What happens when a college class hosts a seder?

Each week Friendship and Faith publishes stories encouraging cross-cultural friendship. For Passover 2011, we invited women to share ideas about creative seders (the Passover ritual meals) that have shaped their lives.
Last week, we shared Brenda Rosenberg’s story “Making Peace the priority at Passover.
Today, we welcome retired Macomb County Community College Professor of Humanities Paula A. Drewek. You can read more about Paula’s fascinating life in our collection of stories—the book featured at right.

After nearly four decades of educating young men and women about world religions, Paula knows a lot about the challenges of preparing a model seder and the educational experience surrounding the meal.
Here is her story:

Celebrating a seder
in the Classroom

By Paula A. Drewek

For many years in my class on Comparative Religions at a community college north of Detroit, I offered students an opportunity for extra credit by participating either in a classroom celebration of Succoth (in the Fall term) or the Passover seder (in the Spring term). Naturally, I was never short of volunteers since extra credit is usually seen as an easy way to earn points. However, arranging a seder in the classroom for a group of 35 students was never really easy.

Preparation involved familiarizing oneself with the Haggadah, the text that guides participants through the ritual meal and tells the story of Passover. Students had to make sure that all participants had copies. They had to collect and bring in the essential foods and implements for the meal, finding yarmulkes and tallit for the men participating, finding recipes for such things as charoset, choosing from among a dizzying array of matzah breads, and even remembering to add Elijah’s Chair to the Seder table.

My students were unusually resourceful. Some found the edition of the Haggadah that has been produced by Maxwell House coffee since the 1930s, while others located a contemporary Internet Haggadah featuring modern-day equivalents for the 10 plagues. Then, participants had to master difficult words in Hebrew such as afikomen, karpas, rahtzah.

The foods often were as challenging as the texts. The idea of four cups of kosher wine was always a hit with students—but, truth be told, since this was a school, we had to make do with grape juice. The ritual foods varied. The egg and the shank bone of lamb were indisputable, as was the matzah bread. No group had difficulty finding these items. However, the bitter herbs ranged from horseradish to Romaine lettuce or parsley. Salt water as a reminder of tears shed during slavery in Egypt was easily procured.

The largest variable was how to concoct charoset, representing the mortar used in building Egyptian edifices as slaves. The combination of ground apples, walnuts and drops of red wine was made very palatable with the addition of cinnamon—and made for a nice spread on the matzah bread. 

We enjoyed eating and sampling all the special foods. The entire class would become very familiar with the oft-repeated phrase: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe …” reaffirming Jewish monotheism. As always, white tablecloths dressed our table and fine plates were used for the special foods. To the seder plate were added other goodies so that class participants would have some sampling of Jewish foods.

At the close, the teacher would check to see if Elijah had appeared through the open door, presaging the Messiah’s coming. If not, the door was closed. No one dressed up to act the role of Elijah.

We always had a wonderful time with the service and the socializing, and the transition from “learning by listening” to “learning by doing” was appreciated. I doubt that the book of Exodus was ever so “alive” for students of religion.

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(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)

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