My First Passover Seder in Jerusalem
When we learned that our travels would take us through Israel during Passover, I knew immediately that I wanted to join a family Seder. I hadn’t been to a Seder in roughly 30 years. I was a little boy then, and the son of a somewhat observent Jewish mother.
My parents divorced when I was two years old, so all of my vacations and holidays were schizophrenic – the quiet grace and silence of Hanukkah candles set against the garland and tinsel and wrapping paper of Christmas. Neither of my parents wanted to push me into any particular tradition, so took a hands off approach when it came to religion. The idea was that if they exposed me to both traditions, I would eventually drift towards one or another. It only served to show me that high religous holidays were little more than time off of school and presents.
As it was, they fought bitterly over everything else in my life, so this came as a relief. They fought over who paid for my clothes, who saw me on holiday, how much money it took to support my upbringing on a monthly basis, where I lived, what my weekends looked like. The upside of parents living in different states is that I started to fly by myself at the age of 9.
So here I find myself in Jerusalem over Passover. I’m 40 now and still drifting, still flying. This site is partially a result of that. I’m a nomadic ghost with no home and no feet. Just hovering just above the land, not committed enough to stumble over anything, a bee floating from flower to flower.
How Did You Get Invited to a Passover Seder, You Ask?
Like most good things in life, my first Passover Seder in Israel started by reaching out to a friend. Now I’m not one to cast a small net, so I actually contacted three or four friends who are Jewish to some degree. I was reaching out to them specifically to see if they knew anybody in Jerusalem who would be willing to invite us for their family Seder.
One friend didn’t respond at all. Don’t get mad at her. I don’t think she uses Facebook too much. One friend tried like a madwoman to get this to happen. She kept sending me updates about her progress. It was really sweet. Messages like: “I think I have a lead for you!” or “They haven’t gotten back. Will follow up with them next week.” Another friend responded instantly saying that her cousin is a rabbi who studied in Jerusalem. Within 24 hours she forwarded me an email from her cousin that contained a list of synagogues to contact.
And contact them I did.
The responses fell roughly into three categories. Category 1: Who Are You? Category 2: This is a Family Holiday, and Category 3: Try the Public/Pay Seder.
Category 3 threw me a bit. A pay Seder? I imagined a long line of people holding molded plastic trays that are divided to keep your peas from rolling into your mashed potatoes and a series of crackling speakers on poles pumping out the Seder over our heads. For a while this sounded like the only option. That is until Category 4 opened up before us.
There was an email from the head of a reform synagogue called Kol Haneshama that said they would email their congregation (or shul) to see who would be willing to host. They asked me to write a little intro about us, so I did. Then I waited.
I became desperate and my thoughts turned to the pay option. I half jokingly considered how funny it would be to get Dominos delivered in Jerusalem on the first night of Passover. Would the crust have hummus in it? Is there a matzo pizza? I emailed the synagogue to check in on progress. Sure enough, there was one kind soul out there who traditionally invites strangers into their house for Passover Seder!
Passover: A Long, Long Tradition
In my short introduction for the shul I explained that I hadn’t been to a Seder in roughly 30 years. My mom was Jewish and while I remember celebrating Hanukkah with a dishcloth on my head, we rarely participated in Passover. I explained that I wanted to reconnect with this tradition as an adult. And what better place to do so than in Jerusalem?
Our kind host Jonathan explained that he would pick us up and drop us back at our house sit at the foot of Ammunition Hill. He assured us that we would not be lost during the readings. He told me to come hungry. He told me that we would be back around midnight. This turned out to be somewhat of an understatement. He told me that while they would read in Hebrew, there were several other travelers joining in the ceremony and we would not be lost. He was partially right. Luckily we had a pop up book that explained what was going on in English, and our new friends around us helped clue us in by whispering "turn the page".
Jonathan explained that by inviting us to Passover they were continuing a long tradition of hospitality that had been shown them on their own travels. Being invited into a home in a foreign country is really the best way to get to know their traditions. Dignitaries and scholars had graced this family's table over the decades, and it was an honor to sit amongst such a friendly and hospitable group. I felt right at home. The whisky and cigars came out. Songs were sung and as midnight came and went Jonathan played the piano and the cousins sang The Sound of Music. Jonathan explained to me that most Jewish holidays can be summed up in three sentences. They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.
I really didn't control myself at all. I ate everything. And then I ate some more. Liver pate? Of course why not? That was just the start. I can't even remember most of what I ate. Chicken salad, various other salads, beets, some amazing and apparently controversial rice dish with roots in Jonathan's Portuguese traditions. Why is rice controversial at Passover? Well, some people think it's not kosher. Let's just keep it at that for now. Oh, there was also matzah covered in chocolate and toffee. Commonly known as "Matzo Crack". Sorry there are no pictures of this. I was busy stuffing my face. If this were at the table when I was a kid, I would have gladly scheduled a bar mitzvah for myself.
The Symbolism of the Passover Seder Plate
The one thing I really remember about Passover is that most of the food is symbolic, which is to say growing up I remember the food being TERRIBLE. While there is a symbolic plate that is left on the table, there are a few items you eat during the Seder that mean something.
Bitter herbs: Symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of the slavery the Hebrews endured in Egypt. You can also use lettuce as a substitute.
Charoset: A sweet, brown mixture representing the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves to build the storehouses or pyramids of Egypt. Generally made with chopped nuts, grated apples, cinnamon and sweet red wine. (in the middle of the picture below)
Karpas: A veggie other than the bitter herbs dipped in salt water to represent the tears shed by Hebrew slaves in Egypt. This is the radish.
Zeroa: A chicken wing (or lamb or chicken neck) symbolizing the sacrifice that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Beitza: Roasted or hard boiled egg that symbolizes mourning (being the first things served to mourners after a funeral).
The Orange: You'll find this in only in progressive homes. It's meant to symbolize solidarity with LBGTQ and others who are marginalized. Which is a beautiful sentiment.
Come to think of it, the symbolism of the orange at the Passover Seder table can be taken much more broadly. It opens up the table to those who are marginalized, without a home. Those who are different. It's a welcoming gesture. It's really the reason we were at the table in this Seder in the first place. We were open to a new experience, and Jonathan was open to hosting perfect strangers. This openness allows for new experiences and new connections and new learning, growth. It's quite refreshing, don't you think?
It was an amazing way to spend my first Passover in Jerusalem, or my first Passover in 30 years. Passover is an amazing tradition as unique as the families who celebrate it around the world. If you are ever in Israel during Passover I strongly encourage you to try to find your way to witness this important holiday. And if you aren't traveling during Passover, find a local connection and get to know some people!
A hearty thanks to the friends who made this happen: Carol Gurstelle in St. Paul who connected us with her friends' rabbi daughter, Luli Harris of Kol Haneshama synagogue and it goes without saying: Jonathan Tsevi and his amazingly generous family. Thank you.