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Passover—About Freedom and Food

Summing up the upcoming spring holiday of Passover, commencing at sundown on Wednesday evening, March 27, Rabbi Jack Moline said, “Passover is about two things – freedom and food.

“Every bite of matzah [unleavened bread] we take over the course of a week is a reminder of a good deal of suffering that enables us to enjoy the blessings of freedom. Any food we eat on Passover is part of that reminding,” said Moline, the religious leader for 14 years at the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria.

“My favorite part of preparing for the Seder is making the charoset apples, wine and nuts, ground up and mixed,” said Herndon resident Rachel Koffer, 12, a seventh-grader attending Hebrew school at Congregation Beth Emeth. “It’s supposed to symbolize the mortar that holds bricks together. It’s a reminder of slavery days in Egypt,” she said.

“Seder means order,” said Herndon resident Elizabeth “Liz” Zelman, 13, also a seventh-grader attending Hebrew school at Beth Emeth. The Passover meal is called a “seder” and is eaten in a certain order as prescribed by the book used during the holiday, called the “Haggadah.”

The meal also consists of a Seder plate featuring several required foods, including the charoset. “The charoset is generally assumed to represent the mortar of the bricks, but really, its origin is to offset the bitterness of the herbs,” said Moline. It is the bitter herbs on the Seder plate that represent the bitterness of slavery, he said.

“With our charoset we make pyramids,” said Vienna resident Michael Cohen, 13, a Hebrew-school student at Beth Emeth.

OTHER TRADITIONAL SEDER PLATE FOODS include salt water to represent the tears of oppression, a green vegetable to represent spring as well as the beginning of the biblical and agricultural new year, said Moline.

Two other required items featured on the Seder plate, the hard-boiled egg and the shank bone, are both roasted. While the egg is not ritually eaten, Moline said nobody is exactly sure what it represents. Some, he said, believe the egg is there to represent the potential for life. It is roasted, as is the shank bone, to represent the missing sacrifice or offering.

“In the days of the temple, a lamb would be brought to the altar prior to Passover as an offering,” said Moline, adding that originally each diner at a Seder would have his own Seder plate. The tradition of having a Seder plate is still carried out, in addition to a festive meal.

“We had a tradition where my mom put out the cup for Elijah [the Prophet]. We would come back to it after the Seder, and the cup was empty except for a note written in Hebrew. We had to work hard to translate the note,” said Herndon resident Allie Hirsch, 12, attending the Beth Emeth Hebrew School.

Traditions are carried on not only down the generational lines but across faiths as well.

“Every year Rachel and I have a tradition,” said Herndon resident Brittany Koffer, 12, who attends Hebrew school with her twin sister. “We go with a group to St. John Newman Church to teach traditions of Passover foods. My favorite part of the Seder is the afikoman,” she said, adding, “that’s ‘dessert’ in Greek.”

While the afikoman is traditionally the dessert portion of the Seder, modern Seders contain a variety of baked goods with the appropriate ingredients such as matzah meal or other non-leavening agents.

“We had a dessert Seder,” said Fairfax resident Arielle Kaplan, 12, a Beth Emeth Hebrew School student. “The shank bone was peanut butter and chocolate, and there was chocolate matzah,” she said.

Passover tradition dictates that an adult wrap the afikoman and hide it for the children to search for before the end of the Seder.

“One year I was not feeling well and I went to lie down on the couch, and the others couldn’t find the afikoman. It was under the couch,” said Herndon resident Zachary “Zach” Stein, 12, attending the Beth Emeth Hebrew School.

“My cousin keeps finding the afikoman every year,” said a disappointed Cohen, who was also reminded of a Seder that included Scottish neighbors and Latvian friends of his father. The Latvian friends, although Jewish, “didn’t know much about their faith,” he said.

“We used to have a neighbor – a friend of my brother’s, who was not Jewish. He thought Passover was the coolest thing. He came every year,” said Zelman, whose family lived in the Cleveland area before moving to Herndon. “We moved to Herndon two years ago, and the friend flew out for Seder two years ago,” she said.

THE RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF PASSOVER, said Moline, is “the reinforcement of some of the basic values of Jewish life, remembrance of our roots, the beginning of the pilgrimage toward Sinai, and our redeeming relationship with God.

“From a sociological standpoint, it kept Jewish families together for generations,” said Moline, recalling a Seder from his teen-age years in Chicago.

Moline said a “most powerful memory” was a phone call shared between his family and a Jewish family in the then Soviet Union “struggling to have their own Seder. My family was active in the movement to free Soviet Jews. They knew enough English for us to communicate. We were of two different circumstances, two different countries and two different cultures. Two Jewish families experiencing the same message and observing similar rituals. It was a powerful experience,” said Moline.