Exodus – message and traditions of the Jewish Passover

exodus2006.04.26 – 2006.11.12

The Jewish Passover, or pesach as it is called in Hebrew, celebrates the memory of the departure of the Israelites from Egypt. The story, contained in the Book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible, is one of the foundations of the national, ethical and philosophical genesis of the Jewish people. The language of the narrative may be religious but it is also a realistic portrayal of a political development. The story starts with a state of enslavement and misery and the promise of a new and better future. It continues with the Israelites being given the Law (a programme for a functioning society) and it concludes with the establishment of the nation. This creation story of a nation has inspired Jews in a fundamental way from generation to generation for more than two thousand years.

Creating an exhibition about Exodus – a topic with so many dimensions – was a real challenge to the Jewish Museum in Stockholm. The exhibition has developed through a creative process within the working group which has reflected on the theme from many different perspectives.

At a personal level, the exhibition introduces us to Swedish Jews who report how they celebrate Passover and what the exodus from Egypt means to them. We have chosen certain messages and keywords from the Passover story and these are elaborated with writings, reflections and appropriate objects and works of art. No other biblical story has inspired political and social movements to the same extent as Exodus. And so we have sought to give visitors a more universal and complex understanding of the story of the exodus from Egypt.

The Exodus narrative also contains numerous contemporary perspectives that can become the starting point for much interesting discussion.


Yvonne Jacobsson           Miriam Andersson

Director                             Curator

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From generation to generation
Processes are fascinating. We often see the result of a process in the form of writing, as a picture, in a work-choice, in a major scientific discovery or a deeply rooted insight. But it is seldom that we see or understand what it was that set everything in motion. Impulses churn around in our subconscious before suddenly coming up to the surface. And when this happens, it is not unusual for someone else – without one’s knowledge – to have come up with a similar idea.

Who sowed the seed? Who embedded the embryo? Is it our natural curiosity and our longing to investigate what is unknown; what we cannot really grasp?

It is possible that this scenario is applicable to the present situation where, it transpired, the work on a new haggada at the Hillel publishers coincided with the Jewish Museum in Stockholm’s plans for an exhibition on the theme of “Exodus” – on escaping from slavery in Egypt and the Passover tradition.

Many Jews in Sweden have noted the need for written materials that illustrate and provide a modern context for the ancient narratives of the Exodus; a need for materials that deal with issues that can be discussed round the dinner table at the Passover Seder, texts that will engage youngsters and encourage them to listen and that will give them an opportunity of identifying themselves with the grand narrative of liberation that is at the centre of the Passover tradition.

There is a longing for links between parents and children; a longing for affirmation of this particular experience: of leaving thraldom and slavery and of taking a leap towards freedom. Something that requires a lot of courage and of self-esteem; something that we can all associate with.

Marina Burstein
Publisher

 

What is a ritual?
According to the dictionary a ritual is a prescribed order of performing rites, often of a religious nature. Anthropologists define ritual as symbolic or magical behaviour. Strengthening a group’s cohesion and at the same time marking out separation from others is one of the most important tasks of ritual.

From this perspective the Jewish Seder night is ideal. The group or family eats together. They eat special food with particular flavours and consistencies to enhance the experience. Together they read special Seder texts and they sing special songs. And thus they bring to life their common history, particularly the exodus from Egypt that those taking part in the Seder ritual are repeatedly encouraged to identify themselves with. As though they were actually there. And they look towards the future and say: Next year in Jerusalem. Finally they give thanks and praise their God.

The Jewish Passover was not always celebrated in the same manner and the ceremony differs between an Ashkenazi home and a Sephardic or a Yemenite one. Judaism’s capacity for survival owes a good deal to its elasticity, its ability to adapt rules, life forms and rituals to varying circumstances. But this can be taken too far.

Overly much adaptation can lead to a watering down and dissolution of Judaism, sometimes in the space of a single generation.

Too little adaptation and a lack of flexibility, on the other hand, can lead to sectarianism and isolation. Then the creativity that is generated by encounters with the surrounding society ceases.

So how does one find the right balance?

That is a decisive question, not just for Jews, but for all other Swedish minorities and immigrants to Sweden.

Ricki Neuman,
Journalist and Writer

 

The road to freedom
The message about freedom and justice in the biblical narrative of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt has been a source of inspiration to many throughout history icluding, in modern times, the civil rights movement among the black people of the USA, the Indians in the slums of South America, Catholic exponents of liberation theology in Argentina, Peru and Colombia in the 1970s and many others. They have all read of the Israelites’ “liberation movement” as though it was their own struggle.

