Ambassadors of Many Faiths Find Common Ground at Seder

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007

The Passover meal known as the Seder demands that Jews ask themselves: Why is this night different from all other nights? The question, chanted early in the evening, is meant to force discussion about the holiday's rituals, including eating matzoh and dipping herbs in salt water.

It doesn't typically seek to explain why the ambassador of Bahrain would be belting out in Hebrew a Passover "drinking song" about a goat. Or why someone would be explaining gefilte fish to a Chinese diplomat. And that does make for a different type of night.

But hey, this is Washington. If diplomats can have their own license plates and their own newspaper, why not their own Seder?

And that they had Thursday night at the 15th annual ambassadors Seder, an event organized by local Jewish leaders to introduce the global envoys to Passover, the eight-day holiday starting tonight that commemorates the Jews' ancient journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom. The story is told in the Book of Exodus and also on Passover, a heavily ritualized holiday when Jews narrate the journey with a book called a Haggada.

Hosting the 40 diplomats from dozens of countries at the Madison Hotel in Northwest Washington was the American Jewish Committee, which one board member at the Seder characterized as "the State Department for the Jews" because it works around the world to fight anti-Semitism and to promote pluralism.

"Usually we're having meetings and focusing on sensitive issues, negotiating, doing business. So this is an opportunity to say, collectively, we want to invite you for dinner," said Rabbi Andy Baker, the committee's director of international Jewish affairs, who has been running the ambassadors Seder since it began.

The event combined two very distinct cultures. The typical Seder is informal and intimate, held in a home with relatives and friends, often woven through with individualized family customs and dishes. Thursday's was a more formal affair, unsurprising for a hotel ballroom full of name-tag-wearing diplomats, people professionally trained to be polite and not make waves at unfamiliar religious services.

There was Irish Ambassador Noel Fahey, smiling as he passed the square, ritual cracker called matzoh to Aicha Afifi, Morocco's deputy chief of mission. And Bahraini Ambassador Naser M.Y. Al Belooshi, quietly dipping a piece of parsley (representing spring and the return of hope) into a bowl of salt water (representing tears of the Jewish slaves) and then eating it. And others who followed Baker's lead as he dipped his finger into his glass of red wine and placed a symbolic drop of wine on his plate for each of the 10 plagues God sent to the Egyptian pharaoh to punish him for enslaving the Jews.

Frogs, one drop.

Boils, another drop.

Locusts, another drop.

Which raises the question of how to handle Egypt's representative at the dinner.

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