Living history

Theresa Montgomery

Passover traditions enrich the Jewish experience


Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Reaching back through time, one group of people celebrates a common heritage.

Through centuries of ritual and repetition, this shared experience creates meaning in the present day.

In the Jewish calendar, Passover is the holiday depicting and commemorating the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The story of the flight from captivity passes intact from generation to generation, and is read aloud from the Haggadah, the prayer book used during Passover, said Ruth Kleinman, Kent State service corps fellow of Hillel.

“I’m not a big fan of change,” she said. “I like that we can freeze a piece of our history and keep it alive and vibrant after all this time.”

Events of the eight-day Passover celebration provide Kleinman and her extended family, now scattered throughout the country, a sense of consistency and closeness, she said.

Through a series of events and celebrations, such as the seder, Passover becomes a living commemoration of the experiences of Jewish ancestors.

The seder, the Hebrew word for “order,” is traditionally observed on the first two nights of Passover. A carefully prepared seder meal of food such as matzah, or unleavened bread, symbolizes the haste in which Jewish captives prepared to leave Egypt.

“The seder is just the manner in which we retell the story of the Passover, from beginning to end,” Hillel’s executive director Michael Levinstein said.

Very little has changed in the Passover seder, Levinstein said.

“The ‘last supper’ (of Christianity) was, in fact, a Passover seder that Jesus and the apostles were observing,” he said.

Interspersed with reading and song, the seder is a tapestry of intricately ordered, unchanging ritual imbued with traditions individual to each family. As some traditions remain constant, others evolve.

“Every family and every group celebrates Passover events and seders differently,” Kleinman said.

Kleinman said she and her family, although not strict in their adherence to traditional religious practices, find great unity in the traditions they carry down from year to year.

In her family, the hiding of matzah by the seder leader, usually a parent, has evolved into a sort of game. By the end of the seder service, someone has to find it.

“It’s the last thing eaten – dessert, in a way – and the seder can not end without every person eating a piece,” Kleinman said.

Because whoever found it was given a prize, as they grew up, she and her cousins began to rehide the matzah, she said.

“And hide it really well, to get a prize for all of us,” she said. “So now, we have a tradition in the family to keep hiding it until someone gets sick of the process.”

As the traditions of Passover both change and remain the same, a similar dynamic occurs in the perception of Jewish heritage.

“The Jews have been known as ‘the chosen people’ for some time,” Levinstein said. “Today, some dislike the moniker because of the connotation it has for other people. An alternative phrase used today is ‘the choosing people’ – the people choosing to observe God’s commandments and traditions.”

For Kleinman, the balance of old and new traditions provides a comfort that remains constant.

“Each year, I anticipate reading the story of Passover with my family,” she said. “My younger cousins will take that story with them to their children. It is a story and a history that will never be lost.”

Contact features correspondent Theresa Montgomery at [email protected].