My Parents' Seder

Political idealogues can interpret the seder however they want, but at an early age I learned what the seder is really about.

BY: Arthur Hertzberg


In the emotional calendar of the Jewish year, Passover has become the time of family memory. It is the most observed of all Jewish festivals. Even innumerable nonbelievers come together for the seder to affirm their links with their ancestors and with other Jews, past and present.

Passover on Beliefnet
  • A comparison of theme Haggadahs.
  • Johanna Skilling on her interfaith seder.
  • Susan Schnur on a new Passover ritual.
  • Teaching Tales: Elijah's Favorite Seder

    PLUS: Find more features, music, and the interactive seder plate in Beliefnet's Passover section.

  • I have heard and read a thousand times a description of the same memories. In the days before Passover, Mother or Grandmother's house was in holy turmoil, as the plates and silverware that had been used all year were being moved out and the special china for Passover was moved in. The turmoil included baking cakes without flour, making gefilte fish and matzah balls.

    There are other variations of these memories, depending on one's land of origin: North African Jews, for instance, do not make matzah balls, and Yemenite Jews make a point of dressing for the seder in traveling clothes to suggest that, like our biblical ancestors, they are ready to take off instantly to heed a divine call to the Holy Land. So for many, Passover has become a kind of ethnic memory, a warm feeling about the folkways of our ancestors.

    Some of the nonbelievers who celebrate Passover, especially political liberals, make themselves comfortable by thinking of the holiday as the "festival of freedom." The Jewish slaves who broke out of Egypt are the paradigm for all enslaved people, so Passover is celebrated in the rhythm of a most moving spiritual of African-American music, "Let My People Go."

    Another contemporary interpretation of Passover has been made on the other side of the Jewish political fence, by nationalists and ultranationalists. For them, Passover commemorates the defiance by Jews of those who oppress them, of victimized Jews finally finding the courage to traverse the desert and enter the promised land, to conquer it by fire and sword. I have no doubt that in many households, this Passover the words from the seder liturgy--"Pour out thy wrath upon the nations who knew Thee not because they have devoured Jacob [that is, the Jewish people] and destroyed his habitation"--will be recited with particular passion and anger at the ongoing Intifada being conducted by Arabs against Israel.

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