The smell is unmistakable: the scent of homemade chicken soup wafts through the air and I immediately imagine a huge bowl brimming with delicate matza balls. It’s the smell of Passover, one that evokes feelings of warmth and tradition. I’ve heard Passover be described in many ways throughout the years; from a holy, spiritual holiday to a Jewish version of Thanksgiving or Christmas.
However, growing up in the United States with Israeli parents, Passover at home always felt different to the other seders I attended with my Jewish-American friends.
In true secular-Israeli fashion, our Passover seders are, well, pretty nonreligious. Everyone takes turns reading a page of the Haggadah, half in Hebrew and half in English, before someone inevitably makes a comment about the violence of the Passover story or a political innuendo. This usually begins some sort of side argument that pervades the entire reading of the Haggadah.
In contrast, I remember being shocked by how civil the seder was at the home of a Jewish-American friend of mine’s family, when I joined it a few years ago. Unbelievably, no one made political jabs, and the whole seder was conducted with polite discussions about the symbolism inherent in the Haggadah, and how it applies to our lives today.
As the night went on, we began singing various songs. I couldn’t really follow - the songs were either English versions of Hebrew and Yiddish songs, or sung to completely different tunes to those I was brought up on. “Ehad, Mi Yodea” morphed quickly into “Who Knows One”, and I, for one, didn’t know any.
The seder meal was served with food that seemed almost entirely foreign to me: the matza balls were gigantic compared to my mother’s tiny creations, and alongside the Ashkenazi brisket and trimmings was traditional American mashed potatoes with gravy – something I’d never seen at my mother’s Israeli-inspired seder.
Since I have spent some years studying abroad, and have traveled quite extensively, I have had the opportunity to spend Passover in a variety of locations. From my own family’s seder, to community seders, and the seder I hosted for a bunch of graduate students who were alone for the holiday, to the kibbutz seder in Israel, every seder has been different and special in its own way.
In some respects, the differences I’ve noticed between the “American” and “Israeli” seders I’ve attended have mirrored some of my observations about the two groups. In general, the American seders I’ve been to seemed to emphasize both the community and the religious aspect of the seders—outside guests were invited and discussions ran rampant on philosophical and religious topics. The “Israeli” style seders I attended were a bit more family-focused events. Even at the kibbutz seder I attended, the majority of the attendees had known each other for years and were practically family: it was considered a big deal to invite someone to the Israeli seders I’ve attended. In a way, these differences stem from the Americans I knew using religion to meet and engage with other Jews; while the Israelis, on the other hand, used the seder as a large family gathering.
What both have in common, however, is the importance of continuing the past. Without a doubt, every person at every seder table I’ve attended has felt some sort of link with the past and a feeling of tradition. In essence, that’s what I see Passover as being all about: engaging with the past in a way that suits the individual. Whether our seder is a typical Israeli “balagan” or an “American-style Thanksgiving”, Passover gives us the chance to catch up, both literally and figuratively, with a tradition that has repeated itself for thousands of years.
Now, pass me that matza ball soup!
Yael Miller is a professional working in International Affairs in Washington, DC.