Can Jews Reclaim Passover as a Cultural, Non-Religious Holiday?

Although he didn't believe in God, belong to a synagogue or celebrate the Sabbath, when the full moon rose in the sky around the time of the vernal equinox, my father got out the thin hardcover gray Union Haggadahs that he had grown up with in Queens and announced that it was time for the Passover seder. The pages of these Reform Jewish books, which had been published in the early 1920s, were filled with line drawings of Roman soldiers that reminded me, pleasingly, of the dashing American Express Roman centurion who, along with James Bond, was, for me, the essence of non-Jewish masculinity, the ideal to which I aspired mightily and hopelessly, as a shy, scrawny 1980s Long Island Jewish boy.

None of us knew how to read Hebrew, so we stumbled along in English, led by my mother's father, a meek and anxious fellow who sprang to life on this one night a year and conducted the ceremony with gusto, especially when he got to the line about partaking of the modern version of the Passover sacrifice -- the matzoh, haroset (a mixture of apples, dates and wine) and horseradish. "With unleavened bread and with bitter herbs, they shall eat it," he declaimed slowly and sturdily, hitting the end of the sentence, in his thick outer-borough Jewish accent, on such a triumphant note that one would think that he had personally led the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.

We never felt more Jewish than at the seder, and we never felt more American; our haggadah concluded not with the traditional shout of "Next Year in Jerusalem" but with a faded black and white photograph of the statue of "Religious Liberty" erected by the Jewish fraternal order B'nai Brith on the centennial of the United States, accompanied by both the music and words to Samuel Francis Smith's "America" ("My Country, 'Tis of Thee"), which we sang lustily in unison, as if exulting in our deliverance from the very religion that we had just been observing. It was the only night of the year that God was mentioned in our house, and we were eager to declare Him safely domesticated and returned to the shelf.

The seder is the paradigmatic, quintessential expression of Jewish life in America. The story of Passover is about freedom, and not just freedom from political and economic oppression, but freedom in a metaphorical sense from servitude to anyone or anything that depletes the soul. Little wonder that nowadays many Jews, especially those who define their Jewish identity in secular rather than religious terms, feel quite free not to celebrate it at all. While Passover was almost universally observed by Jews for most of American history, now about a third of Jews (according to recent surveys), pass on attending a seder.

Yet just as religion in general is merely an aspect of culture, the seder can be viewed as a cultural expression of Judaism just as much, if not more, than a religious one. A form of dinner theater, the seder is a flexible ritual that, for those who truly immerse themselves in it, can incorporate storytelling, poetry, visual art, music and dance.

For example, at the seder that I attend with my own wife and children every year at the home of Stuart Malina, an orchestra conductor who shared a 2003 Tony Award with Billy Joel for the Broadway musical Movin' Out, we dance a conga line around the table, smack each other with leeks to commemorate the slaveholders' lash, and belt out parodies about Biblical characters to the music of Broadway show tunes.

Even such a light-hearted affair requires, however, considerable familiarity with Jewish tradition. As knowledge of Jewish law and lore continues to decline among the Jewish laity, the future of the seder in America, outside of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, is perhaps as a public ethnic commemoration rather than a private religious one, along the lines of a parade or performance rather than a dinner party. (Christians have wonderful parades for Easter, after all.) Cultural Jews are already looking back to the "Third Seders" that Yiddish speaking, socialist Jews developed in New York during the interwar period, in which references to the divine were eliminated, and choral and dance performances were incorporated in the festivities.

This tradition was revived beginning about a decade ago in the "Downtown Seders" held in New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Nashville, which feature prominent Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, musicians and political figures; the one in New York has presented Israeli rock star David Broza, performance artist Laurie Anderson, comedian Judy Gold, and the late singer-songwriter Lou Reed.

But for one who still seeks to celebrate Passover at home in a non-religious way, there is Rabbi Peter Schweitzer's Liberated Haggadah, which treats the Exodus squarely as a myth and attributes the redemption of the Israelites to their own pluck and perseverance. Or, in order to push the envelope even further, one could choose Nathan Phillips' The Unorthodox Haggadah, a cheeky, "dogma-free" approach to the holiday that commences with a toast to Sammy Davis Jr., cracks jokes about the fungus in King Tut's tomb, includes a game of "plague bingo," and concludes with a karaoke version of R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly."

Reclaiming the seder means, for cultural Jews, finding a way of celebrating Passover that makes them feel connected not just to their roots but to other Jews throughout the world who are also ritually commemorating the Exodus. A seder that deprecates Jewish religion is, at the very least, engaging on some level with Judaism, in the way that Jews throughout the ages have wrestled with their tradition.

Then again, for those for whom going to any type of seder is either too painful or impractical, a fitting way to mark the holiday is to seek out a Jewish deli and eat the biggest pastrami or corned beef sandwich that one can find. Such a meal may seem shockingly out of keeping with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but the first recorded sandwich in history was eaten in the context of the seder. Rabbi Hillel the Elder invented what came to be known as the "Hillel Sandwich" -- composed, originally, of unleavened bread, lamb and bitter herbs -- as a way of mimicking the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple; the haroset later replaced the meat, after the Temple was destroyed. So without Passover, there might have been no sandwiches at all, much less pickled or smoked beef sandwiches on rye.

And what could be more iconic--and satisfying--among secular Jews, than an overstuffed deli sandwich, no matter what the season of the year?