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Seder, (Hebrew: “order”) religious meal served in Jewish homes on the 15th and 16th of the month of Nisan to commence the festival of Passover (Pesaḥ). Though Passover commemorates the Exodus, the historical deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage in the days of Moses (13th century bce ), Jews are ever mindful that this event was a prelude to God’s revelation on Mount Sinai. For each participant, therefore, the seder is an occasion to relive the Exodus as a personal spiritual event. The religious nature of the seder with its carefully prescribed ritual makes the dinner quite unlike family dinners held on civil holidays. Reform Jews and Jews in Israel omit the second seder because they limit Passover to seven days.
The head of the family, having usually donned a white ritual gown (kittel), begins the ceremony by sanctifying the holiday with a benediction (Qiddush) over a cup of wine. In all, four cups of wine (arbaʿ kosot) will be drunk at certain intervals.
After all have washed their hands, the master of the seder presents celery or another raw vegetable (karpas) dipped in vinegar or salt water to all participants. Then a shank bone, symbolic of the Paschal lamb eaten in ancient times, and (commonly) a hard-boiled egg, symbolic of God’s loving kindness (or, according to some, a mournful reminder of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem), are removed from the seder plate, while all recite a prayer.
After a second cup of wine is poured, the youngest child asks four standard questions about the unusual ceremonies: “Why does this night differ from all other nights? For on all other nights we eat either leavened or unleavened bread why on this night only unleavened bread? On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs why on this night only bitter herbs? On all other nights we need not dip our herbs even once why on this night must we dip them twice? On all other nights we eat either sitting up or reclining why on this night do we all recline?”
The prepared answers, recited by all in unison, give a spiritual interpretation to the customs, even though some aspects of the feast were doubtless copied from Greco-Roman banquets. In essence, the narration (Haggada) is the story of the Exodus. This unique element of the seder celebration keeps alive sacred Jewish traditions that are repeated by succeeding generations at every seder meal.
All again wash their hands, then consume unleavened bread (matza) and bitter herbs (maror) dipped into a mixture of crushed fruits and wine, signifying that freedom and spiritual progress are the reward of suffering and sacrifice. At this point the meal is eaten.
When all have eaten and recited grace, a third cup of wine is poured to express thanksgiving to God. As the ritual moves toward its conclusion, psalms of praise (Hallel, previously read in part) are recited in unison and a fourth cup of wine is poured to acknowledge God’s loving providence. Some add a fifth cup of wine (which is not drunk) in honour of Elijah, whose appearance at some future seder will signify the advent of the Messiah. Often folk songs are sung after the meal.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Zeidan, Assistant Editor.
Woman posts photos of her ɼhristian Seder,' is met with backlash from Jewish community
Jews across the world began celebrating Passover this past Saturday evening, and it is considered one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. The Seder is a traditional, communal dinner where the story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt where they were slaves is retold, and food plays a central role in the storytelling. And while many Jewish families welcome non-Jews to celebrate and dine with them during Passover, a new emergence of "Christian Seders," where non-Jews reinterpret the traditions and symbolism of the holiday, has some people shaking their heads in disbelief, while others are downright outraged by the idea.
On Sunday, Twitter lit up when a user @clapifyoulikeme tweeted a screenshot of a "modified Seder meal" posted by Christian lifestyle coach, Carly Friesen, on Facebook.
"I think I just had a rage blackout," she tweeted, linking to the since-restricted or deleted Facebook post which featured scenes from the "Seder," including a picture of a challah, a traditional Jewish bread, braided into the shape of a cross. (Jews are forbidden to eat leavened bread on Passover, reflecting the fact that when the Hebrews fled Egypt they didn't have time to let their bread rise, and instead eat matzo during the holiday.)
"Today we celebrated Passover in our own way for the first time as a family," Friesen posted along with the pictures from her meal. "We had a modified Seder meal to start with a reading of the first Passover and recognizing Jesus as the final Passover lamb sacrificed for us. I braided some challah bread and we ate roast lamb for supper afterwards and had some lemon poppyseed [sic] cake for a fun dessert. Thank you to our Savior for paying the ultimate sacrifice for us!"
"CHALLAH FOR PASSOVER. CHALLAH. FOR. PASSOVER. I-," one person replied to the tweet, calling out the fact that one of the main traditions of the holiday involves not eating bread.
"I mean the funny thing is if she just wanted to have a nice Palm Sunday dinner with a Bible reading and egg bread braided to look like a cross that would be fine?" responded another user.
