Where will you be for Seder?

Why is this night different from all other nights? Because it is observed by 78% of secular Jews.

Pessah 298 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Pessah 298 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
On Friday nights, while religiously observant Jews sit down to Shabbat dinner, Erez Eyov can be found partying in Tel Aviv or meeting friends in a bar downtown. On Yom Kippur, while other Jews all over the world fast and pray in synagogues, Eyov works, taking advantage of the higher salary earned on the holiest of Holy Days. But this Wednesday night, Eyov will be at home with his family in French Hill, eating matza with maror and haroset and reading the Haggada, exactly as he has done since he was a little boy. Eyov, like the rest of his family and most of his friends, is one of many secular Israelis who observes the Pessah Seder - although this is practically the only ritual that he does observe. "It's tradition. I do the Seder every year because it's important for the Jewish people to keep traditions," he says. "All of us doing the same traditions at the same time is what keeps our nation together." For Eyov, this philosophy does not apply to Shabbat - which he says is less unique because of its weekly occurrence - or to the majority of other Jewish holidays. "At the Seder, the whole family comes and sits around the table together, saying blessings and singing songs from the Haggada. Rosh Hashana feels similar - we all come together and celebrate the start of a new year," he explains. "But praying by yourself in a synagogue on Yom Kippur doesn't feel the same. It doesn't feel as strong." And, Eyov continues, the notion of being freed from the bondage of slavery is powerful and potent and helps create an atmosphere of unity and strength among the family and among the Jewish nation. David Piskarov, a secular Jew from Pisgat Ze'ev, agrees that the essence of his observance of the Pessah Seder stems from the inherent family togetherness, but says the historical perspective of the holiday also adds to its significance. "Every nation has its holidays - the Christians have Christmas, the Jews have Pessah - and these holidays symbolize momentous things that happened to these peoples," he asserts. "We have to remember going out of Egypt because we have to remember where we came from. We can't forget our history as a people, and the traditions preserve these collective memories." Piskarov also lights candles on Hanukka and eats an apple dipped in honey on Rosh Hashana, because those activities are a family bonding experience, he says, whereas Shavuot, for example, lacks any specific rituals and customs. "The Seder is very ritualistic and action-oriented," explains Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, the executive director of the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and a Chabad rabbi. "At the Seder table, you are able to physically do what it means to be Jewish, and people react stronger to actions than to words and speeches." And on some subconscious level, insists Gestetner, every Jew, regardless of his or her level of observance, has a desire to connect to Judaism. "They want to be connected to 3,000 years of tradition," he says. "The essence of the Seder is communicating our tradition to the next generation - v'higadeta l'bincha - and even Israelis who call themselves secular want to communicate their heritage, something infinite, to the next generation." The Pessah Seder is the best time for this, he adds, because Pessah is considered the national holiday and the birthday of the Jewish nation, which is a perfect time to celebrate with family. "In modern times there's barely any time for family, and the Seder is a time when everyone comes together in an environment of tradition linking us to our past and our roots," he continues. "There's also a sense of being part of the family of Am Yisrael [the Jewish nation] and becoming a living part of the chain of tradition." Religious or not, every Jew can feel comfortable at the Seder, because the hagaddic tale of the four sons ensures that whoever you are - wise, evil, simple or completely unknowledgeable - you nonetheless have a place around the Seder table. Despite the barriers blocking many Israelis from connecting to Judaism, Gestetner maintains that what draws the non-observant to the Seder is its authenticity and the fact that it remains untarnished by politics and external issues that make religion in Israel problematic. Scattered among these external issues dividing the religious and the nonreligious is the notion that only observant Jews would keep the Seder. Meir Buzaglo, however, a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University who comments widely on Israeli society, says the problem lies directly in this grossly mistaken idea. "There's a general feeling that only people who define themselves as 'religious' would keep Pessah, which is based on the assumption that only 'religious' people are connected to the religious traditions," explains Buzaglo. In fact, the term "religious" is a relatively new idea in Judaism, he