The message of Passover is as much about materialism as it is about idealism. There is a recognition of our human material needs – a promise of a land “flowing with milk and honey”. And, at the same time, there is an ambition to rise above the material level. There is the concept of an ethical standpoint. Everything represented by “Egypt” – oppression, corruption, inequality and lawlessness – is rejected on moral grounds. Instead, a vision is formulated of a society in which justice and freedom reign.

The story of the Exodus is retold every year during the Jewish Passover and its theme is always relevant. We still live in a time of oppression and an absence of freedom but we hope for a better future. The road to this “promised land” goes through a desert and there is no other way to reach one’s goal than to join the rest of humanity on the road.

Jackie Jakubowski
Journalist and Writer

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exodus_moses“E” (Exodus)

The Jewish Feast of Passover and the Christian Feast of Easter often coincide in the calendar but the narratives attached to them and the messages they preach are different. Passover or Pesach is about a people’s journey towards liberation, their transformation from slaves into free citizens. The Easter story is about a sacrificial victim that holds the promise of a Messianic future. But the Exodus tradition has been preserved in Christian tradition and has inspired people who, in the words of Martin Luther King, have sought to “throw off the fetters of oppression and wander through the desert towards the freedom that is imminent”. The black slaves in the American south and, later, the activists in the black citizens’ rights movement in the USA found consolation and hope in the story of the thraldom of the Israelites in Egypt and their march towards the “Promised Land”.

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“X” (Freedom)

n 19 April 1943, there was an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. The same evening marked the beginning of the Jewish Feast of the Passover. The final struggle was not about physical survival for the outcome was preordained by the relative strengths of the German troops surrounding the ghetto and the people inside. But the youthful Jewish defendants were to die as free women and men. The 24 year-old leader of the uprising, Mordecai Anielewicz and the 220 members of the Jewish armed-resistance movement were very conscious of the symbolism: Passover is the feast of freedom. The armed resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto was about human dignity.

At other times and in other places the freedom message of Passover has been an important source of inspiration to oppressed and persecuted Jews. In the communist Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, the so-called refusniks – Jews who had been refused permission from the authorities to emigrate to Israel – demanded their freedom. Their principal slogan, which was taken from the biblical story of the slavery suffered by the Israelites in Egypt and their final Exodus, was “Let my people go”.

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“O” (Identity)

he Passover haggada or narrative includes a good deal about identity; the identity of the enslaved Israelites when they left Egypt. And the identity of their children a generation later when they reached the promised land after 40 years of wandering through the desert; a period in which they freed themselves from the slave mentality.

According to one interpretation the Israelites wanted to preserve their identity in exile by preserving their name, not forgetting their language and continuing to circumcise their sons. Another interpretation claims that the Israelites wanted to be assimilated. “Let us be like Egyptians”, they said. But the majority would not accept them. They were persecuted as foreigners and mistrusted when they assimilated.

The identity of Moses is also problematical. He was born among the oppressed but he lived among the oppressors. He made a conscious choice when he took sides for the enslaved Israelites. And at the same time he dissociated himself from the society that had treated him as one of its own.

Identity, loyalty, kinship, a sense of belonging. The Exodus story is about human choice. The four children in the narrative symbolize all these standpoints. There is one who is concerned with his identity, one who dissociates himself from his origins, one who makes fun of the choices his siblings make and one who “is not wise enough to ask”.

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“D” (Rituals)

The Seder celebration follows a specific order. The journey from slavery to freedom that is described in the haggada is something that is to be experienced during the evening. Questions and their detailed answers, interpretations and commentaries, joint recitations and songs are intended to give everyone participating in the celebration the feeling that they, too, have taken part in these revolutionary events in the history of the Jewish people.

It is the recurring rituals for the Jewish Passover Seder that give concrete expression to the meaning of the feast.

Before dinner the Seder table is laid with the prescribed items that are all rich in symbolism. There is the unleavened bread (matza or matzo) which reminds us of the “bread of suffering and oppression” that the slaves ate in Egypt and of the haste with which they left the country before the dough had risen.

Next come a shank bone (zeroa) and a hard-boiled or roasted egg with a sooty shell (betsà). They symbolize sorrow in that they remind us of the destruction of the Temple and the traditional Passover sacrifice. Greens in the form of parsley or lettuce leaves (karpàs) symbolize the spring, fertility and the rebirth of nature.

