Diane Cole: Is Passover the New Christmas?

Americans of all religions now embrace the holiday celebrating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

Source: WSJ, 4-15-11

Of all Jewish holiday traditions, the most popular remains the Passover seder—the festive ritual meal, celebrated next week, at which family and friends gather to recount the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and deliverance from bondage to freedom. It’s so popular, in fact, that these days more and more of those seated at seder tables are non-Jews. Not only that: An increasing number of churches now offer their own versions of the Passover seder.

The Passover seder’s embrace by Christians seems an unlikely phenomenon. The Passover haggadah—the book that guides the seder service as prescribed by Jewish tradition—is designed to fulfill the Torah’s commandment that Jews remember and retell the journey from slavery to freedom every year. The haggadah’s reminder is explicit: “If the most holy, blessed be He, had not brought forth our ancestors from Egypt, we, and our children, and children’s children, had still continued in bondage to the Pharaohs in Egypt.” Jews are taught to celebrate each Passover as if they themselves were embarking on that journey from Egypt.

What makes Christians’ embrace of Passover all the more unusual is that for centuries—even into the 20th—the holiday’s proximity to Good Friday and Easter routinely sparked violent anti-Jewish riots and pogroms, especially in Europe.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, however, churches world-wide began to reconsider their relationship to Judaism. In the U.S., another major factor was the cooperation of blacks and Jews in the struggle for civil rights. The Passover seder’s core theme of liberation began to inspire interfaith “Freedom seders.” Those, in turn, opened the door to other liberation-themed seders and haggadahs, thus further broadening the appeal of the holiday.

The changing demographics of American Jewry have played a role, too. Before 1970, only 13% of married American Jews were married to non-Jews. By the turn of the 21st century, that figure was 47%, according to the National Jewish Population Survey. As a result, interfaith couples and families have had a growing presence at Passover seder tables, both as guests and as hosts.

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People of various faiths and nationalities attend an interfaith Passover celebration in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

For some of these families, the seder—which has a recognizable theme and generally takes place at someone’s home, rather than at a synagogue—provides a comfortable introduction to Jewish ritual. That’s one message of the recently published book by journalists Cokie and Steve Roberts, “Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families.” Themselves an intermarried couple (he’s Jewish, she’s Catholic), the Robertses have for decades hosted a Passover seder, mostly for other interfaith families.

While such Passover seders are often multicultural, the observance remains grounded in Jewish religious ritual, tradition and meaning. That has been the case with the seders held by President Obama in the White House. But that is not necessarily the case with seders aimed at Christian audiences….READ MORE

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