USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Jewish Festival/Ritual: Non-Traditional Passover/Seder

Main Piece: Jewish Festival/Ritual

“My family hosts Passover dinner every year, but our celebration of the holiday is nontraditional in that we perform only a 10 minute seder. When we begin the seder, we always start with a reading of the Haggadah, which recounts the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and helps us to remember the suffering the Jews experienced as slaves and their happiness and celebration upon being freed. The leader of the seder, my mother, starts of the reading of the Haggadah and then each person around the table reads the paragraph following the previous. The Hebrew prayers we recite together, and upon reciting the prayer for wine, we drink our cup of wine or grape juice. To remember our ancestors tears, we take bitter greens, which are parsley, and dip them in salt water. To remember our ancestors’ hard labor and the bricks Pharaoh forced them to build, we break the matzah and create small matzah sandwiches by adding charoset, a chunky mixture of apples, matzah, and nuts, and horseradish. Before we finish reading the Haggadah, we stop to eat dinner which always starts with matzah ball soup and then we move onto the main courses. In my family, we make some of the same dishes every year, including my aunt’s arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette and pine nuts, beef brisket, and kugel, a sweet-tasting baked noodle casserole. After everyone finishes eating, we finish reading the Haggadah and then prepare dessert. It is during this time too that one of the men in the household, usually my dad, would hide the afikomen, a wrapped-up piece of broken matzah that is to be hidden and searched for by the children of the house those younger than 13 years old, but we don’t do this anymore since there are no more children in our family. Our Passover ends with dessert. Because we are forbidden on Passover to eat foods containing grains like wheat, oat, barley, spelt, etc., we have flourless desserts, including spongecake, fresh fruit, macaroons, chocolate, and flourless cookies.”

Background Information:

-Why does informant know this piece?

The informant is Jewish, and the Seder festival has been celebrated in her family for generations.

- Where did they learn this piece?

She learned about these traditions because she participates in this festival every year

- What does it mean to them?

This event is a way for her distant family to meet up each year.


- Where? The Seder happens at the dinner table in the informant’s home.

- When? The Seder tradition happens on Passover, which often falls near Christian Easter.

- Why? The Seder serves as a reminder of the Jewish people being freed from Egyptian slavery.

Personal Thoughts:

This year, my friend invited me to attend the Seder at her house. It was a very warm and pleasant experience. According to her, the Seder that happens at her house is very relaxed compared to a traditional Seder which can last up to four hours or more depending on how religious the family celebrating it is. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I think this tradition of bringing the family together and eating a ritualized meal is very important for the preservation of Jewish culture.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Leaving a Place for Elijah

The source is an Israeli Microsoft employee describing a prank he pulled on his children on Passover.

Well, as you may know for Passover Seder, we set an extra place at the table for the Profit Elijah. The tradition normally is that we pour a cup of wine for the profit and the husband of the household open the door for him. Of course, the seat remains empty and the wine full. And many parents know you can have some fun with young children, who of course are watching the Elijah’s Cup intently, by knocking the table when they’re not looking so that some of the wine spills out and it appear that the cup is drunk. When they’re older maybe they don’t fall for this.

Anyway, last year we had the idea to take that one step further and I asked my friend from work Farhan to help me with a prank. He’s Zoroastrian so he’s not doing anything that night. So this Seder we set a place for Elijah like normal; we pour the wine like normal. My children are nine and thirteen so they don’t take the whole thing too seriously anymore; they know the trick of knocking the table and spilling the wine; you know, they’re too wise to fall for that anymore.

Well this year we start eating and suddenly a bearded olive-skinned man in a tunic walks in the front door, comes to Elijah’s place, drinks the wine, and walks out again without saying anything. My kids drop to the floor and they say, “who was that, Dad.”

And I say very casually, “That’s Eliyahu [Elijah].”

To this day I won’t tell them that it was really my friend Farhan.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Non-Traditional Passover Traditions

The source describes how his family’s Passover traditions are non-traditional:

Passover is really fun at my mom’s house. And I didn’t realize how unorthodox it was until one year we went over to my aunt’s place for Passover and she’s a lot more religious. She was really strict and me and my sister got in an argument with her.  

What do you do for Passover that’s unorthodox?

Well we don’t read an actual Haggadah [the Haggadah is a Jewish which sets forth the order of the Passover Seder], we read a children’s picture book.

And the adults usually don’t drink wine or they only have one glass. But my favorite part is that we play a game where you throw mashed potatoes at the front door with a spoon. It’s based on marking the doors of the Israelites with blood. But our version is a lot more fun and more P.G. 

Is the Seder kosher?

