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Reliving the Seder story, in old ways and new

Religion and BeliefPassover SederSocial IssuesArts and CultureEgyptPassover

A votive in a glass holder, etched with the Star of David and the words "In memory," sits on the granite table.

"We will remember the terrible tragedy," Ron Wolfson says, referring to the previous day's shootings at two Jewish facilities in Kansas. The three deaths seem particularly painful on this Monday night Seder, which marks the start of Passover, the eight-day Jewish celebration of the Israelites' flight from bondage in Egypt.

Wolfson and his wife are gathered in their Encino home with four generations — 16 people in all, family and friends from as far as New York. All evening the mood will sway between solemnity and joy. He wouldn't have it any other way.

The professor of education at American Jewish University has focused his career on attracting new generations, and those who may have fallen away, to the faith. He has cribbed ideas from successful Christian megachurches — having become convinced that their accessible style should be mimicked by struggling synagogues.

To him the Seder represents the best, most meaningful of Jewish traditions. It not only is a time to recall freedom from slavery, but also one of deep connection, as millions of families across the globe celebrate on the same night.

Welcome, says the professor, to "a talk-feast in four acts."

Act 1: The Beginning

The group stands silently prayerful for a moment as flame meets candle. But there are children present, and nobody wants them associating this evening with tragedy. So soon enough, there is laughter and lighthearted joking before the night returns to tradition.

Long, slim candles flicker. Wine glasses are filled. Hebrew prayers are said: "Barukh attah Adonai, Eloheinu ..." — Praised are you, Adonai, our God ...

Everyone sits at a long table draped in linen, set with an empty goblet and golden spoons. There's the silver Seder plate, brimming with foods key to the retelling of the Exodus. Horseradish, or maror, symbolizing the harshness of slavery; lamb bone, or zeroah, representing the sacrifice offered to God; and roasted egg, or baytsah, for the renewal of spring.

In a twist, there's also chocolate — "made without forced child labor!" someone says. And an orange meant to spark meditation on discrimination "against the LGBT community and other minorities," Wolfson, 64, explains.

There are songs in Hebrew, many of them somber. But there also is a hymn set to a Beatles tune. And conjuring Mary Poppins, everyone sings "Super-Kosher Manischewitz, Exodus and Moses."

Some at the table are devout. Others live their faith only on the holidays. The oldest is Harriet Rothkop, 91. The youngest are Ellie and Gabe, ages 3 and 1, Ron and Susie Wolfson's grandchildren.

"Honor the past, the kinds of Seders Harriet grew up with," says Wolfson, spelling out his goals for the night. "Keep the new generation excited and captivated with fun and action. Captivate people who are not terribly engaged in Jewish life."

A matzo — the bread of affliction, unleavened because there was no time for it to rise as the Israelites fled Egypt — is cracked in half. One piece, the afikoman, symbolizes brokenness during slavery.

It is placed in a pouch and hidden. The Seder will only end when young Ellie finds it.

Act 2: The Tellings

For a while the air hums with the Exodus tale. "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt ..."

Then there's a break from the tried and true.

Bob Wolfson, one of the professor's brothers, pulls out a roll of green tape and a spool of thin rope. "We're going to play with frog tape!" says the 62-year-old, a director at the Anti-Defamation League in New York.

Mouths are taped and hands are tied. ("It's the 50 Shades of Seder!" someone says.)

When the tape eventually comes off, Bob leads a discussion — about what it is like to be enslaved, unable to speak openly, unable to move freely. What are we slave to, right here, right now?

The story continues.

One portion of the Haggada, the text that serves as a Seder guide, details four types of children: wise, wicked, simple and those who do not know how to ask.

Questions come. What do the four children mean to you?

Mark Spiegler talks of tension in the Middle East. The wise child, he says, asks "how can we share the land in peace?" He pauses. "This is a question we will wrestle with tonight. Hopefully a question that will be solved in the not-too-distant future."

Then Doug Wolfson, another of the professor's brothers, takes his turn.

Doug sits next to his son, Avi. The bright-eyed 25-year-old is warm and full of life. He also was born with a disability, a cognitive delay, and cannot speak.

This portion of the Seder always tears at Doug: the simple son, the son who does not know how to ask.

"Today we strive not to put children in such categories," he tells the group. "I believe all people have some form of disability, which leads to the idea that no one has a disability." His voice halts. Tears well. He looks at Avi. "The lesson for me is that everyone deserves not only to learn and hear the story, but deserves to participate in the story."

After a pause for reflection, the evening moves forward. Soon everyone is smiling as they don masks bearing words signifying the plagues said to have led to the release of the Israelites — among them blood, frogs, vermin, beasts, boils.

Wolfson rips a sheet of paper from the ceiling. The air cascades with pingpong balls representing yet another affliction. "Hail! Hail! Everywhere!" he cries, as his grandson pads across the room, tossing the balls in all directions.

The professor, who travels the world to promote re-energizing the faith, notes that some believers, particularly from Orthodox backgrounds, might scoff at a Seder full of play-acting and frivolity. He also knows that studies show a growing number of Jews have stopped celebrating Seders and are leaving the faith altogether, fatigued by rituals that they believe don't connect with the modern world.

"This is not just talking about history … we relive the story," he says, noting that in his house — especially with a new generation to teach — "that means hugging and play-acting and celebrating and remembering with joy. We need more of that."

Act 3: The Feast

Now the story has been told and God has been praised for granting freedom. The smell of roasting chicken and sweet potatoes, of beef brisket and simmering onions, fills the air.

Wolfson notes that in the early Seders, food would come first. Then the rabbis changed the rules, moving the meal to the end so everyone would stay long enough to hear the story.

The symbolic foods on the Seder plate are eaten first. The guests dive into the chicken and beef, gefilte fish and matzo ball soup.

"This is like a family reunion," says one of the guests. "Like the Jewish Thanksgiving. That kind of feel, that kind of love."

There's a lot of conversation about children and work and long-ago Seders in Omaha, where the Wolfson brothers grew up. There's not much mention of the recent killings. Asked why, the answer comes quickly: For generations, there has been so much suffering that tragedy does not bring unrelenting misery.

"You honor it and move on," Bob says. "We're not going to be deterred."

Act 4: Redemption

The evening is coming to a close. It will end with a pledge that has been shouted to finish Seders for generations: "Next year in Jerusalem!"

But first the front door is opened. Avi steps out and looks for Elijah, the prophet said to come before the Messiah who will heal the world. Elijah becomes an imagined guest.

Then, in the living room, along comes Ellie, wearing a pink and white dress and a tentative smile.

She is surrounded as she looks through the house for the afikoman. The other celebrants direct her toward a couch. Her cousins, parents and grandparents cheer. She spots it, eyes wide as she holds the broken matzo high.

A symbol, on this night, of God's promise fulfilled.

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Religion and BeliefPassover SederSocial IssuesArts and CultureEgyptPassover
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