Thursday, March 31, 2011

Passover: It's All in the Telling

by Larry Kaufman

A recent post on the Reform Judaism blog ( described the experience of someone newly converted to Judaism who attended his first seder at his congregation, and found himself seated next to a Christian divinity student who was there to gain insight on the roots of his own religion. The blog post went on to describe their conversation, and it was interesting to read about a seder with the perspectives of an outsider and of a newcomer.

As it happened, I just taught a one-session class on Passover as part of Beth Emet’s adult education program. I had no idea who might attend, and thus was at a loss as to how to prepare. Remembering that Passover is about "zaicher litsias Mitzrayim," remembering our departure from Egypt, I decided to focus on memory.

When the class convened, there were only three students, and I quickly learned that all three were Jews by choice – who therefore had no Passover memories of their own. Rather than impose my memories, I let them set the agenda; and it was interesting to listen to the range of their questions and to observe the depth of their interest.

In many ways, the simplest question was the hardest to answer: how do I choose a Haggadah for my family's seder. Rabbi London happened to drop in to say hello, and, on request, showed us a number of interesting haggadot from her personal collection. We talked about the three Reform haggadot (Union, Bronstein, and Elwell), and about special-agenda haggadot, and they seemed particularly fascinated by the story of the Maxwell House haggadah.

Not to totally lose the memory theme, I told them about the way family traditions develop, resulting in things that aren't on the haggadah's printed page, but might as well be -- as when my Tante Anna would serve the soup, invariably accompanied by her apology that the (light-as-a-feather) matzo balls were a little heavy this year.

Another question dealt with the historicity of the Exodus story, which we decided after brief discussion didn't really matter very much, but that what mattered was the importance of the re-telling of the story, whether it was fact or fiction.

Perhaps most important, we talked about freedom, including examples of personal liberation. We compared the Passover celebration with that of Independence Day -- where the one retains its symbolic significance, whereas the other is a day for hot dogs and lemonade, where only if we turn on the radio are we likely to hear the Star-Spangled Banner.

Did my students get out of the class what they were looking for? I don't really know. But echoing the story of the rabbis who pulled an all-nighter in telling the Passover story until their students interrupted because it was time for morning prayers, we were still there long after the scheduled time for the class to end, until the building staff reminded us they needed to lock up and go home.

So to my store of Passover memories, I now add this experience -- which, among other things, will add to the table conversation when my family gathers around the seder table to learn, sing, eat, and wait for Elijah.

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