"Christian seders are, very unfortunately, a thing," posted someone else.
"A seder is a Jewish ritual," wrote the original poster of the tweet. "These people are Christians. They are appropriating it …"
According to The Forward, some view Christian Seders as a way to reinterpret the Old Testament, while others view it as cultural appropriation. In a Christian Seder, the afikomen, or broken middle matzo, which is eaten for dessert, is reimagined as the bread of the Eucharist, symbolic of Christ. Because Jesus's Last Supper was a Seder, some Christians have begun to celebrate the holiday to be more like Christ.
But is it OK to reinterpret another culture's history, especially one that includes suffering, and switch up the traditions to make it one's own? Many people say that giving the Seder a new narrative erases the original story, while some Christians see it as another opportunity to gather together for a meal and enrich their own community.
Step 3: Ma Nishtana &ndash What Difference Does it Make?
We&rsquove been able to touch the true scope of the Seder&rsquos story. If we can let the Exodus story become the foundation of our lives, we&rsquoll be on our way to greatness. Emunah will become the filter through which we experience life. With this knowledge in mind, we&rsquore set for success.
So why is that little voice of doubt still niggling at us?
Perhaps because&hellip we&rsquove tried this already. Each Seder night, we retell the story with all the zeal we can muster &ndash and we haven&rsquot yet found ourselves suddenly bursting with renewed zest for Judaism. Why does it seem each year that we come right back to where we started?
The problem is that every year we come to the Seder with &ldquobaggage&rdquo &ndash we feel like we&rsquove already heard whatever the Haggadah has to tell us. If it hasn&rsquot worked magic on us yet, who&rsquos to say it will this year?
That&rsquos another facet of what&rsquos holding us back &ndash we&rsquore waiting for inspiration to somehow strike us. We&rsquod love to be uplifted by something at the Seder, but we&rsquore not in action mode. So the Seder becomes just another routine obligation to check off. We focus our attention on our children, on our guests, on everyone but ourselves.
This attitude doesn&rsquot make for a very productive Seder. If we truly want to tap into the magic of the night, we need to rethink our approach.
A good place to start might be the Sages&rsquo instruction to tell the Exodus story in a question-and-answer format. To see this idea in action, we need look no further than the famous Four Questions &ndash the &ldquoMa Nishtana.&rdquo
We&rsquore used to viewing the Ma Nishtana as the &ldquokids&rsquo zone&rdquo of the Seder &ndash the little ones&rsquo opportunity to have fun and show off how cute they are. But the Ma Nishtana is just as important for the adults at the table. It&rsquos actually our ticket to a truly transformative Seder experience.
Picture that innocent five year old reciting the Ma Nishtana. There&rsquos real wonder in his voice as he asks, what is so different about tonight?
On Seder night, it&rsquos our job to step into that role. We need to develop a &ldquoMa Nishtana mindset&rdquo &ndash to come to the Seder table with real interest, curious about each aspect and how it can change our lives. We aren&rsquot only asking what&rsquos different about the Seder night, but what difference does this night make?
This &ldquoMa Nishtana mindset&rdquo can be applied to any passage in the Haggadah. Take, for example, the section describing the Four Sons. By customizing the Seder&rsquos message to suit each son&rsquos style, the Haggadah teaches us a crucial lesson about the nature of the Torah. Some might see the Torah as a book of ideals that only the holiest, most righteous among us can possibly reach. The opposite is true the Torah has a personalized message for every single Jew. It speaks to each of us on our own level, taking into account our personalities, our upbringings, our life circumstances, our experiences, our level of commitment &ndash everything that makes us who we are.
Viewing that idea through the prism of our &ldquoMa Nishtana mindset,&rdquo we find ourselves wondering: Where in my life can I hear the Torah speaking to me? Where am I being asked to stretch myself for the Torah&rsquos ideals? Is it in a relationship? In a family or community matter? A health issue? A financial concern?
With this mindset, every aspect of the Seder becomes relevant to us.
Another example: Reading the passage &ldquoV&rsquohi She&rsquoamda&rdquo calls to mind Mark Twain&rsquos reflections about the improbability of the Jewish Nation&rsquos survival. A tiny people constantly targeted by history&rsquos greatest powers, we owe our survival completely to God&rsquos miraculous protection.
Our Ma Nishtana mindset turns our thoughts inwards: what would our lives look like if we realized how incredibly unique we are as a people &ndash and as individuals? If we understood that our existence is a miracle, that life isn&rsquot our right but a precious gift from God?
