Joshua Mikutis

Foster Jewish unity by adding a global taste to your seder

At its heart, Passover is a holiday of storytelling

My first year celebrating Passover with my wife’s family, I noticed something peculiar on their seder plate. In the place of the parsley for karpas – the traditional green vegetable dipped in saltwater to remember our tears as slaves in Egypt – was a potato.

Without much thought I asked, “What’s the deal with the potato?”

From a rotating cast of family regulars, came the now familiar explanation: in the old country, Passover fell at a time when there wasn’t much greenery to choose from, so a potato was used to soak up the salt water.

This bit of family lore is always recounted with great satisfaction to anyone who asks, with a shared excitement in knowing that the potato represents stories of yesteryear living on in the present.

At its heart, Passover is really a holiday of such storytelling. We read the Haggadah and relive the escape from Egypt, taking us from the bitterness of slavery to the exuberance of freedom. But it’s not just this story we tell. Rather, we intertwine the ancient tale with our memories and family stories, making them equally integral to understanding our history and ourselves.

It’s critically important to become experts in our own recitation of the Exodus and fineries of our family stories. But there is something profoundly absent when we forget to look beyond our own seder tables to the stories and traditions of others in the Jewish world.

Acknowledging these distant Jews at our seders is an opportunity to connect with their struggles and achievements, often overlooked here in America, in a setting that is already dedicated to telling stories of hardship to redemption. We can learn from these experiences, apply them to the issues we face, and awaken a larger sense of Jewish peoplehood in all its diversity.

At a time when the Jewish people face numerous challenges including rising anti-Semitism, political extremism, and internal division – and are seeking uplifting stories to match Passover’s themes of freedom, persistence, and deliverance – we need only turn on our Jewish GPS to find inspiration.

That’s why we created ReOrdered, a global Passover toolkit, to help the Jewish community cross the boundaries of our Passover tables to a wider world. The free kit,which last year touched more than 7,000 people at their Passover seders, encourages participants to dive into the global Jewish world and to catalyze a sense of Jewish responsibility for all those who are part of our global family. It was created by JDC Entwine — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s young adult engagement platform — with generous support from the William Davidson Foundation.

Drawing from Jewish communities from every continent, it contains a host guide, recipe book, matzah box centerpiece, community profiles of global Jewish communities, and wine coasters detailing l’chaim traditions from Morocco to Moscow. The recipes are the work of Ksenia Prints of At the Immigrant’s Table who worked with us to create a dynamic cookbook including traditional foods from across the globe. As with the rest of our work, this DIY toolkit will create the opportunity for participants, young adults in particular, to engage and participate in Jewish life. And its message, and that of the other kits we have created, is at the heart of our organization: we are one people and depend on one another.

For example, we can leaf through Haggadahs in Marathi, one of India’s languages, and retrace the steps of the Jews of Mumbai as Jews prepare for Passover festivities with stops at the kosher butcher for lamb. We can learn about the Bene Israel community who mark their doorposts with goat blood to imitate the story of the Exodus—bringing the story to life through their actions. We can imagine the activities put on by Jewish Youth Pioneers, the community’s Jewish youth group, who put on yearly overnight camps where young Indians sing, dance, and learn like their Jewish peers all over the world.

The Jews of the former Soviet Union demonstrate the unbowed persistence of Jewish life. Until the fall of Communism in 1991, Jewish life was banned and Jewish identity was repressed in the region. Today, Jewish life is revitalizing with a strong sense of Jewish responsibility and identity among its estimated one million Jews. It can be found at scores of JCC’s, youth and volunteer programs, summer camps, Shabbat weekends, cultural and educational activities, and synagogues.  We can celebrate their religious freedom — and the reconnection of so many to their Jewish roots, whether hidden or untapped in the face of Soviet oppression — with a hearty toast of Vashee zda-ró-vye! (“To Your Health!”) over horseradish vodka.

From Sarajevo, a community established after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, we can hear the unbelievable story of an interfaith seder that happened during the height of the city’s siege in 1995—an uplifting celebration at a time of violent conflict. The Haggadah’s instruction to invite all who are hungry to come and eat was put into action by the Jews of Sarajevo—who used their community to provide aid to their neighbors, whether they were Jewish, Muslim, or Christian.

In some ways, the Haggadah anticipated these layers of storytelling. It contains not only the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but the story of a group of rabbis in B’nei Brak retelling that same story! The story of their storytelling entered the Haggadah and is passed on from generation to generation at seders around the world.

But traditions, even complex and powerful ones, aren’t only heard – they can be tasted as well.

Foodies may be inspired to add new flavors to their Passover tables by trying dishes such as minas, a Greek matzah-based pie, or baking kita, an Ethiopian chickpea flour matzah in place of shmura matzah. These are not just delicious additions to your meal — but a way to expand our Jewish story, eating as other Jews do around the world.

As we prepare for Passover, we should learn about traditions that animate the diversity of the Jewish people both here and around the world and make them a part of our own Passover table. For every personal tradition you partake in, share something from a global community— a toast, a story, a recipe.

Not only will it enrich your personal experience of the seder, it will connect us together at a time when our unity is not just critically important, but essential to Passover’s message that we all experienced the exodus from Egypt both personally and together.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, a graduate of HUC-JIR, is JDC Entwine’s Jewish Learning Designer.
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