19 Apr, 2019

Passover: A Jewish Feast Celebrating Food and Freedom

by William Echikson

Confronted with today’s migrant crisis, the Passover holiday holds an important contemporary lesson. It underlines the strong link between food and freedom, food and migration.

The main Passover ritual, the seder, takes place on the first two nights of the holiday. It consists of a festive meal re-telling of the Exodus through stories and song and the consumption of ritual foods, including matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs). The seder’s rituals and other readings are outlined in a book called the Haggadah.

Because the Israelites did not have time to leaven their bread when fleeing Egypt, Jews only eat the unleavened matzah for the entire eight-day holiday. No pizza or pasta are allowed. But the holiday features traditional, popular foods, from haroset (a mixture of fruit, nuts, wine, and cinnamon) to matzah ball soup — and the absence of leavening calls upon a cook to employ all of his/her culinary creativity. An extensive collection of Passover recipes is available on this web site.

For Christians, the seder should be familiar. Jesus’s Last Supper before his crucifixion was a Seder, explaining why the Jewish holiday falls around Christian Eastertime.

For many Jews, there is a direct connection with contemporary politics. For much of their history, Jews were migrants themselves, fleeing persecution, conflict and hunger. Today, many Jewish organizations are working to protect refugees.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, founded 130 years ago, is among the most prominent. Originally, it worked to help Jewish migrants. Today, it helps migrants of all origins and faith, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.

Admittedly, not all Jews are so welcoming and supportive of migrants. President Trump’s hardline immigration advisor Stephen Miller is Jewish - and his role in blocking asylum seekers and others at the U.S.-Mexico border has divided not only the American Jewish community, but his own family. In a piece last year in Politico magazine, Miller’s uncle called him an “immigration hypocrite” – reviewing their own family history, and the chain migration out of what is now Belarus that saved Miller’s Jewish forebears from pogroms.

For Passover, HIAS is offering, free-of-charge its own Haggadah. As the organization writes, the book explores the “connection between the ancient Passover story and today’s refugees.” Even if you are not Jewish, this message is important.

William Echikson is the director of the European Union of Progressive Judaism Brussels office.