With this mindset we can unlock the magic of the Seder.
This year, let&rsquos imagine that we&rsquore attending our very first Seder, reading the Haggadah for the first time, and allow the Seder to touch the deepest parts of us.
The 15 Steps of the Passover Seder:
Kadesh - Making Kiddush
The Seder begins with the saying of Kiddush, Sanctifying the holy day. In Hebrew, Kiddush is a cognate of Kedushah, holiness. By saying the Kiddush we acknowledge the sanctity of this special day, and thank G-d for bringing us to celebrate this occasion.
During the Seder, a total of four cups of wine are consumed. It is customary for each person’s cup to be filled by another participant, as if, symbolically, each person had a servant to pour the wine. We drink the cups reclining on our left side, again symbolizing luxury and majesty.
Urchatz - Washing the Hands
In the kitchen, fill a large cup of water. Pour water twice on the right hand, then twice on the left. [Do not say the blessing on washing the hands, which will be said before eating Matzah later in the Seder.]
Karpas - Vegetable Dipped in Salt Water
Each participant takes a small piece of vegetable (often potato or parsley), dips it in salt water, says the blessing on produce grown from the earth (as found in the Haggadah), and eats it.
- By keeping our concentration, we keep our hands clean long enough to eat the vegetable. Therefore we avoid talking (except for the blessing, and anything necessary for eating the vegetable) between washing our hands and eating it.
- When making the blessing, have in mind the Maror, the bitter herb which will be eaten later. That is also produce grown from the earth, and is not ordinarily eaten by itself (only as a topping or part of a mixture) as part of a meal.
- It is preferable to eat only a small amount, less than the volume of half an egg.
Yachatz - Break the Middle Matzah
Break the middle Matzah into 2 parts. The bigger half is set aside to be used as the Afikoman, the Matzah eaten at the end of the Seder.
There are two customs regarding what happens to the Afikoman, both designed to increase excitement and participation by children (of all ages). The first is that the leader puts it in a “safe” place, but the children abscond with it when the leader is looking elsewhere, and they later “ransom” it for a present. The alternative is that the leader hides it while the children are not looking, and they search for it later.
Maggid - Telling the Story
This is the core of the Seder to speak about the Exodus from Egypt. As it says in the Haggadah, each person should see him or herself as having personally experienced the Exodus, and having the duty to pass this knowledge on to the next generation. This is based upon the verse: “You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘because of this, what God did for me in my departure from Egypt'” [Exodus 13:8]. “Tell,” V’Higgad’ta, is a cognate of Haggadah — which means “telling.” The point of the Haggadah is to tell this history and transmit it to each new Jewish generation. So have we done for millenia, from the time of the Exodus itself.
Rachtzah - Washing the Hands
We wash our hands before eating the Seder meal. This time we say the blessing, as found in the Haggadah. It is important to not speak from now through Korech, the sandwich of Matzah and Maror, to maintain our focus on keeping our hands clean when eating bread (unleavened, in this case!).
Motzi - the Blessing on the Matzah
The leader of the Seder lifts all three Matzos, and says the blessing for eating bread.
Matzah - Eating the Matzah
The leader sets down the bottom matzah, keeping the top two, and says a second blessing on the Commandment to eat matzah. This, like Maggid, is a special Commandment which can only be performed on the Seder night, and one should consider this while eating the matzah.
Each person receives a small piece of each of the top two matzos, plus additional matzah to make up the volume of an egg. This should be eaten while reclining on the left side.
Maror - Eating the Bitter Herb
Each person receives an amount of Maror, Bitter Herb, to make up half the volume of an egg. The leader dips Maror in Charoses, shakes off the Charoses and says the blessing on the Commandment to eat the Maror.
This blessing also applies to the Maror that is part of Korech, the next step, and one should have this in mind when making or listening to the blessing. The Maror is eaten without reclining.
Korech - the Sandwich of Matzah and Maror
Each person receives a small piece of the bottom Matzah, plus additional Matzah to make up half the volume of an egg, and the same volume of Maror. The sandwich of Matzah and Maror is then dipped in Charoses. After recalling how the scholar Hillel would combine these with slices of the Passover sacrifice and eat all three together, we eat the sandwich while reclining.
Shulchan Orech - the Prepared Table
Enjoy the festival meal! Remember, though, that the Commandment to speak about the Exodus continues throughout the night. For this reason, it is customary to sing holiday songs, discuss commentaries and speak further about the Exodus, while minimizing idle talk. Keep in mind, also, that the Afikomen should be eaten while one still has an appetite.