says, having begun in Europe when people began to define themselves differently - according to their nationalities and cultures. "While those Jews who continue to observe a strictly religious way of life are important, they are definitely not alone and do not have a monopoly on Jewish life - the Jewish nation consists of a wide range of different attitudes," he adds. And most of them observe the Seder. According to a report prepared by Elihu Katz and Charles Liebman for the Guttman Institute (1992), "Passover observance is widespread... Seventy-eight percent of the totally nonobservant always or frequently participate in a Seder of some kind. Beyond celebration of the Seder, about 70% of Israeli Jews, including just less than one-fifth of the nonobservant, refrain from hametz on Passover." Buzaglo maintains that most Jews cherish their ties with tradition, even if they do not live according to halachic guidelines - which ties into Gestetner's sentiment that every Jewish soul strives for a connection with God and Jewish tradition. The findings of the Guttman report illustrate that despite the idea that a great rift exists between religious and secular Israelis, there is actually a continuum - comprising traditional Israelis who practice customs but not necessarily Halacha. "Of course there are those who are totally 'anti.' And there are others who oppose the ultra-Orthodox based on a religious or political basis, and sometimes this position influences their attitude toward Jewish tradition," comments Buzaglo. "But even many of them keep the traditions, solely because they feel it's a part of who they are." At Mi-Mizrach Shemesh, an organization for Mizrachi pluralistic Judaism, almost all of those involved feel a connection to their Jewish heritage. "All the people I meet here are attached, at some level, to tradition," says Natty Bouchnik, the coordinator of Mi-Mizrach Shemesh's learning communities in Jerusalem. "I think some kind of link to old family traditions is very important for many Jews. It may not mean it affects our day to day life, but it has an impact, especially on Pessah." Though Bouchnik grew up in a modern Orthodox home and was educated in a religious institution, after his army service he drifted away from religion. Nonetheless, he still considers himself tied to Jewish traditions and this explains his active participation in Mi-Mizrach Shemesh, which fuses Jewish values and tradition with ethics and social activism. "I think we all share a kind of eternal link to our ancestral traditions," he states. "It is part of our collective belonging, the one we define through our Jewish identity, the same one we use for our need for traditional ceremonies and symbols." For years Pessah has been presented by the public educational system as "the" idea of freedom, but Bouchnik claims that for many non-observant Jews, this isn't the appeal of Pessah. Like Eyov and Piskarov, for Bouchnik, Pessah is about family and tradition. "People who go to their families and friends for the Seder don't do it to express their support for the values of freedom, although that is a large part of the meaning of the holiday," he says. "Rather, it's the familial gathering that speaks to people who otherwise live miles away from any other halachic precepts." Yet Rabbi Shlomo Fuchs believes that although the education system has rendered the theme of freedom superficial, that essence is still important to all Jews, even if on an unconscious level, because it has a particular meaning for each and every individual. "Pessah marks the exit from Egypt, not the entry into the Land of Israel. The true freedom is in the Exodus, and on the eve of Pessah every one of us asks him or herself, 'Am I ready for freedom or not? am I ready to be a ben-horin, a free human being, or am I still a slave?'" On a collective level, Pessah not only represents where we are today, but for many secular Jews, it indeed symbolizes where we were and where we came from, as a nation and as a family, and the desire to sustain the chain of tradition. "Passing something from one generation to another is part of tradition," Bouchnik continues. "And tradition means doing the same thing year after year, generation after generation. We say the same things, sing the same songs, and that's why those we call secular will always participate in the Seder. They love - and apparently need - this togetherness." Fuchs notes that the Seder opens and concludes with two passages, well-known even to most secular Jews, which convey their meaning even to those who do not think about them. "The Ha Lahma Anya is at the beginning of the Haggada and the Had Gadya is at the end. The Had Gadya, a seeming nonsense rhyme, represents the cruelty of nature, where one creature eats the other, for no reason other than because he can, because he is stronger. The Ha Lahma Anya that invites the poor is the aspect of Jewish tradition that demands that you fight the arbitrariness of nature, through justice and repairing the world. That speaks to everyone, no matter whether they define themselves as secular or religious." P eggy Cidor contributed to this report.