Passover is one of the Jewish calendar’s happier holidays because it represents freedom. Even though the story of the years in bondage is far from joyful, the redemption of the Israelites is definitely celebratory. For Jews who don’t follow much of the ritual, Passover is one holiday that is celebrated more than any other in the Jewish calendar. Most of us know the basic facts but Marilyn Schwartz at an Orlando Chapter of Hadassah created a list of eight interesting facts about Passover and we’ve added a couple more:
We didn’t drink Coca-Cola in my family, but I was always fascinated to see the “Kosher for Passover” on Coke bottles. As it turns out, Coca Cola makes a special batch of Kosher Coke for Passover replacing the corn syrup, which is a no-no for observant Jews, with real sugar.
The traditional seder plate has six spots on it for the symbolic food we eat during Passover. But sometimes there are seven foods on the seder plate. The new seventh food is an orange. As stated on the website ReformJudaism.org, Professor Susanna Heschel explains that “in the 1980s, feminists at Oberlin College placed a crust of bread on the Seder plate, saying, ‘There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.’” Heschel adapted this practice, placing an orange on her family’s seder plate and asking each attendee to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with LGBTQ Jews and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. They spit out the orange seeds, which were said to represent homophobia. The orange is said to signify fruitfulness, and the action of spitting out the seeds represents “spitting out hate and discrimination in our communities.”
Can you guess where the world’s largest Passover seder takes place? It is in Nepal. Every year the Chabad-Lubavitch movement holds its “Seder on Top of the World.” It takes place in Kathmandu and attract Jewish locals and travelers alike. Last year, about 2,000 people attended the festivities.
On a sadder note, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated during Passover. Many Jews were in synagogue when news of Lincoln’s assassination broke. The synagogues took on a more somber tone. The bimas “were quickly draped in black and, instead of Passover melodies, the congregations chanted Yom Kippur hymns. Rabbis set aside their sermons and wept openly at their pulpits, as did their congregants.” A time of celebration had become a time of mourning. It is so interesting that Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, was killed during the holiday that rejoices in the release from slavery.
Several years ago I attended a seder where “flogging fun” took place. Jews from Iran and Afghanistan have a particularly lively custom in which they whip each other with oversize scallions. In some families, one scallion is passed around the table while each person takes a turn whipping the person sitting next to you.
In many seders today, plays act out the story of Passover. “In the Polish town of Gora Kalwaria, Hasidic Jews mark Passover by re-enacting the crossing of the Red Sea. To make it as realistic as they can, they pour water on the floor, lift up their coats and recite the names of the towns they would cross. They also make sure to raise a glass at each mention of a town and offer thanks to G-d for being able to reach their destination.”
Ethiopian Jews endured persecution for hundreds of years because of their religious rites. Two secret airlifts, one in 1984 and the other in 1991, brought hundreds of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. “During Passover, to commemorate their past and celebrate renewal, some Ethiopian Jews break all their dishes and cookware and make new ones. The tradition is in keeping with the hope for emancipation and redemption that the holiday signifies.”
Another new custom celebrates Miriam’s role in the deliverance from slavery and her help throughout the wandering in the wilderness. An empty cup is placed alongside Elijah’s cup. Each seder participant pours of bit of their water into the cup. With this new custom, we recognize that women have always been – and continue to be – integral to the continued survival of the Jewish community. We view the pouring of each person’s water as a symbol of everyone’s individual responsibility to respond to issues of social injustice. Use the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Miriam’s Cup reading insert in your seder to honor the women in your life and remember Miriam’s contributions to the Exodus. Passover is representative of two main lessons: social justice and thankfulness. Today, some more progressive temples and Jewish communities take it upon themselves to elaborate on these teachings including contemporary readings and real life stories about the slavery and injustice that still exist in our world today.