By Kate Rogers, Staff Writer
Late March and early April are often overshadowed by how large Easter festivities have become in modern American culture, but there are certain people celebrating a very different holiday during this time; the Jewish are celebrating Passover. Celebrated in memory of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, Passover is often celebrated with traditional meals and prayers. This year, Passover began on March 30th and lasts until April 7th.
The story of the first Passover can be found in the book of Exodus. The Jewish people, or “Children of Israel,” had been slaves to the Egyption people for roughly 200 years. God sent ten different plagues to Egypt to convince the Pharaoh to release the people, the last of which was the death of every Egyptian first born child. Using Moses as a messenger, God instructed the Jewish people to mark their doorposts with the blood of an unblemished lamb which would be a sign to the spirit of God to pass over those houses and keep the first born children safe. This “passing over” is where the name of the holiday originated.
Ariel Bernstein is the director of Southern Maine Hillel, a branch of an international Jewish campus organization that covers the four universities in Southern Maine. According to Bernstein, Passover has a much larger meaning than simply celebrating one historical event. It is “A time for all Jews to reflect on what it means to be free,” she said. “Passover is also a call of action for all Jews to remind us to keep working until all people are free.”
The most important and beloved tradition of Passover is called the Seder. The meal is traditionally supposed to happen after the evening service on the second day of Passover. Every part of this meal has a meaning behind it: from the way people are supposed to sit, to the food being eaten, to the order everything is eaten. “[The word] Seder means order, because we follow a specific order of eating and drinking,” said Bernstein. All the steps of the meal tell the Exodus story through their meaning.
The centerpiece of the Seder is the Seder plate, which is filled with representational food and set up a certain way. “Maror” is a bitter herb to represent the bitterness of slavery– people often use horseradish. “Zeroa” is a roasted lamb shank to represent the lamb that was sacrificed and the sacrifice that the Israelites offered to God after escaping Egypt. These are just a few shallowly explained examples of some things put on the Seder plate. All of the items have very deep and complex meanings. While it is not on the Seder plate, Matzah is also an important element of Passover celebration. Said to represent how the Israelites left Egypt quickly, or ‘without leaving time for the bread to leaven”, Matzah has no leaveners (yeast or other ingredients that cause the bread to rise) in it and is flat. It’s tradition to try not to eat any leaveners throughout the Passover week.
Bernstein estimates that there are around 50 Jewish students in the USM community if not more. The Hillel organization is having a Seder meal at USM on Monday night– this is the third and not second day of Passover, but they hope to include more people by having it on a weekday. “All of Hillel’s activities are open to anyone who’d like to learn, celebrate respectfully and engage respectfully,” said Bernstein.
There are differing opinions on people outside of Judaism wanting to participate in Jewish holidays, but Bernstein said that, in her opinion, if people come wanting to learn they are welcome. Learning about other cultures and religions is great, and so is being open to the traditions of your peers. “It’s helpful when people self initiate learning about what they are going to participate in,” Bernstein said. This is one way to be respectful about participating: there are unlimited learning resources on the internet and reading up on and trying to understand the tradition beforehand is great. “Minorities are put in the position where it’s their job to educate everyone,” Bernstein said. Instead of putting people on the spot, it’s easy to go find the story for oneself, and then ask thoughtful and clarifying questions later.
Bernstein suggested a few specific resources for learning about Passover and other Jewish traditions. Hillel.org has a lot of educational material and information on the organization itself. Chabad.org is a Jewish organization focused on outreach and has very comprehensive information on the religion, its history and much more. For more information about Hillel’s Southern Maine branch, there is a University of Maine Hillel public Facebook page.