Yes, we make sure the Seder is kosher, but my family doesn’t keep kosher most of the time. Only on holidays.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Passover Dinner

Main Piece: Passover Dinner


I personally am not Jewish, but I had the opportunity to attend a Passover dinner at my friend Sam’s house this year with their family. We ate a lot of different foods traditionally associated with Passover. There was brisket, matzo ball soup, Gefilte fish, and a sweet matzo kugel. The matzo kugel was something new to me, so I asked about it specifically.

My friends mother told me that Kugel is a Yiddish term stemming from Germany. German Jews would mix flour, water, and apples, that created a sweet matzo-like dessert. This is a dish traditionally served in the family as a savory dessert that has a historical context to it. It consisted of Granny-Smith apples, cinnamon, sugar, butter, and matzo.




My friend told me this is a dish that has been in his family for many generations, being passed down to his mother by her mother, and to her by her mother, and so on. Matzo itself is a traditional dish in the Jewish tradition. It stems from the Jewish diaspora from Egypt, when all they had was flour and water (no yeast), which resulted in the matzo bread being flat, since it could not rise.

They liked this recipe because not only is it delicious, but it has cultural significance and is more of a delicacy made for special occasions. It isn’t just prepared for your everyday meal, and that gives you a way to make a meal special in that sense.




Passover is a celebration of their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt. It commemorates the Exodus, and lasts for seven or eight days depending on the specific religion, during the Hebrew month of Nisan. Matzo is a big part of the meal, as it is derived from the event that is being celebrated during this holiday. This is why a majority of the dishes consist of matzo, and it has a certain level of historical context to being so prominent in the celebration.

Traditionally throughout the week of Passover, Jews are not supposed to consume yeast, and only matzo, to pay homage to the religion and its history. Because this is such an important holiday in the tradition, matzo kugel is prepared for this special occasion.


My thoughts:


Personally I am not a fan of fruity desserts, I think desserts should be something along the lines of ice cream or cake. I still tried it out of respect and although it was not my favorite, I could tell it was a delicacy in my friends household, as everyone got excited once it became time for dessert.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Passover Game Night

Main Piece: “I think there’s a couple of things my family does on Passover. One thing my dad does every year on one of the nights… because we do a whole seder the first and second night… we hold a game night. And that includes a different game every year. In the past, we’ve done Jeopardy night or… um… the amazing race Passover edition… we have even done American Idol Passover edition. And I think that gives a fun little way for the younger kids at seder to want to come…um…and something I’ve alwyas enjoyed.”

Background: The informant says Passover game nights have been a tradition her whole life. She says her father is quite creative and puts a lot of time into these games. The informant appreciates these games because she says it’s a good way to learn about the story of Passover without it being “too boring.” Trivia, clues, and rewards are used as incentive to make the seder interesting and enjoyable. A “seder” is a Jewish ritual of the telling and celebration of the liberation of the Isrealites from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Performance Context: I sat at my desk while the informant sat across from me in a chair.

My Thoughts: The informant’s father invests a lot of effort into this game night. His creativity unites cultures and traditions; U.S. games like Jeapoardy, American Idol, and the Amazing Race are combined with Jewish rituals, retelling stories of ancient Egypt and Israel on the holiday of Passover. The game night tradition involves the entire family, which according to the informant, brings together over 50 members of the family. Judaism, like other religions, values tradition. However, this Passover game night adapts tradition to a modern context. I expect the legacy of this game night will live on since the informant notes how enjoyable the seders become when the whole family is involved in the game.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Passover: Ashkenazi and Sephardic Foodways

Main Piece:  “In terms of food… um… my mom is Ashkenazi and my dad is Sephardic so I think my home is one of those rare homes that you see foods like rice and beans served, besides brisket…we have both brisket and lamb…which I don’t think anyone does that…’cause we cater to both sides of the family. There’s two dishes in particular that I think I’ve never heard of outside of my family. One of them is called Mina…and it’s a spinach matzoh dish… not entirely sure….but it’s amazing. And then the other one is Singato and that’s like mushrooms and meat and all sorts of good stuff…I don’t know what’s in it….but it’s Sephardic.”

Background: The informant notes that it is particularly interesting that her Ashkenazi mother and Sephardic father jointly contribute to the Passover meal because they are two different global denominations of Judaism. She remembers that when she was younger, her family wouldn’t serve the traditional Sephardic dishes because her older Ashkenazi relatives weren’t as accepting of these dishes as “traditional.” The informant prefers the Sephardic food served at dinner because there are more variations in the dish (vegetables, meat, grains, etc.) The informant’s family hosts over 50 people for dinner each year. She notes that it can be offensive to the hosts when a guest doesn’t eat a dish that is served.

Performance Context: I sat at my desk while the informant sat across from me in a chair.

