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By Rachel Pomerance
Religion News Service

Atlanta – Moses may be a central character in the Jewish exodus from Egyptian slavery, but the old Negro spiritual “Go Down, Moses”
isn’t exactly standard musical fare for a Passover Seder.
Yet on a recent night here, some 150 blacks and Jews erupted in the chorus as they retold the Exodus story in the context of struggles faced by both groups during a black-Jewish Seder organized by the American Jewish Committee.
When it comes to Passover, almost any Jewish cause, coalition or household has fashioned a particular version of the holiday to express its own struggle for freedom.
For the past 40 years, the Haggadah — the printed guidebook that lays out Passover’s ritual of song and prayer — has morphed into countless varieties. What began in 1969 with Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s “Freedom Seder,” which referenced the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, has led to a range of retooled narratives, according to Jonathan Sarna, an American Jewish history professor at Brandeis University.
They might cater to women, vegetarians or activists yearning to free Tibet. And often, such services incorporate new rituals, like adding objects to the seder plate, which holds the traditional symbols of the liberation story.
So, for example, Dartmouth College Jewish studies professor Susannah Heschel began a tradition of adding an orange to the seder plate to show the “fruitfulness” of integrating gays into Jewish life — and spitting out the seeds in a symbolic rejection of homophobia.
The custom of customizing even extends to Judaism’s most traditional branch. The Orthodox Jewish publishing house, Artscroll Mesora, offers some 50 different Haggadahs, one of which is written by Hasidic rabbi and addiction specialist Abraham Twerski to address the experience of substance abusers.
Adapting Passover’s message to fit a range of needs is practically as old as the holiday itself.
“Over and over again, the Bible itself uses the Exodus to justify all sorts of things,” from caring for the poor to “any number of laws and practices,” Sarna said. “So the idea of trimming the Exodus to justify whatever it is you want to justify really has very deep roots.”
Even before people fiddled with the text of the Haggadah, they incorporated illustrations that reflected their times, depicting the modern-day Egyptian as a Russian warrior or Nazi soldier, said Sarna, adding that even the traditional text requires reinterpretation.
“It says in every generation, they arise to destroy us and God saves us. Well, if that’s the message,” then “obviously we are supposed to interpret this story in light of contemporary events,” he said.
Without fail, Passover offers a fitting backdrop for any number of modern-day struggles.
That’s why the American Jewish World Service, an international relief organization, dispatched a mass mailing to U.S. synagogues with readings that offer a “fifth question” to Passover’s traditional four questions asked at the Seder table. The cards depict a refugee from Darfur and ask: “How can we make this year different from all other years?”
“Passover represents an ideal occasion to reflect on Jewish suffering while affirming an imperative to respond to the injustices inflicted on others,” said Ruth Messinger, the group’s president.
The holiday’s widespread interpretation isn’t surprising in the long view of history, said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., the high priests could no longer offer animal sacrifices. Rabbis retrofitted the holiday by supplanting the ritual sacrifice with a move to “hang out and tell stories,” Hirschfield said.
Home-based celebrations of Passover add to its personalization.
It’s “not surprising that now when people go to celebrate freedom they allow themselves to be relatively free liturgically and ritually,” Hirschfield said. “You’re in control in your own home. You can take back your own dining room.”
That’s why Shoshana Silberman began to write Haggadahs more than 20 years ago when, as a religious school principal, parents began asking for a book that would speak to both them and their children.
“The best thing about a Seder is you can’t depend on a rabbi or a super-knowledgeable person. You have to do it yourself,” she said. “Unless you really know the Haggadah well, it’s hard to kind of go through it and choose what you’re going to include.”
Today, with desktop publishing, plenty of people print their own family Haggadah. Hirschfield says the trend is popular, noting he receives at least a half-dozen home-grown Haggadahs each year.
“Since the Seder was created, it has always been about creating the Seder you need to celebrate the liberation for which you yearn,” he said. “Ironically, when you have the most individualized, customized, tailor-made experience, it can actually deepen your empathy for other people in the present and your ancestors who have gone before you.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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