As a child, Passover was my most cherished Jewish holiday.
Every year Jews gather round the traditional Seder table to read from a book called the Haggadah, which recounts the Exodus from Egypt and guides our Passover rituals. This timeless story of freedom and redemption of the Israelite slaves never loses its thrilling significance. Although the flawed but magnificent Moses is not mentioned in the Haggadah, his experience of being a ‘stranger in a strange land’ is an unspoken and familiar memory that resurfaces each time we recite the tale.
I always use my mother’s childhood Haggadah. This ancient book is dotted with wine stains and the pages are yellow from age. But I like the quaint English translation and the note of dedication from my grandfather written in Hebrew. I read from it each Passover to remind me of Judaism’s traditions, continuity and spirituality.
My parents would invite dozens of guests for Passover. After hours setting the table my mother would unwrap her worn Seder plate and carefully prepare it with ceremonial foods such as matzah bread, a lamb shank bone, bitter herbs called ‘maror’, and ‘charoset’, made with apples, pears, nuts and syrupy red wine. Given my penchant for anything sweet, charoset was my favourite.
Questions and lively debates are encouraged during a Seder. Other than a bottle of Chivas Regal whisky, my parents kept no alcohol in the house. But every Passover, as Jewish law commands, four cups of sickly sweet red wine are consumed by all. Those attending my childhood Seders were not used to strong alcohol so much giggling, singing and loud discussions would ensue, going on late into the night.
As tradition demands we take turns reading from the Haggadah, either in Hebrew or English. One of more sombre customs is the recitation of the ten plagues inflicted by God on the Egyptians. As we name each one we spill ten drops of wine on to a plate and remember that liberation and suffering are forever intertwined. As part of the Seder a piece of matzah, called the ‘afikoman’, is wrapped in a white cloth and hidden away for all the children to find. This form of hide and seek is an appreciated levity and great praise is given to the child who finds it first.
Towards the end of the Seder we utter the inspiring words ‘Next year in Jerusalem’, encapsulating our yearning to return to the land of our ancestors and the restitution of hope. I was lucky enough to experience a Seder in my great-aunt Hilde’s tiny Jerusalem apartment in 1978. My sister and I were given a bowl of chicken soup at the start to fortify us for the lengthy evening ahead. Solemn reading from the Haggadah was interspersed with lively debates about Talmudic interpretations of Passover. One of the highlights of Seder is when the youngest child sings Mah Nishtanah – the four questions asking why this night is different from other nights. Being the youngest of all the cousins my sister joyfully chanted them in a traditional melody, the origins of which are long forgotten.
The Seder always finishes by the pouring of a fifth cup of wine for the prophet Elijah. My father would open the front door to invite him in and we would gather silently at the top of the table, peering intently at the cup. After a few minutes we would all swear we saw a sip taken from the wine, that Elijah had honoured us with his presence and all would be well.