Passover Traditions: Everything Old is New Again

Old School Passover Popovers from The Nosher (Sonya Sanford photo)

Perhaps it’s fitting that a verse from The Wisdom Books, in Ecclesiastes (1:9) to be exact, expresses what many may feel about age-old Passover traditions:

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

The seder plate is the seder plate, the Haggadah is the Haggadah, the afikoman is the afikoman and the brisket is the brisket, right? Why mess up a good thing?

Nonetheless, time, as they say, marches on, bringing new modifications to old traditions, new tastes to tried-and-true favorites.

For new takes on the Passover seder text and Exodus story, came the Kveller Haggadah, “for curious kids — and their grown-ups.” Then there was the colorful graphic novel interpretation by Jordan B. “Gorf” Gorfinkel, formerly of DC Comics.

Not to be outdone, Maxwell House Coffee jumped into the act with a pretty-in-pink, 50s-themed “Midge’s New 1958 Edition Haggadah Passover Seder Service,” inspired by “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” complete with a “handwritten” brisket recipe and faux red-wine stains.

Meanwhile, the JTA offered up a recipe for Old School Passover Popovers from The Nosher as well as a recipe for red-wine braised short ribs with prunes, for those looking for a jazzed-up brisket alternative.

There were a slew of new Passover books for kids, from “Shimri’s Big Idea: A Story of Ancient Jerusalem,” to “A Seder for Grover,” from Sesame Street.

Around Baltimore, shuls and Jewish organizations offered Passover-themed events such as Pesach at Pearlstone. Beit Tikvah Congregation and the Baltimore Science Fiction Society held a potluck Passover seder, while the Center for Jewish Education hosted “The Story of Passover Told Through Sand Art.”

For Nathan Altshuler, 27, of Pikesville, one of his fondest memories of Passover traditions that still remains the same is his father reading the Passover seder every year.

“My dad does the seder in Russian. That is something we grew up with and makes our seder unique,” he said. “My parents’ experiences in Russia didn’t allow them to celebrate Passover, so the fact that they can, and in Russian, is memorable and incredible.”

A recent addition to his family’s seder table? “We have little animals to represent the plagues, given out to the kids during the plague reading.”

Rabbi Rory Katz of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation

In Rabbi Rory Katz’s extended family, everyone got together every year for seder to read the traditional Haggadah text from cover to cover.

“We went around the table, taking turns reading paragraphs. It was extremely rote. There was very little intention put into the meaning of the seder itself. The sense seemed to be that the meaning came from simply saying the same words year after year,” said Katz, spiritual leader of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation. “The joy came from spending time with relatives who we generally only saw on Passover (and from the delicious meals cooked by my great-aunt).

Meanwhile, Katz said that over the past few years, the family seder has grown, including many Jews and non-Jews who are less familiar with Judaism. So the rabbi has brought some new focus.

“We still have the joy of seeing familiar relatives, but now there is just as much joy around welcoming new people. The food is still delicious,” she said. “As I have taken more of a leadership role in the leading of the seder itself, I have tried to bring a different kind of intention to the ritual. I am very inspired by this passage from the Talmud regarding question asking at the seder:

“If one’s child is wise, the child asks him. If the child is not wise then one’s spouse asks him. If not, he asks himself. Even two Torah scholars who know the laws of Passover ask each other.”

She notes that “the asking of questions is central to the seder — even more central than the answers, it seems, since if you already know the ‘answers,’ you are still required to ask questions.”

Katz shared the passage at one of her seders this year, encouraging more people to ask questions.

“Those questions I see as the core of the seder, significantly more so than anything that is written in the Haggadah,” she said. “And, by the way, my encouragement was successful. Many relatives shared reflections who have never done so in previous years!”

Rabbi Ariana Katz of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebel  (David Stuck photo)

For Rabbi Ariana Katz, spiritual leader of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebel, the tradition of selling chametz to a non-Jew always felt, somehow wrong. But this year, through a new interfaith relationship with her congregation, the tradition has become deeply meaningful and satisfying to her, her congregants and the non-Jews who learned about the age-old Passover ritual.

“It didn’t feel like a joyful thing itself… like it was making light of the importance of having relationships with people who aren’t Jewish,” Katz said. “It just felt uncomfortable.”

But this year, Katz took a different tack, discussing with colleagues how to engage the ritual in a way that represented the values of Hinenu.

“The thing that became true for me was that it’s about interdependence,” she said. “During the rest of the year, and during Pesach, we’re always very careful about food. Food that’s kashered has to be watched carefully. And kosher wine, whether or not you choose to buy it, is watched really carefully. And then on Pesach, we do this incredible loop de loop, where we give the ownership of all of our chametz to someone who’s not Jewish, and we have to trust them enough that it will, in fact, be kept safe.”

“My friend and colleague Rabbi Alex Weissman taught me that it’s about trust, and that really flipped it for me,” Katz said. “It’s not about using someone’s labor and asking them to hold the things that aren’t good enough for you. I believe everyone has a different calling on the earth, and we have many different paths to finding it. Because of that, the idea of selling chametz was really challenging.”

“At Pesach we talk about liberation, we talk about how it wasn’t just the Israelites who ran to the sea. We left in a mixed multitude. There were people who weren’t Jewish that got through with the Israelites that were then at Sinai receiving Torah. It was a collective experience,” Katz said. “It is a Jewish story, but it’s something that involves our non-Jewish family and involves our non-Jewish friends. And all of that made it possible for me to engage with a custom that for people who are who are halachically observant, they are able to then eat their chametz when Passover is over.

“So this process of selling chametz — and reimagining what it could mean — is definitely something new for me this year, that I’ve been really grateful for.”

Hinenu congregants sold their chametz to Pastor Emily Scott from Dreams and Visions, a new church in Baltimore, making their tzedakahh (donations) from the sale of the chametz to the Coalition for American Islamic Relations.

“Because CARE, right after Pittsburgh, really showed up for us, as well as other Muslims in the community,” Katz said. “And Pastor Emily and their church all stood vigil outside of Hinenu the first Shabbat after Pittsburgh.”

“It was this really palpable reminder that our liberation is bound up in each other. And if that is actually what the story of Passover is saying — that everyone got free together and that’s what it could mean to ask and to trust someone who was so joyfully ready to learn about how that sale works — then it really feels aligned with what we’re supposed to be as a congregation on the holiday.”

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