This year, we find ourselves readying for Pesach with a new reality to contemplate. We may be separated from extended family members, forced to stay indoors, and obligated to find a way to celebrate a holiday that would normally draw us together, not force us apart.
Next year, we hope to celebrate Pesach in community as we were meant to. In the meantime, we’ve collected some ideas that may help invigorate your holiday—no matter how many people are at your seder table—with creativity, learning, and inspiration.
We all know the Four Questions—and their answers—but what if we consider two new questions this year? In this short video message, Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University, talks about adding two more questions to the Mah Nishtanah. First, how is this seder different from all other seders? And next, how is this seder the same? Listen to Professor Duke as he amplifies the importance of intertwining our families’ personal stories with those of the Jewish people.
Interview with Vanessa Ochs, Author of The Passover Haggadah: A Biography
What prompted you to write a biography of the Haggadah?
I love Haggadot, so when Fred Appel of Princeton University Press asked me to write this biography of the Hagaddah, which would be part of a series on the “lives” of great sacred texts, I said yes. I love handling Haggadot, collecting them, studying the ones in special collections, going through the shelves of friends in America and Israel, seeing what they have amassed over the years, and hearing their stories. I love how Haggadot can be thought of as high art and also as a pretext for selling coffee, butter, banks, or advertising a palmist on the Lower East Side. (My prized possession is a Haggadah with a Passover shopping list in the centerfold AND coupons for gefilte fish, matzah ball mix, and so forth. I mean, what sacred text comes with coupons?)
The thousands of versions of the Haggadah are testament to the ways that Jews have been creatively reinterpreting Passover seder practices over the years—as a scholar of new ritual practices, I knew that was a topic I could ponder. Taking on the project gave me the opportunity to study the ancient texts in more detail (Tosefta, Mishna, Talmud) as well as to travel to visit special Haggadah collections. (It also gave me the excuse to add to my own collection; I found a Tamar Messer Haggadah on eBay—what a treasure!)
The book project also gave me an idea for a class at the University of Virginia that I have taught many times now: it’s a community engagement class, in which the students study the history of the Haggadah, volunteer with community partners in Charlottesville and then, at the end of the semester, create a Haggadah that reflects the mission of their community partner and create a community seder.
What have you discovered about the ways in which people are preparing to celebrate Pesach this year, given the new realities we face due to the coronavirus and necessary social distancing?
The minute we started to practice social distancing in March, many of us realized that any Passover plans we had—being with family, or friends who are like family, or joining in community seders—were simply not going to happen.
I am sure many families are now asking the question: what will we do? And will the Haggadot we have be adequate for the task? A Haggadah that scripts a virtual seder must acknowledge our disappointment of being socially distant from our loved ones, but that’s not enough. It must also offer a revision to our prayers so that we can say, with genuine hope: “Just as the Israelites were brought out of slavery and were delivered to a place where they could be free and secure, we, too, will be able to look toward redemption.”
We’re still in the early days of this pandemic, and yet the creators behind Haggadot.com have already announced (on their Facebook page) a virtual seder they will hold after the regular seders. I am confident that their agile website will become a rapid repository of ideas for Haggadot that can make a virtual seder lively and complete.
Can we experience our virtual or livestreamed seders, this year, as if they are “the real thing?” For the first moments, as we adjust our phones and laptops, probably not. We’ll still be yearning for the palpable presence of a community of family and friends around the table, the feelings of sharing foods together. But I suspect that, by the time we put our Haggadot down and wash so many fewer dishes, we will have had an experience of telling or receiving the story of being liberated from Egypt that feels really real. It might also set a precedent for years when we can (God willing) travel once again to seders, but choose not to, in order to address global warming by reducing carbon emissions. I anticipate that beyond this year, in generations to come, Haggadot may even include a passage that refers to the virtual seders Jews once held in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
What would you say is the single most important part of the Haggadah?
Without a doubt: Mah Nishtana, the Four Questions. This is one of the most powerful things parents can say to Jewish children: “We celebrate and entertain your questions, your challenges, your ability to notice what’s the same and what’s different.” The act of inviting a child to stand up and ASK is far more important than the questions themselves.
And what is your favorite part of the seder?
I have two: singing Dayenu and Nirtzah, reciting “chasal siddur pesach” at the end. Essentially, it says, “Yeah, we did it”—or more precisely, “Just as we were privileged to arrange our seder tonight, so may we perform it again in the future.” Of course, that ends with the singing of “L’shana ha’ba’ah b’yerushalayim.” There is always the yearning for more life, a more perfect world.
“The Bukharian Jewish seder is quite different from any other,” says Manashe Khaimov, Director of Community Engagement and Development at Queens College Hillel. “At least that’s what my Ashkenazi friends tell me.”
The Bukharian Jewish community in the United States is sizable and growing, and for those of us who lack knowledge about this ethnic and linguistic group, Khaimov is happy to shed some light.
Bukharian Jews originate mostly from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The term “Bukharian” refers to a period before the Russian conquest when the community lived under the Emir of Bukhara and the area used to be called ‘Bukharian Emirate.’ (Read more about Bukharian history here.)
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Bukharian Jews settled in New York City. Today, there are approximately 70,000 Bukharian Jews living in Queens and approximately 10,000 in Brooklyn.
So what’s different about a Bukharian seder? Perhaps it’s the joma (a traditional kaftan often worn on special occasions) that the head of the household dresses up in on Pesach. Or maybe it’s the matzah, which, as opposed to the crumbly cracker most Ashkenazi Jews eat on Pesach, is in fact more dense and even chewy, when served at the Bukharian seder. What’s more, Bukharian children don’t sing Echad Mi Yodea, the traditional end-of-seder Hebrew song. Rather, they sing Yakumin Ki Medonad in the central Asian language they speak (Bukharian language), and you can listen to the song here.
Interested in learning more?
Meet and learn more about Manashe Khaimov here, read how the Bukharian Jewish community in Queens is different from the Russian Jewish community here, and, perhaps most importantly, discover how Pesach helps Bukharian Jews keep their faith alive, by clicking here.
Call Your Mother, the original parenting podcast produced by My Jewish Learning, and starring Kveller personality Jordana Horn and The Nosher blog editor Shannon Sarna, unfortunately came to an end this year, but the podcast archive holds rich material.
Last year, Horn and Sarna recorded an episode for Pesach in which they talk with Gabrielle Birkner and Elissa Strauss, the creators of Kveller’s Haggadah, about the challenge of making the Haggadah substantial in content while simultaneously kid-friendly and accessible for families. They also discuss the magic of sensory experiences at the seder. Then, Marnie Fienberg talks to the hosts about 2 for Seder, a program she launched to fight antisemitism and to honor the memory of her mother-in-law, Joyce Fienberg, who was murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. 2 for Seder asks you to invite two people of a different faith to share your seder so that they are able to directly experience, and learn all about, this beloved Jewish ritual.
Listen to this special Call Your Mother episode and then check out all of the other excellent interviews recorded by Horn and Sarna, in their podcast archive, here.
Maror (Bitter Herbs), a Passover animation by Hanan Harchol, was created for the project Projecting Freedom: Cinematic Interpretations of the Haggadah. In the animation, Hanan questions his father’s decision to eat raw horseradish and a conversation ensues that touches on many of the key themes of the holiday. What is the meaning of freedom and free will? What is so important about decision-making? Why do we eat bitter herbs on Passover? What does it mean to have faith?