My Thoughts: The unification of two branches of Judaism, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, is noteworthy because these affiliations are infamous for not collaborating on religious methods concerning diet, prayer, ritual, and more. Ashkenazi Jews are a European denomination especially prevalent in Poland, Russia, France, while Sephardic Jews have majority of their communities in Spain, Portugal, and Turkey. Folk foodways are an interesting way to unify multiple globalized traditions. The informant noted that her older relatives were not so welcoming of this collaboration because it wasn’t as “traditional.” A widely accepted sentiment, “non-traditonal” is usually understood as imposing on an individual’s personal tradition. Of course a tradition is unique to the individual, so Sephardic foodways and Ashkenazi foodways are each traditional, but bringing together both foodways at one time became a new tradition which required adjustment.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Passover Tradition: A Modern Haggadah

Main Piece: “So my dad makes these…um…books with all the different prayers that you… um… do on Passover and it has all that information but it also has little fun snippits in it including a festive front cover with my family’s pictures having to do with the biblical story in some way. And they often feature my horse and in the past, my dog, with matzoh in their mouths. So that’s always fun. And it usually includes some sort of news information on what’s happening in the world today.”

Background: The informant says these books have been used as long as she can remember (at least 21 years). She says her father likes making people laugh and likes to personalize the books with photos of their animals because he wants Passover to be enjoyable. According to the informant, her father also likes to share his political viewpoints concerning current events to inspire conversation during dinner. Each member of the table looks through the book at the seder. Her father uses the book, in Hebrew referred to as “haggadah,” in a traditional but contemporary way. It is read back to front, like the Torah. The informant also notes that her father keeps the book a surprise until the night of the dinner.

Performance Context: I sat at my desk while the informant sat across from me in a chair.

My Thoughts: The informant’s father places value on celebrating the holiday, rather than simply reciting the Hebrew prayers and practicing the rituals. Instead, he makes the books relevant, surprising, and humorous in a modern context. Hosting a Passover dinner for many people of many backgrounds is difficult, but engaging the entire table is even more of a challenge. The informant’s celebration of Passover is unique to her family. It has been tradition for over 21 years and incorporates a sense of enjoyment and festivity. The informant’s father has adapted the original haggadah to fit a contemporary context, considering current events, humor, and the guests’ engagement. The personalization of the books is similar to a copyright. There is a sense of ownership in this creative work, shared only with the guests at the Passover dinner.

Folk Beliefs

Red String Bracelets

“If you go to the western wall in Israel there’s always people who are there—like around there and basically, like, they give you, um, like you’ll give them money, like, if they’re like begging and then they give you a red string and then they make a blessing on it and then you can’t take the red string, like you can’t remove it until it falls off. And that’s to keep the evil eye away. Like Jews are super into that, about keeping the evil eye away.”


The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition and related practices within her family. When I asked the informant to further explain this practice, she said, “Lot of times there’s this thing—have you ever seen, like, the hand? Like the image? So it’s called a ‘hamsa’ in Hebrew and like it’s the same thing, it’s to keep the evil eye away.”


The informant had seen this practice occur a lot during her travels to Israel and says she first learned about it from her grandmother who “would [do that] right before she died, she was super into that.” However, at the end of the interview she told me, “I don’t do that, I don’t do evil eyes and I don’t do the hamsa . . . I don’t like it because I feel like it’s idolatry, and I don’t . . . I’m not into that. But I would do the red string ‘cause it’s kind of a cultural thing.”


I found this practice to be fascinating because it seems like the greater religious/spiritual meaning of it has become somewhat divorced from the physical act. Something that started as a way to “keep the evil eye away” is still done for that purpose, but also because it has become a cultural thing that someone just does. This is revealed in the fact that an informant who is quick to assure me that she does not believe in the hamsa or the evil eye on the basis of her seeing them as idolatry would still willingly participate in this practice. In addition to it being performed for the previously stated spiritual purpose, I also think there is something to the fact that someone is given these red strings by people who are begging. Because it is now considered a normal cultural practice, it has become an expected social interaction between two people of differing class status in this part of Israel. Essentially, while giving a red string and a blessing might have been an organic way of thanking someone before, it is now almost a required act of gratitude by beggars near the western wall.

Rituals, festivals, holidays


Interviewee: So my family was never really Jewish. My grandfather was always like, “I’m Jew-ish.” Or maybe that’s what my aunt said about him. But he never really practiced. He only went to Temple on the high holy days, like Rosh Hashanah, and even then it wasn’t guaranteed. So we never really celebrated it in our house. But I always keenly aware of the fact that I was different from other kids. And probably that mostly stemmed from me being Hispanic.

Interviewer: It’s hard to celebrate Hispanic culture. Like there are no Hispanic mainstream holidays.

