Background Information: Julia Haft-Candell is a professor at USC, and she grew up in Oakland. Her family gets together every year to celebrate Passover, a Jewish occassion where people commemorate their liberation from slavery under the Egyptian people. I interviewed Julia about the origins of the day, as well as what her family does to celebrate it.
Julia: So, the Jews were slaves in Egypt, and… gosh, this is really hard, haha.
Ankita: Just like, whatever you remember about it is good.
Julia: So…the pharaoh… Like, the evil pharaoh. Not all the pharaohs were evil, but this one was, and he was worried about, I think kinda like, about the Jewish uprising, and the potential of Jewish men to like, overthrow their masters? So he ordered all Jewish sons born to be killed. And, a woman had a son, and couldn’t bring herself to do that, so she put him in a basket in the water, and flaoted him down the river, and the evil pharaoh’s like, daughter, or sister or something, found him, and raised him as a Prince of Egypt, even though he was Jewish. And, at some point like… and this is Moses, like this is the origin story of Moses… and at some point God said to him like, you are a chosen Jewish person, and he was like ‘woah’, and then like, God said like, you are gonna lead the Jews out of slavery, and I’m gonna show you how. And because he was in with the evil pharaoh and one of the Egyptians, basically, he was able to just like, talk to him and say like, ‘you should let us go because God is gonna get mad…’ and the pharaoh kept saying like, ‘ok I’ll let you go’, but then changing his mind… And then, eventually, God did the plagues? Like, the 10 plagues? So he ordered these plagues against the Egyptians as like a punishment for holding the Jews as slaves, so there are all these plagues like locusts, and blood… and all the cows died… and, I dunno, there were all these terrible afflictions. So the final plague was death of the first born? For Egyptians. So God told the Jews to rub lamb’s blood around their door, the night that the Angel of Death was gonna get the first borns and kill them… so the… Angel of Death ‘passed over’ the Jewish families, because they knew to put the lamb’s blood on the door. So that’s where the name comes from. And that’s when the pharaoh was finally like, ‘okay fine go’, because his son died… And then so, they gathered, like they had no time, so they just gathered everything, all their belongings real quick, and left, like they didn’t even have time for the bread that they were baking to rise, so that’s what matzo is, this like, unleavened flat bread that we eat on Passover. And, um, Moses’ people, the Jewish people, went across the desert, and got to the Red Sea, and they were like, ‘oh crap, the sea’, and Moses was like, ‘don’t worry I got it’, and he parted it, and they all went through, and by then the pharaoh had changed his mind and sent soldiers, and they were chasing them, but when they were in the middle of the sea then the sea went back together and all the soldiers drowned, and so on… So that whole time is commemorated as Passover.
Ankita: So what do you guys do to celebrate it?
Julia: Okay so, you have a seder, like a seder plate, and it has, traditionally a lamb shank, to represent the blood on the doorway, there’s parsley, that you dip in salt water, to represent spring-time, and bitter herbs, and like, tears I think? And um, there’s this stuff called charoset, which is like apple, and nut, and like wine, like a mixture that you eat with the matzo, and it symbolizes the mortar between the bricks that the slaves would have to use to build the pyramids and stuff… And, there’s a hard-boiled egg to represent life I think, and there’s horseradish for like, bitterness… There’s also the Haggadah, kind of like this prayer book that you read through, and there’s a leader who reads through, and it tells the story of Passover, as well as prayers that you say before you… so there’s just a lot of like, reading and talking and singing, um, before you can eat. You can eat the parsley and you can eat the matzo, but you can’t eat the actual food till like, you’re done through the whole prayer book.
Ankita: Is the leader usually like a Rabbi or someone?
Julia: It’s usually just like, I mean traditionally it’s like the dad, or like the man of the house, you know, but that can of course, you know like I did it this year…In all of my family seders we’ve just kind of like, taken turns to be leaders.
Ankita: So there’s no rule like it has to be the oldest person or something?
Julia: No, but there is a rule for the youngest person in the seder. There are these four questions that the youngest participant has to ask — um, ‘why is this night different from all other nights’, ‘why do we eat this, instead of this’, and then we answer, and so on.
Thoughts: It was interesting to hear the unofficial way in which Julia told the origin story of Passover. To me, it shows how this story has been in her knowledge for a long time, as she seems deeply familiar with it, and is able to use her own words to explain it. I also enjoyed hearing about the various little traditions during the seder that are usually performed, and how there may be such variations from family to family.