I remember the first time I became aware of the cultural differences among Passover celebrations. It was 1964, and I was studying in Paris at the Sorbonne for my junior year abroad. A French Jewish family invited me over for Passover. Much like my own middle-class family, they had assimilated into the culture in which they'd settled but remained religiously Jewish. Memé, the grandmother, then well into her eighties, prepared family specialties from the Lorraine region, recipes taken out just for holidays. Seated in their Louis XVI dining room with beautiful china, we ate matzo, drank French wine, and ate haroset , the dish symbolizing the mortar used to build storehouses in Egypt. While it was made from the apples and nuts to which I was accustomed, this haroset was chopped a bit finer than my mother's.
It all seemed so familiar and yet so different. The prayers were recited in French and Hebrew with a French accent, and the food was Jewish with a French touch. For example, there was a chicken soup, but it had a clear broth, a consommé without pieces of vegetables and chicken floating in it as most American versions have. It suddenly struck me that at the same time, all over the world, Jews were sitting at their own seder tables, reciting the story of the Exodus and connecting in their own unique way to events thousands of years old.
Since that spring, I have eaten at many diverse Passover tables where I have tasted foods unknown to my American family. There is a richness to this ancient springtime holiday during which Jews relive the story of the Exodus, of the Israelites escaping from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Canaan. They teach this story to their children through the reading of the Haggadah, passing the legend from generation to generation. But each culture celebrates with its own customs that reflect its adaptation to life in different countries all over the world. These customs enrich our understanding and appreciation of the holiday, and they point to the diversity of age-old Jewish traditions that evolved from the cultures in which they were nurtured.
At a Persian seder, for example, the participants playfully hit each other with scallions or palm fronds to recall the Israelites' battles with their enemies. At this celebration, we ate delicious fruit and vegetable stews like my favorite, fesenjan, a sweet and sour walnut-pomegranate chicken stew with rice, a no-no at seders of Eastern European background. (Rice is enjoyed at Sephardic celebrations, but all grains except matzo are off-limits at other Passover seders.)
At a Moroccan home, I watched as the seder plate was lifted over the head of each person as he recited a Hebrew phrase about fleeing Egypt as a slave; in that way, each diner felt personally lifted out of slavery as he handed off the plate to the next participant. The food here was also new to me. Instead of the chicken soup, a panoply of cooked salads, including a delicious red pepper one, was followed by a fava bean and fish dish.
And, at an Iraqi seder, the children hoisted bags over their backs and reenacted the journey from slavery to freedom. One child asked, "Where are you coming from?"
"From Egypt," replied another child.
"Where are you going?"
Here, too, I ate one of the oldest Jewish dishes, tabeet, a deboned chicken stuffed with rice and meat, sewn up and cooked for hours.
But perhaps the most interesting seder was one that wasn't even a real Passover seder. Although the Bedouins of the Azzazma Tribe in the Negev are non-Jews, they live in our modern world preserving, as best they can, a lifestyle similar to that of the ancient Israelites. The Israelites were (much like the Bedouins) a wandering tribe in the desert. Through my observation of the Bedouins' customs, I saw the Passover story brought to life. I witnessed them acting out the book of Exodus, as it says, "And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it." Veiled women knelt by their goatskin tent to grind wheat between two stones, mix the resulting flour with salt and water, and roll out the dough with practiced hands. Watching these women make unleavened bread was like going back thousands of years.
They took a shank bone from a slaughtered lamb and wiped it on the tent posts to keep away evil spirits, reminiscent of what the Hebrews did before leaving Egypt with Moses and similar to what was written in the book of Exodus. They also rubbed it on their doorposts so that the angel of death would note the offering of the lamb and pass over their homes, thus saving their first-born sons. A roasted shank bone is placed on today's Passover seder plate in commemoration of this custom.
And what did the Bedouins eat with their lamb? Bitter herbs, or marora or maror, the Arabic and Hebrew words for bitter greens, the only greens that grow in the desert in the springtime.
Today, American Jews give contemporary interpretations that symbolically relate the story of Passover. At most American seders, we eat machine-made matzo, matzo ball soup, brisket, potato kugel, and other familiar dishes. Although these are modern Passover traditions, the vast majority of Passover customs are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Passover, in fact, is the oldest continuously celebrated holiday in the world. This springtime feast embodies layers of customs, both modern and ancient, that live on to our day.
Thank goodness the holiday lasts for eight days. That way we can celebrate our own traditions as well as explore new ones.