Saturday, March 27 at 6 p.m.—WOODSTOCK—The Woodstock Area Jewish Community/Shir Shalom Congregation has announced an open invitation to the public to attend the synagogue’s second online Passover celebration, when Jews join those around the world to retell the Biblical story of the Exodus.
Every seder recalls the bitterness of slavery and the joy of liberation in myriad ways both serious and fun, with a mix of silliness and singing, storytelling and poignant discussions. There is also a game of hide and seek near the end as children search for a piece of hidden matzoh.
Shir Shalom’s Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh treasures the songs and silliness, but she said the seriousness of Shir Shalom’s 2021 seder will derive from revelations that have become undeniably clear during the past year. She will ask congregation members and guests to consider the relationships the pandemic laid bare between racism and oppression.
“As we approach this time of remembering our own story of liberation, we align our hearts with those for whom the COVID exile has been truly challenging,” Rabbi Haigh explained. “May this Passover remind us what it means to be free, and to synchronize our hearts with those who might be less free due to the color of their skin or their access to health care.”
Passover seders, part holiday meals and part retelling of the liberation from slavery in Egypt, are Judaism’s most popular tradition, celebrated by families and friends in keeping with the Biblical requirement that Jews must pass the story on to their children.
As every seder begins, the youngest child—sometimes all children present—become the center of attention when they introduce “The Four Questions” by asking, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” From that moment on, the seder is about answering the questions, explaining why everyone has gathered for a special meal created around the issues of bondage and freedom.
Why, for instance, do people make their seats especially comfortable? Why is there matzoh instead of bread? Why do participants dip greens in salt water and eat foods that are bitter and sweet?
Before the pandemic, when the Shir Shalom community gathered in the synagogue, congregants shared a multi-course pot-luck Passover meal that included recipes that go back countless generations. This year, of course, participants will make their own dinners at home and, if they want, prepare a few symbolic foods before they make the Zoom connection.
Everyone will be able to participate since readings and songs from a Passover booklet, called a “Hagaddah,” will be shown on beautifully illustrated slides. Even Hebrew prayers will be easy to follow with the help of English translations.
As the evening begins, the first foods that will be eaten are those that relate directly to the questions the children have asked.
There is matzoh instead of bread because Jews left Egypt too quickly to give their dough time to rise. Horseradish is on the table to represent the bitter taste of slavery, and the sweetness of freedom comes from charoset (say “ha-row’-set”), a delicious chopped concoction of apples, walnuts and red wine, sometimes with dried apricots and figs, too. When the bitter and sweet tastes are eaten together on a portion of matzoh, it’s called a Hillel Sandwich.
There’s one more ingredient that’s required, enough wine or grape juice for four prayers that are part of the readings throughout the evening.
In North America, chicken soup with matzoh balls usually starts the meal after much of the storytelling is done, when everyone is good and hungry. Entrees can be anything other than pork or shellfish (both forbidden by Jewish kosher laws) so roast chicken, beef brisket or a vegetarian dish are common, with any choice of vegetables. There are usually lots of desserts to go along with songs and games at the end of the meal, including fresh or dried fruit, candies, and apple, chocolate or sponge cakes. Since flour and baking soda are forbidden, the cakes are made with matzoh meal and lots of beaten egg whites to get them to rise.
Larger supermarkets in the Upper Valley nearly all carry matzoh, matzoh ball mixes, Passover candies and cake mixes, and for do-it-yourselfers, there are lots of Passover recipes online.
But with all the fun of preparation and exploration, Rabbi Haigh hopes that Jewish community members and guests alike will remember that Passover has its underlying serious purpose.
“We have become more aware this year of the pressing issues of racism and exile and we are more keenly aware of what true freedom means,” said Rabbi Haigh. “We will celebrate our blessings, deepen our connection to one another, hold each other in our challenges, and share the joy of living in this extraordinarily beautiful place.”
The WAJC/Shir Shalom seder will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, led by Rabbi Haigh. Zoom link and phone instructions can be found at shirshalomvt.org, or by calling (802) 457-4840.