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Lessons of an Awkward Seder

Last year, I invited Iraqi immigrants to a Passover meal at my home in Augusta, Maine. The experience showed me the true meaning of the holiday.

Erica Asch
April 07, 2017

At the very beginning of the Seder we read, “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share the Pesach meal.” That line has always chided me because I can’t recall ever inviting a stranger or someone who was truly hungry or in need to my Passover Seder. Every year, my table fills up with a combination of Jewish and non-Jewish friends and family, a comfortable group of well educated, mainly white, native-born Americans who relive the Passover experience as a theoretical journey, not a remembered past.

Last year, my husband and I decided to change this by inviting Zamat, the leader of Augusta’s Iraqi community, to come to our family’s Seder with five members of his community. Although Maine is among the least diverse states in the nation, the capital Augusta has attracted an increasing number of Muslim immigrants in recent years, many of whom are from Iraq, and some from Syria and Afghanistan. As the rabbi of the city’s only synagogue, Temple Beth El, I have worked with my fellow clergy to welcome these newcomers and help them adjust to life in central Maine, especially in the face of prejudice.

Instead of enjoying a familiar tradition with people we knew, we struggled through an awkward evening. Although we had previously met Zamat and his two children, the other two guests were complete strangers, and neither of them spoke any English. We modified the Hagaddah to include simpler English, but we ended up abandoning the written text in favor of on-the-spot explanations of what we were doing and why. Cell phone conversations interrupted our evening several times. The food, with the exception of matzo and citrus fruits, was not well received.

The experience was a surprising reminder of how difficult it is to live out the words and values of our tradition of welcoming. But there also were many highlights. The chorus of “Dayenu” was a big hit—our guests reminded us that dai means enough in Arabic. One participant shared his experiences visiting Egypt. Others asked thoughtful questions: Why is matzo flat? Do you have a meal like this for many other nights? Do you usually sit on the floor? The experience left me pondering: What is the true purpose of the Seder?

The rabbis discuss this question in the Hagaddah itself. One, Shmuel, suggests that the Seder is mainly about physical redemption—the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt. Another, Rav, suggests that Passover is about spiritual redemption—the Jews served idols and then came to worship one God. The Seder ideally combines both. Physical symbols and actions (eating matzo and bitter herbs, dipping parsley in salt water) are supposed to help us experience a spiritual redemption.

For most of us, however, the Seder is about neither physical nor spiritual redemption, but about family traditions. We find comfort in bringing out special serving dishes, eating familiar foods, and seeing friends. We want the Seder to feel the same as it always did. At our Seder last year, with our Muslim guests, I missed the familiar text and yearned to delve into discussions that we had to skip.

Over time I’ve come to believe that the uneasiness I experienced was more true to the meaning of Passover, which recalls a time of slavery and oppression. The words of the Haggadah came alive. When we dipped the greens in salt water we recalled the bitterness of exile. Looking at the faces of our guest who had themselves experienced hardship, I felt a deeper understanding of what exile meant for our people and what it might mean for people around the world today. As I read that we are obligated to see ourselves as personally going forth from Egypt, I was aware that our guests had, in fact, been redeemed from a place of pain and violence. I felt what it was to be a stranger and the miracle of redemption. I lived through an experience of discomfort, of uncertainty, of not understanding the language people at the table were speaking. It pushed me to reflect on what it is like for new immigrants to our country. I was transported not by the symbols of our Seder, but by our guests and their stories. The physical experience was unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, but that is what led to a spiritual understanding, a visceral experience (if just for an evening) of being a stranger.

A year later, much has changed in central Maine. Members of our synagogue and other faith partners have launched the Capital Area New Mainers Project to welcome immigrants and refugees and provide support for those already in our community. Through our family mentor teams, we offer dozens of rides each week, help coordinate with city and state services, and, more importantly, get to know one another. We recently hosted a Nowruz celebration to welcome the first day of Spring with several newly arrived Afghan families.

This year I will greet Zamat at the Iraqi market he owns as I pick up some last minute items for Passover. Joining our family at our Seder will Hamideh, a recent immigrant from Afghanistan by way of Iraq and Turkey, and her four children, as well as other members of the family mentor team who have gotten to know Hamideh’s family over the last few months. As we did with Zamat and members of his community, we will again sit on the floor with new members of our Muslim community, and our Seder will likely feel a little bit uncomfortable. But this experience is what Passover is all about. L’shanah hazeh b’i nuchut, this year in discomfort. That is why this night is different than all other nights.

Rabbi Erica Asch is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine. She works closely with the Capital Area New Mainers Project.