By Harriet P. Gross
There’s more to getting ready for Pesach than planning menus and cleaning house. I took advantage of two wonderful opportunities this year.
First, there was the Kosher Chili Cook-off. For 2014, the 21st annual, this was a day of Jewish camaraderie under blazing blue skies, the perfect time to overdose on chametz. All those beans and spices had my palate crying for the grateful respite that bland matzo would usher in just a couple of weeks later.
And then, just three days later, was the annual Freedom Seder. For 2014, this year’s run-up to Passover was an evening of multiracial and religious mingling, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights Act in the context of our much earlier Exodus. Congregation Tiferet Israel should be mightily congratulated for the first event, and Dallas Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council for the second.
Our Passover seder, widely touted as the most observed of all Jewish rituals, is also the most adaptable. The afikomen can be hidden by adults or stolen by children. There can be a cup of water on the table to honor Moses’ sister Miriam, joining the oh-so-traditional cup of wine to welcome the Prophet Elijah. Or — as here April 2 — there can be a comparison of Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt for freedom to modern-day former slaves putting the evils of segregation behind them. The Exodus story plays well in this newer context.
At Shearith, every table of eight had its own box of matzo and seder plate so that all could partake of our symbolic foods as referents for a much more modern escape from slavery. And the large bottles of grape juice made it possible for everyone, including those whose religions frown on wine, to partake of the Four Cups. This interfaith aspect was heightened as Catholics, Protestants and Muslims joined with Jews in solo and group readings from a Haggadah prepared especially for this occasion.
The first Freedom Seder, we learned, was held almost exactly 45 years before this one; April 4, 1969, in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. That was, as our special Haggadah informed us, “the first major event to publicly connect the struggles of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt with the struggles of African-Americans to achieve equality and liberation in the United States.”
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlins charged us all, at the start of this seder, to “reach across faiths and denominations to do God’s work in this world.” Leading our way through this adapted Haggadah was Rabbi Adam Roffman of Shearith, who clarified its new context in his introduction: “Our personal experience of being slaves and strangers in Egypt instills in us a responsibility toward those in our society who are at risk for discrimination and oppression. Passover therefore fuses history and the future, because the freedoms we enjoy today give us the opportunity to identify and aid others in need.”
Of course, this wouldn’t have been a truly Jewish experience without food! At the proper point, we put down our Haggadahs to enjoy conversation with our varied tablemates over a festive meal. “Dayenu” had already been explained; now, as dinner ended, everyone rose spontaneously and clasped hands around our tables to sing together that American anthem of freedom, “We Shall Overcome.”
Watch for announcements of next year’s Freedom Seder, and plan to attend both it and the Kosher Chili Cook-off, already calendared for March 22, 2015 — two great experiences open to everyone. But first: let’s all have a glorious Passover!
(A personal plea: As a judge for this year’s Cook-off, I sampled entries identified only by numbers; I don’t even know if my own favorite was one of the winners. So would someone from the group that cooked up that delicious chili featuring kidney beans and much cilantro please contact me? I’d like your recipe — for after Pesach, of course!)