Cultures blend Passover customs

Traditions: Scallion whips, egg tapping and `plague props' add to family observances of the Jewish holiday.

April 11, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Passover Seder guests of Eliyahu Rashid Levieddin can expect to be swatted by spring onions during a holiday song, sample Romaine lettuce dipped in vinegar and dine on celery stew with rice.

These are just some holiday traditions Levieddin brought from his native Iran, where he lived until 1979.

"It makes me proud to see the customs observed," said Levieddin, a Columbia chiropractor who will celebrate with his wife, Lisa, their five children and friends. "It's important for kids to see how they are passed on."

The weeklong Passover holiday, which begins at sundown Wednesday, is rich in tradition and symbolism. Families often combine generations-old customs with newer ones, particularly for the Seder, a recounting of the Exodus from Egypt coupled with songs, rituals and foods designed to provoke discussion.

"You are supposed to engage in elaborate details in the telling of the story," said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Columbia's Beth Shalom Congregation. "When you add traditions, you are really adding to the telling of the story."

Customs of Ashkenazim - Jews of Eastern European descent - differ from those of Sephardim - Jews with roots in Israel, Spain, North Africa, India, Iran or Arab countries.

During Passover, many Jews do not eat chametz (leavened bread) including cake, cereals and pasta. While Ashkenazim also do not eat most beans, rice and corn, Sephardim such as Levieddin will.

But the Levieddins do not eat fish or dairy products because kosher-for-Passover dairy foods and fish were unavailable in Tehran, where he lived. "It became a custom by most Tehranians not to eat fish or dairy," he said.

One Seder tradition that startles his guests is the gentle hitting of one another with a spring onion - to symbolize the taskmasters' whips - during the singing of "Dayenu."

"To our American guests, it's fun, but they get beaten by the kids," Levieddin said. "My kids wait just for that."

Lisa Levieddin, who is Ashkenazi, embraced her husband's customs and prepares such Persian recipes as his grandmother's cooked rice with carrots to symbolize redemption's sweetness and a sour celery stew to recount slavery's bitterness. "I really enjoy learning the customs and foods," she said.

Gloria Kaufer Greene, author of The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook, first added Sephardi customs to her Ashkenazi Seders as a Baltimore Jewish Times food columnist from 1979 to 1989.

"We eat foods and take customs from different Jewish cultures," said the Columbia writer, who will celebrate with her husband, Geoffrey, their four children and guests. "It's a way to introduce that not all Jews are Ashkenazi or American, and that we can learn from other cultures to enhance our own Jewish life."

A favorite custom is the egg-tapping contest she borrowed from a Turkish Jewish family. Turkish Jews bake eggs in their shell for eight to 12 hours with onion skins. Participants then tap the pointed end of the egg in the shell. The egg that is not smashed after repeated rounds wins.

Greene also implemented the Egyptian custom of swatting each other during "Dayenu" with scallions; using plague "gimmicks" such as bubble wrap for boils; and singing "Into the Sea," a Passover version of "Under the Sea."

She also alternates between Turkish and Moroccan recipes of charoset - a sweet mix of fruits, nuts and red wine to resemble the mortar used to build Egypt's storehouses. "The new traditions have become part of our family tradition," she said.

Rabbi Hillel Baron, of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia, celebrates with his wife, Chanie, their nine children and 30 relatives and congregants.

The family observes the stringent Ashkenazi custom of not eating gebroks - Yiddish for dipping or mixing matzo or matzo meal with liquid. The centuries-old custom originated to avoid bringing possible pockets of unbaked flour in the matzo into contact with liquid that might cause the flour to rise.

That means using no matzo balls, which are made by mixing matzo meal with water. Nor do they buy processed Passover food.

At the Seders, they eat bitter herbs of ground horseradish with Romaine lettuce, and dip a slice of onion into saltwater to symbolize tears.

Participants also engage in spiritual discussions reflecting Lubavitch outlooks based on Chasidic philosophy. Everyone - not just children - asks the Four Questions. "We ask the questions of God - to grant us the wisdom to further understand the Exodus," Baron said.

In the tradition of her maternal grandmother, Grossman sets aside a piece of the afikomen, the matzo eaten after dessert, until the next year when she cleans for Passover. "It's a symbol for mazel, good things," said Grossman, who will celebrate with her husband, David Boder, their son, Yoni, 13, relatives, friends and congregants.

She and Yoni also designed stick puppets of Passover characters for guests' children to hold up when the names are mentioned. They also distribute "plague props" from a basket filled with pingpong balls for hail, clicking toy frogs and plastic bugs for locusts.

Grossman adapted the Chasidic custom of passing the Cup of Elijah for everyone to fill with their wine - in anticipation that the prophet will arrive to announce the Messiah's arrival - so "everyone participates in the redemption."

"We do things to keep everyone interested and want everybody to have a good time."

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