Interviewee: Yeah and like living in the whitest town in the country. I tried to make my family celebrate Hanukkah, and my mom was always open to it even though she was super Catholic. She just loves God, I don’t really get it. But it never really worked out because my Dad didn’t celebrate Hanukkah as a kid, he celebrated Christmas. So that didn’t really work out.

But then my best friend since basically birth, his Mom is Jewish and his grandmother wanted to start doing Passover with them. So they invited us over for Seder. And now it’s become this big thing where I always look forward to Passover, I looked forward to it all year.

So we would get together and the joke was that he is half-Jewish on his Mom’s side, I’m half-Jewish on my dad’s side, so together the family makes an entire Jewish family.

And the thing about this friend’s grandmother is that no one in her family really likes her, but in my family we view her as a god.

Interviewer: How many times a year do you see her?

Interviewee: I make it a point to go see her whenever she’s in town. She’s really funny; she acts just like my grandmother, but she has this thick New York Jewish accent. “JR come over here, let me get a good look at you. Do a turn for me.”

So no one really likes her in that family, but in my family she is the bomb, everyone wants to hang out with her. So we would come over for Passover, and immediately she and her daughter would start fighting. It just made for the most entertaining Seders. She would be reading all slow, and her daughter would be like, “Mom you gotta pick it up.” So she would read it faster, and then at the end, she would be like, “Oh, we didn’t really do Seder this year, did we? I guess you’re not into it; you read it so quickly.” So they would start yelling and bickering.

We had some traditions with Passover that grew. Like my friend’s dad would always have the Elijah Glass. And then there is always a fight because there is a part with four children and there was four of us, me, my brother, my friend, and his sister. And there was a part with like the simple child and the wicked child. So we always fought over who was the simple child and who got to be the wicked child. You wanted to be the wicked one.

There was always the hiding of the motzah. My friend’s grandmother would hide the motzah in the house and kids would team up together and tear through the house to see who could find it first.

His grandmother would cook a brisket. So good. Motzah ball soup. We could get real Jewish.

Interviewer: And you guys didn’t really have the opportunity to get to eat that type of food?

Interviewee: We would never have that growing up. It was always like, “Ooh it’s Passover, we get to eat Motzah Ball soup.” The Seders were always super quick and not really religious. It was just fun.


This is clearly a story about struggling to find one’s identity, as he says above that he never felt like he fit in at his all white school because of his race. I think that by turning to Judaism he found something about his difference to celebrate. That his culture no longer ostracized him from everyone else, but rather included him into this two family Seder. It is clear that the religious aspects of the dinner were not really that important because that was never why anyone really wanted to do it in these families in the first place. It seems like it is so much more about understanding and celebrating ones identity and background. With Passover and my informant’s friends grandmother, my informant was able to experience and celebrate what it was like to be Jewish; what it was like to be different. The grandmother served as the guardian into that world for my informant’s family.



About the Interviewed: Charly Cohen is a student at the University of Southern California majoring in Theatre. Her background is nomadic, having been born in Kentucky, moved to Washington, then to Israel, then to Vancouver, and back to Washington again! Her ethnic backdrop is Jewish. She’s a fellow classmate.

Charly and I had gotten onto the subject of Jewish holidays. I asked her about Passover and her experiences in celebrating it.

Charly: “Passover revolves around a meal called the “Seder”, which means “order”. It refers to a number of things you’re expected to do around the celebration of the meal. You go through a retelling of the story of Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, from slavery. You go through the templates, drink four traditional glasses of wine, and sing songs.”

I asked her about any differences she might have experienced celebrating Passover in Israel versus the United States.

Charly: “Passover in Israel is very different from Passover in the United States. It varies based on levels of Judaism. Many people like to think of Jews as sort of one conglomerate – ‘thing’, but there are a ton of denominations. My particular Judaism is based on my experiences at summer camp.”

“People from all sorts of different walks came to the camp –  So you get a different sort of people who celebrate these holidays in different ways.”

“In Israel, I’ve found that the Seders tend to be shorter. It cuts right to the chase, but the after celebration tends to be longer. The last Seder I went to here [in America], the story was told before the meal, but that was it, there wasn’t much afterwards.”

I asked if she felt that way her family celebrated Passover was any different than the way other families celebrated it.

Charly: “Sort of-  there are general guidelines that the observers have to follow, as laid out in the ‘Haggadah’ [Passover Texts], but many families celebrate it in their own ways.”


Passover is a holiday with important historical and religious significance. Those who celebrate it typically follow a strict custom, though traditions vary upon where/who are celebrating it.

Though not Jewish myself, I grew up in a community of pretty active members of the faith. Hearing a summary of Passover and the traditions that come with it was very enriching. Traditions can be rigid, but they also exemplify the celebration and make events like Passover special.