At Passover, the miraculous story’s in the food
The blood on the doorframe, the unleavened bread, the Israelites’ flight into the desert – Passover has long been a sacred, strictly Jewish observance.
Last year, though, space constraints pushed the local B’nai Harim Jewish congregation’s Passover meal, or “seder,” into the hall at Grass Valley United Methodist Church.
It turned out to be a boon for about a dozen members of the Protestant church, who joined in and got a firsthand experience with a holiday that appears in their Bibles but never in their churches.
“I thought it would be very sad, very dour, but it was a very spiritual event,” said Susie Ernst, who is rallying up Methodists from her church to partake in this year’s event at the church, set for March 30. “We laughed a lot, and the food was very good.”
Because Passover is based on the Jewish lunar calendar, dates vary from year to year. This year’s celebration begins at sunset Monday, March 29 and continues through April 5.
The Passover story comes from the book of Exodus, which relates how Israelites who had lived in Egypt for more than 400 years, and who had become enslaved, fled in haste from their cruel captors.
In the story, the God of Israel sends Moses to tell Pharaoh to release the Israelites from bondage. Each time Pharaoh refuses, God sends a plague to the Egyptians in the land, but spares his people.
The final of 10 plagues is death to the firstborn. For Israelites who spread lamb’s blood over their doorframes according to God’s instructions, the angel of death “passed over.”
Passover marks the Israelites’ hasty escape from the mourning Egyptians – an escape so rushed that the Hebrew slaves didn’t have time to let the bread rise they were baking for the trip.
Today, Jews mark Passover by restricting their diet to yeast-free (unleavened) bread and other kosher foods as a reminder of their liberation.
Food is a key part of the tradition – and not just because food is part of any good holiday.
“A seder is a meal that reenacts and tries to make the exodus real,” said Rabbi Myra Soifer of Congregation B’nai Harim. “There are all kinds of foods that are symbolic. Every Jew is supposed to feel they went out in the Passover. … We’re made to feel it’s an experience we all had.”
During the meal, a ritualized account of the exodus story – called the “haggadah” – is read, and diners eat symbolic foods at various point in the tale’s retelling. Of course, it includes matza, the unleavened bread.
Another dish represents the mortar between bricks the Israelites were forced to build. Bitter herbs, such as horseradish or lettuce (the ends of the stalks taste bitter), symbolize the bitterness of captivity. Parsley is dipped in salt water, which symbolize tears.
The drama of the miserable years as slaves, followed by a miraculous escape, is a pivotal moment in Jewish history that serves as a prelude to settling the Promised Land and establishing the all-important temple in Jerusalem.
“We’ve got to get out of Egypt,” Soifer explained. “That doesn’t happen in Egypt.”
Passover is less central in the traditions of Christians participating in the seder. A major appeal of celebrating the holiday is that Jesus did, and the Last Supper that Jesus took with his disciples before the crucifixion is thought by many scholars to be a Passover feast.
“I’ve sometimes worked with Christians who use the Jewish heritage to understand their own traditions,” Soifer said.
Still, she said, Christians should participate as guests.
“It’s not a Christian holiday, it’s a Jewish holiday,” Soifer said. “If they want to co-opt it, it doesn’t seem fair.”
For Ernst, joining in last year’s seder was a chance to get a new perspective on another faith’s holidays.
“The Methodists were very interested in learning about the different elements,” Ernst said. “It was more educational for us and spiritual for them.”
Though the two congregations are sharing in the Passover feast, the Methodists have been tasked with set-up chores. They’re leaving the sticky stuff up to their Jewish counterparts, who have years more experience on their side.
“We’d tried do a seder on our own, and it wasn’t one tenth as good,” Ernst said. “They wrote an e-mail and said, ‘We’ll cook the food so nobody has to ask if it’s kosher.'”
To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail email@example.com or call (530) 477-4247.
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