In 1997 in Wellington, New Zealand I attended my first Passover Seder. I had absolutely zero idea what a Seder was, truth be told, I didn’t really know what Passover was. I had vague recollections of being taught about this important Jewish holiday in a Religious Education lesson at high school but as my RE teacher was very suntanned, except under her chin which was pearly white, I spent more time staring at her neck and wondering how she didn’t notice, than what she was teaching. Shame on me. In a Wellington hostel we joined a group of other Jewish backpackers who, as far as I can remember were very disorganised and noisy and couldn’t decide what order to read the Haggadah, which is the guide and story for the Passover meal. I also remember being given a cold hard boiled egg (my idea of hell) and being shown to dip some leaves in salt water. To say that it was a bizarre experience is an understatement. We left before the end when half the guests were concentrating on downing the full glasses of wine which are part of the ritual while others argued about whether to keep reading or eat. Not the best introduction to the Jewish faith methinks.
16 years on (where did that time go?) and we are approaching the Passover Seder again and my mind has been mulling the memories of the Seders I have attended since that chilly evening in Wellington.
For those of you who, like I was, have no idea what a Seder is, here is the 39 & Counting guide – again if you are Jewish please skip this part for fear of a) being offended and b) choking on your tea with mirth at my lack of knowledge.
The Seder is a ritual feast which is held at the start of Passover in which families and friends gather and retell the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt where they were being kept as slaves by the Pharoah. The dinner is guided through the reading of the Haggadah which tells the story, includes blessings, songs and rituals (salt water on lettuce amongst others) to remember and symbolise the struggle of the ancient Jews in their escape (salt water represents the tears). The Seder includes drinking four cups of wine (merry backpackers in Wellington), eating matzot which are crackers symbolising the unleavened bread they carried as they had no time to let the bread rise, eating symbolic foods placed on a special Seder plate and then reclining in celebration of their freedom. This is very much in a nutshell and if you want to know more, click here.
One of the most notable things about a Seder is that give or take a few cultural changes depending on the nationality of the guests it is pretty much the same all over the world and has been for thousands of years. Quite amazing if you think about it.
When we lived in London we had one Jewish friend who went back to her family in Scotland for the holiday so my husband was resigned to doing it chez nous with just the 2 of us – which is odd and obviously leads to a lot of skipping of the text and a lot of wine drinking. However, the first year we were there we were invited to the house of one of the congregants of the synagogue that my husband was working at as a security guard. (So sad that a place of worship needs security). The house was in St John’s Wood and was gigantic. They were hosting around 20 people, all of whom were a long way from their particular homes and were as an assorted a bunch as the Wellington crowd. We sat around a beautifully decorated table and I witnessed for the first time a ‘proper’ Seder. The mood was friendly and welcoming – I had no idea what to do and was guided throughout – the food ranged from the usual (roast chicken) to the highly unusual (for me), gefilte fish (excuse me, what is that?) and when they passed a platter of chopped liver I must have looked horrified as my table mate quietly told me what it was and that it was delicious (still not my thing). The reading was solemn, the songs jubilant and although the experience was way outside of my norm I found it moving and impressive.
The London Seders that followed were less impressive in our pokey flat but nevertheless we always had them, of varying lengths throughout our time there.
In Israel of course Passover starts the second the Purim costumes have been sold, rather like the Easter eggs arriving on the shelves minutes after the Christmas decorations have come down. 3 weeks ago no. 1 son insisted I bought matzot in the supermarket because he thinks them delicious.
We now do the Seder with my in-laws of course, once with a more religious member of the family which was a longer and more serious affair, once with no.1 son as a new-born where I spent the evening rocking and running between rooms as I tried to settle him enough to keep on reading (ah the foolishness of a first time mother).
One year my sister was visiting during Passover and we had the Seder in a tiny hotel dining room in a desert town with 6 other hotel guests. That was bizarre. My sister was the loudest singer at the table (Hebrew being her strong point – not) and the meal and reading was over in less than an hour. Only we remained until the ritual was complete. I really enjoyed that Seder in fact.
Next Monday there will be assorted members of our extended family sitting around the table. I am thankful that although young, my children are able to sit at the table/occupy themselves/join in rather than cry and breastfeed as in previous years. They will be dressed in their best bib and tucker – a great excuse for my daughter to wear one of the many party dresses that have been handed down by English cousins – and best of all there will be at least 7 other adults to help when we have to convince them that the party is over and its time to go to sleep.
The greatest part of Passover for me personally is that as a baker and pastry chef my husband gets to take a holiday. For the duration of Passover no leavened bread is eaten so basically no regular bread, cakes, biscuits so hooray his bakery shuts and we get to see him.
Happy Passover and Chag Sameach everyone.