Jane Bevans, a New York attorney, is what some people would call a once-a-year Jew. Raised in a secular home, married to a non-Jew, skeptical in matters of faith, she limits her Jewish ritual observance to a single yearly holiday. But that one holiday has become a focal point in her year, and its ceremonies serve as an emotional reminder of her past and, she says, of who she is.
The holiday is Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom. The ceremony is the seder, the annual family dinner where Jewish families retell the story of the biblical exodus from Egyptian slavery. Bevans and her family celebrate the seder every year with the same group of friends. They read the Haggadah, the medieval text recounting the exodus, and then eat a festive meal and talk until the wee hours about the meaning of freedom then and now.
"I enjoy it tremendously," Bevans says. "It's a coming together of friends who substitute for extended family. It's the connection, the one link I have to the Jewish tradition. When I look at the meaning of this holiday it pulls together for me a sense of who I am, without having to be a religious Jew, which I am not."
A generation ago, once-a-year Judaism was synonymous with the solemn fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, deemed by tradition to be the holiest day of the year. Regardless of what they'd done all year, Jews throughout the world would gather in synagogue on that day to pray, fast, repent, and listen to the rabbi's annual fund-raising appeal.
Nowadays, though, atonement has been displaced by freedom. Studies of Jewish religious behavior consistently show Passover to be the most widely observed Jewish holiday in America, celebrated by 80% to 90% of all Jews. That puts it ahead of Yom Kippur, which has a 60% to 70% observance rate in most surveys.
"In our surveys and interviews, we've found that Passover is far and away the most important holiday for Jews today," says Arnold Eisen, professor of religious studies at Stanford University and author of "Rethinking Modern Judaism."
The passion for Passover seems explosive these days.
"Every year, we have more and more people coming into the store who are having a seder for the first time, looking to buy Haggadahs and ritual items for the seder," says Ellen Bob, who owns a Judaica gift store in Palo Alto, Calif. "And these are not 23-year-old kids. These are people in their 40s who've gone away from Judaism and want to come back. There's a Passover renaissance out there."
It shows up in the most unlikely places. Carol Miller, a public-health specialist in rural New Mexico, holds a seder every year with her husband, who isn't Jewish, and a dozen or so friends from nearby, most of whom aren't Jewish either. Some years, she attends a community seder in a nearby town, which draws 80 to 100 Jews from the surrounding desert, an odd mix of artists, nuclear scientists, and community organizers.
"It's a way to encourage people to talk to each other," Ali says. "The exodus from Egypt to Israel represented a lot of suffering for a lot of people. It's a symbol."
The reasons for Passover's popularity aren't hard to find.
"It speaks to people," says Ellen Bob. "You can light Hanukkah candles and exchange presents without ever knowing what the Maccabees fought for. But you can't have a seder without examining the passage from slavery to freedom."
Eisen, the Stanford professor, sees the appeal in less intellectual terms.
"Passover is about a connectedness among generations and feeling good about Jewishness," he says. "That makes it very popular among Jews who don't do anything else. At the seder, we recall our patriarchs and ancestors, but chances are you're remembering your own parents and grandparents--and the seders of your youth, when they were present."
Adding to the appeal, Eisen says, is the fact that "you're doing it in your home on your own time. You do it however you want."
Because of the generational tug, many Jews try to celebrate Passover as nearly the way they remember it as possible. Tradition dictates that families hold seders on the first two nights of Passover. The seder table is laid out ornately with special foods--matzah, the flat, unleavened bread symbolizing the Hebrews' haste in departing; horseradish, recalling the bitterness of slavery; haroseth, an apple-and-nut paste representing the mortar used to build the pyramids. A special wine goblet is placed in the center for the prophet Elijah, whose return, Jewish mystics believe, will herald redemption.