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Jewish Culture-Gram: Passover Edition

April 19, 2016

Today’s post is written by guest blogger Kelly Steiner. Kelly shares these insights with her faculty and administration. Thank you Kelly for sharing your culture with us. Happy Passover.

Friday night is the first night of one of the most important Jewish holidays-Passover. (This ancient Jewish festival  starts at sunset on Friday, April 22, 2016 and ends the evening of April 30.)

What is this one about?

Passover is the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  It’s Pesach in Hebrew, but that just means Passover.  It is the retelling of how our ancestors came to be slaves in Egypt, their treatment under the Egyptians (spoiler alert – it wasn’t good), Moses, the plagues and their eventual escape from oppression.  The story is retold, pretty much the same way, every year.  In the process of telling the story, families (who traditionally gather from all over) go through a ritual meal called a Seder (which means “order” in Hebrew).  It is full of symbols.  For example, there are several symbols out on the table: Matzah (the unleavened bread that represents how the Jewish people had to flee so quickly they couldn’t wait for their bread to rise and it baked on their backs while they fled through the desert – it’s why we eat Passoverunleavened bread for 8 days), a hard boiled egg (I think this one is the circle of life and new beginnings), a green vegetable (that gets dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears of our ancestors), a shank bone (the term Passover comes from the fact that during the last plague- slaying of the first born- the angel of death passed over the Jewish houses because they marked their door posts with the blood of a lamb), Charoses (a sweet mix of apples, honey, cinnamon and wine that reminds us of the mortar used by our ancestors in their bondage), and bitter herbs (in my family this is bits of raw horseradish to remind us of the bitterness of bondage- it’ll definitely clear your sinuses).

You can see that this isn’t a party holiday, but it is a real centerpiece of the Jewish calendar and a key gathering of family.  For me growing up, this was the only time aside from Thanksgiving where everyone made sure to be in one place.  This is especially challenging since most people don’t get time off of work or school for Passover and so getting family from all over to the same place for this ceremonial meal meant lots of sacrifices.  It’s also a really interesting one to visit.  It is customary to leave an empty seat for any stranger since we were once strangers in a strange land.  This is sometimes re-interpreted as just a wide welcoming of visitors that want to engage in a Seder.  So if you’ve always wanted to know more about Jewish culture, you could totally join in a Seder sometime.

A highlight for me is the focus on social justice.  In many Haggadot (plural for Haggadah – the book that lays out the Seder and contains the story, prayers and songs) the readings focus on the need for all Jews to rededicate themselves at Passover to the freedom of all, including freedom from hunger, freedom from oppression, bigotry, hatred, war, etc.  We are reminded over and over that as a people we remember the pain of bondage and we are bound to commit ourselves to understanding and alleviating the pain of bondage of others.  It is said several times that we should all think of ourselves as personally having escaped Egypt and experiencing the Exodus because if it hadn’t happened we’d still be there.  I also think it’s cool that when we read out the ten plagues (because you haven’t really had a festive meal until you have discussed boils, blood, and locusts) we dip our fingers into our wine and remove a drop for each plague.  This reminds us that although the Egyptians were our oppressors, they were still people and their suffering should remove some of our joy from our cup.

A flip side or controversy is that another traditional custom is to say “next year in Israel”.  This is hard for many cultures (including Palestinians) because if all the Jews who said that, actually went to Israel, it would cause some serious population dynamic problems.  I don’t mean to be flip, I wanted to bring up why this is a hard day for many Arabs without getting into the whole ball of wax.

But can I expect kids do their homework?

In terms of the nitty-gritty – you may have students absent Friday and/or Monday.  This is probably because they traveled to be with family or are preparing on Friday since family is so important for this holiday.  The Seder traditionally takes several hours on Friday night (and some families do a traditional second Seder on Saturday night).  This really takes almost all night and would make it very tough to do homework (even if the house wasn’t full of extended family).  So, if you can, please cut your Jewish kids some slack on homework this weekend.

Anything else I should know to be sensitive?

First, many Jewish students may not eat leavened bread (or lots of other things- there’s a lot of specifically Kosher for Passover foods) for 8 days starting Friday night.  If you’re supervising lunch or other treats, you can be sensitive to this temporary dietary restriction.

Second, if you want to say something, you can say happy Passover or have a sweet Passover- it’s just with more of a happy Easter tone (a more serious one) than a happy birthday tone since the holiday is a solemn one.  (Honest, Jews do have party holidays, just not big enough to write e-mails for-we just had Purim which is a riot).

Kelly teaches science in Milwaukee, WI. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and an adjunct professor at Cardinal Stritch University.

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