SOMERS, N.Y. — Many Jewish holidays are celebrated by eating certain foods. However, “Passover is about what we don’t eat,” says Rabbi Fred Schwalb of the Hebrew Congregation of Somers. “We don’t eat any leavened products. That’s why we eat matzo.”
When the Jews escaped from Egypt, around 1300 BC, “they were in a real hurry,” Schwalb explains. “They didn’t even stop to bake bread.” Since they were only able to make unleavened bread during the exodus, unleavened products have become a part of the Passover tradition.
Passover is a celebration of freedom, and the traditional feast is the Seder. “Seder means order, so you follow a special order,” Schwalb explains. “We read from the "Haggadah," a book that tells the story of the exodus.
“The first paragraph tells how Jacob and his sons, 70 people altogether, went to Egypt,” where they were taken into slavery. By the time they escaped, “four hundred years later, Jacob’s family had become a nation, the nation of Jews.”
The ways in which Passover is celebrated vary according to geography and interpretation. “It shows that religion is part evolution,” says Schwalb.
“Many European Jews will not eat rice,” he explains, because it rises as it cooks. Corn products are also forbidden because they too expand. Some people clean out their houses of all leavened products.
“The Coca-Cola Company changes its recipe during Passover,” Schwalb said. “They make Coke with sugar instead of corn syrup. A lot of non-Jewish consumers prefer sugar, so they stock up on Coke during Passover.”
Other traditional Passover foods include bitter herbs as a reminder of the bitter years, green vegetables and eggs as symbols of spring and rebirth, and salt water “to symbolize the tears of our ancestors.”
During the Seder, a symbolic place is laid for Elijah the Prophet, who helped the Jews defeat the enemy. The Seder guests open the door to the house to invite Elijah in for a cup of wine. “Sometimes the Con Ed man wanders by or a stray dog walks past,” says the rabbi.
“The really important thing about Passover is that it’s a celebration of how much we value our freedom. Since the Holocaust it’s become a time to remember our loss of freedom. Even the people who weren’t killed were made slaves again.”
This year, Passover begins at sundown on Friday, April 6. The celebration continues for seven days. Some congregations celebrate for eight days.