the building of the pyramids and hence enslavement. The bitter horseradish also represents enslavement. The roasted lamb shank bone represents freedom and grows out of the Jewish belief as told in the story of Exodus that God inflicted ten plagues on the Egyptians, including the slaying of their first born sons, but passed over the homes of the Israelites.

The orange and the dish of olive oil are relatively recent additions. I have heard different explanations for the orange but I like the one told by my niece Marissa the best.

According to Marissa, the ancient sages said a woman could not lead the Seder or be equal to a man in religious duties until an orange appeared on the Seder plate. One year Marissa decided we needed to have an orange on the Seder plate and we have had one ever since.

The olive oil on our Seder plate comes from Palestinian farmers on the West Bank. I received it through an organization called Brooklyn for Peace. In the traditional Haggadah there is a song at the end of the Seder where congregants sing, "Next Year in Jerusalem." We added the olive oil to the Seder plate as a statement reminding us that our right as Jews to celebrate in Jerusalem if we choose does not negate the rights of other people. Palestinians have the same right to statehood and access to Jerusalem as Israelis.

The telling of Passover begins with four questions asked by one of the youngest children. Of course in our Seder we do it slightly differently. We have each child ask their own question about Passover, slavery, Judaism, or the world today, and organize the Seder to answer their questions.

This year there were two eight year olds, my grandchildren, and a nine year old, their cousin. They wanted to know:

How long have people celebrated Passover?
Did Moses really lead the Israelites across the Red Sea?
Did everything in Passover really happen?
Why did they sacrifice animals?
Do people still have sacrifices today?

We then started the answer by singing the African American spiritual made famous by Paul Robeson - "Go Down Moses."

When Israel was in Egypt land,
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go!
Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt land,
tell old Pharaoh
to let my people go!

O let us all from bondage flee,
Let my people go!
And soon may all the earth be free,
Let my people go!