Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Passover Crossing Religious Lines

Holiday: Jews and non-Jews alike are increasingly molding the Hebrew ritual to fit their own spiritual and social needs.

By TERESA WATANABE
Times Religion Writer

A creative revolution is refashioning the ancient rituals of Passover, as Jews -- and, increasingly, non-Jews -- use the holiday in thousands of new ways to explore their own modern-day plagues, oppressions and struggles.

The eight-day holiday, which begins tonight, has been faithfully celebrated by Jews around the world for 3,300 years in commemoration of the escape from slavery in Egypt and the "passing over" of Hebrew homes by the "angel of death" sent by a wrathful God to convince the Pharaoh to let his people go. The holiday is marked with special foods, worship services and a commemorative ritual feast, known as a Seder, reliving the Exodus.

But the holiday's rich symbols, powerful ritual and timeless themes of freedom and redemption are now being embraced in Seders for groups as diverse as vegetarians, lesbians, Latino garment workers, feminists, environmentalists and the handicapped.

In one Seder for battered women, the 10 plagues that biblical accounts say were sent by God to free the Hebrews from the Pharaoh's grip were adapted to provide a different catalog of oppressive horrors: hitting, kicking and, finally, body bags symbolizing women who had been killed, said Culver City filmmaker Ruth Broyde-Sharone, who filmed the observance as part of a documentary project.

In a completely different approach, Valencia musician Alan Eder has created a reggae Passover celebration. In both live and recorded performances, a 20-member ensemble of musicians, dancers and singers features the ancient Hebrew songs set to West African rhythms, along with the work of the late reggae musician Bob Marley -- whom Eder calls, along with Moses, "one of the great Exodus figures of all time."

"In my early days, I thought tradition was stagnant and finite," said Eder, a former Fulbright scholar who says the reggae celebration merges his personal identity as a Jew with his professional interest in African music.

"As the years went by, I began to realize that tradition will wither if not infused with new creativity."

Catholic street workers are holding Seders, viewing the poor and homeless they tend as modern-day Israelites. Passover's parallels to African American slavery experiences were highlighted at a recent interfaith Seder at Temple Beth Am on Los Angeles' Westside in which South-Central Los Angeles high school students took part. On Thursday, the Zen Center of Los Angeles will host a Passover retreat and Seder, as practitioners apply lessons from the ancient Jewish ritual to their own struggles to overcome the bondage of ego and attachment.

"What I thought was 'my holiday, my tradition' turned out to be a universal theme that has captivated people's imaginations everywhere," said Broyde-Sharone. "Every country has known struggle and oppression, and we can all hook into the story."

Some Jews, however, are offended by the appropriation and alteration of one of their most sacred holidays. "It is as if I assume Easter is up for grabs, and I can turn it into something else because I like the name and the themes," said Harvey J. Fields, senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Fields said some Jews find particularly offensive the attempts by evangelical groups to transform the Seder meal into a Christian event. One local evangelical preacher holds Seders and interprets the holes in the unleavened matzo bread as the nails in the crucified hands of Christ; and the breaking of the matzo's middle section as Christ's death.

Fields says such reinterpretations compromise the integrity of the Jewish tradition, but he wholly supports efforts to share the holiday with others.

The dizzying diversity of Passover expressions is reflected in the mushrooming number of variations on the haggada, the book traditionally used as the script for the Seder ritual. While Passover has inspired artistic and intellectual expression for centuries, the number of haggadas has grown to more than 3,000 today, said Ron Wolfson, vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

In New York, the H. Levine Co. now sells more than 150 different haggadas. The Haggada for the Liberation of the Lamb is used by vegetarians, while the Concise Family Seder is the one "that gets you to the chicken soup quickly," jokes Daniel Levine, the bookseller's fourth-generation owner.

The store also sells a number of children's Passover items, such as "Rugrats" and "Sesame Street" videos, and novelty items like the "Plague Bag," which includes red dye to turn water into blood, and windup frogs, Levine said.

"There is a revolution going on in the way Passover Seders are celebrated today," said Wolfson, who wrote "The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder." "When I grew up, it was pretty much, 'Go around the table and everyone read from the haggada,' but that was fairly uninteresting. I think most people today feel a sense of permission to make the Seder come alive."

At Temple Beth Am last week, the lessons of Passover were brought alive to South-Central Los Angeles students with a running stream of humor from Rabbi Perry Netter, spirited debate over the bondages of homework, and live performances of traditional Hebrew songs and gospel music. The Seder, co- sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, also included commentaries from leaders of other faith communities.

Gloria Haithman, a Los Angeles Bahai leader, recalled how the Exodus story inspired everything from the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. to the haunting spirituals of African American slaves. Gilbert Romero of the archdiocese of Los Angeles told students how the Exodus saga helped develop the Catholic Church's liberation theology in Latin America.

Netter explained the symbolism of the traditional Passover food: the wine, representing the sweetness of liberation. The green parsley, representing the rebirth from slavery. The unleavened matzo, commemorating the hasty flight from Egypt. Students gasped as they downed the horseradish, representing the bitterness of bondage, as Netter joked: "You may have water if you're so weak, but now we'll see who the real macho ones are!"

"At this meal, the Seder, we literally eat history. We eat identity," Netter told the students. "Every year, we sit and talk about where we came from. You don't know who you are, unless you know where you came from."

One of the liveliest responses of the day came when Netter invited students to share their own modern-day bondages. The rabbi began by pulling out his cellular telephone, lamenting that the technological onslaught of pagers, voice mail, fax machines and e-mail had "made us slaves to our calendar and our schedules."

Then students called out their oppressions: Traffic. School. Homework. Not having a car.

For Billy Thompson, a 16-year-old student at Jordan High School, the Seder marked the first time he had ever heard the story of the Hebrew escape from Egypt, and made him, as an African American, feel common bonds with the Jewish people.

College student Jansel Viray said the Seder inspired him to reflect on how to free himself from his own enslavement to a poor diet and weight problems.

"I learned that even if you are oppressed, if you stick with it and think positive thoughts, everything will be all right, because no one is doomed to their oppression," Viray said.