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How Israelis keep Passover traditions alive

Israelis keep their forefathers' Passover dinner traditions, with Persian Jews hitting their dinner neighbors with green onions and Djerba Jews reading the Haggadah in Arabic.
Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia attend a demonstration of a ceremonial Passover holiday dinner known as a "seder" at an immigrant's centre in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem April 14, 2011. This year will be the first "seder" the immigrants will be celebrating in Israel, which begins this Monday evening. Passover commemorates the flight of Jews from ancient Egypt as described in Exodus. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (ISRAEL - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY) - RTR2L7MH

To an outside observer, it might seem strange, even bordering on crazy: During the Passover traditional dinner (the Seder), when the participants read from the Haggadah about Israel's exodus from Egypt, each diner takes a green onion and lashes his tablemate's back with it. This is only one of the unusual traditions of Passover. This green onion tradition comes from Persian Jewry, but other Jewish communities also maintain unique holiday traditions. Jews from Djerba (a Tunisian island) keep another tradition. When reading the chapter “This is the Bread of Our Affliction,” the patriarch of the family turns the Seder ceremonial plate above the heads of the diners, including young children, even those who have already fallen asleep. Despite the verse cited in the Haggadah, “Pour out your wrath upon the nations,” they read the book in both Hebrew and Arabic.

In other Jewish communities, when the Ten Plagues (inflicted by God on the Egyptians) are recited, everyone goes outside with lit candles and yells the names of the plagues in public.

Despite these essential differences between communities and the strange traditions some of them still maintain, researcher Hizky Shoham from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem explains that today most Israelis adhere to what he calls “duplicated Haggadot.” He is referring to standard Haggadot that lack any uniqueness, published in tens or even hundreds of thousands of copies before the holiday and distributed by commercial entities and various organizations.

"The sense is that for most Israeli families — and it doesn't matter from what [Jewish] background — the Seder looks the same, with minimal 'stage directions' and even the same tiring jokes,” he said. “Most families don’t really keep the unique folkloristic traditions, except for the food. That’s what is surprising anthropologically: Most people take the duplicated Haggadot without altering them, want to finish the Haggadah reading quickly — and eat. And still everyone does it.”

The prominent place of the Passover holiday among Israelis is to a great extent tied to this process toward uniformity. In his book "Let’s Celebrate! Festivals and Civic Culture in Israel," Shoham argues that “the Passover Haggadah continues to be rewritten even in our generation, as the text and the ceremony respond anew to historical events like the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, as well as to Socialist-Zionist, liberal, feminist criticism, and more.”

According to Shoham, however, contemporary Israeli society is actually moving away from this trend of rewriting. In the past, Israelis tried to reformulate the Seder, like with the kibbutz Haggadot (texts that incorporate the love of nature and agriculture, Zionism, etc.), or the “women’s Seder,” where the Passover dinner ceremony is conducted in a gender-egalitarian manner. But today, such efforts are on the margins, and even then the innovative Seders take place on another date rather than on Passover eve. Almost everyone celebrates the Israeli Seder with family.

That seems to be the main reason for the unprecedented popularity of the Passover Seder in Israel. The most recent survey of religion and tradition by the Central Bureau of Statistics, conducted in 2009, found that 88% of Israelis who define themselves as secular or traditional participate in a Passover Seder — a much higher number than any other Jewish custom, including lighting Sabbath candles or fasting on Yom Kippur.

In a more recent survey conducted by the Ynet website in 2012, 94% of respondents said that they will hold a Passover Seder. “It’s a family meal, and Israelis love family meals,” said Yael from the north of Israel. “There’s food, which Israelis like, and the extended family. I adore the Seder. This year, for instance, we’ll be reunited with my cousin who returned from abroad. It really makes me happy.”

Yael shares the view of many. Shoham told Al-Monitor, “Family rites among Jews are always most important. [In that respect] Passover is similar to Thanksgiving and Christmas, where the whole family gets together. Despite tensions and complaints [within the family], it’s part of the folklore. Passover always suited the cult of the family in industrialized Western culture.”

He expands on this point in his book, where he argues, "The Passover Seder is a double rite of the individual’s socialization to two families: the concrete extended family and the larger, imagined extended family — all the Jews in the world.” Here’s where the role of the folklore of various ethnicities enters the equation. “As an extended family, Jews bear similar characteristics to any concrete extended family: They hold ‘strange’ ceremonies, they have conflicted internal relationships alongside moments of elation, unity and pride; they have a tradition that’s a bit too patriarchal, and of course they unite in the face of harassment from outsiders.”

Thus, Shoham alludes to the well-known aspect of Passover (and holiday meals in general): the longing to participate in a big holiday meal that is accompanied by distaste, for many people, for interaction with family members. This is expressed in many Israeli cultural productions, most prominent among them the movie "Lelyasede" (1995) and the play "Hametz," at the center of which are difficult family dynamics that take place around the Passover Seder.

There is another reason for the centrality of Passover. "It suits the ideal type of the industrial age holiday," says Shoham. “Passover upholds the four orientations: family, children, consumerism and ethnic identity.” The last orientation is expressed in the keeping of some traditional rites, top among them refraining from eating "hametz" (leavened foods that are forbidden by Jewish law during the Passover week) in public and reading the Haggadah.

The orientation toward consumerism is expressed quite grotesquely, for example, in a "loud Haggadah" that was once included in the weekly entertainment magazine Pnai Plus, where alongside the "maror" and "karpas" (vegetables that are part of the ceremony) and the traditional Seder song “Who Knows One” appeared ads for wedding dresses, rugs, cellphones, furniture, banquet halls, artistic candles, mattresses, a spa, a cosmetic surgery center, luxury watches and kitchen ware.

"One of the features that helps holidays survive in the industrial era is suitability to the culture of consumption," concludes Shoham. “On Passover, there’s a tradition of eating matzahs [Passover flatbread] and spring cleaning, and commercial interests are there, too. It’s not that there’s only cynical commercialization, but it’s part of it.”

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