Passover traditions, and a conversation with Rabbi Broitman

For many Jews on Martha’s Vineyard, Passover evokes tradition, remembrance, and reflection.

Rabbi Caryn Broitman, shown in this file photo from November, discusses the meaning of Passover. Ms. Broitman is the first year-round Rabbi at the Hebrew Center, where she has served since 2003. — Photo by Michelle Gross

Passover is a holiday steeped in symbolism and rich in tradition. And of course, an abundance of food. The holiday’s meaning, depending on who you ask, can be interpreted in many ways. However the story of Passover, marking the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt and their journey to freedom, is a story that will be retold at the Seder tables, synagogues, dining rooms, and meeting places of millions of Jews around the world next week.

This story of Passover remains just as important today as ever, Rabbi Caryn Broitman of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center told The Times.

“Pesach is a holiday that combines the themes of spring — the miracle of rebirth — with the themes of history and contemporary politics, oppression and liberation,” she said. “These themes are as poignant for us today as they were for our ancestors thousands of years ago. It is also a story that has been adopted by many people of many places who are struggling for freedom. The story that the One God hears the cries of the oppressed and takes the side of the oppressed is both radical and powerful.”

Passover, or Pesach, is traditionally observed in the Jewish religion for eight days. This year, it takes place between sundown on Monday, April 14, and the evening of Tuesday, April 22. The date for Passover is determined by the astronomically based Jewish calendar.

Twelve-year-old Rose Herman, a sixth grader at the Tisbury School and a member of the Hebrew Center, has been looking forward to Passover. She said she loves to celebrate just as much for the tradition as the food.

“Passover is my all-time favorite holiday in the whole entire world,” Rose told The Times Monday. “I love Passover; I think it’s so much fun just having everybody at the table. I think it’s a lot of fun just being with friends and family and the food is always really good.”

Rose said she particularly enjoys the symbolism expressed throughout the Seder dinner, including the meaning behind the story of the “four sons.”

“It has some really interesting concepts that we can discuss and talk about as a group,” Rose said. “When I was eight, I learned about the four sons and all their different personalities, and you get into learning about different details about them. I think they’re so cool.”

Other traditions Rose said are particularly meaningful to her, are when her parents play the song “Exodus,” by Bob Marley before the Seder and of course the familiar taste of matzo ball soup. “My mom and grandma alternate making matzo ball soup but that is one of the biggest reasons why I love Passover so much,” Rose said. “That’s like my favorite food in the whole world.”

Seder is a word that means order, and refers to the “order” of the ritual, which includes the meal in the midst of the order as a part of the “offering.” The meal is itself structured to be a part of the retelling of the story of the Exodus by incorporating symbolic items and actions as part of it.

Herb Foster, an 86-year-old member of the Hebrew Center, said Passover is a time to reflect on the past, while catching up with friends of the present.

“You see friends, you talk, I always enjoy a good Seder,” Herb told The Times. “Some people like to bitch, especially if it goes too long, but I always enjoy all of the singing and prayers and eating that comes with it.”

Mr. Foster recounted stories about Passover from his youth spent in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

“Every year we would always do the same thing,” Mr. Foster said. “My father would lead the Seder and we would all sing the four questions in Yiddish.”

Of course the telling of the Passover story is synonymous with the food.

Considered by some to be a culinary delight, and others to be, well, just plain bad, Herb said his favorite food to eat on Pesach is gefilte fish,  a soggy, often store-bought jar of ground fish with onions, starch, and eggs.

“It’s not for everybody,” Mr. Foster said. “But it’s definitely my favorite. Especially with a little bit of red stuff, you know, horseradish. That’s Passover.”

A Conversation with Rabbi Broitman

How are you preparing as Pesach approaches? Do you have a routine? A ritual?

Pesach (or Passover) is a holiday that involves lots of preparation. And it should, because we are reenacting/reliving/recreating a very deep process of moving from slavery to freedom and rebirth. That is not a simple process to relate to. And we are charged with not just understanding it but reliving it.

