You’re probably familiar with at least a few of the Plagues of Egypt. In the Book of Exodus, they’re what the God of Israel unleashed so that Pharaoh would release the Israelites from slavery. The river of blood, invasion of frogs, thunderstorms of fire and hail, etc. But have you ever thought of what a modern equivalent to those biblical torments might be?
Hilit Jacobson has, and she presented the list during a Seder dinner marking the beginning of Passover in 2018:
“10 Plagues of Modern Timez”
Her list was photocopied in a customized, DIY version of the Haggadah, the ancient Jewish text that recounts the story of liberation from Egypt along with a guide to the prayers, songs, and foods of a traditional Seder. All of these small rituals unfold in a precise order—after all, “Seder” is derived from the Hebrew word for “arrangement.” With thirty-eight pages of illustrations, clip art, and text both hand-written and cut-and-pasted, alternately in English, Hebrew, and Aramaic, this Haggadah seemed to me more like a punk zine than a religious manuscript.
This was my very first Seder, held at a group house in Washington, D.C., lovingly nicknamed “The Nest.” It was hosted by Hilit and Jake Ephros, both twenty-four years old, and they invited Jews and Gentiles alike. Unsure of what to expect, I assumed it was like any other casual potluck: come if the weather is good and bring whatever food you want if you have time. (Maybe we’ll have a meal out of seven kinds of corn chips, and that’s okay!) For the Seder, not only did I have to RSVP through an online portal, but I was instructed on what type of dish to bring and had to add it to a list on a shared Google Document. (Keeping it kosher, kitniyot legumes and grains were forbidden, so no corn chips allowed!)
There was good reason for the formality of the online portal: Jake and Hilit’s Seder was sponsored by an organization called OneTable, a national nonprofit that supports young Jews—specifically in their twenties and thirties who are not undergraduate students and who don’t have children—in hosting Shabbat dinner every Friday and Passover Seders in the spring. Based on the number of dinner guests who RSVP’d, OneTable provided Jake with a $150 gift card to Whole Foods to purchase the necessary ingredients. It’s all part of their mission: “to make Shabbat dinner accessible to tens of thousands of people who otherwise would be absent from Jewish community.” It’s a way to make their faith and its intricate holiday traditions sustainable for younger generations.
“I’m really grateful that it exists, giving people a reason to cook, eat, and gather together and take time out of a Friday night,” Jake told me on the phone. For the Seder especially: “Otherwise it would have been much more difficult to get food and—wine is a big part of Passover!—wine for so many people.”
The rigidity of the menu became clear to me too. All the foods on the Seder plate and the following meal carry some symbolic significance. We dipped parsley into salt water, representing the tears shed by Israelites suffering in slavery. The egg signifies the rebirth of spring, its elliptical shape reminding us of the cycles of nature and the universe. The orange is a symbol of feminism, as explained in our Haggadah:
The story goes: During a bat mitzvah service, a traditional Jewish man remarked about the woman rabbi on the bimah (pulpit): “She belongs there like an orange belongs on a Seder plate.” Because we understand and believe that women are equal to men, we put an orange on the Seder plate—to exclaim that a woman deserves to be on the bimah if she so chooses.
Twenty or so of us sat in a wide circle all the way around the dining room, using probably every chair in the house plus two well-worn couches. Jake and Hilit led us in reading through the Haggadah, which opens with a quote from Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur. We each read a passage, taking turns around the room. (Those of us who don’t read Hebrew were allowed to trade.) We sang, we asked questions along the way, and we broke the matzah bread into two, representing the brokenness that allows the soul to open and escape adversity. One woman brought her own box of gluten-free matzah and asked someone to hide the larger broken piece for her own celiac-friendly afikomen dessert. That night, it was one of many examples of tailoring age-old tradition to modern lives and diets.
To loosen up the schedule and add some breathing room, Hilit and Jake asked a couple of guests to perform. One woman played violin—not a Jewish song, but something beautiful she wanted to share. Another woman read an original poem. According to Jake, it was an unusual but appropriate diversion.
“What was important for us was building on the themes of freedom, liberation, and social justice that we saw in the Passovers that we grew up with, with our families,” he explained. “So if a friend of ours has a poem that relates to those themes, even if it doesn’t talk about Judaism specifically, yeah, let’s definitely have her read.”
In another off-script discussion, we contrasted the Jews’ freedom from slavery with the lack of freedom that so many have now. Jake acknowledged that just the day before, Palestinian refugees had launched the Great Return March: on March 30, 2018, thousands of protestors gathered at the Israel-Gaza boundary, demanding their right to return and an end to the military blockade. Since then, over 250 Palestinians have been killed and over 20,000 wounded by Israeli forces, according to American Friends Service Committee. Growing up, Jake’s family often related the Passover story to historical issues like slavery and emancipation in the United States, and it has inspired him to apply it to current struggles for justice as well.
“The Seder ends with this call, ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ It’s a reminder that we’re going to keep telling this story over and over again until the whole world is free—at least that’s my interpretation of it,” Jake said. “So I can’t really think ‘next year in Jerusalem’ without also speaking to the violence and injustice in Israel and Palestine right now.”
It was a solemn and celebratory occasion (more of the latter once the Manischewitz kosher wine was gone). It felt elegant even though we were using not the finest china but a mismatched smattering of plates and silverware likely thrifted or inherited from long-gone housemates. It made seemingly esoteric traditions accessible, relevant, and fun.
For Jake, as someone who grew up in a Jewish household but now feels largely disconnected from the religious practice, Passover is a way he can keep in contact with his cultural heritage in an intentional, significant way. And in the spirit of keeping the door open and saving a wine glass for the ghost of Elijah, it’s a way to welcome everyone into his home—be they old friends, all his roommates’ friends, or strangers.
For me, as someone with little to no religious upbringing, it was enlightening to see a group of young people so passionately, and so personally, embrace the traditions of their families and their faith. So much heritage is lost when families scatter, languages languish, priorities shift, but so much is gained when we take time to coordinate a menu, listen to and learn from each other, and share a meaningful meal.
Elisa Hough is the editor at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Before this Seder dinner, everything she knew about the tradition came from the two-part Passover episode of Rugrats.