My Passover odyssey began in 1991, when I decided to organize a community seder. It would be homemade affair in a rented room, with my children, cousins and friends creating the decorations, skits, music and conversation topics.
Even after I had to close registration at 95 people, I was still receiving a barrage of eager calls at the last minute — including from many people who were not Jewish.
What was the great attraction? I was determined to find out.
I hired a crew to film that initial seder, and from there my 18-year odyssey led me to document a variety of exotic Passover experiences that I could never have anticipated.
Some of the individual seders I have filmed include one for 600 African Americans led by a black pastor; Ethiopian Jewish teenagers from Israel meeting with inner-city L.A. youth; Jewish socialists who never mentioned God and read poems about the Holocaust in Yiddish; Muslims and Jews in a Seder of Reconciliation following Sept. 11; one initiated by nuns 25 years before, which is still being led by the members of the group Los Angeles Catholic Worker; feminists who celebrate the brave and revolutionary women of the Exodus story; one for battered women, during which I wasn’t allowed to film their faces because of the real-and-present danger that their abusive husbands might find them; and a Seder for the Deaf, where everything was signed as well as spoken.
For the gay and lesbian community, the Exodus story mirrors their own private struggles — not only to cross the Red Sea and “come out” to society, but also to be able to tell the truth of their lives to their own families. How many parents were not present that night because they couldn’t accept their adult children’s cry for “gender freedom”?
Over the years of filming, my question about why so many non-Jews are drawn to the holiday of Passover has been answered. I could see at each seder how the Exodus story offers the universal theme of freedom from oppression, an opportunity for revelation and transformation, crossing all boundaries — religious, cultural, ethnic, economic and gender.
A Latino garment workers’ seder for economic justice, led by Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller, took place in one of the original sweatshops in downtown Los Angeles. Women held their babies and toddlers tightly in their laps as they listened to the story of the haggadah, translated from English and Hebrew into Spanish. The curious youngsters chewed on the dry, unfamiliar pieces of matzah, as the mothers listened to the first-hand account of Rose Freedman, the last survivor of New York’s infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Clothing Factory Fire. Freedman, who was 101 at the time of the seder, recounted how the heartless owners managed to escape to the roof, but locked the roof door behind them. In the end, 148 garment workers died.
The Latino workers at the seder were invited to call out the plagues of our times: “Exploitation! Hunger! Unemployment! Homelessness! Prejudice against immigrants!”
I looked around at the standing-room-only crowd of garment workers, wearing their black-and-red union T-shirts and baseball caps, and I thought to myself: “You certainly don’t have to be Jewish to love Passover.”
I also found that to be true at Chino men’s prison, where I saw Christian and Muslim inmates, whites, Latinos and blacks, crowding around the beautifully appointed seder table with their Jewish “brothers” to relive the story of the Israelites as they examined their own checkered past. I remember watching as my cameraman panned their tattooed arms while they delicately took out drops of grape juice from their symbolic wineglass. God does not want us to rejoice at the death of our enemies, we learn, so they were diminishing the pleasure of a full cup.
Rabbi Mel Silverman, his silver hair sparkling under his kippah, had been leading the seders in Chino Prison for many years, but this time he was assisted by one of his “disciples,” Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who served time in prison for embezzlement and now leads Beit T’Shuvah, an addiction recovery center in Culver City. “The biggest prison you have is in here,” Borovitz said, pointing to his head. “So go to your soul, go to your heart,” he encouraged them, “where you are always free.”
Each seder I filmed was memorable and unique, but one I remember with special fondness was the Seder for the Disabled, in 1997.
It was the third night of Passover. Some 80 people were gathered in a community center in Santa Monica, at one of the most enthusiastic seders I had ever attended. The audience was made up primarily of people who belonged to a social group called Chaverim (Hebrew for friends), organized by and for the disabled community in Los Angeles.
“They relish every detail,” the young student rabbi who led the seder emphasized. “And they are never bored. In fact, they are not in a hurry to eat, like at many other seders I have led, because this community loves the seder. Moses was also disabled. He had a speech impediment, so they identify with him, and they love talking about the Four Questions and the Four Sons,” she said.
Several of the members of Chaverim I later interviewed mentioned that when they ate the bitter herbs, they thought about the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust as well as the Israelite slaves in Egypt.
But when I asked their social worker, Ray, if she thought the disabled population considered themselves “afflicted,” or if they identified with the bitterness, she uttered an emphatic, “No!”
“They do not feel oppressed,” Ray explained. “They are not angry at their situation, and they don’t feel they’ve been given a terrible lot in life. On the contrary, they are joyous to have one another, to share in their friendships. They don’t look at this holiday with an idea that they want to extract from it the bitterness of their own lives. They don’t spend their lives saying ‘Why me, God?’”
“But what about that part of the seder when we talk about the importance of inviting a stranger to our table?” I asked. “Don’t they feel they are strangers in society?”
Her reply was one of the reasons I still remember, with particular fondness, attending this seder.
“Even though we talk about inviting the stranger to our table,” she said, “I never see strangers in this group. Even the new person who first shows up for a social activity or comes to a Passover seder, they are immediately brought in as if they are one of the family, introduced around and included. And so, there is no stranger here.
“So the real question is,” she said with a knowing smile, “What do the disabled have to teach us about how to treat a stranger?”
Looking back over 18 years of filming seders, I have witnessed how supple and nurturing, how instructive and inspiring Passover can be for all people, not just Jews. Those who experienced the most from the seder were those who gave themselves permission to enter the time machine of human experience. By listening deeply to the 3,500-year-old story of a downtrodden people, rescued from their oppressors and then rewarded with revelation and the possibility for personal, lasting transformation, the participants at the Seder could imagine, taste, and affirm their own liberation — all this while sitting around a dinner table that honors a shank bone, hard-boiled eggs, parsley, salt water, bitter herbs, four glasses of wine and flat, unleavened bread. And a glimpse of the Promised Land.
Ruth Broyde Sharone is a prize-winning documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist. She is online at filmsthatmatter.com.