USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Seder’
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The Passover Plate and Matzah – Symbolic Food at the Passover Seder

Item:

L: This is gonna explain the Passover plate in the middle, not all things are on it ‘cause we have a big bowl of charoset and um, and we don’t have a lamb’s shank bone because yenno, where you gonna find those?  Not really, so we’ll just break something else and uh..

S: For reference, my, uh, my family uses the same lamb shank bone every year.

L: That’s terrifying.

E: Do you actually break it or is it just symbolic?

S: No, it’s just symbolic.

L: So there’s the egg, symbolizes, uh, new life, uh, new beginnings, that sort of thing.  A little bit of the karpas which is the vegetables, spring new life, that sort of thing. Uh, the egg is more of a new life for you as person and the culture, spring is the vegetable.  There’s the charoset, um, and the maror, that’s the herbs and the bitterness.  Um, and the salt water, which is supposed to represent the tears of our ancestors and how much they suffered! Yaaay! Um, it’s all- this is all pretty much about remembrance.  Um, and being- welcome to Judaism, pretty much everything is remembering the troubles you went through in the past so that you, uh you know, remembering your past.  Don’t, you know, take things for granted.  Uh, think about how fortunate you are now that you’re not building pyramids

S: Be afraid of Egyptians and Christians and everyone.

L: But it’s also like, you know, new birth, rememb- like you know, it’s not all bleh.  Um, which comes across in the charoset, which is the mortar between the bricks that we built.  Um, yeah, why is mortar made out of apples and walnuts? I don’t know, it tastes good though.  And we’ll get to that later with the Hillel sandwich.  But that’s what the plate in the middle is supposed to represent.  Um, so karpas! Which is the herbs, pretty much this is the parsley and the salt water.  The herbs, which is the little bitter, dip it into the salt water to remember the tears of our ancestors and the sweat of all the hard work they did when they were enslaved in Egypt. Hahum, once again. Tha- this is gonna be a reoccurring theme guys!

L: So um, we all take a little bit of the parsley… [distributes parsley] and do you typically say the prayer before or after you eat it?

S: Before.

L: Before? Okay, I did- somebody did it after, and I was like [makes a confused face].  I know, I was confused as well. Alright so, um, this is to remember the tears of our ancestors and all the hardships they went through.

All: Blessed are You Lord our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the earth.

L: And then we dip it in the salt water.

L: Yachatz.  Matzah! What is matzah? It’s unleavened bread, because when we left Egypt, we didn’t have time to let our bread rise, um, ‘cause we were in such a hurry.  So we left Egypt in a hurry and the bread baked on the backs of the Jews who were walking through the desert, um, on their long journey.  So that’s what matzah is, we don’t eat any bread with wheat, or basically leavened bread this night, um, to signify that.. um, and we will break it in half.  So what we do is we break it in half, and hide the smaller piece, uh, and this is the Afikomen which is our “dessert” for the Passover uh, but yenno real dessert, it’s- it’s a modern thing. But what we do is we hide this somewhere in the area and then all the children go and find it and a lot of the time if you find it, you get a prize or something like that, um, I was thinking the people who could find it are the people who have not participated in Passover before.

S: In case you were wondering, as the oldest cousin, I did find the Afikomen every year.

L: I never found the Afikomen!

S: My grandma got dollar coins.  So it was a dollar, but it was a special dollar.

[Continuation of the Seder dinner, primarily the telling of the Story of Passover]

L: The pesach, which is the lamb bone that we don’t have.  No one actually uses roasted beets

S: That’s true

L: So that’s why I didn’t even think about it.  It’s the sacrifice that God passed over the Israelites’ houses with the tenth plague, um, what they did is they painted lamb’s blood on their doorways so that God would pass over their doorway and not kill their firstborn. So that’s what the shank bone is for, the blood of the- the sacrifice of both the firstborns of the Egyptians also the lambs that we painted blood with.

[Second Glass of Wine]

[The Second Urchatz – Washing of Hands]

L: Blessing over matzah, so now we get to eat the matzah.  This is eating the unleavened bread so you can crack off a little piece.

All: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to eat matzah.

S: Whenever you make matzah at home, it’s circular.

L: It’s supposed to look like this ‘cause that’s how they made it back in the day.  However, you know, factory processed matzah.

S: This is in fact why you have matzah that’s not Kosher for Passover ‘cause they were too lazy to get a rabbi in there.  Or too cheap.

