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Jewish Journal

Pesach—in your own words

by David Suissa

April 12, 2007 | 8:00 pm

A Jewish American soldier finds himself in the Iraqi desert on the first night of Passover and improvises a seder with another soldier by drawing a seder plate in the sand.

Meanwhile, a Jewish lawyer from Menlo Park discovers that our centuries-old haggadah does not actually tell the story it's supposed to tell -- the Jewish Exodus -- so he compiles and publishes his own.

In Chicago, a family of Jewish socialists who don't believe in God have a seder where they celebrate their fight for social justice while singing "We Shall Overcome."

Forty years later, their daughter in Los Angeles uses yoga to find God and creates a special seder for her Alcoholics Anonymous group.

If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I asked you if there were Passover experiences that really moved you. Well, all I can say is I'm glad I asked.

Philip M. Peck wrote: "During the first Gulf War, I was mobilized to an Infantry Division. We were training 24/7. As a young lieutenant I had an extra responsibility of loading all our armored vehicles to be taken to the ships when the first night of Passover was approaching. As the sun was setting, I realized that there would be no seder for me. I looked out over the desert and smiled. I thanked God for allowing me to reach that day. It gave me great comfort that all over the world there would be seders. It gave me even greater comfort knowing that my family would be gathering around a seder table."

"At that point, I walked over to the young sergeant who was helping me load the tanks on flatbed trucks," he continued. "I said to him that I needed to tell him a story, a great story. This young man, who never met a Jew, was about to celebrate his first seder. I drew a seder plate in the sand and took out whatever I had from my MRE's [Meal, Ready-to-Eat] to make a seder. My sergeant listened as I then told the story of Passover from memory. This experience has never left me. Every seder that has followed has been a great gift."

Seth Watkins, a Jewish lawyer from Menlo Park, wrote: "Passover hasn't been transformative because the standard traditional haggadah omits the story of the Exodus. I solved the problem by compiling a haggadah with the Exodus story in it (ExodusHaggadah.com), allowing each of us to understand, a bit better, what our ancestors endured in Egypt. The result has been transformative. People of all Jewish affiliations -- or none -- are transfixed by the story, or discuss details, and nobody asks the dreaded question, 'When do we eat?'"

Because Seth is a scholar of Semitic languages, he was able to bring his personal touch to the haggadah. He researched ancient translations of certain biblical terms, which, according to him, further elucidate the Exodus story. (I used his haggadah for the second seder, and I think he's on to something.)

A woman from Los Angeles wrote: "When I was younger, my family celebrated Passover with another family whose father was a psychoanalyst and whose mother had been raised in anarchist, very left-wing political Jewish circles in Chicago. My family did not believe in God either, but both families wanted not to assimilate, not to deny our Jewishness."

"So we had our seder, and what stayed with us kids was the social and political dimension -- that we were pledged to help anyone who suffered from injustice. We sang 'We Shall Overcome' (this was the '60s) and labor songs.

"Now I'm a grown-up, and I am still hosting a seder, this year for my 12-step group! I've become more religious, or more spiritual, than I ever was as a kid. I used yoga to help me find God, and it actually worked. I wanted a scientific way to enter the field of religion, and yoga as taught by a yogi from India provided that. I find that when I celebrate Pesach with my brother-in-laws I'm a little inundated with Hebrew and traditions. But when I create my own, mostly in English, and relate the themes of freedom and deliverance to oppression I or my friends have suffered, it means more."

As I reflected on what all these people wrote, it struck me that what really moved them was not the Passover story itself, but what they personally brought to it.

Improvising a seder in the Iraqi desert, teaching your kids about social injustice, adding the Exodus story to the haggadah, creating a special seder for your friends at Alcoholics Anonymous -- these are all examples of Jews putting their personal stamp on their Judaism. And why not?

We are all one family, yes, but we are also a family of individuals, each with our own dreams and dramas and personal baggage. We are moved by different things. As Jews, we are especially moved when we bring our individual uniqueness to our Judaism.

The people who answered my Passover question were moved when they took a 3,000-year-old story of liberation and did something very Jewish with it: They made it their own.

If any of us feel like emulating them, we all better hurry -- Passover is only 12 months away.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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