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Tradition and memories abound during Passover

By Nancy McLaughlin
News & Record

GREENSBORO Two things that happened during Passover in 1962 are embodied in a piece of green, ornate china that Mitchel Sommers pulls out this time of year.

His grandfather had returned from a trip by ship to Europe after finding two of his brothers who’d been separated after the Holocaust.

Sommers raced home from religion class with the enamel plate he won for his drawing of the family’s Passover meal, called a seder.

The seder plate is a centerpiece of the eight-day Passover celebration, which begins at sundown today.

The plate had particular relevance for Sommers’ family that year.

“From that day on – from when I was 10 – that was the seder plate we used,” said Sommers, who is the executive director of Community Theatre of Greensboro.

Tonight, “I will be sitting with my children and using that seder plate.”

Such memories abound. The ritual meal is one of the most celebrated observances on the Jewish calendar, focusing on the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and of the plagues resulting from Pharaoh’s initial refusal to free the slaves. It is a night of song and games, storytelling and interaction, good foods and symbolic bitter foods.

Jewish families share a sense of connection to the seder meals of generations of Jews before them, and those of generations after them, said Rabbi Eli Havivi of Beth David Synagogue.

The seder plate, for example, is made up of six symbolic foods representing thousands of years of history – including salt water, a reminder of the tears slaves shed in Egypt.

A door is also left open for Elijah the prophet, who is to precede the Messiah’s return.

“There is a real sense of Jews around the world celebrating in exactly the same way – telling the story of how our people were once slaves in Egypt and can now savor the taste of freedom,” Havivi said.

Rabbi Harry Sky recalls Passover during the Depression. His father stood him in a tub to stomp grapes to bottle up as wine and share with neighbors.

“It would take two or three days” of stomping, said Sky, who grew up in New Jersey and will lead a seder at his local retirement community tonight.

Gloria Silber, whose late husband was a rabbi, recalls the spring cleaning beforehand to remove even morsels of bread in deference to the haste in which the Israelites fled Egypt, leaving no time for the dough to rise. The celebration also required extending the length of the dining room table set with china for the 30 or more visitors in her home, and the placement of the silver, flowers and candles.

“We had to rent tables and chairs and move some things out on our porch,” said Silber, who these days celebrates Passover with her children.

Ilana Israel’s grandparents – the late Archie and Adelaide Israel of Greensboro – always felt it was important to gather with family and friends. It’s a memory she carries now.

“They wanted to make sure that everyone had a place to go,” said Israel, a junior at Elon University majoring in strategic communication. “I know that even though they are not here today to be at the table with us, their spirits are among us.”

The tradition in Risa Hanau’s family outside Philadelphia was to invite non-Jews. She and her sister brought along a different non-Jewish friend each year.

One year, her father invited an African American evangelical minister with whom he worked – who returned every year.

Neither of her parents had much formal religious schooling. They used the Haggadah, or special Passover text, that Maxwell House Coffee mass produced and handed out each year.

“I think it started with a bit of an intimidation on their part – it’s more comfortable if you have people who aren’t aware of the traditions,” said Hanau, the vice president of clinical services at Hospice of Palliative Care of Greensboro. “They aren’t as apt to say, ‘That’s not how you pronounce that word in Hebrew.'

“It was a wonderful way for them to take pride in what they could do while exposing people to something that they might not otherwise get to see or be a part of.”

As elsewhere, the youngest in the room is given the chance to ask “The Four Questions,” including “Why is this night different from all other nights?“

“It was a relief for me when my (younger) sister was able to ask,” said Ari Shapiro, the statewide coordinator for N.C. Hillel, with local chapters including Elon, Guilford College and UNCG.

Shapiro’s grandfather would repeat the words in Yiddish.

“It was a nice reminder and connection to the generations,” Shapiro said.

Jeremy Recoon, an Elon University freshman and biology major, grew up in Buffalo, N.Y.

“My fondest memory of Passover is something many families do at the end of their seders: hide the afikoman,” Recoon said.

The afikoman is a piece of matzah that is broken, covered, and hidden during the seder, later to be found by the younger children for a prize of maybe a couple of dollars or a treat. The adults also used it as a lure for keeping the children awake and paying attention.

“Even if my little cousins were mad at me for finding the afikoman first,” Recoon said, “I would always split the prize or money amongst them, because in reality, the most important part of Passover to me has always been family.”

Jews also spend much of the evening discussing others being persecuted around the world today, and praying for them.

“Those of us who are fighting for civil rights are still hitting our heads against the wall,” said Sky, a rabbi for 50 years.

Rabbi Yosef Plotkin of the Greensboro Chabad remembers spending a Passover in the Ukraine in the former Soviet Union in 1997 that brought the story to life.

Plotkin was 17 and was sent as a volunteer with another student rabbi to a small rural town without a synagogue. More than 100 Ukrainians – most of whom had never been to a seder because religion was outlawed during the Soviet era – showed up.

“The grandparents had tears in their eyes because they saw their grandchildren participating in a seder that they thought would never happen,” Plotkin said. “The grandchildren were so excited that they were able to carry on the traditions that their grandparents and great-grandparents had for so many years.

“These people were experiencing their own exodus,” Plotkin said.

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