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On Wednesday night, technically this evening, Jews around the world will start celebrating Passover with a festive meal called a seder. But of all the Jewish holidays, perhaps none of them are as misunderstood and demanding as Passover.

For eight days, Jews are asked to refrain from eating leavened foods made from a wide variety of grains, which for strict adherents means they can eat absolutely nothing that has been prepared in the usual fashion. But while annoying, such dietary restrictions are maintained in order for Jews to feel a closeness with a distant past that's not so far away from the present day.

The Black Table spoke with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City to talk about Passover and help us have a deeper understanding of the holiday. She was recently named National Co-Chair of Rabbis for Human Rights.

BT: So, what's Passover all about?

SK: Passover is a holiday the Jews celebrate which observes the historical moment of the leaving from slavery in Egypt and the first steps towards liberation and freedom. But it's both a historical holiday and the celebration of the agricultural time of year. We celebrate the rebirth of spring and the beginning of new life.

BT: What are some of the more notable characteristics of the holiday?

SK: Passover, or Pesach as it's called in Hebrew, might be familiar to some people who are familiar with the word paschal lamb. The word paschal actually comes from the Hebrew word for Passover. So it lasts eight days for many Jews, although some Jews celebrate it as a seven-day holiday. And it begins on Wednesday night and lasts until next Thursday night.

The holiday, of all of its notable features, is very focused on observance, to begin with. The first two nights we have a family seder, which is a liturgy and ritual that takes place around a table. A seder also includes the evening meal, but before the meal you have the ritual and then the meal is served and then it's followed by more liturgy. And, some people go all night until the early hours of the morning and others do a more abbreviated version.

And the seder, of course, is also well known to Christians because it was the Last Supper of Jesus Christ. He ate his meal on the Thursday night before Good Friday.

BT: As you've pointed out, there are many similarities between Jewish holidays and those in the Catholic faith. What other examples can you cite?

SK: First of all, central to all Jewish holidays and certainly Passover is a good example of this, is the consecration of the wine and the important presence that ritual wine serves in all of our ceremonies. In the Passover seder, we have four ritual cups of wine that are blessed and drunk over the course of the meal. And bread, of course, is also central.

Passover and the breaking of bread is very important. And at Passover we don't eat bread. We don't eat anything with leavening in it or come in contact with flour. So we eat matzoh, which is what Passover is probably most famous for, which is the flattened crisp matzoh. This is because when the Israelites were leaving Egypt, they didn't have time to let the flour rise, and so they had to take the dough as it was, without given it time to leaven.

So in memory of that rush they were feeling, the experience of terror as the Egyptians were coming and fear and exhilaration of that possibility, we don't eat any bread or leavened products during the entire eight days.

BT: It's understandable that Jews don't eat bread to commemorate the freedom from slavery, but if this is also a holiday to celebrate springtime or harvests, why are there so many things we really can't eat?

SK: Part of it is that a lot of different things can be leavened. That includes all of the different grains out there. Those can be leavened. And then, in Europe, there was this concern that Jews would take what we know as legumes and grind them up and make flour and then by mistake make bread, so to speak. Beans or rice, are examples of what we can't eat. Eastern European people can't eat those products out of fear that they would get mixed up and it would be flour.


BT: What about corn syrup? That pretty much eliminates every food on Earth.

SK: Corn would be on the list of foods you can't eat for the same reason, although many people now do eat corn. There are a wide variety of observances. So many people actually do now do corn and corn products.

BT: My mother always told me that it was between "me and G-d" when it came right down to whether I could break Passover. Then again, my mother would have broken me if I broke the holiday. What happens if you break the Passover?

SK: Well I believe that, too. Taking on the observance of anything is about a relationship with G-d. And I think ultimately that's what it's about. And obviously, if people really cared and wanted to continue they should not say "Oh, I've had one piece of bread" or "I've broken it once" and then say the rest of the holiday is all for naught and why should they even try for the rest of the time.

BT: What is the most damaging misconception that people have about Passover?

SK: Probably the most damaging one in history of course, was the medieval period when there was the blood libel. People were accusing Jews of killing Christian children and using their blood to make the matzoh.

BT: So that's where that whole "Jews drinking the blood of Christian virgins" thing came from!

SK: I don't know exactly. But up until the late 19th century and early 20th century people there were still cases where Jews were accused of killing young children in order to get their blood to make matzoh.

BT: What is your favorite part of the holiday?

SK: I gotta say that I really love matzoh. I don't find it a burden at all and I love to eat it in all different kinds of ways. I love the seder. It's so interesting because in our world, which is so fast foody, in some ways and here is a holiday that is all about taking time to sit together with family or friends and think about ideas and important topics.

And we're taught -- one of the most important principles which is so meaningful to me -- is the Hebrew phrase where we're told that every generation needs to see themselves as the generation that left Egypt. In other words, we're not just reading a history book, we're supposed to remember what it was like to be slaves, to think about how difficult the journey to freedom is.

And we're supposed to do that to make sure we act in the world today so that nobody is a slave and that we do what we can, despite the terrible and difficult world in which we live, to make sure that we're struggling toward the liberation of all people. Just because our people are now free from that slavery, doesn't recuse us from the responsibility to make sure that other people don't experience the same thing.

BT: Given the current state of the world, Passover seems to be coming at the right time this year. I know in the past, Judaism has been extremely responsive to current events, adding special rituals for Russian Jews during the Cold War and Ethopian Jews in later years. What, if anything, do Jews have planned regarding Iraq?

SK: I will certainly be doing something at my personal seder and Jews will be considering all the different issues of the Middle East during the holiday. I personally pray for a time where all the peoples of the Middle East will experience peace and security, Arab and Jews alike.