L: The maror, okay the bitter herbs. Here’s the horseradish.  This is the bitter herbs, um, remembering the bitterness and pain, again, of our ancestors.  Yep.  It sucked being slave so what you do is take a little bit of the horseradish.  If you’re feeling the pain of your ancestors, you get a big ol’ glob on there but if you’re not really feeling the pain of the ancestors. This- this would also be a competition.  Whoever could eat the most bitter- the most maror, would be the most remember-y Jew.

S: What my family does is we’d chop up the horseradish and take a teeny tiny little bite.

All: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to eat bitter herbs.

L: Yaay, the best part, the charoset. So charoset, anyone remember?

Participant: It’s the spackle and the mortar!

L: Yeah! Cool. So what we do is that we make a Hillel sandwich.  Hillel was a famous, ah, um.. is he a rabbi?

S: He was a rabbi, they’re all rabbis.

L: Yeah, he was a famous religious figure in Judaism who made the- who would- this is what we name after, Hillel.

L: So what we do is we take the mortar, there’s no prayer for this funny enough, you take – if you want, you don’t have to – a little bit of the radish, the bitter.

S: You kinda have to.

L: You do.

S: You kinda have to, but you drown it out with the charoset.

L: Now the charoset, oh so we take it ‘cause we still remember the bitterness, but we put in the charoset ‘cause we- because it’s also the hope of the future and the- the taste of the joys of life.  So there’s the sweetness outweighs the bitter, but you still need the bitter to remember.

S: In case you were wondering, for this and the previous thing, most people take like a teeny teeny little bite.

L: Oh yeah, no- no one ever really goes super hard.  That was just the first time ‘cause someti- it’s always a competition, especially if there are kids.

 

Context:

This recorded excerpt is only parts of the Seder dinner I attended that reveal the symbolism of food at Passover.  I collected this piece as the leader of the Seder, denoted by ‘L’ in the excerpts above, was going through the ritual agenda.  That being said, it should be noted that these excerpts were not consecutive in the procession.  In some locations there are brackets with the rituals that came in between certain sections.

The primary informants of the Seder dinner were two students from the University of Southern California.  They are both Jewish and both grew up celebrating Passover and attending Seders with their families.  As such, throughout the transcription, there are places where one of the informants may have an additional comment regarding something their family did specifically or what their family may have changed from the a more traditional Seder as prescribed by a guide book called the Haggadah.  For example, typically three days of Seder are observed, on Friday, Saturday, then Sunday, but both informants mentioned how their families typically only did one.  Both the informants also talked about the Haggadah they used in their families, but the guide book was not a means of learning the rituals or the traditions by far.  It served as amore of a refresher and catalog of knowledge on the stories that are told through the night.  People would actually learn about the rich symbolism and reasoning behind Seder as they experience it and partake in it.

 

Analysis:

The Passover Seder is very rich in food symbolism, as seen in the excerpt of the dinner I attended above.  The food itself does not inherently hold meaning, but it is the context in which it is presented and consumed in which the meaning arises.  The choice of a particular food to hold meaning may have different origins as well.  Whereas matzah is a literal representation of the unleavened bread that baked on the backs of the Jewish people as they traveled through the desert, some of the other items on the plate have physical connections to their intended meaning.  For example, the bitterness of the horseradish, or the maror, was meant to parallel the bitterness and pain of suffering in Egypt.  The charoset, though, a delicious mixture of apples and walnuts, is supposed to represent the mortar and spackle between the bricks of the pyramids.  There is not quite any apparent connection here as opposed to the other items whose taste or appearance is the basis of their symbolism.  On the other hand, though, later on one the informants mentioned how the charoset also represents the joys from life and hopes of the future, and this has more of a direct connection because delicious food can be a joy of life.  Children or non-Jewish participants in Seder are able to very quickly identify the symbolism of foods during Seder because some of the spoken rituals are about explaining them as well.

Not only is the symbolism of the food important at Seder, but the ritual interactions with these foods are significant as well.  The most prominent example of this would be having to eat the maror, or the bitter herbs.  As ‘L’ mentioned, those who really strive to experience the bitterness and pain of the Jewish ancestors would go for a large amount of it (though on the flip side, it may just be a competition).  If the foods hold the essence of some state of being, then eating the food could nurture that same essence within an individual by means of contagion.  I think this is part of the reason why such emphasis is placed on food symbolism during Seder.  Whether the resulting state of being is negative or positive, it provides a means to remember the events of the past.  By continuing to ritually reenact Seder dinner, during which the suffering of the Jewish ancestors is remembered and God is thanked for freeing the Jewish people of their slavery, the story of Passover for the Jewish people will continue to perpetuate and thus preserving this aspect of Jewish culture.

