“Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?
How is this night different from all other nights?
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin chametz umatzah, halailah hazeh, kuloh matzah.
On all other nights, we eat chameitz and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah?
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin sh’ar y’rakot, halailah hazeh, maror.
On all other nights, we eat all vegetables. Why, on this night, maror?
Sheb’chol haleilot ein anu matbilin afilu pa’am echat; halailah hazeh, sh’tei f’amim.
On all other nights, we don’t dip even once. Why on this night do we dip twice?
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin; halailah hazeh, kulanu m’subin.
On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining. Why on this night do we all recline?”
So I spent yesterday evening in the company of eleven amazing women – five Muslim and six Jewish, to celebrate the arrival of Pesach and take part in my fifth Seder. But this one was different from any of the other Seder meals I’d had. This was in the home of my dear friend Laura Marks and it was an all woman gathering. Laura Marks is the Jewish co-chair of Nisa-Nisham, a Jewish Muslim Women’s network that aims to bring our communities together and promote ways in which Jewish and Muslim women can understand that our similarities are far greater than our differences. It does this by bringing the Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain closer together by setting up groups of women who build personal friendships, grow as leaders and benefit wider society through a variety of programmes and initiatives. All of us around the table were in some way linked to Nisa-Nisham either as trustees, co-chairs, or just friends and family of Laura’s.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Jewish faith and celebrations, Pesach (or Passover) celebrates the Exodus, when the Children of Israel were finally freed by Pharaoh in Egypt, following the 10 plagues (more about that later). Ultimately it’s a story about persecution, bondage and finally freedom. So whilst it may appear to be a time of celebration, there is an element of sadness and reflection.
As with any major festival, there has to be a festive meal and the Passover is no different. During the celebrations that last 8 days, a ‘Seder’ or often two, will be held at which the story of the Exodus will be told in prose, songs and prayers. The book that is followed is the Haggadah and follows a set pattern. There are many different versions but all follow the same basic format and prayers. The version that was used this evening was from the Movement for Reform Judaism with interpretations and perspectives that encourage us to think about the modern world. The service includes a number of symbolic foods being eaten and wine (or for the Muslims grape juice) being drunk (whilst leaning to the left to symbolise freedom from slavery) interspersed with readings and prayers.
The Seder plate includes a variety of key items. Bitter herbs, to remind Jews of the bitterness of slavery and the tears that were shed in slavery are symbolised by the addition of salt water on the table. Jews are reminded of how they built the pyramids and the mortar is symbolised by the sweet charoset made from nuts and fruits. A hard boiled eggs reminds them of the beginning of a new life and a green vegetable such as parsley or lettuce symbolises hope and redemption. The humble matzah or unleavened bread is a central part of the seder and for all Passover meals, anything that has yeast and risen is not permitted. A lamb shank is also placed in the Seder plate and remembers the sacrificial lamb whose blood was used to mark out the homes of Israelites, so that when the Angel of Death came to claim the souls of the first born, they would “pass over” the homes of the Jews. There was one addition to this Seder plate I had not come across at previous Seders. A glass of water, or more accurately Miriam’s Cup. Miriam was the sister of Moses and tradition suggests she carried with her a well that was the main source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Miriam’s Cup is also a reminder that women played a vital role in the Exodus and must not be overlooked, though this is a relatively new innovation and not adopted by everyone.
No Seder would be complete without recalling the ten plagues and spotting the plate with red wine / grape juice; blood, frogs, lice, child beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and slaying of the first born. And I suspect most young children love this bit of the service! But this year, our seder plates had ten additional spots as we included ten modern day plagues; inequality, poverty, bloodshed, torture, persecution, abuse, violence, hunger, prejudice and indifference. I wanted to add an eleventh – Donald Trump. But then realised I should also then add Bashar Al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung-On, Aung San Suu Kyi – the list would be endless. Because sadly whilst the Israelites may have been freed by Moses 3000 years ago, there are still many examples of modern day slavery, dictatorship, oppression and sheer brutality across the world. This last week alone we have seen almost 100 killed and over 500 still suffering the effects of a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. We have seen the devastation caused by a lone individual who drove his truck into innocent bystanders in Stockholm. The Westminster attacker claimed his fifth victim last friday. Suicide bombers attacked two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, killing at least 40 worshipers and police officers. Twenty people were tortured and murdered at a Sufi shrine in Sarghoda, Pakistan. And in the first 3 months of 2017 there have been 3,664 gun deaths, 77 mass shootings and 900 children/ teenagers shot or killed in America.
There is still much wrong with the world that needs to be fixed. But there are plenty of good people still around with the will to do something and work towards making the only world we have, a better place. Twelve women sat around a dinner table this evening. Jewish and Muslim. Enemies according to some, sisters as far as we were concerned. We shared food, compared the Judaic and Islamic versions of the Exodus, shared recipes and at times I wanted to shed a tear remembering those who were not quite so fortunate as the Israelites and are still very much prisoners to the system. And we talked, as only Jewish and Muslim women can. Whilst today is the beginning of Pesach, yesterday was Palm Sunday marking the beginning of Holy Week; the day when according to Christian tradition Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, an animal symbolic of peace. Perhaps this week, whatever our faiths, whatever our traditions, we must focus on the things that are important, the things that unite us, the things that can make a difference and ultimately free everyone from slavery and oppression in whatever form it comes.
Chag Pesach Sameach