The first of the Four Questions, “But why is this night different from all other nights?” echoed through the discussions held by Occidental students at an off-campus seder in commemoration of Passover. For the students, the seder was different from all other seders. The seder reconciled not only the diverse traditions of Jewish students, but also welcomed non-Jewish friends to observe the holiday.
Although neither are Jewish, economics major Will Huang (sophomore) and philosophy major Cristina Checa (sophomore) were present at the seder. The gathering also included Critical Theory and Social Justice (CTSJ) major Sarah Schmitz (sophomore), who, although Jewish, had never before attended a Passover seder. They joined their classmates to taste the bitter herbs and matzah and learn exactly what differentiates the holiday from other nights.
Passover commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The seder, which occurs during the first two nights of the holiday, is a time for Jews to rejoice and be thankful for the sacrifice their ancestors made to ensure future generations were free from slavery.
Throughout the course of the night, students traded off reading from the Haggadah, retelling the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and of the first Passover, interspersed with songs of prayer and explanations of Passover foods.
“Even though I am Jewish, I never had the chance to attend a seder, and the explanations were welcoming,” Schmitz said. “I wasn’t expected to know everything by heart. I could learn about my heritage as the night [progressed].”
Those unfamiliar with Passover were confronted with rituals such as eating maror (horseradish), symbolic for the bitterness of slavery. At the seder, students carefully spooned helpings of the maror onto broken pieces of matzah and watched one another’s reactions to the bitter herb, ranging from tears to a sprint to a nearby water jug.
“The horseradish was a shock,” Huang said. “It’s like wasabi; it wasn’t as bad, but still bitter. I took a big bite of that and regretted it a lot, but understood the purpose of the sting.”
The first hearty plate of the night was matzah ball soup — a mixture of matzah meal, eggs and oil — typically served in chicken broth. Cheers erupted across the seder table when students brought out trays of the steaming soup, a Passover staple.
“It was surprisingly familiar. It tasted like home,” Checa said.
Even the long-standing observers of Passover became acquainted with new traditions at the seder. A discussion over the addition of an orange slice to the seder plate — a plate containing symbolic Passover foods — interrupted the reading from the Haggadah.
Some students defended the belief that the orange represents the acceptance of female rabbis, which is nontraditional for Orthodox Jews. For other attendees, the fruit symbolizes the fruitfulness of all Jews, especially those who feel marginalized from the Jewish community. The seeds of the orange serve as a reminder to spit out any prejudiced thought.
“I thought it was really special how there was even discussion over changes in the rituals of the ceremony, a ceremony that has been occurring for centuries,” Schmitz said. “It reflected, at least to me, how the Jewish culture can change with the times, while still maintaining its core values.”
At the end of the night, students returned to their respective residences, filled with chocolate-covered matzah and macaroons, reflecting on the ceremony.
“Usually on this campus, religion tends to be something that polarizes people,” Checa said. “It’s a personal thing, which is great, but at the same time it was nice to see people be outwardly celebratory, celebrating their religion. Everyone was singing and having a good time. Even though I don’t practice Judaism, I could still share the feelings that everyone else was having.”
Huang also appreciated the chance to learn about Passover.
“I don’t normally have those things in my life, so it was literally a new experience for me,” Huang said. “Where I come from, there is a very small Jewish population, so it was really eye-opening to experience the traditions of the Jewish culture.”