Monday, April 1, 2013

The Story of Passover

Passover (유월절/Yuwol-jeol) is the week-long Jewish holiday that commemorates the escape of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. For my entire life, cognizance and even a basic understanding of what this holiday is all about has been prevented due to the timing overlap between Passover and Good Friday, the day when Christians remember the crucifixion of Christ. I have studied Judaism and I have many Jewish friends, but even I don't know much more than the average Christian about Passover. This year, however, I had planned -- long before I knew when Easter would be -- to go out of town to visit a Fulbright friend for a concert, and when I heard that he was going to celebrate Passover with other Fulbrighters, I invited myself along. I wanted to see what a Passover Seder was like, and I enjoy opportunities to embrace all things interfaith.

As it turns out, the small cohort of Jewish Fulbrighters had been planning a Passover get-together for quite a while. Although it would have been impossible to get together during the week, Friday night was open as an ideal time for us all. In the weeks and days beforehand, several of my friends had been preparing a menu, a haggadah, and making huge batches of food in advance. All I had to do was show up the evening of (it was a ninety-minute bus ride from Masan for me, and I left right after my last class of the day) and pitch in in the kitchen before we began the seder. (Due to long commutes and schedules running late, this was not until 11pm.)
Preparing chocolate-covered matzoh. (taken by Kaley)
This was my first seder, so I did not know how long it would take, but I got the feeling when we began that we were going to up for a while. We used a modern haggadah that emphasized peace and social justice and was distinctly pro-American and secular Humanist. One line from the invitation really struck me: "We remember together tonight because we are Jews and friends of Jews, and feel connected to the historic roots of Judaism." Because of this, I -- and the other several non-Jews present -- felt instantly welcomed into the traditional celebration.

Then, there was singing in Hebrew that I didn't know or understand, and there were lots of symbolic gestures involving different foods that I don't quite remember, but I still enjoyed it. One of the nicest things about the seder was that it was definitely one for friends: friends getting together in a foreign country who came from very different traditions (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Reformed, Christian, atheist, whatever). It was very exemplary of the diaspora.

Another part that was quite interesting -- to me as well as to the other Jews there who had not used this kind of haggadah before -- was the Spilling of the Wine. Traditionally, the ten plagues of Egypt are recounted in this section of the seder. In addition to these, this haggadah added ten "modern plagues" that still afflict humanity today, including hunger, war, crime, racism, homophobia, pollution, and indifference to human suffering. Yeah -- very humanist. But also humbling and a good reminder of the hope and change that religions are meant to bring to the world.

In between the solemn moments and rituals, there was a lot of laughter and joking, which I thought was great. More traditional seders are exceedingly somber, as I've been told, and I'm glad the one I attended was very chill. I think the wine helped. As it were, we did not begin eating the actual meal until sometime around one in the morning, and the night petered out around three. (How European of us.)
Our amazing Passover feast! 맛있다!
Did I mention that the food was delicious? Adam is an excellent cook; he made potato pancakes and some excellent sauces for the meat dishes. Alanna took care of the matzoh ball soup, and there was also Israeli salad and a spinach and mango sautée. Not to forget dessert, we had dark chocolate-covered matzoh with salt and chopped almonds, charoset (which is not supposed to be a dessert per se, but...), and a charoset-inspired ice cream with wine-poached apples.

In short, I'm not going to forget this meal for a long, long time. It was that good.
Fulbright 친구, 유대인 and otherwise, at the hostel where we celebrated Passover.
유월절 (Yuwol-jeol): Passover
유대교 (Yudaegyo): Judaism
유대인 (Yudae-in): Jew
성금요일 (Seong Geumyo-il): Good Friday (Holy Friday)

P.S. I studied a bit of Ancient Hebrew in college, and attending this Passover Seder motivated me to practice my very rusty transliteration skills by re-writing the Hebrew portions in my haggadah using the Hebrew alphabet -- or, at least, trying to. It made me miss my Hebrew class very much.

Hebrew Vocabulary
Seder (סֵדֶר‎): a Jewish ceremonial dinner, held on Passover, from the word which means "order".
Haggadah (הַגָּדָה): the liturgy for Passover which explains the origin of the holiday.
Charoset (חֲרֽוֹסֶת): chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine. A dish that represents the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves.
Yayin (יין): wine! P'ri ha'gafen!
Pesach (פֶּסַח): the Hebrew word for Passover, from the word which means "skip".
Afikoman (אפיקומן): the larger of two pieces of matzoh ritually broken, set aside to be eaten at the end of the meal. Until that time, it is hidden and then looked for by the children of a household for a prize. From either a Greek word meaning "dessert" or a different Greek word that refers to the coming Messiah.

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