Thursday, March 21, 2013

Passover: The Finding Consistency in a World of Diversity

I love Passover. I probably wouldn’t be alone in saying that it remains my favorite Jewish holiday. It has richness, it has beauty and it has heart-wrenching depth.

But that isn’t really why it’s my favorite celebration. It’s because of the amazing diversity of its traditions and its ever changing capacity for expression.

Modern day Ashkenazi seder plate - Eden Hensley Silverstein
Diversity, you say? If anything, Jewish traditions are rooted in consistency, not diversity. Each year we tell the same story, we eat pretty much the same foods, we symbolize the story of the Jews’ exodus with the same items on the seder plate, we break and hide the matzah the same way.

True, within our individual communities we generally do. And don’t get me wrong: that consistency is what gives value and depth to the Passover holiday. By adopting the traditions that our great-great-grandparents followed, we give them meaning and purpose. We keep them alive, and they in turn, keep our Jewishness alive.

But I still can’t help but be fascinated by the breadth of changes our simple Passover meal has gone through over the years. As Jews have travelled throughout the world, they have tweaked the customs to fit the abundance and limitations of their new homelands. In some cases, they had no choice: in their migration from one culture to another, one climate to the next, the availability of ingredients changed, and so did the recipes and the traditions. Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition are known to have settled as far away as Mexico (and to have added to the recipe a tropical flavor), Italy (with its interesting addition of citrus and dates), Greece (with pine nuts and sans apple) and parts of Eastern Europe (what is often considered the conventional Ashkenazi charoset, with apples and often missing the citrus of some Sephardic recipes).

Ashkenazi charoset - by Wonderyort
Today, this discovery and transformation continues. Each year, as I sweep out the last crumbs of chometz from my cupboards and plan the menu for our seders, I put aside time to log onto the Internet and take a tour around the Jewish universe. I learn about Jewish cultures I’ll probably never visit, I try to imagine what their beginnings were like. I travel to Cuba, where charoset has for years been a humble mixture of matzah, wine and honey – a charoset of the oppressed. What was it like before apples became too expensive to use? Was it something richer, more decadent? And 100 years from now, will that simple mixture of matzah, honey and wine with its own concoction of spices take on a richer, bolder significance and resist change, or will it be transformed by history once again?

Israeli seder for Ethiopian Jews - Jewish Agency for Israel
I find myself wondering how the last remaining Ethiopian Jews in Gondar will celebrate the holiday this year, knowing that most, if not all, will be in Israel next year. How will their understanding of Jewish customs change, or will some of them remain steadfast, and manage to hold on to their traditions of thousands of years?

And what new communities will emerge next year? This Passover, on the small Portuguese island of Madeira, what is believed to be the first public seder in several hundred years will be taking place. Shavei Israel and a gracious couple from Israel, Danby and Marvin Meital, will be hosting the seder in its well-known resort. Even though the original community no longer exists (there are rumored to be two or three Jewish families living on the island), its ancient Jewish history makes Madeira a fitting place to hold the Passover celebration. In attendance will be people representing many different backgrounds, and possibly, many different Jewish customs. Once again Jews will have a chance to preserve a part of Jewish history by enriching it with their own unique and vibrant understandings of what it means to live and to celebrate the Jewish experience.
Jewish Quarter, Lisbon, Portugal - Carnaval King 08

 Video of Bnei Menashe singing V'hi she'amda at Pesach courtesy of Shavei Israel.

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