 

Annotation:

For additional examples of familial variations in celebrating the Passover Seder, please refer to  Sharon R. Sherman’s essay titled “The Passover Seder: Ritual Dynamics, Foodways, and Family Folklore” in Chapter 14 (pages 193 – 204) of Food in the USA: A Reader.

Sherman, Sharon R. “The Passover Seder: Ritual Dynamics, Foodways, and Family Folklore.” Food in the USA: A Reader, edited by Carole M. Counihan, Routledge, 2002, pp. 193-204.

 

Additional Informant Data:

The informant data for the leader of the Seder is included in the section above the item.  The same information is included for the other informant below:

‘S’ – Nationality: USA; Age: 26; Occupation: Ph.D. Student; Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Primary Language: English; Other Languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew

Holidays
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.

Context:

- 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.

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Musical

There’s No Seder Like our Seder

Informant is grandmother, currently living in Florida having lived most of her life in New Jersey. The following is printed on a series of old, twice-photocopied documents which she stores in a closet in a large bin. These are a familiar sight for the family during Passover, in which the entirety of the song is sung together before beginning with the dinner service.

 

There’s No Seder Like our Seder

(sung to the tune of “There’s no Business like Show business”)

There’s no seder like our seder,

There’s no seder I know.

Everything about it is Halachic

nothing that the Torah won’t allow.

Listen how we read the whole Haggadah

It’s all in Hebrew

‘Cause we know how.

There’s no Seder like our seder,

We tell a tale that is swell:

Moses took the people out into the heat

They baked the matzoh

While on their feet

Now isn’t that a story

That just can’t be beat?

Let’s go on with the show!

 

Of course this song is not traditional jewish canon, as it’s inspired by the song “There’s no Business like Show business.” Somewhere down the line, at a time she does not remember, these papers were copied and it was decided to sing it before opening the Hagaddah (Passover prayerbook read at dinner). I think this song, to her, is a fun family activity which gets all ages singing together and warmed up for the night.

general

Fishman Family Seder Song

Informant “J” is a 19 year male old college student at the University of Southern California, he is studying Neuroscience and is a Sophomore at the time of this interview. He was born in Danville, California to a Jewish father and as a result J has regular exposure to Jewish traditions and customs. Though he does involve himself with Jewish traditions, he does not practice Judaism and considers himself non-religious.

 

“J: One thing my family and I like to do during our Passover Seders is that we have this, at the end of the Seder, we have this dinner and we all like to sing our own song which is called “The Fishman Seder” song, I don’t know exactly how it goes, because we have always had the sheet but it started…

“Wouldn’t it be greater than to be at Fishman Seder, or a Fishman Seder on Meeesssaaa ” (audio attached)

J: And it’s really fun and we’d pound the table and everything and it’s just something that we’d do after every single Seder dinner, which we like to have a lot of our, a lot of our kind of traditions, based on a kind of Jewish Holidays. Granted we tend to go off of my Mom’s religion, we tend to go off Protestant, but a lot of the things we do as families we do during Hanukkah or Passover.

Me: Alright… um, the Fishman song, do your Grandparents, or do any other previous generations sing that, or did you guys originate that?

J: So I think it was actually my Grandparents who came up with it, beacuse the first time we sung it, it was with our Grandparents and they pulled out a piece of paper and they said “we came up with this new song”. They came up with it with my uncle and aunt as well. They all liked it so they were the first Fishman to sing the song.

Me: How long ago was that?

J: I don’t know, before I was born I know.

Me: Do you guys sing it when your Grandparents aren’t around?

J: No it’s sort of only when we’re all together, not unless they’re at Seder with us.”

 

Analysis:

Although “J” informs me that the tune is a familiar one and not a Fishman original, I am not sure of the origin of the song. I welcome anyone with any idea where the tune might be from (from the audio clip above) to comment on this posting. The Fishman Seder song seems to act as a celebration of the family as a whole, and acts as a way to celebrate being part of the Fishman family (“…be greater than to be at Fishman Seder”) as well as their coming together. The family working to build the tune together, as “J” mentions happened before he was born, as well as the families continued insistence to sing the song during Jewish Seder supports this conclusion. As Seder is a Jewish Passover tradition, and as the family is unified during this event, it can help to both reinforce their Jewish identity and its connection to their shared experience as a Family.

As the event is sung at the end of Seder, it may also act to transition from one Passover event to another, or to transition into the end of the evening. Either way the event seems to act to transition during a liminal period of the event while also reinforcing the sense of community the Seder dinner builds, as if to sort of epitomize the event they are concluding.

Customs
Foodways
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

PASSOVER

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.

ANALYSIS:

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.

Customs
Holidays

Passover

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.”

Summary:

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.

 

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