So the first part of the process is to prepare ourselves spiritually by understanding the places in our lives both physically and spiritually where we are not free or not truly alive, and ask ourselves what we need to do and pray for to become liberated and truly alive.

Alongside this spiritual element is the very physical one of cleaning our homes of what we call “Hametz.” Hametz is anything leavened that we are not allowed to eat over Passover.  This includes breads, cookies, pasta and more. We give all that away, clean all our cupboards, refrigerators and ovens, replace any old food in our cupboards with new, and clean all those corners with which we usually have a tacit agreement to live and let live. It is a very rigorous process. Some of us, like my family, also change our dishes and pots and pans to ones that are special for Passover.  Passover is a New Year when we start afresh and everything is clean and new. Once we finish cleaning and turning over our kitchens, we are ready to prepare the Seder meal which is a meal of both celebration and remembrance. We remember the oppression of our ancestors and people all over the world by eating the Matzah, called the “bread of poverty.” But we also celebrate the freedom and blessings in our lives.

Pesach is celebrated over the course of several days. Why is that? Can you explain the significance/reasoning?

The Torah, in the book of Exodus 12:14-20, says “Seven days you shall not eat unleavened bread” and that the first day and the seventh day of that period is a holiday when we do not work.  According to Jewish tradition, the seventh day celebrates the crossing of the Red Sea.  So Passover spans seven days and is traditionally extended to eight days for those living in the diaspora (outside the Land of Israel).

What are some of your favorite Passover traditions?

Passover is a very food-centered holiday and some of my favorite traditions involve memories of special Passover foods from childhood.  Of course, I love the Seders, with its beautiful singing and discussions of things that really matter.

How is Pesach celebrated on the Island/at at Hebrew Center?

Pesach is very home-centered so many of our members get together with family and friends for their Seders and observe a mix of traditions old and new.  We also have a wonderful community Seder with over 100 people.

Tell me about the Seder.

Seder means order and it is a dramatization through symbolic foods, songs, rituals, and discussions of the going out of Egypt into freedom.

For many Jews, Passover is a time of remembrance and contemplating freedom. How would you say this could be interpreted in modern times?

Pesach is a holiday that combines the themes of spring — the miracle of rebirth — with the themes of history and contemporary politics — oppression and liberation. These themes are as poignant for us today as they were for our ancestors thousands of years ago. It is also a story that has been adopted by many people of many places who are struggling for freedom. The story that the One God hears the cries of the oppressed and takes the side of the oppressed is both radical and powerful.

The specific requirement of Pesach is actually to see ourselves as experiencing the struggle for freedom, not just see it as something that happened long ago. So part of Pesach is to apply the ancient story of freedom to today’s struggles for justice and freedom. Just as an example, I don’t know that many Americans realize that some of our food, including some chocolate and some tomatoes, are harvested in slave-like conditions . And for me, the very unequal access to health care, education, civil rights as well as the uneven treatment in our criminal justice system are crying for change. There are so many of these freedom struggles, both here on the Island, in our country, and around the world. What are these struggles? What struggles to we want to play our part to bring justice and liberation? These are questions to reflect on and discuss at each of our Seder tables.

What is the message of Pesach?

For me, one of the main messages of Pesach is what I said above: God hears the cries of the oppressed and is on the side of the oppressed.  It is therefore up to us to raise our own voices as well as hear the cries of others. This process is a communal one. Oppression usually happens through a system where a lot of people participate either passively or actively. So freedom comes when a lot of people work together for change. Moses was the leader.  But it took a lot of courage for everyone else to get up and go.

Pesach is also about family, community, and connection. We celebrate along with Jews all over the world who recite the same story and partake in the same rituals. We have been doing this ritual for 2,000 years. It is moving for me to be a part of that, and I think there is a message to all of us that as much as we are individuals, we are also part of communities and traditions larger than ourselves.

Favorite family recipe: Ruth Stiller’s Matzoh Ball Soup.