Tzafun - Eating the Hidden Afikoman
The Afikoman is found or recovered, and each participant receives a piece from it and additional matzah to make up half the volume of an egg, or the full volume of an egg according to some opinions. This should be eaten all at once, while reclining.
Barech - Blessing after Meals
After pouring the third cup of wine, we recite Grace after Meals. We then drink the cup, while reclining.
A special cup is poured to welcome Elijah the Prophet, and the front door opened. We recite a paragraph invoking Divine Judgment upon those who have persecuted the Jews throughout history, ever since the Exodus.
The fourth and final cup of wine is poured. Some have the custom to distribute Elijah’s cup among the participants as part of this fourth cup.
Hallel - Singing His Praises
We say or sing the Hallel, Psalms recited on holidays along with additional praises, as we close the Seder. We then say the blessing over wine, drink the fourth cup while reclining, and say the blessing after drinking wine.
Nirtzah - Acceptance of our Seder
We recite a paragraph in which we pray for the privilege of performing the full Passover service — next year in Jerusalem. Then we sing several additional songs of praise composed for the holiday, which concludes the Seder.
An Introduction to Passover Traditions
Learn more about this essential Jewish holiday’s traditions, customs, and rituals.
In Ferris Bueller&aposs Day Off, a self-pitying Cameron sulks in bed and cries, "When Cameron was in Egypt&aposs land… Let my Cameron go"𠅊 riff on the African-American spiritual song "Go Down Moses." While it&aposs one of the movie&aposs more memorable comedic moments, the song actually references the Hebrew Bible story of Exodus—Moses&apos liberation of the Israelite slaves in Egypt𠅌ommemorated every year during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Jews all over the world celebrate Passover for seven days (or eight, if they&aposre traditional Jews living outside of Israel) and, while the date varies annually, it&aposs always the same on the Jewish lunar calendar: the 15th day of Nissan, the first month of the Hebrew monthly calendar year, typically falling in mid-spring.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses asked the Egyptian leader, Pharoah, to free the Israelite slaves and was rejected repeatedly. So Moses warned Pharoah that God would punish Egypt with 10 plagues: frogs, boils, and hail, among others. God told Moses to alert the Israelites to mark their homes so He would know to "pass over" their houses when casting down the last plague—hence the holiday&aposs name.
After sundown the night before the first official day of Passover, Jews conduct the Seder, a special ceremony during which they retell the story of their ancestors&apos liberation. During the Seder, family members read from the Haggadah, Passover&aposs own story book, and sing traditional holiday songs. A Seder plate containing five itemsh a fundamental part of the ceremony and symbolic of an element of Exodus—sits on the table. There&aposs a spring vegetable, such as parsley, which is dipped in salt water and eaten to resemble the taste of their ancestors&apos sweat and tears. "Maror," usually horseradish or romaine lettuce, serves as a reminder of the bitter oppression of slavery and Pharoah&aposs difficult-to-swallow decree to drown Israelites&apos male infants. "Charoset," a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine, and honey, recalls the mortar Israelites used to build cities for Pharoah. A roasted shank bone, which represents the Passover sacrificial offering, and a roasted egg, symbolizing rebirth and renewal, are always on the plate, though they aren&apost actually eaten.
In addition, four cups of wine are drunk throughout the Seder. The wine symbolizes the four stages of redemption that the Israelites experienced. A fifth cup is set aside for "Elijah" and not imbibed this cup represents the hope for future redemption.
How Is the Seder Plate Arranged?
There are a few traditions regarding the arrangement of items on the seder plate. Most commonly, the maror is placed in the middle of the plate. The hazeret is at the six o&rsquoclock position followed by, moving clockwise, karpas (seven o&rsquoclock), beitzah (11 o&rsquoclock), z&rsquoroa (one o&rsquoclock), and haroset (five o&rsquoclock).
The longest seder: A story of Haggadah
The Haggadah, the text for the Passover seder meal, is supposed to teach the story of Exodus, primarily to the young. It does that poorly, for it assumes that readers are so well versed in the story that they’d prefer to dwell instead on ancient commentaries. Some families, failing to find a coherent Exodus story, just put their haggadahs down after enough cries of “When do we eat?”
One year, my late father-in-law came up with a surprising solution to address the Haggadah’s shortcoming.
