This week is the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach, in Hebrew), commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery, as narrated in the Hebrew bible (the Five Books of Moses or Torah, known to Christians as the Old Testament). Throughout the centuries, in all lands, Jews have gathered on Passover to retell the Exodus narrative and eat unleavened bread or matzah (“flatbread”), the holiday’s primary symbol (of the hasty departure from Egypt). Most of us are familiar with the story: we’ve all seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, right? We know about Moses and the burning bush, his threats to Pharoah to “let me people go” before each of the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptians to persuade them of the superior power of the Israelite god, and watched the Red Sea part to enable the Israelites’ escape, and then engulf the Egyptian army, right? In their haste to leave the Israelites baked their bread before it had risen, producing matzoh, or “unleavened bread”.
The Hebrew name for the festival, Pesach, refers to the scriptural account of the sacrificed animal that offered the Israelites protection from the fatal final plague. The holiday is also known as the Festival of Unleavened Bread (since that’s the only bread to be eaten during the week), but it also gets its English name from the scriptural account of the tenth plague, when God “passed over” the Israelite homes and killed the firstborn Egyptians (a more faithful translation of the Hebrew narrative describes God hovering over, or guarding, the Israelites … passing over to them rather than from them).
As members of the Reform Jewish community, my family’s celebration of the holiday consists of a family Seder (or two, if possible) – the ritual meal in which the narrative is retold (and even re-enacted symbolically), and a week of matzoh and Passover-friendly cuisine. As the oldest sibling in my family, I made most of our family seders when my sons were small. Now my youngest sister has taken this on, and we all contribute to the meal. This year there were seventeen of us at the table, from three states, aged 5 to 75, and including one Holocaust survivor. It was a very special seder.
I’ve been “knitting” Jewish holidays for the past year or so, producing knitted fruit (knitted etrogs and grapes) for the autumn harvest holiday of Sukkot, and a knitted dreidel and menorah for Hanukkah; these were part of a series of Patterns for Peacebuilders I’d initiated to publicize the co-existence and peace-building efforts taking place between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. I’d planned to create a pattern for Elijah’s Cup, used during the Passover seder to welcome the prophet heralding the age of peace. But as I researched the background of the cup, I decided to expand the project and “craft” my own seder – to explore the ways in which holiday traditions and meanings are created (and to have another way to delight my youngest niece-let at the seder table – it’s always a challenge to keep children at the seder table given the length of the service and meal).
So this year, in addition to my usual contribution of freshly-ground horseradish (maror), gefilte fish, and chocolate-coconut macaroons, I studied and knitted the principal symbols of the seder:
- Maror (bitter herbs), representing the pain of slavery (I knitted the top of the root, which we use on our table)
- Charoset, a sweet paste made from dried and/or fresh fruit, nuts and wine, signifying the mortar used by the Israelites in their labor for the Egyptians
- Karpas, another bitter vegetable (typically parsley, as I knitted), the humility of servitude, which is dipped in salt water (slavery’s tears) before being eaten
- a roasted Shankbone – the Pesach (sacrifice) before the 10th plague; and
- a roasted Egg – a symbol of spring by Reform and Conservative Jews (or a symbol of mourning for the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem by traditional Jews
Along the way, I played with other elements of the meal, “cooking” a bowl of felted matzoh ball soup (with sliced carrots) and a plate of felted gefilte fish and boiled egg on a bed of TikkunTree leaves. A very last-minute addition (completed only minutes before we sat down to start the seder) was the kosher-for-passover chocolate cake, to celebrate the five April birthdays in the family, and the liberation of my sister’s mother-in-law from a German concentration camp.
(More photos of my “knitted seder” are available here
If you are interested in knitting your own seder, patterns for the knitted seder plate items are now available on Etsy, here.