Rabbi says holiday teaches younger generation importance of heritage

While many of us are in the throws of dying eggs in a rainbow of colours and buying pastel coloured jellybeans and chocolate bunnies for an Easter egg hunt, Calgary’s Jewish community is preparing for a celebration of their own.

Kitchens will be scrubbed clean, pasta and breads will be locked away, and families will gather.

Passover is upon us.

Rabbi Yisroel Miller says, “There is certainly nothing at home more powerful than Passover.”

The celebration of Passover – an eight-day long affair— is held in Jewish homes and synagogues across the globe.

It is viewed as one of the most important holidays in Judaism, whether orthodox or not, says the Rabbi.

He explains, “It is especially important because it is when we pass down to the next generation the importance of being Jewish.”

The History

The holiday commemorates the time that the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt and their deliverance by God through Moses. On the night prior to their exodus, the Jews were commanded to hold a dinner with unleavened bread –known as matzo – and bitter herbs, as well as the offering of a lamb. These foods are part of Jewish tradition today.

Thousands of years later, those of the Jewish faith remember their ancestors and the grace of God through the celebration of Passover, says Miller, the rabbi at the House of Jacob Mikveh Israel synagogue in Calgary.

Even Alex Bershadsky, who considers himself a secular Jew, has celebrated Passover. While he says that his family’s celebrations haven’t been typically orthodox, the holiday is a reason to gather with his family for a casual dinner.

During the eight days of Passover, chametz –or any products where the flour has been allowed to rise –are purged from the home; this means everything from Wonder bread to gooey chocolate-chip cookies. Only matzo – a thin cracker-like product – will be found in the cupboards and on the tables.

Rabbi Miller explains that unleavened bread is the bread of the poor and eating it symbolizes the poverty of the Jewish people in Egypt and serves to remind them of their freedom from enslavement.Rabbi Miller, who holds matzo, and his wife Debby celebrate Passover each year to remember the history of their ancestors.
Photo by: Devon Jolie

Debby Miller, Rabbi Miller’s wife, says that during the holiday she uses potato starch instead of flour to bake cakes and cookies, or she cooks foods that involve matzo, like the popular matzo ball soup.

But the food restrictions are only one aspect of the holiday.

The Seder

The first two nights – starting April 6 –are called the seder, says Miller. On these nights, families will gather around the dinner table and re-enact the story of the freedom from bondage along with scripture readings, singing, and prayers, all while eating from the seder plate.

The seder plate contains five food items, each with their own meaning, he explains.

• A barbecued lamb bone: To remember the offering made on the eve of the first Passover.

• An egg: The traditional food given to mourners that symbolizes the cycle of life.

• Bitter herbs such has fresh horseradish root: To recall the harsh treatment of the Jewish people while in Egypt.

• A vegetable like celery dipped in salt water: This makes reference to the tears shed by their ancestors while in slavery.

• Charost: A paste made from fruits, nuts and wine made to look like clay signifies the bricks that the Jews made while enslaved by the Egyptians.

Rabbi Miller says the symbolic use of food serves to remind them of the suffering and the starvation of their ancestors and to thank God that now they can enjoy bounteous meals each day.

Miller adds: “We do the eating together with the telling of the story. Story telling is a universal art-form. It brings home truths in a way that you couldn’t do with an essay or a non-fiction book.

“When you tell the story together with the partaking of the food, food around the table means family. It’s a way of teaching our family, the next generation that we are part of the story in the Bible and that we are part of a family, not just those sitting around the table, but those going all the way back 3,000 years into the past and into the future known only by God.”

Bershadsky, whose Passover celebrations are casual in comparison to an orthodox family like the Millers, says: “From a traditional perspective I see the importance and value in it. It’s a redemptive holiday. Lots of people can relate to it not because they’re Jewish but because everybody deserves a second chance. And the Jews returning to their homeland, it’s just like a comeback story.”

djolie@cjournal.ca