Chopped nuts (charoset) represent the mortar that was used by the Israelites when they were forced to build the Egyptian cities.

Salt water reminds us of the tears of the oppressed.

Bitter herbs (maror) are a reminder of the harsh conditions of slavery.

Wine symbolizes joy. The four glasses of wine that are drunk during the course of the meal are reminders of the four promises in the Torah that speak of Israel’s liberation (Exodus 6:6-8).

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“U” (Ethics)

Jewish biblical commentary or midrash explains: After the Israelites had passed over the Red Sea and the waters had returned behind them to drown the Egyptian army the angels wanted to praise God. But God prevented this by asking: “How can you be so happy when creatures that I have created die?”

Passover is a joyful occasion. But in the midst of the celebration there is an insight into the price of freedom for the Israelites: the ten plagues that struck the Egyptians before Pharaoh let the slaves go free. We cannot ignore the suffering of others while we celebrate in joy. Our enemies are also God’s creatures.

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls nor be joyous when he stumbles” is what the Jewish faith teaches us. This ethical approach is reflected in the Passover tradition: the glasses of wine must not be full. While reading about the ten plagues, ten drops of the wine of joy are removed as a reminder of the suffering of the Egyptians.

Another lesson of the Exodus tells us: “If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. /…/ You must love him as yourself – for you were once strangers yourselves in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

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“S” Why? (questioning)

The story of the exodus from Egypt is introduced by a question. This is put by the youngest child at the Seder: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

A question is a good way of arousing people’s interest. The point of the Seder is not just to tell the story of the Exodus but to persuade all those taking part to listen and participate actively. The fact that the youngest child starts the proceedings with a question about the meaning of Passover is one way of generating curiosity. But it encourages people to think freely for themselves.

Asking questions – or questioning tradition – are important aspects of the freedom that is celebrated at Passover. People who are free can give expression to their points of view.

Asking questions is the Jewish way of studying. The entire Talmudic literature is built on questions, commentaries and dialogue. When studying the Talmud, posing critical questions is not just allowable. It is the point of the system of study. The Talmudic spirit – questioning, self-criticism and the creation of ideas – helps to explain the creativity that has characterized many generations of Jews.

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Personal reflections How is this night different from all other nights?

“When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

A different night
The two first nights of the Jewish Passover, Pesach, are called Seder, meaning ”order”. The Seder celebrations follow a specific order outlined in the Haggadah. The Haggadah is read by family members in a given order and the one who leads the Seder points at the symbols on the Seder plate. Everyone is offered to have a taste of the vegetables, bitter herbs (Maror, reminder of the harsh conditions of slavery) and a mixture of nuts, apples and wine (Charoset, representing the mortar that was used by the Israelites when they were forced to build the cities of ancient Egypt) and of course the unleavened bread (Matza “bread of suffering and oppression”).

When the major part of the journey from slavery to freedom has been told the food is served. The recurring rituals for the Seder is a manifestation of the underlying meaning of this feast.

By eating the Afikoman (a part of the middle of three Matzos that has been hidden and then found during the Seder evening) the meal is concluded. This is followed by communal singing of psalms.

During the eights days of Pesach Jews refrain from leavened bread and food. Many families have their own Pesach recipes for the special dishes.
Sources: “Denna afton” en Haggada för hela familjen, utgiven av Hillelförlaget 2006
The family participation Haggadah “A Different Night” by Noam Zion,published by Hillelförlaget.

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exodus_minnenMEMORIES – personal reflections

MY FIRST PASSOVER
I was already grown up when I celebrated my first Passover on a kibbutz outside Petach Tiqva. We gathered in the large dining room which had been specially decorated with flowers and blue and white ribbons stretching from the doorway to the stage at the other end. The youngsters of the kibbutz were to start off the celebrations by narrating the Passover story.
On the tables there were dishes of grilled chicken legs, salads, gefilte fish (an East European Ashkenazi dish that was not much appreciated by the younger generation of the kibbutz who preferred humus and a fiery, Arabic chilli mixture) and matzos. In spite of the religious rule prohibiting leavened bread, those who preferred it did not need to go hungry.

Neither the menu nor the rules about diet and ritual made any impression on me for I had grown up in an atheist household. But when the performance began I started to feel strangely uncomfortable. To the sounds of a classical settler song a group of boys ran towards the stage carrying blue and white Israeli flags. An equal number of girls followed them waving red banners. The rest of the performance talked about liberating the people, about the slavery of capitalism, solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world and the hope of a “golden future” – all spiced with references to slavery in Egypt and the Israeli freedom march through the Sinai desert.

