Going Back to Our Roots

(photo credit: Gilibrand – Wikimedia Commons)

Growing up Ashkenazi in the US there are a few things that I “knew” about Passover from home and of course, from my Jewish day school education:

  1. There’s a seder plate in the middle of the table and 3 matzot
  2. We don’t eat grilled meat throughout the evening
  3. Haroset is made from walnuts and apples
  4. The Four Questions
  5. And of course, the story about leaving Egypt – every generation we have to see ourselves as if we are leaving

Then, I got married.

To a Yemenite.

And here’s the Passover he grew up with:

  1. There’s no seder plate – the table is the seder plate– maror (romaine lettuce) and parsley line the outside, with piles of matzah and eggs in the middle, along with salt water
  2. There’s GRILLED MEAT!
  3. Haroset is called “duka” and it’s made from tropical fruits and it’s spicy
  4. The Four Questions are followed by a story in Arabic about a woman and her dog during the plague of the first born – that the kids say out loud
  5. And of course, there’s the story of the Exodus
(photo credit: Zoltan Kluger/Wikimedia Commons)

This version felt totally foreign.

But, I discovered this was probably more like the seders during and right after the Second Temple Era. In fact, the Mishna doesn’t talk about a seder plate, but it does talk about bringing in and taking out the table on seder night. The grilled meat mirrors the Passover sacrifice that was brought to the Temple and was eaten in a grilled or roasted manner. Where Ashkenazim steer away from the comparison, Yemenites embrace it.

And do we really think that the bricks and mortar in Egypt were red like red apples? And where would one have gotten an apple in turn of the 2nd millenium Middle East? Wouldn’t the deep mud color of the figs, dates and other fruit in the duka make more sense for ancient Egypt?

And if we are to see ourselves, in each generation, as leaving Egypt, doesn’t it make sense to add stories to further illustrate this escape? Maybe even comparable “escapes” in subsequent generations

Of course, then there are the other customs that we hear about: the Moroccans who actually act out as if they are packing a bag and leaving; the Tunisians who lean on cushions, imitating the “free” way to sit represented by Hellenistic culture of Temple times; and the Persians who whip each other with scallions to remember the slavery.

Passover time, when Jews around the world unite to recall the formative event of the Jewish people, is also a time to explore how different people and their customs evolved to recall and make tangible a historical event.  Evolution and diversity are amazing. Sometimes they keep us true to our roots and sometimes they take us on a different route to a current topic. I find it beautiful and intriguing to try and trace some of the evolutions back to their origins and in this way, learn about our common Jewish heritage and how taken collectively, they represent the vitality of Judaism and its application to all times, places, and circumstances.


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