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.
The Haggadah is traditionally recited in Hebrew, with special passages reserved for the children and group singing at the end. Many families sentimentally reuse the wine-stained Haggadahs handed down in their families for generations--often the cheap editions printed and distributed gratis in the 1930s and '40s by Maxwell House Co. and B. Manischewitz Co.
For those who want something geared to their personal spiritual needs, dozens of new Haggadahs come out each year, ranging from traditional texts with new illustrations to annotated versions for children to modernized versions that recast the holiday with a message of Middle East peace, feminism, or labor rights.
Political Haggadahs are a tradition dating back to the 1920s, when Jewish socialists used to gather after the seder night for a "third seder," one devoted to politics. Today, third seders take place throughout the spring in every American city: interfaith seders, black-Jewish seders, and the fastest growing trend, feminist seders, which drew thousands this year in New York alone. Each has its own Haggadah.
"You can't assume anymore that everyone at the seder is a Jew who's familiar with the ritual," Strassfeld says. "There are more conversions taking place, more interfaith marriages, more non-Jewish relatives showing up at the seder. "
Many Jews, though, simply assemble their own Haggadah, like Hank Kaplan and Marnie Glick, lawyers in Portland, Ore. "It's come together over the years," says Kaplan. "A paragraph here, a clipping there. Now it's our own, unique family Haggadah. We do things in the right order--wine, matzah, horseradish. But we invent our own plagues, and we've got our own interpretations of the story."
With all the choices available, younger Jews increasingly seem to be approaching each of the two seders differently. One night is reserved for a traditional family seder. The other night becomes an experimental seder where friends gather to retell the ancient story in new ways.
"It's actually kind of fun that way," says Seth Kamil, a New York City tour operator. "One night, we do the Maxwell House seder [with traditional liturgy] with my wife's family. The next night, we have a bunch of friends over and have our own seder, where we use the Ma'yan feminist Haggadah."
Not everyone takes the personal at-home route, though. Many non-kosher restaurants now host seders where the ritual requirements are minimal or less. Sammy's Romanian Steakhouse, in New York's Lower East Side, holds what it calls a "mini-seder" every Passover for customers who want it nice and quick.
"We have a cantor who finishes in 20 minutes," says proprietor Stan Zimmerman. After gefilte fish and brisket, customers make their own egg creams--seltzer, milk, and chocolate syrup--right at the table.
Sammy's aside, most Jews still find that the do-it-yourself aspect of Passover is one of its most appealing aspects.
"The malleability of the home ritual makes it very attractive," says Columbia University journalism professor Ari Goldman, who's writing a book about American Jewish religious behavior. "There's nobody there to tell you what to do. That helps explain why so many people do it."
It also explains why Passover has become so popular as a pathway back to Judaism for people who have wandered away--or, in many cases, barely knew it. That's why Loren Bevans, Jane's daughter by an earlier marriage, began holding her own seder with friends last year.
"I was interested in attaching to my cultural roots," she says. "The seder doesn't happen in the synagogue, so I don't feel like I'm going to do something wrong or need instruction," she says.
But the main draw was the holiday itself.
"I love the tradition and the things that go with it," she says. "The foods that each represent something, the tradition of retelling the struggle for freedom. And I love people coming together and enjoying a meal."