A Passover Seder experience of a non-Jew

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A Passover Seder experience of a non-Jew

By Elena Dini

ROME — Over the years, I was blessed to be invited to a few Passover Seders, and each time was a different, yet profound experience. I have been fortunate as well to spend Passover Seders with different communities and in different countries — until last year, when we had to manage with an online version! 

Two words are key in my experience: “Seder” and “Haggadah.” “Seder” means “order,” and it refers not only to the festive meal of Passover with the specific dishes that pertain to it, but to the different actions carried out during the meal. As a non-Jew joining a community celebrating the Seder, I have always found myself part of a centuries-old tradition I was given the honor to share. Like a liturgy, all steps are clearly detailed and easy to follow. I have always been at a table where a great deal of attention was reserved to non-Jews joining the meal, and therefore the symbolic meaning of each action was explained to me. 

“Haggadah” is the second word that deeply speaks to me. This word comes most likely from the verb “hagghed,” to tell, and from the commandment to tell the story of the people of Israel’s liberation from the Egyptians: “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Ex 13:8). Actions, words and all senses are involved in tasting, seeing and smelling the special food on the table. Everything there is intended to remember and to experience again that night of liberation.   

Interestingly enough, the traditional “Haggadah” does not indicate exactly what the storyteller has to say, nor does it even mention the biblical chapters that have to be part of the story. Therefore, every Seder is a new experience. Every way of making the experience of the Exodus relevant to today’s life is new and personal. And that makes it so intimate and interesting every time. 

Last year, since Pesach and Easter arrived during lockdown, I prepared the Seder plate by myself for the first time and joined a group of Jewish friends celebrating Passover online. It took me a long time to get organized, and lots of people were involved: I asked for help from the kosher butcher on my street and the Jewish grocery store next door, so my not-quite-perfect and partial Seder plate became a joint effort.

I decided to prepare my own dish for more than one reason. First, because joining in such a celebration without food would have meant missing out on a part of it and not being really there “at the table.” Second, because I had just lost my aunt, who was the last person in my family to know my Jewish relatives who died during the Shoah, and this was a way for me to honour their memory. In fact, Pesach is a family experience and, in a year in which families were (and still are) physically distant, I felt that mine was just another kind of distance from these family members whom I had never met. 

“Passover is not about history; it’s about memory. And memory by its very nature is subjective, it changes over time, it is selective and, in the case of Passover, when we pass over our past, we want it to be relevant to the next generation,” said Professor Noam Zion from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Professor Zion gave a lecture this year to the Russell Berrie Fellows on Pesach, in which he linked the past, present and future in his explanation. (The Paschal Seder at Home and The Passover Haggadah The Greatest Book of Jewish Pedagogy

Last year we ended the 'online' meal, like every year, with the usual expression: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

This year, it is still impossible for many, but let’s keep looking ahead. “Pesach Sameach” to all our Jewish friends.


Photo courtesy Elena Dini

Elena Dini is the senior program manager of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, housed at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. 

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