I am very picky about Seders. Growing up, my family conducted the dinners on the first two nights of Passover in a way that combined tradition with a little irreverence, the right combination of songs in Hebrew and readings in English.
We had a ceremony that went on for enough time to tell the whole story of the Exodus from Egypt while at the same time allowing everyone to go to bed before midnight. And then there were my mother’s matzah balls. Whenever I’m a guest at a Seder, I am always deeply appreciative of the people who have invited us to be with them. But I always get a little nostalgic for what I’m used to. And so it was with some hesitancy that I signed up my family to participate in a Seder in Rome this week, as part of our observance of Passover, the Jewish festival which continues until April 13.
The Jewish community of Rome is small, only about 13,000 people in a city of 3 million. And as in most of Europe, the Jewish community is fairly centralized. There is a chief rabbi of Rome who is recognized by the government. The leaders of the Jewish community make decisions regarding all of its five synagogues, one school and other institutions. The resources are shared and the rules are the same.
The synagogues are officially orthodox —men and women sit separately, for instance. But the members of the community are generally less observant. Women don’t have to wear skirts and married women needn’t cover their heads.
I asked the sister of a friend if she knew of any Seders that were not orthodox and that may be conducted with a little less Italian and a little more English. What came back was a recommendation for a Seder in the basement of St. Paul’s Church run by the Beth Hillel Roma.
The group, which runs a refugee center in the church, included mostly ex-pats, Americans married to Italians and a mishmash of tourists. When all 96 guests sat down at the long tables, I confess I felt a little trepidation. The Haggadah — the book which we read on Passover — was put together by the group’s leaders and included the word “progressive” on the cover.
American Jews have an unfortunate habit of turning the Seder into a vehicle for political messaging. There are feminist Seders and queer Seders and queer feminist Seders. There are Seders that have not only the traditional cup of one for Elijah (who heralds the coming of the Messiah) but for Miriam as well. There are folks who add an orange to the Seder plate to symbolize inclusivity and olives for peace between Israelis and Palestinians or an artichoke to symbolize the heart of interfaith families.
As the children in the basement sang the Four Questions — Why is this night different from all other nights? — I said my own silent prayer that we could be spared the conversations (and more likely lectures) about the things that divide us and instead focus that night on the things that unite us — our common Jewish history, tradition and our common belief in the importance of human freedom.
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. The leader of the Seder was a woman from New Jersey who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home, much like my own, I suspect. We shared the traditional songs and blessings. And we went around the table telling the story of the Exodus, with some reading their paragraph in English, others in Italian and others in Hebrew. We ate matzah because the Jews fleeing Egypt could not wait for their bread to rise. And we ate the bitter herbs because of the ways in which the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Jews. And we spilled 10 drops of wine to symbolize the 10 plagues.
Despite the many languages spoken, nothing seemed foreign. Surely my concerns sound parochial. But tradition is not just about following religious laws; it’s about the feeling that we have performing the same rituals year in and year out, teaching our children and grandchildren the way our elders taught us.
I looked at my children, hoping that they felt at home in this room, hearing the meaning of each item on the Seder plate explained by the mother from Toronto, the young man from Bulgaria and the couple with the toddler from Ukraine. I want my own children to grow up knowing that no matter where they are in the world, there are Jews, who for thousands of years have recited the same prayers and the same stories that they have, and that they will always have a home in these communities.
But this message is also tinged with sadness. The Jewish community in Italy was all but obliterated in the Holocaust. After more than 2,000 years of living under oppressive emperors and popes, the Jewish community achieved an unprecedented level of freedom and recognition by King Victor Emmanuel III in the early 20th century. Indeed, the Jews of Rome may have finally felt at home. But then with the king’s tacit approval, Mussolini implemented laws of racial segregation, and in October 1943, more than 1,000 Jews were sent from their ancient home directly to Auschwitz.
The contemporary readings at the Seder included two from Primo Levi, the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor who died in 1987. Telling the story of the Jewish escape from bondage will always resonate because there will always be Jews suffering under the thumb of oppressive governments and enduring hatred and violence from their own neighbors. Just a few years ago, some soccer fans papered Rome with pictures of Anne Frank in an opposing team’s jersey.
Right before we sang the last songs of the evening, the Seder’s leader enjoined us to pray for the freedom of Evan Gershkovich, The Wall Street Journal reporter and the son of a Soviet-born Jewish exile. As it says in the Haggadah, “the more one tells the story of the Exodus the more he is to be praised.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.