“Can I open the juice?” asked Madelyn Berger, holding up a bottle of kosher grape juice.
Carly Wittman looked up and agreed to let her begin.
“You do realize I can drink, like, a whole one of these by myself,” Berger said, twisting the bottle cap and filling her wine glass with the purple juice.
The juice would serve in place of wine for the Hillel’s Passover Seder held last Tuesday night at Wells Conference Center at the University of Maine. The seder (pronounced say-der) is celebratory dinner held during the first and second nights of passover, a Jewish holiday commemorating the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. It is traditionally celebrated with a community meal and the retelling of the Jews’ escape from slavery.
After pouring their juice, the 10 attending students grew silent as students from Israel, Moshe Machlev and Lital Pilosof began to coordinate the readings. Each student held a copy of “The Family Haggadah,” a 95-page Seder text printed from right to left in Hebrew alongside English.
“Did we end up just going around taking turns reading last year?” asked Wittman, a third-year English student and president of Hillel, UMaine’s Jewish student organization.
Berger, a fourth-year marine biology student who serves as Hillel’s treasurer, began the readings in English, laughing as she stumbled over words. The group took turns reading, going paragraph by paragraph around the two circular tables they had pushed together.
When the booklet came to directions indicating the head of the household perform tasks, Wittman asked, “Who’s the oldest?” Machlev, a graduate communications student, took on the responsibility. As the instructions read for the head of the household to wash his hands, the students realized they had nothing with which to do so.
Group members scrambled, suggesting that at future seders they pass around a bottle of hand sanitizer, and Pilosof, a junior finance student, offered Machlev a bowl of salt water sitting on the table to dip fresh parsley in as part of the ceremony.
The group decided against it, as the salt water was supposed to represent the tears of their ancestors.
“Well, I washed my hands before I came here, so we’re all set,” Machlev said, grinning.
Pilosof and Wittman led the group in Hebrew songs. After, they continued the readings detailing the story of Passover. In the scriptural account, the Israelites had been living as slaves in Egypt when God sent the prophet Moses to demand the Pharaoh free them.
The Pharaoh refused to release the Jews, so God sent 10 plagues to strike Egypt: blood, frogs, gnats, flies, livestock, boils, hail, locusts and darkness. The 10th and final plague was the death of each firstborn son in Egypt. According to the book of Exodus, God instructed the Israelites to smear lamb’s blood on the tops and sides of their doors, and he would literally “pass over” them, sparing their children.
These events were recounted at the seder, along with the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea to Canaan. Passover celebrants ate matzo, the same unleavened bread the Israelites baked; in their haste to flee Egypt, they had no time to wait for bread to rise.
Group members passed around matzo crackers, which they broke and topped with maror, a bitter horseradish, and charoset, a mixture of cinnamon, walnuts, wine and apples.
At that point, Wells Conference Center serving staff came in and placed dinner on a buffet table in the corner of the room. The food included lasagna made with matzo, potato kugel (shredded potatoes baked with eggs and seasoning), salad, matzo ball soup (chicken broth with celery, carrots and a matzo ball) and apple crisp topped with matzo.
Midway through the meal, as conversation about the club, temple, classes and friends died down, Machlev broke the silence.
“Someone knows a good Jewish joke?” he asked in broken English.
Machlev offered his own, while others played around with their juice and laughed with each other.
Before wrapping up with a final song, the group searched for the afikoman, a piece of matzo wrapped up and hidden before the ceremony began. About five members jumped up to scour the second floor of Wells, while others stayed seated at the table.
“Don’t disturb the other conference rooms!” yelled Berger, who had hidden the afikoman. A student tried with no avail to bribe Berger for the location.
Finally, another student tracked down the hidden matzo. Their prize?
“You get to keep the afikoman,” Berger said. “Yay!”
Editor’s note: Carly Wittman, president of Hillel, works as a copy editor for The Maine Campus.