Passover: Joy tempered by history

March 26, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

When Don Akchin's extended family gathers tonight around the table in a high-ceilinged dining room on Bellona Avenue, his role will be far more than that of gracious host.

Like Jewish fathers worldwide, he'll preside at the Passover Seder as teacher, celebrant of a religious rite, custodian of traditions ancient and modern, humorist -- and food critic.

Yesterday, as his wife, Lisa, and 12-year-old son, Jonathan, prepared a spicy Persian haroset they had never tried before, Mr. Akchin added good-natured kibitzing to his other duties.

"Why not?" was his response when his wife noted that pistachio nuts, dates, a pomegranate, cloves, cayenne and black pepper were among the unaccustomed ingredients in the bowls on the table.

The mixture -- which also contains less-exotic nuts as well as apples, cinnamon and wine -- recalls the mortar used by Jewish slaves in Egypt under the Pharaohs.

It's one of the Passover festivities' reminders of ancient oppression and the price of freedom, joy tempered by a somber history lesson.

The Seder in the home is at the center of Passover, which marks the emancipation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery thousands of years ago.

And for Mr. Akchin, as for many American Jews especially at a time of tensions over the Nation of Islam controversy, the message of Passover is a universal one of hospitality encompassing experiences shared with African-Americans.

"The Passover celebration has a lot of resonance for everyone," said the 42-year-old marketing manager at Baltimore City Community College, who grew up in Shreveport, La. "Passover's about freedom, and there are lots of parallels between the Jewish escape from slavery and the blacks' escape from slavery."

He took Jonathan and the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Jennifer, to Beth Am Synagogue's seventh annual interfaith and inter-racial Seder Tuesday night at Good Shepherd Baptist Church near Park Circle. There, the Eutaw Place synagogue's Rabbi Ira Schiffer and Good Shepherd's pastor, the Rev. Robert Hunt, presided together at a ritual meal that included joyful, multi-cultural music by an extraordinary combined choir from the Jewish and Christian houses of worship.

"When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong that person," Rabbi Schiffer responded. "You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

"It was the first Seder I ever attended in a Baptist church," said Jonathan, a student at the Krieger-Schechter Day School in Stevenson.

"I liked it very much," said Mr. Akchin, chairman of Beth Am's Social Action Committee. "The more people see how much they have in common, the better off we all are.

"There's something basic about the love of freedom. It's very easy to take our freedoms for granted in America. Passover is really the Jewish celebration of independence."

There was independence even as the family prepared yesterday for the Seder for children, in-laws, sister, uncle, aunt and a good friend.

Jonathan watched his mother put the black pepper in that spicy haroset. "Pepper? Pepper?" The 12-year-old demurred at that.

But when the time for tasting came, Mr. Akchin pronounced this hot Persian concoction a success.

Another Passover tradition is respect for the elderly.

The fruit-and-nut dish, Mr. Akchin said, "crosses the line" between the less tasty food so full of symbolism -- the matzo, bitter herbs, shank bone of a lamb, roasted egg and parsley -- on the ritual Seder plate and the bountiful feast that follows.

"The meal is served!" -- in Hebrew -- announces the latter. The main course is usually brisket or chicken, or both, Mrs. Akchin said. On Bellona Avenue this year, it's chicken.

Mr. Akchin will be guided tonight by "The Feast of Freedom," the family's favorite Haggada -- the Seder prayer book -- published in 1984 with brightly colored illustrations.

Although she was born in Baltimore, Lisa Akchin -- like her husband -- grew up in Louisiana. To all the other attributes of Passover, add nostalgia for Mrs. Akchin.

"One of my fondest memories is my grandparents arriving on the plane from Baltimore with all that specially prepared Passover food," she said.

"Now you can go to the store and buy it. But you couldn't then."

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