The cheerful Virginians gathered around their Passover seder table, laden with matzah and charoset, had just said the second blessing over the grape juice when the loudspeaker crackled to life.
It was a striking moment at All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, which hosted a seder in one of the country’s largest mosques on Sunday night. Yet it was not unusual. Passover, among Jews and non-Jews alike, is having a moment.
Churches and interfaith groups and women’s groups and gay groups host their own seders. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture threw a seder to talk about hunger in America. President Obama attends a White House seder each year. Chocolate seders abound. And next week, a D.C. marijuana activist will host a pot seder.
What is it about the ritual meal, which Jews have held to mark the holiday of Passover every spring for centuries, that so appeals to Jews and non-Jews alike?
The seder is notoriously long. It’s archaic. It’s full of very specific symbols, including the unleavened bread matzah known for its cardboard taste and its ability to induce constipation, and a shank bone. (Go ahead, try asking the average seder veteran what exactly a shank bone is.) It requires eating bitter herbs.
Who would opt into that?
“So many people have come to me over the years: Could I come to your seder? Could I come to your seder? Non-Jews,” said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a scholar in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
Levi Elwell, who published her own version of the haggadah, the book for conducting the seder service that comes in countless editions, says she can clearly see why the Passover holiday, which starts on Friday at sundown, has such appeal.
It celebrates the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt — a story of leaving slavery to seek freedom that has parallels in nearly every cultural group’s history, especially other minority groups.
“The rituals, these symbols, really help us to talk about our own journey,” Levi Elwell said. “There’s a sense of, this could be your story…. People are drawn to an opportunity to say, yes, I’m in a narrow place now, but it will widen. There will be dry land for me to walk on.”
That rang true for Qadir Abdus-Salaam, a member of a mostly black mosque in the District who attended ADAMS’s seder on Sunday. “It just reminds me of the analogy of the African-American situation,” Abdus-Salaam said at the seder table after a blessing. “It’s very similar to what the seder is about.”
Levi Elwell also pointed out that Passover is one of the few holidays generally celebrated in the home, not in a house of worship. That means Jews can more easily invite non-Jewish friends to partake, and non-Jews might feel there are fewer barriers to putting on their own seders in their houses.
Elie M. Gindi, another writer of a haggadah, agreed. “It’s the greatest holiday, because you have a service in your home,” he said. “Otherwise, people really don’t have services in their home.”
Gindi, a Los Angeles physician, put together his haggadah in the 1990s because he wanted a fast but still informative version of the service for his young children. He started selling it locally, then got a call from a Jewish publisher. His highly adaptable, child-friendly haggadah ended up selling nearly 200,000 copies, he said.
He pored over versions of the service dating back to the 1300s while he was preparing his own. What he found was that the seder has been reworked for centuries.
“Everybody has their own take on the seder. That’s one of the other beauties of the holiday is people customize it to their social situation. And you don’t really do that with many other texts,” he said.
Rabbi Joy Levitt, who also compiled a haggadah, agreed that keeping Passover out of the synagogue is part of what has made it so popular. “There aren’t any rabbis around. There’s nobody there telling you you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing,” she said. “Passover is one of those things you can do really, really well on your own, whether you grew up with it or you did not grow up with it.”
Gindi said the seder also seems more fun than most religious services because the tradition emphasizes several very participatory elements.
“It’s also almost like a play. You’re enacting it. You’re supposed to be there,” he said. Naming one of many physical traditions, that of reclining during the meal, he added, “You’re supposed to lean like you’re not a slave anymore.”
All of those age-old gimmicks make appearances at the seders with unorthodox themes, the seders in churches and the seder on Sunday at the mosque in Sterling.
But some of it sounded a bit different at ADAMS. “As we know, Allah tells us in the Quran that he saved Prophet Musa from the Pharoah,” Rizwan Jaka said, using the Arabic name for Moses, whose Exodus story figures in Muslim liturgy as well.
Mahmoud Arafa was attending his third seder at ADAMS. “That’s something I look forward to every year. I can’t miss it whatsoever. I change my travel plans,” Arafa said. “The tradition itself is so great. I’m originally from Egypt. Last year, I sat next to an Israeli, celebrating the Jewish escape from Egypt. Three thousand years later, we sat together, eating the same food.”
Samantha Viksnins, a Pakistani Christian who attended the seder, said she had always wanted to see a Passover seder in action. “I’ve always been hoping someone would invite me,” she said. “All the rituals, all the symbolism in the different foods — I celebrate any religion as long as I celebrate with food.”
That food was also different at ADAMS — instead of matzah ball soup and gefilte fish, the mosque served tandoori chicken, kebab and naan.
When Christian groups host seders, they sometimes add a dose of Jesus that was never in the haggadah. Christian guides to Passover reinterpret the lamb’s blood that Jews smeared on their doors to avoid the plagues that struck their Egyptian slavers as a symbol of the Lamb of God, the wine as representative of Jesus’s blood, the holes in the matzah as illustrative of his crucified body.
Jewish leaders have criticized Christian groups in the past that try to co-opt the Jewish holiday, especially proselytizing groups like Jews for Jesus that may use the familiar Passover ritual to entice Jews.
But most say that if non-Jews want to try out the seder as it is, they are more than welcome.
Gindi heard, for instance, about a Methodist church using his haggadah. “It’s part of their tradition in the New Testament, their belief in Jesus having been a Jew and having had a seder,” he said. “Let them do whatever they want. However they want to understand freedom, however they want to understand slavery, that’s great. They have my blessing.”
Levi Elwell said she understands concerns that Christian seders might be a form of appropriation of a very dear Jewish tradition. But she also pointed out that the traditional seder service switches from Hebrew to Aramaic, a language more likely to be understood by non-Jews at the time the service was written, for the powerful line, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
“We don’t want to turn anyone away from the feast,” she said. “I feel very blessed to have a tradition that’s so rich that I’m happy to share with folks. I’m not giving it away to anyone. I’m saying, let’s explore the meaning of beautiful symbols. I’m happy to share.”
That extends to the Washington Ethical Society, a congregation in Northwest D.C. for the nonreligious. There, leader Amanda Poppei said, the one and only ritual that this group of atheists have adopted from any religion is the Passover seder.
Why the seder? Why go to the trouble to rewrite a service full of blessings and praise to God so that it does not mention God at all?
“I think there is something really core that we as human beings connect with, intersect with, see how it continues to speak to us in a way that not every story from the Hebrew Bible does,” said Poppei, who trained as a Unitarian Universalist minister before becoming clergy at the humanist congregation. “The ones that tend to be reimagined, reinterpreted time after time and in such really, wildly different traditions, it’s because they touch something really universal.”
The food, the reenactment, the child-friendly hunt for a hidden piece of matzah — all of that appeals to her atheist congregants, most of whom do not come from Jewish backgrounds, she said.
“We tell the story of the seder not because we believe that God delivered people literally out of Egypt, or that God can literally deliver us. It’s not about belief,” she said. “It’s about, maybe, about hope.”
Hope, and one more thing. “And of course it leads to eating.”