Most studies of modern Jews show that the one clear binding connection that most Jews have to their faith is the Passover seder. More than fasting on Yom Kippur and lighting candles on Hanukka, Pesach — and especially the seder — is the last link to go in many Jews’ connection to their people and faith. More Jews know, remember, and want to experience matza, maror, and haroset once a year than any other Jewish religious experience.
Passover and the seder represent the connection to the family and the home. By contrast, the austere and awesome High Holy Days are focused on the synagogue. Passover is built around a meal with an array of smells and tastes which evoke bonding memories. This is a religious ceremony that occurs in the psychologically nurturing environment of the home with one’s relations.
From the Exodus from Egypt onward, Passover is the critical event seen by most Jews as tying them together as a nation and as a people. (Even many of the most secular Israelis gather together for a holiday meal on seder night. The kibbutzim of the secular HaShomer Hatzair movement even published their own Haggada for the seder, emphasizing the historical agricultural aspect of the springtime holiday.)
Beyond the biblical narrative of the Exodus, however, Passover is also inextricably linked to Jewish history. It evokes and recalls periods of great challenge and persecution. Because Passover generally coincided with Good Friday and Easter, it became a period associated with anti-Semitic attacks, especially in Europe.
It was hardly coincidental that the blood libel accusations arose at this season, linked as they were with Christian retelling of the crucifixion. Even when the attacks and accusations abated, Jews continued to fear that they might find a dead Christian child’s body outside their door on seder night. The traditional version of the Good Friday service — removed from the liturgy by Pope John XXIII in 1958 — attacked the perfidious Jews as Christ-killers.
(It is ironic how anti-Semitic motifs rooted in Christianity have been seized upon today by anti-Jewish and anti-Israel forces in the Muslim world. These Christian stereotypes and myths have appeared more and more over the past years, even though they have virtually no historical antecedents in Islam’s history or relations with the Jews.)
In a more contemporary memory, as Jews today open the door at their sedarim to welcome the Prophet Elijah, many Jews pause to remember that the seder was the last meal for many Jews who had been herded into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis. It was on the night of Passover, April 19, 1943, that the Germans had decided to commence the final liquidation of the ghetto, a process which would last not the three days anticipated by the Germans, but almost an entire month. The fact that the Nazis began the final onslaught on this night was not lost on the Jews.
As many American Jews began their sedarim in 2002, many people had just learned that the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel, had been bombed by a suicide bomber. The blast killed 30 and injured 140, who were just sitting down to begin their seder. This event was the most violent attack of the second Intifada and it would trigger the Israeli response known as Operation Defensive Shield.
These bitter memories are at least subconscious motivations driving Jews to join with other Jews to celebrate Passover. According to the Haggada, “In every generation there have been those who have stood up against the Jewish people….” On Passover, Jews desire to gather with other Jews — family and friends — in order to face the long history of the Jewish people together, and to remind the world that they’re still here.