The year was 1971. Remembering how, only one year earlier, I had been ordered out onto the street to wave a red flag during the First-of-May celebrations in the Socialist Peoples Republic of Poland, this Passover celebration on a leftist kibbutz was both incomprehensible and distressing.

Jackie Jakubowski, aged 54

 

THE LAST CHAMETS MEAL
I was born in Stockholm in 1921. My father was from Lithuania and my mother from the Ukraine. They had fled the pogroms.

Our Seder evenings – we celebrated the first two and the last two days of Passover – were memorable. Both my mother and my father were Orthodox Jews and we naturally kept kosher. The weeks prior to Passover were a period of preparation. The home was cleaned from floor to ceiling. Cleaning all the cupboards and drawers was particularly important. Certain cupboards were emptied entirely since all the pejserdicke items – the tableware, pans and so on that were reserved for Passover, had to be brought down from the attic. Glasses and cutlery were made kashrut as were the stove. All the tablecloths for Sabbath and other festive occasions – which were made of linen in those days – were washed very thoroughly in order to ensure that all the chamets had disappeared.

At last it was the evening before Passover and we children followed father closely as he placed pieces of bread on top of cupboards and tables. Next morning, when we had eaten the last chamets meal, the pieces of bread that we found were swept up into a wooden spoon with a hen feather and burnt.

Ruth Heyman, aged 84

 

MORE FUN THAN CHRISTMAS
Passover is the most enjoyable holiday that I know. I think that it is even more fun than Christmas (which I celebrate with my non-Jewish father). I don’t really know why I prefer Passover. But perhaps it is because of the “questions” that are asked, that it is the children’s festival. That children are at the centre of things and can answer the questions and search for the afikoman, the matzo. I don’t ever want to be so big that I am no longer allowed to join the search.

It’s the questions that are most fun. I cannot remember ever having practised the questions but I have always been able to answer every one of them. It just seems as though I was born with the answers.

I can’t think of anything that I especially associate with Passover but if there is something it is a white napkin. Because it is the white napkin that one searches for and not the matzo as such!

Tuva Winblad, aged 13

 

BEATEN EGG YOLKS
When I recall the Seder nights of my childhood one of my clearest memories is of my mother, who was only five foot tall, standing on a stepladder balancing plates and dishes and bowls in her hands. This was the special Passover crockery which was kept in a top cupboard in the hall.

I was by then taller than my mother and I remember suggesting that we should change places. “Absolutely not”, my mother would answer. “It’s quite enough for you to stand and take the things from me as I get them out.” At this stage of the preparations the cupboards had already been emptied and wiped down, all the fabrics had been washed and the apartment had been cleaned from top to toe.

How can I forget my father sitting on the kitchen sofa beating eggs? Just the yolks. My father never drank his coffee without cream and at Passover he substituted the stiffly beaten egg yolks for cream. And what cakes we had. Made of masses of eggs where one separated the yolks and the whites and beat and beat. There were no electric kitchen machines in those days.

Finally Seder arrived. The scents of the food, the heat of the kitchen stove and the oven, the excitement – all of that is still embedded in me.

The memory, too, of being sent out after eight days of matzos and meat dishes to buy milk and freshly baked white bread. Delicious!

Ingert Glasman, aged 74

 

MATZOS ALL THE YEAR ROUND
At my grandfather’s apartment at No.3 on Rådhustorget in Landskrona there were matzos all the year round. Elegant purple packets with a small portrait of a bald man on them. Was it Mr. Rakusen himself?

The butter was always left out so that it was soft and could be spread on the matzos. In the kitchen there were two sets of tableware and two sinks. My grandfather kept kosher more out of tradition than for religious reasons.

Kajsa Aronsson, aged 43

 

MEMORY OF TASTE
My father Sid often talked about food. Especially about his dear grandmother’s wonderful cooking. She had cooked for a group of Jewish students at a hostel in Lund but she now lived somewhere between my father’s own home and his school in Landskrona.

Perhaps it was her gefilte fish that my father was thinking of as he opened a jar of MANISCHEWITZ and a tube of minced horseradish in the kitchen.

Little balls of a nondescript colour in jelly.

Kajsa Aronsson, aged 43

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Pictures from the exhibition

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Adolf Messer 1886-1931

exodus_moses_hav

 

exodus_bagare

exodus_o

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