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A Secular, Blended Passover

November 27, 2006

My family is religiously “blended.” My wife, Tolle, is not Jewish. I am. We have three boys, aged twenty-four, twenty-one, and seventeen. I should note at the outset that while our family is “blended,” Tolle and I both consider ourselves to be spiritual but secular in our belief systems. For us, observance of otherwise “religious” holidays are cultural experiences, opportunities for contemplation and self-reflection and family or community gathering times, rather than holy days reserved for ritual piety.

Passover is one such holiday. I have vivid memories of experiencing Pesach as a child in the 1950s, at my grandparents' farm in southern New Jersey. Both my parents, and their parents, had escaped Nazi Germany shortly before the war broke out. My maternal grandparents, having left urban Frankfurt, and having been resettled as nouveau poultry farmers, were observant Conservative Jews. Our family observance of Passover with them meant listening to my grandfather read the entire haggadah in Hebrew, with no translation, literally for hours (or so it seemed!). I recall slumping lower and lower in my chair, until I was virtually under the table and asleep by the time the ceremonies were over.

Fast forward fifty years. What had been for me a formal and rather tedious observance by our small nuclear family has now taken the shape of an animated, sometimes boisterous, highly participatory gathering of a widely extended family. This is the Boston Workmen's Circle community seder, attended by as many as 175 members and their families and friends. For several years now our family, including my father when he was alive, has joined with other friends to mark this holiday in our own ever-evolving way.

In fact, a great many of the families who belong to the Workmen's Circle and participate in our seder are mixed, “interfaith” couplings. We are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, multi-racial, gay and straight, atheist, agnostic and “believer.” As a community we identify ourselves as secular and progressive, and, usually, at least one member of the family has Jewish roots. We operate a thriving Sunday school (“shule”) from which all my boys have graduated and attained their Bar Mitzvah, each having spoken publicly to the community about what it means, to him, to be Jewish. We are proud to be home to what we believe is the largest Yiddish chorus in the country, if not the world! We offer other cultural and educational programs, as well as social action activities, that speak to our Jewish immigrant roots. But also central to our organization's identity is its inclusiveness, its embrace of the diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds that characterize our member families and their extended families.

Our seder reflects our central view that while we are grounded in Jewish culture and heritage, our frame of reference is really all of humanity. We take very seriously the challenge offered each year by our communally prepared haggadah, “to connect our history with our present and to act to bring justice to the world.” It continues: “Let us celebrate our freedom and strengthen ourselves to join the fight against injustice wherever it exists today. For as long as one person is oppressed, none of us are free.”

Our haggadah draws our attention to the struggles for freedom and for social justice of many different peoples around the world; it also gives special focus to the ongoing crisis in Israel/Palestine, which is, of course, a particularly Jewish concern. For me, among our most transcendentally beautiful readings is a poem called “Ishmael,” by Amy Azen. My eyes tear up each time I hear it read, this poem that lyrically recalls the common ancestry, the now seemingly forgotten brotherhood, of Jews and Arabs:

 

“O Ishmael,
How long shall we age war with one another?
How long must there be rancor and mistrust?
How much more blood must be spilled
Before the final epic?
How many shall we shovel in the sand?”

 

Our seder asks, demands, that we ponder these questions.

It also movingly commemorates the Passover 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, by telling the story of courage and resistance and hope in the face of utterly devastating odds. This remembrance is especially resonant for my family, since my father's sister, as best we can tell, perished in the ghetto. The seder then continues by honoring the memory of those Jewish women, like Hannah Senesh, who parachuted behind enemy lines in Hungary and Slovakia to organize resistance, and Vladka Meed, who served as a courier and smuggled arms for the ghetto fighters, and Rosa Robota, who organized the smuggling of dynamite to blow up a crematorium at Auschwitz. Finally, we remember those individuals, like Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, who during World War II “crossed boundaries” to save people of other groups; and we honor those Jews who today “cross the line” in Israel and remind us of the common humanity, and the mutual needs for safety, work, and home that we share with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

And while our haggadah presents these weighty matters of conscience seriously and forcefully, their gravity is tempered by a liberal sprinkling of songs, children's rhymes, tastings of the traditional haroset, maror, parsley, and matzah, and, of course, the obligatory four glasses of wine followed by a sumptuous pot luck supper! By the end, a moving, filling, and splendid time has been had, I daresay, by all. And this includes my kids. While I can't attest that over the years each of them has listened to every word, they've sung, they've read, they've discussed, they've searched for the afikomen, they've eaten until they could eat no more. In a word, they've taken it all in!

My wife finds meaning and joy in this celebration much as I do. The critical reason, I think, is that we share, along with our fellow participants, a secular system of values that honors, above all else, our common humanity with all those others with whom we share this planet. And while Passover urges us to recall a telling chapter in our ethnic past, it more importantly insists that we be mindful of a world still much in need of repair, still crying out for social justice, still needing us all to focus less on our differences and more on how alike we really are.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." "Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. 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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Derived from the Hebrew word "cheres," which means clay, it's a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine eaten as part of the Passover seder. Symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh in Egypt, it's one of the symbolic food items on the seder plate. 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 "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Hebrew for "bitter," one of the ritual food items on the Passover seder plate. Commonly represented by horseradish or romaine lettuce. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Michael Felsen

Michael Felsen has lived in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, with his wife, Tolle, for 30 years; their three boys attended the Boston public schools and the Workmen's Circle shule. A senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, Michael currently serves as president of Boston Workmen's Circle and treasurer of the national Workmen's Circle organization (and he sings bass with A Besere Velt).

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