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A Hands-on, Flexible Holiday: U.S. Jews at Home with the Seder

March 11, 2002

This article is reprinted with permission of JTA.

NEW YORK, March 11 (JTA) Rachel Chernick often feels alienated in synagogue, but is a big fan of Passover seders with her extended family. "I have a very positive Jewish feeling when I celebrate Jewish rituals with my family. I particularly love Passover because it's such a do-it-yourself holiday," said Chernick, 35, a social worker in Brooklyn. "You don't need a rabbi to guide you through the Haggadah. You set your own tone. You can do as much or as little of it as you want."   
 
Many American Jews seem to share Chernick's special fondness for Passover. Demographic studies consistently show that Passover--closely followed by Hanukkah--is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday in the United States.

While fewer than half of American Jews are synagogue members or light Shabbat candles, 86 percent of households in which all family members were Jewish and 62 percent of interfaith households participate in Passover seders, according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.

So why is this holiday different from all other Jewish holidays?

"By definition it's a participatory event, not an audience experience," said Rabbi Joy Levitt, co-author of A Night of Questions, the Reconstructionist movement's Haggadah.

Dru Greenwood, director of outreach and synagogue affiliation at the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations said Passover is "celebrated in the home and everyone can do it," even if not affiliated with a synagogue.

Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and author of Preparing Your Heart For Passover, said Passover is accessible to interfaith and unaffiliated families because "there are no institutional barriers."

"Unlike most aspects of Jewish life, the rituals are clearly explained while we are doing them," he said.

Levitt, who is also associate executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, noted that Passover's message of liberation is an accessible one, yet open to a range of interpretations and traditions.

"You can see on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. There are not only Haggadot like ours, but Yiddish folk ones, women's, all the denominational Haggadot, freedom and vegetarian ones. The structure just lends itself to a very, very creative and dynamic way into the tradition."

Many Jews--and non-Jews--find the Passover story particularly applicable to modern life.

"Everyone has been enslaved in one way or another, and everyone has somewhat miraculously been taken out," Greenwood said.

Amy Tobin, artistic director of the Hub, a cultural center for 20- and 30-somethings at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, said, "We see oppressed people today and slavery was a reality in our country not that long ago."

"The ideas in Passover are not very remote. People can relate to them." Hannah Decker, a history professor in Houston who is not religious but hosts a seder each year, said Passover is more ideologically compatible with her mind-set than other Jewish holidays.

"I don't believe in miracles about candles lasting eight days," she said, referring to the Hanukkah story. "But Passover is a holiday about freedom." Decker, 64, grew up in an Orthodox household in New York but later drifted away from Jewish observance.

"This is a way of doing something that's not hyper-religious and trying to get my family to come together," she said.

For Decker, Passover has become more important as her two children have married non-Jews.

"The biggest motive for me to have the seder is because I have a grandchild and his mother is not Jewish, and this is a way of trying to bring some Judaism into his life," she said.

For Susan Berrin, editor of Sh'ma, a monthly Jewish journal, Passover has a lot of educational potential.

"There's a possibility to use the seder as a teaching experience but in a really fun and creative way," she said.

Berrin livens up her family's seders by having each guest "take a different section of the Haggadah and do something creative with it."

Last year her brother-in-law and his partner staged a phony news broadcast with some of the children at the seder, reporting on the 10 plagues. Berrin and her youngest daughter put together a Jeopardy-style game with questions about the tradition of eating matzah.

Passover can also be a springboard for broader discussions about social justice, Tobin said.

"For me, my greatest connection to Passover is it's great that we're free--but a lot of people still aren't. I don't feel like we can completely recline and celebrate because some people are still suffering around us."

For those concerned with social issues, another perk of Passover is that it is relatively immune from commercialism.

"It's refreshing to have a holiday not based on gifts, not based on buying anything, not based on dressing up to go to shul," Chernick said. "It's about eating dinner and reading from a book."

 

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. Plural form of the Hebrew for "telling," it's the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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