(This story is part of the Chronicle’s State of Faith series exploring spiritual life in the Homewood and Flossmoor area. The Chronicle spoke with Shelly Marks of Homewood about the Jewish traditions associated with Passover. The project is funded by a grant from the Homewood Rotary.)
This year, the world’s three major religions experienced a calendar crossover of their holiest observances — Christian Easter, Jewish Passover and Muslim Ramadan.
Passover was from April 5 to 13, during which Jews around the world and in the H-F area celebrated the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago. One major focus during Passover week is the Seder meal, when families gather to commune over food, share stories of their ancestors, and reflect on their own place in the modern world.
Homewood resident Shelly Marks hosts Passover Seder at her home every year. This year she celebrated with her husband, Steve, their two sons’ families, her brother’s family, “and my cousins who I’ve done Passover with since I was born.”
Marks reflected on the holiday as her family entered its sixth generation of Passover Seders together — from her great-grandparents to her baby grandson, Jonah.
Will you tell us about Passover and the Seder dinner?
Passover is the oldest holiday we celebrate. We read a story — a service — at the Seder table before dinner that tells the story of our freedom from slavery. We read from a book called the Haggadah. One of the things it says is that we’re commanded to tell the story to our children.
We make sure our children know this story, which tells us we were slaves in Egypt. And that wording is very important. It doesn’t say “your ancestors were slaves.” It’s very specific to say, “we were slaves.” It’s relevant to all of us reading it today.
How does the Haggadah connect the ancient story to modern times?
It’s very affirming of how we should be treating other people. We remind ourselves of what happened to us so that we make sure it never happens to other people.
We have to welcome strangers in a strange land. If there’s someone who doesn’t have a place to go for Seder, for example, we make sure they come to us.
One part of the Seder is talking about the plagues that are part of the exodus story — frogs, locusts, and the killing of the firstborn child. We recite them, and we also recite modern day plagues, such as war, the teaching of hate, violence, destruction of the earth, racism, sexism, xenophobia.
The context is a plea that we get rid of these modern day plagues, the things that threaten us as Jews and as people, human beings. That we need to be aware of them and work to rid the world of plagues.
That’s not something we’ve just started doing in the last few years. That was done when I was a child. That was taught to us for our entire lives, that we have a responsibility for the earth and all the people on it.
How has the reading of the Haggadah changed in your family over the years?
I think some parts of Seder have evolved, though the essential parts remain the same.
We used to use a traditional Haggadah, but when we started having younger kids at the Seder, we realized it wasn’t going to work, so we put together one that was more appropriate.
Traditionally women weren’t really part of the storytelling, and they were also not in the story itself. Now we tell the story of Miriam (sister of Moses) and we have a special cup filled with water called Miriam’s Cup that symbolizes what she did.
How is the table set for the Passover Seder? What foods do you eat?
We use my mom’s Seder plate and wine carafes that were my grandmother’s. There are things I put out. Setting the table to me is part of the getting ready because it brings back memories.
The recipes I use are the same recipes my mom used. I feel like if I change anything, my family would kill me. I make things like brisket, matzah ball soup and haroset, which is a dish made from chopped apples, nuts and wine. It’s made to symbolize the mortar the Jewish slaves used in their building work.
What activities do the children enjoy during the Passover Seder?
We hide a piece of matzah, the afikomen, before the meal. The kids go search for it at the end of dinner, and the leader pays a ransom for it so that everyone can share it. Just when they’re starting to get squirrely at the end of the meal, it’s time to go search for the afikomen.
Does a person have to be Jewish to participate in the Passover Seder?
The thing about Passover and the Seder is that everyone is included. We have often had people who aren’t Jewish at our Seder table. Everyone’s included, no matter what your religion is — something or nothing at all. There’s a whole range of what Jews observe, also.
The exodus story is part of the Bible, so it’s a story that’s really familiar to many people, too. Everyone who has been at our Seder table who is not Jewish would say, “This story is relevant to me.” It’s an important story for everyone to hear. We want all people to have freedom.