Remembering Exoduses at Passover

It takes over a month to prepare my house
The table is set for last year’s Seder. The artichoke, orange, and banana on the second Seder plate are symbols of contemporary life, and a child’s death.

By Cantor/Rabbi Debra Stein

Passover, like all Jewish holidays, floats around on the calendar. It’s never early or late, but always the same time on the Hebrew calendar, which follows a more lunar trajectory. Passover always occurs in the Hebrew month of Nissan, on the 14th. This year that will be the evening of April 10. It takes me over a month to prepare my house for Passover. I begin with closets, cleaning each one out and making sure there are no remnants of food in coat pockets or crumbs on the floors. The mandate is that your home be free of chametz, a Hebrew word that means leavened. We are forbidden to eat or have leavened food in our home during Passover. For more traditional Jews, the holiday lasts eight days; for reform Jews and Jews living in Israel, the holiday lasts for seven.

Many no longer go through all the trouble of setting their house for Passover. I suppose I get more liberal every year, but it still takes an enormous amount of time. So, why do I do it? Why do I throw my entire house and my family into upheaval for a holiday that lasts a week? If I were speaking to you face to face, I would throw up my hands and start singing the famous “Fiddler on the Roof” song “Tradition.” It’s what I’ve known my entire life. It is the tradition of my people and my family. I watched as my mother supervised her four children as we gently carried the Passover dishes down from the attic. I watched all of my aunts come up with creative places to store their Passover dishes every year. When my daughter was young, I followed suit so she would experience what I did as a child. 

If, however, I were to be honest with myself, I would say that I change the dishes because it gives me a sense of holiday, and it presents for me precious moments of nostalgia as I bring out my grandmother’s bone china, silverware, and her fine china, now chipped from over 100 years of use. I bring down bowls that have long since been relegated to the week of Passover. I look at the pots and pans and wonder how I ever could have purchased anything of such awful quality. Then I remember: The first time I got married I was 20 years old. I had no idea that a pot was anything other than a pot. I had no idea that there were different qualities. I didn’t understand then, as I do now, that there are different weights and types of pots and pans.

After cleaning out the closets throughout my house, I begin the grueling task of making sure my kitchen is kosher for Passover. Every cabinet gets emptied and lined with new paper. The refrigerator is emptied and lined, the ovens are cleaned, and drawers get emptied. I’ve loosened up on some of my own traditions, in that I now cover closets that contain foods that are not labeled kosher for Passover, and tape them closed so no one will open them during the holiday. I still remove all bread and bread products. If they are open, I throw them out and if they are sealed, I send them to the food pantries. When we were little, these foods were sold to our synagogue maintenance man, who would then sell them back to us after the holiday. On each family’s buy-back, he would make a small profit, and it became a yearly bonus from the congregants.

I love the Seder. The reading of the story, retelling the Exodus from Egypt, is the central part of the service. It becomes an engaging way to talk around the dinner table. I would imagine that for some families it is perhaps the only time everyone isn’t gathered around their various devices eating dinner while mesmerized by something they are watching or reading.

I love the songs of Passover and have such wonderful memories of family members singing the melodies they knew, and arguing about who had the “correct” melody. It was just last year that my 24-year-old nephew stood on a chair as if he were a toddler to sing the four questions. These questions make up the basis of the story, and are used to engage children in the Seder. In most Seders, they are sung or recited by the youngest child. When I was growing up, the first two questions were always sung by me, and the last two by my sister, who is just a year older than I am.

Another way we engage our children is to hide a piece of matzah, known as the afikomen, very loosely, a Greek word for dessert. It’s hidden very early in the Seder, and families cannot finish the Seder without everyone having a small piece of it. Children search for this piece of matzah during dinner because those who find it get a gift.

When I create a Seder, I make every effort to include some contemporary exoduses and identify the current struggles that force us to realize that slavery and abuse of other human beings continue. Last year, we had two Seder plates on the table. One was the traditional Seder plate, with the symbols that are familiar to most Jewish people: A shank bone, symbolizing the sacrifice made the night the ancient Hebrews fled Egypt. A roasted egg, symbolizing springtime and renewal. Parsley to symbolize the freshness of spring. Charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, wine, and cinnamon that represents the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves to make bricks. Horseradish, which represents the bitterness of slavery. The other Seder plate had new symbols representing the current world situation. 

Many are familiar with the placing of an orange on a Seder plate. The often-told story is that it was first placed there when women were first ordained as rabbis. That is, as we say in Yiddish, a bubbe meitze, or, in English, a tall tale. The orange has been suggested as a way to symbolize mainly the need to understand that if we are unable to accept all people at our Seder table, we are not fulfilling the overarching belief of Passover.

Beginning last year, my second plate included items such as chocolate from the Jewish Fair Trade Project, as their literature states: “Not Just Kosher: Kosher and Just.” I placed a piece of this chocolate on my Seder plate to recognize that the foods we eat should come from responsible farming. Men and women nurturing our food should be free, and not in situations that can be considered a form of modern-day slavery or servitude.

An artichoke was placed to welcome those who are intermarried to our Seder. These days many Jewish families have a member who is not Jewish. We need to welcome all family members to our table on Passover. 

Olives are round so I placed them on my second Seder plate to symbolize my hopes for world peace. This came from a campaign that started a few years ago using olives as a call for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. 

A roasted beet is what vegetarians use on their Seder plate instead of a shank bone. So to welcome the vegetarian, we place one on our plate. 

Lastly, I placed a banana on my Seder plate. It was used to help remind all of us at the table of the young boy who drowned while attempting to find a better life than the one he knew in Syria. Aylan was the name of the child the world saw on the shores of Turkey, having drowned along with his brother Galip during his family’s exodus. They died along with their mother, leaving a devastated father to retell the story of how his boys loved bananas. How he took one home every night after work for his sons to share. 

This year, I will place a papaya or a mango on my plate to remind me of the undocumented who live in fear, and those who still need to flee their homelands to find safety.

For me one of the most beautiful parts of Judaism is that it is a religion that breathes. It grows as we grow, and takes on issues of importance by looking into our Torah and our sacred texts and applying ancient wisdom to contemporary issues. Judaism asks us to use the knowledge we have been given to guide our own conscience as it commands us to make our world a better place.

In Yiddish, we say a Zisn Pesach, a Sweet Passover. May sweetness and goodness and meaningful lives be part of each and every one of you.

Cantor/Rabbi Debra Stein has served the Jewish Center since the summer of 1982. Upon graduating from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she assumed a full-­time position as the Jewish Center’s first cantor/educator. In 2015, she completed her studies and received her rabbinic ordination. While she is proud of her most recent accomplishment, she continues to find her passion serving as cantor of the Jewish Center. This summer marks her 35th year with the congregation.

The late Irwin Perton, who lived in East Hampton for many years, and in Boynton Beach, Fla., painted the images shown on this page, and others, for a Hagaddah he published and for which he wrote an essay on family memories. A copy is in Cantor/Rabbi Stein’s collection.

The images are, for the most part, self-explanatory. Top, an Egyptian hovers over a slave. A Seder table is at center, with three pieces of matzah, the afikomen, at bottom with centuries of Jewish people.

The eight-day Passover holiday, which occurs in the 14th day of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar, began on Monday this year.