Seders reflect how Jews come to the Passover table

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NEW YORK — The Passover seder is as flexible as Judaism itself.

It works like a religious Rorschach inkblot test, as a perfect mirror of the way each participant relates to the Passover story of enslavement and redemption.

The basic elements of the story are retold each year — the suffering of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptian taskmasters, the birth of Moses and his adoption by the royal family, Moses' attempts to get the Israelites freed from Pharaoh, Pharaoh's refusal, God's raining down the plagues upon the Egyptians and, finally, the Israelites' redemption.

But how the rest of the details of the seders are handled — from which haggadot are selected from among the hundreds that have been published to whether new ritual objects are added to the seder table — is as reflective as a mirror of the religious and political beliefs of various participants.

As the following stories of how some creative Jews celebrate their Passover reveal, the way individuals relive the Exodus reflects perfectly who they are.

Ruth Westheimer, known the world over as the sexologist "Dr. Ruth," has spent the last couple of Passover seders at her daughter's home in the Bronx.

Until then, she would welcome about 25 guests at her own seder table each year — guests who have included Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is known for backing the ordination of homosexuals.

But there's never been any mention of sex at the seders of the diminutive counselor. "I'm keeping all of that life of mine separate from my family," she said in her trademark trill.

With her 5-year-old grandson, Ari, at her side, Dr. Ruth reads the Passover text that every child of her generation used in Germany, titled "A Child's Haggadah."

She has a German-language version, and he reads from an English translation. "It pleases my little heart no end that with my grandson I am using a Haggadah that I used in Frankfurt," she said.

But "any Jewish family gathering makes me sad, because at the age of 10, I was sent to a children's home in Switzerland, where I became an orphan."

Her parents and grandparents were sent to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, and she never saw them again.

"My personal triumph is that Hitler did not want me to have a grandson, and look what kind of grandson I have," she said, the pride audible in her voice. "He is the best."

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a founder of the Jewish renewal movement, political activist and author, generally has about 20 guests at his seder table. His seder this year will include a new element that Waskow read about on the Internet.

Often at seders, participants relate the themes of slavery and freedom to their own struggles. At Waskow's home in Philadelphia, each participant will bring a "freedom plate," an object that represents their own steps toward freedom.

"Adding the physical fact of the objects as a focus for people to describe what has been going on for them in the past year intensified and elevated the process" last year, Waskow said.

For his part, Waskow brought his just-completed manuscript, "Down-to-Earth Judaism," which he said had been a four-year struggle to write. "I brought the manuscript and dumped it on the plate. It represented liberation from some very hard work."

Waskow's seder plate will also include an orange.

This practice, which is being adopted at many seders, is thought to have begun several years ago when the feminist scholar Susannah Heschel was lecturing, and a man in the audience stood up and said, "A woman belongs on the bimah [as a rabbi] as much as bread belongs on the seder plate."

Heschel responded, "No, not bread, but an orange."

Women as rabbis represents "a transformation, not a transgression," Waskow said. "So for years we have put an orange on the seder plate and invariably someone asks why it's there, which leads to a discussion of what it means for women to be symbolically affirmed that way."

Waskow's seder will be built around the Conservative movement Haggadah, "Feast of Freedom," as well as the "Shalom Seders," three haggadot combined into one volume, which Waskow published in 1984.

Rabbi "Yitz" and Blu Greenberg usually have 25 or 30 people at their lively seder table to celebrate the redemption.

Blu Greenberg, who is an author and speaker about women and Judaism, and her husband, who is the president and a founder of CLAL — the National Center for Learning and Leadership, use "an eclectic mix of haggadot," the rabbi said.

They pick several from their collection of more than 50 different types and rotate them each year.

They also use "The Fourth World Haggadah," which was published by the World Union of Jewish Students about 20 years ago. It focuses on "sensitivity to the downtrodden and liberation through social justice," he said.

He also likes to include a special reading, developed by CLAL 15 or 20 years ago, devoted to "the fifth child," the Jewish child murdered in the Holocaust who is not here to ask a question.

Liz Swados, a composer who recently finished scoring Bill Moyers' upcoming public television series, "Genesis Project," has celebrated the feast of freedom in many different ways.

Her favorite seders, she said, were during the three years in the 1980s that her oratorio titled "The Haggadah" was staged at New York's Public Theater at Passover.

In the show, the Exodus story was acted out with Balinese shadow puppets, masks and songs to draw out the dual themes that "no Jew is free until everyone on the earth is free, and the passing down of stories through the generations," Swados said.

Matzah was passed out to the audience and at the end, the 24-member troupe — which included an elderly Yiddish actor, a lesbian cantor and well-known black gospel singers — sat down to eat a seder meal.

"It was a trip. It was my ideal seder, and I hope to do it again," Swados said.

In the meantime, though, she usually joins friends at their homes for the seder.

At Julius Lester's seder table, participants use the Haggadah that he put together while he was studying for his conversion to Judaism in 1982.

Lester is a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as well as spiritual leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vt., which he describes as "Reconservadox."

When Lester, a onetime black activist, was preparing to convert and began assembling his own commentaries on the Exodus story, "it was very liberating to know that I could have my own relationship to this. It was one of the things that made me think yeah, Judaism is for me," said Lester.

"My basic theme is seeing Passover as an inner drama," Lester said. "Judaism doesn't exist in institutions. It's our personal responsibility."