Thou Shalt is a Jewish advice column for anyone navigating a Jewish situation about which they are unsure. Which is understandable: For thousands of years, Judaism has been rolling through time and space, picking up everything in its path. Which is awesome and beautiful and great, but also means that we’ve inherited a tradition with a complicated and often confusing mix of rituals, identity markers, red lines, and ways to practice. The peculiarities and particularities of the diverse Jewish world have tripped up many well-meaning Jews and non-Jews alike, and the goal of Thou Shalt is to create a space where we can all help decode our Judaism for one another, and the world.
A Russian Feast
I signed up to provide a buffet of Russian foods for a book group discussion to be held in my house and have found (to my chagrin!) that the date will fall during the week of Passover this year. (We are discussing this book, Avenging Angels: young women of the Soviet Unions WWII sniper corps, by Lyuba Vinogradova.) Russian recipes are full of mayonnaise, veggies and herring— is any of this even remotely suitable for being Kosher, not to mention “Kosher for Passover?”
The guests will non-Jews as well as three Jews of different levels of kashrut observance.
Navigator of a possibly leaky boat
On Passover, the main thing is avoiding anything that can be leavened, which includes the five grains—wheat, oat, barley, spelt, and rye—and then many American Jews also avoid legumes and grains like mustard, lentils, and rice. The laws are intricate and vary, but in general potatoes, veggies, herring, meat, beets, eggs, and certainly any fruits, are all safe ingredients for Passover. Mayonnaise is fine if not made with mustard.
The good news is that a lot of Russian food is kosher on its own—and Passover-friendly. The trickier question is about the preparation: Depending on how strictly your guests observe Passover, it is possible they may not eat anything prepared in a kitchen that is not kosher for Passover. But for people observing that strictly, they are accustomed to the fact that on Passover they’re going to be sitting out on culinary experiences, and if this is a hosted party, then it is not your obligation to meet those standards. They might have accepted the invitation without checking the date—but that’s on them, not you.
You can email each of your three Jewish guests and say you know this is happening over Passover, tell them what you’re serving, and ask if there is anything you should know in advance. They’ll tell you their needs. Under no circumstances, however, do hosting duties demand you provide strictly Kosher for Passover food.
I hope that helps!
Singing for Adults
Is it dorky for me to bring my guitar to seder to sing “Mah Nishtana”, “Dayenu”, and “Eliyahu Hanavi”? There won’t be any kids.
The lack of kids is probably a point in your favor. Even for a less tough crowd, however, dorky is a relative standard. If everyone is having fun, then nothing is dorky. If everyone is smiling politely and half-heartedly clapping along, silently praying you don’t go in for another round of “dayenu,” then you could be Beyonce and this would be a dork move. But music is fun, and enthusiasm at the seder is even more fun, and adults like to have fun too. Bring along the guitar, give it your ALL for one song, and pay close attention to whether the majority of the room is feeling what you’re feeling. If you are a guest, and not the host, then ask in advance, and if given permission, play for a song and then defer to the host about any future musical numbers. This is the host’s choice: If other guests try to egg you on to keep playing and the host seems ambivalent, put it away. I hope you find a welcoming crowd!
The Mystery of the Christian Seder
I find these Christian Passover seders so weird. Shouldn’t we be upset about them?
Not My Haggadah
For those confused by the question, there has been a trend, considered on the upswing, for Christian groups or churches to host a Passover seder during the week of the Passion, leading up to Easter. These seders usually emphasize Jesus’ own participation in the seder at the last supper, and follow the standard Haggadah text used in Jewish seders (often with edits and messianic commentary). They are particularly popular in Evangelical settings, but exist across Christian denominations.
For many Christians, the motivation to attend a Christian-led seder is to connect with the rhythm of Jesus’ life during the week leading up to his crucifixion. They are always held before Easter, whether or not that coincides with the dates of Passover. A lot of Christians in the U.S. know very few, if any, Jews, and the seder is usually presented as a Jesus-era tradition; it’s about Jesus, not Jews. As one friend, whose college church group used to host annual Christian seders, explained to me, “I don’t think they even know that Jews do it.” Other Christian groups engage more explicitly with the seder as a way to better understand the Jewishness of Jesus, and Jewish practice might feature heavily in the rhetoric, if not around the table.
Should Jews be upset by this? I won’t speak for all Jews, or all Christians, or everyone in-between, but for me, I was at first tempted to say no. Christianity developed directly out of Judaism, and our whole religion is inherently part of their religious inspiration. Of course we’re going to find Christian practices that seem like an appropriation of Jewish rituals; that’s kind of the point.
And yet, on the other hand, the seder isn’t just an ancient prayer or a Biblical text. This is the annual story of our peoplehood, the event in which we are supposed to pass down the memory of who we are, from generation to generation. For many Jews, the seder might be the only formal Jewish ritual they attend all year. Now, just because it’s so important to us doesn’t mean it’s off-limits to others, but I do find it painful to think about church groups passing out haggadahs and acting like this ancient ritual was just waiting out in some forgotten gospel text for Christians to discover. The only reason American Christians today have access to the ritual of the Passover seder as we know it is because the Jewish people kept it alive for millennia, sometimes at great risk, and often despite the dangers of living under countries ruled by Christianity. For a church to come along and say, “hey, thanks, this seems so cool!” and then present it as their own ritual feels unseemly. And as a ritual, the Haggadah likely formed well after Jews and Christians split, so it’s not even in the canon of our shared heritage. Yet even if the seder was presented with acknowledgement that it’s a Jewish practice, I don’t love the idea that tons of Christians are encountering Judaism through the mouths of other Christians. I once had a Christian classmate tell me that in the time of the Temple, Jewish women found outside their homes while menstruating were instantly stoned to death; he had read it in his Bible commentary, and was very annoyed that I disagreed. To imagine Christians dutifully reading through stories about B’nai Brak, or singing dayenu, is to imagine others quite literally telling our story, without even seeing it as the story of the Jewish people.
So, yes, I find that upsetting, because it has the potential to be spreading lots of misinformation about Jews today, while cloaked as a way to better understand Jewish practice. But I also understand why such a practice would have religious meaning for a Christian; I wish somebody could create some Christian-specific seder that was about Jesus, and left Jews and our haggadah out of it entirely, though I recognize that defeats the promise of authenticity undergirding the whole thing.
But feeling upset about a practice in general is hardly useful. It’s much easier to consider whether or not to be upset by something specific. So if you see a Christian friend is hosting a seder, or encounter someone attending one, ask them what it means to them, and consider what emotions that stirs in you. At the end of the day, being upset by this practice just confirms what we all should know: the seder is a potent ritual, at the heart of the Jewish people, and we should all take it seriously.
How do I submit a question?
Questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are all questions anonymous?
Yes, no identifying information will ever be revealed or published about the letter-writer or their situation. Your email address will be seen by those monitoring the inbox, but won’t be published.
I’m not Jewish. Can I still submit a question?
Definitely. If your question touches on navigating a Jewish situation—be it attending a synagogue service for the first time or baking a welcome pie for your new Jewish neighbors—then this column is for you.