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Our Turn: Traditional meal embraced in age of diversity
by Martha Loeffler

(Modesto Bee  -  Published: Monday, April 02, 2001)

Hanging on the wall above my desk is an old black- and-white picture. Although it was taken in 1925, I remember the moment very well: We had gathered for our annual family Seder (pronounced Say-duhr,) the traditional meal at the start of Passover that brings Jewish families together every spring. Passover celebrates the freeing of the Jews from slavery and their exodus from Egypt in the 2nd century B.C.E. It is the most widely observed of the Jewish holidays.

For this picture, a "real" (i.e., professional) photographer had been called in to record the occasion. I remember how he posed us around the table so that each could be seen clearly -- my three brothers, 12 first cousins, our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and assorted in-laws. I remember the photographer putting a black cloth over his head as he peered through his camera lens, and the puff of black smoke that appeared after he clicked the shutter.

As a child, I looked forward to having my extended family together, but equally important was that at last I could wear the new dress my mother made for me for this special day -- just like my best friend who got to wear her new dress for Easter at the same time of the year.

As I grew older, this holiday gave me a wonderful sense of security, knowing that all over the world, people of my faith were celebrating the same occasion at the same time, saying the same prayers, singing the same songs and even enjoying the same traditional menu.

The Seder always has been a family event, albeit with guests, and while the ritual that accompanies the meal and even the menu itself has not changed (allowing for local culinary customs), the definition of "family" certainly has.

A few decades ago, who would have thought there would be Seders for gays and lesbians or for the yuppie heterosexual singles. There are Seders for the hard of hearing, using high-tech equipment, and for the blind, using Braille prayer books. For those away at college, Seders are conducted in the local centers for Jewish students, Hillel House, whose appropriate slogan is "Your home away from home." Within prison walls, inmates of all faiths can attend Seders conducted by prison chaplains.

It seems that "if you name it they will come," and Seders regularly are held for such diverse groups as black Jews, Holocaust survivors and senior citizens in nursing homes. There even have been Palestinian-Jewish Seders in cities where there are large numbers of both groups. There are interfaith Seders with Jewish families hosting Catholic families, and Seders for mixed-marriage couples. Recently, I saw a notice in a Protestant church newsletter titled, "All you ever wanted to know about the Seder but were afraid to ask"; members were invited to attend a model Seder in the church social hall.

Many hotels in the "Borscht Belt" in upper New York state and in retirement communities in sunny climes like Florida and Arizona cater to patrons who want to observe Passover by attending a Seder. Cruises from Alaska to the Caribbean to the French Riviera offer special package deals to those celebrating the date while on vacation.

Years ago, the dictionary defined "family" as "all of a person's relatives," and they were the ones who gathered around the Seder table. As I get older (and hopefully wiser), it becomes ever more apparent that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Families are still families, no matter who the members are.



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