06/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Truly Kosher Passover: Giving Up More Than Just Leavened Bread

Since last Monday I've been celebrating Passover. Despite the fact that Columbia University has its fair share of Jewish students, the fact that I've opted to keep kosher as well has been seen as a bit of an oddity. This past weekend, I explained to my skeptical parents that I was keeping kosher not for any particular religious reason but rather as a reminder to myself of how lucky I am and of the fact that there are millions of people who do not have the advantages that I have had -- having an accepting family and friends, parents invested and interested in my life, and even the ability to afford every meal.

For me, this approach to being kosher l'pesach (kosher for Passover) goes hand in hand with the overarching theme of the holiday. As both a historian and a Reform Jew, I recognize that my people did not actually build the pyramids of Egypt, and that most, if not all, of the events of the Bible should not be read as literal fact. Instead, I view the story of Passover as a metaphor that can be applied not just to the Jewish people but to any oppressed group. Throughout the unfolding of nearly every seder -- from the most orthodox to the interfaith -- there is a repeated recognition of the fact that our world is filled with the underprivileged, the hungry, the downtrodden, and the oppressed.

Additionally, the holiday asks us to consider in what ways we are still slaves. In many ways, we are enslaved to our prejudices (be it homophobia, sexism, or racism), to our material goods (whether it's the latest car or the iPad that we "need"), and to any variety of other things. In preparation for Passover, many Orthodox and Conservative Jews conduct a traditional search of their homes for chametz (leavened bread) in order to both literally and symbolically cleanse their lives for the coming holiday. At a recent Friday night service I attended, a woman noted that these other things in our lives that keep us enslaved -- our prejudices, our material goods, our drama -- are equally "chametz" and that perhaps each of us should focus more on clearing out this kind of chametz than the chametz of leavened bread.

So when, this Passover, my friends asked me to lead a seder, I did my best to ensure that this seder was in this tradition of Jewish egalitarianism and self-awareness. As we told the story of the oppression of the Jewish people, I noted a few historical parallels -- some vocally, some to myself.

During the section of the Haggadah that speaks of the fears of the Egyptians that, "[should] they multiply, and, if we happen to be at war, [the Jews] may join our enemies and fight against us and then (we will need to) leave the country," I immediately thought of the fate of the Japanese Americans during World War II. Just as the phrase "And the Egyptians demonized us and afflicted us; and they imposed hard labor upon us" might apply to the Jews in Egypt, it can also apply to the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust, or to the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin.

To be sure, there are other easily-drawn parallels, and from numerous parts, but my point here is that to simply go through the mechanical process of the seder without asking questions (the Four Questions, after all, were meant originally to serve as an example), without pointing to similarities in our recent past or the present, is to miss the point.

I encourage not only every Jew but everyone to take the opportunity of this holiday to remember those who do not have a home, those who hunger, and those who face oppression every day. The vast majority of us go about our lives not thinking about these people, and, in all honesty, this is at least in part because to think about their suffering while we live largely in comfort makes us uncomfortable. But just as cleansing our house of chametz (to be done on hands and knees) and forgoing leavened bread is uncomfortable, so, too, is cleansing ourselves of our prejudices, reminding ourselves of those who lack what we have, and forgoing some of our minor indulgences that others might have more.