It’s scary to go outside our comfort zone, but sometimes it can be very worthwhile. On April 22, I attended my first-ever Seder. I had misgivings before I went. The only person I was going to know was my friend Laura. I also wondered how a picky eater like me was going to enjoy Jewish cuisine.
Having been raised Catholic, I was woefully ignorant about Jewish customs and culture. Like many Christians, I failed to see the connections between the two faiths. So, our little get-together in an apartment in Hyde Park was an eye-opener.
I was relieved to find a relaxed atmosphere, where it was OK to drink beer instead of wine. Laura’s boyfriend, Alan, was warm and welcoming and I felt instantly at ease. He was the only Jewish person at the party. I found myself swapping war stories with fellow Irish-Catholics. The gathering was so friendly, one guest remarked we’d probably find out we all had the same grandmother.
Then we gathered at the table for the feast. Alan passed out the prayers and passages we were going to read. We began to taste the ritual dishes. (Alan apologized for not having a lamb shank for the Passover sacrifice but noted he had saved eight bucks.) We first tasted the matzah. We learned that this unleavened bread signified that the Jews were in such a hurry to flee Egypt, they didn’t have time for the bread to rise. The matzah reminded me of the Communion wafer.
Then we ate some maror, the bitter herbs that remind us of the suffering of Jews in slavery. We used matzah to make a sandwich of some charoset, a mixture of nuts and fruit that symbolized the mortar used to build the pyramids and such while they were enslaved in Egypt. Next was the gefilte fish, which was surprisingly tasty, and some hearty mushroom soup.
During these proceedings, Laura sang beautiful songs in Yiddish. We also recited the four questions. These are literally childish questions asked in the voices of four different kids: the Wise Child, the Wicked Child, the Simple Child and the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask. There are many different variations of these questions. We used a racial justice version.
So the Wise Child asked about the laws that protect individuals from racial discrimination. The Wicked Child asks, “Why must I be involved in pursuing racial justice?” The Simple Child asks, “What do we even mean by racial justice?” and the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask receives instruction from his elders about how he can seek racial justice.
I was really struck by how meaningful it was to link social justice to faith. This is why Pope Francis is so popular. He speaks of real-world issues that our faith calls us to address. He also demonstrates his faith through acts of humility and compassion. I was thinking of how this message is missing in some churches.
I have seen so many permutations of the Christian faith, from strict Catholicism, to liberal Catholicism. From stodgy Protestant, to lively Protestant. Today, it’s the nondenominational churches with modern music that are enjoying the greatest growth. A young pastor I know labels this “commercial Christianity.” That’s pretty harsh but he would prefer a social justice approach to faith over feel-good praise and worship services.
So would I. But it took a completely unfamiliar ritual known as the Seder to open my eyes. It certainly gave me a new appreciation for the Jewish faith as one of inclusion, compassion for the poor and fighting for the dignity of all.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.