He was a man of science who practiced Judaism with fierce correctness on one night alone, the eve of Passover as presided over the seder. With a stiff yarmulke on his bald head, he sat at the head of the table, bolstered by a couch pillow, following the Haggadah’s instruction to “lean.” The rest of us took his direction and read one paragraph each, usually in English, unless we chanced upon a blessing, which we either croak out or chant in Hebrew. Our text was a 1964 edition published by Fortunoff’s, a jewelry and home furnishing store founded in Brooklyn, New York. The back cover featured a picture of Moses holding a ten commandments that looked like—yes—two golden wrapped gift boxes, and yes again, the caption below did read: “Live Rich—You Can Afford to at Fortunoff’s.” On its last page, we could see a picture of a Chanukah menorah, surely out of season, and were reminded of “THE LARGEST SELECTION OF THE MOST ELABORATE ISRAELI GIFTWARE AND SILVER ITEMS AT TRADITIONAL FORTUNOFF PRICES.”
After directing us through the Haggadah’s round of preliminary blessings over wine and parsley, an anxious but well-prepared grandchild asked the ma nishtana, the required four questions. After the child was praised, we expected my father-in-law to launch into the next paragraph called magid that tells the story in a nutshell: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. If the Holy One of Blessing had not brought our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”
Instead, he announced, “Enough!” as if he were stopping his car because of the mayhem in the back and threatening his children that they would have to get out and walk. He then got up from the table and exited theatrically from the dining room. With mischief in his eyes, he returned from his study with a Bible in hand, “The Five Books of Moses,” Everett Fox’s 1995 poetic rendering based on the Buber-Rosenzweig translation that we had given him for his birthday. It was time, he declared, to read “the real story of Exodus.” We had spent too many years rambling on in ignorance about the rabbis of Bnai Brak, about Ben Zoma deciding if all the days of your life also included the nights, Arameans (or were they Armenians, as we inevitably mispronounced the word, and what did Laban the Syrian try to do to our father Jacob anyway, and what was the business with the goat and the cat who ate the goat?). “All that mumbo-jumbo” was his catch-all for the Haggadah’s rabbinic midrash, commentaries, digressions, allusions and songs that few of the aunts, uncles and children had been trained to decipher or appreciate. At the end of each year’s seder, as we polished off my mother-in-law’s brandied prunes and matzah nut torte, we knew no more than what we had started with. And so he read aloud to us from the Book of Exodus, from the slaves crying out, to God heeding their cry, to Moses being saved, and then later, being called upon to tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” No going around the table this time so everyone had a turn. He alone read, and with the booming expression he used for “O Captain, My Captain.” The youngest grandchildren were kept alert by the novelty for a stretch, and when they fell asleep or wandered off, he kept going, going strong until every last Child of Israel crossed the sea, even when Uncle Harold, a salesman at a big box appliance store, started a loud side conversation with Aunt Sadie, telling her never, never to purchase a service contract, a solemn admonition that I remember and observe to this day as if it were a codicil to the Ten Commandments.
It was the longest seder of our lives, but at least those of us who were still listening at the end finally knew more of what the Haggadah assumed we had known about the story of Exodus all along. Even Uncle Harold, who missed saying the lines that prompted laughs each year when he turned Rabbi Yosei into the Hispanic Rabbi José, said the parts of the story he had caught were news to him.
Vanessa L. Ochs is professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and an ordained rabbi. Her books include Inventing Jewish Ritual , which won a National Jewish Book Award Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons from the Wisdom and Stories of Biblical Women and Words on Fire: One Woman’s Journey into the Sacred . She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Yiddish: History & Development of Yiddish
For nearly a thousand years, Yiddish was the primary, and sometimes only, language that Ashkenazi Jews spoke.
Advertisement for New York performance of King Lear in Yiddish, early 1900s.
Unlike most languages, which are spoken by the residents of a particular area or by members of a particular nationality, Yiddish - at the height of its usage - was spoken by millions of Jews of different nationalities all over the globe. The decimation of European Jewry during the Holocaust in the mid-twentieth century marked the end of Yiddish as a widely spoken language and of the unique culture the language generated. Today, select groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews continue to use Yiddish as their primary language. Yiddish language is now widely studied in the non-Jewish and academic worlds.
The Development of Yiddish: Four Stages
Linguists have divided the evolution of Yiddish into four amorphous periods. Over the course of the greater part of a millennium, Yiddish went from a Germanic dialect to a full-fledged language that incorporated elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages, and Romance languages. Because no decisive dates are known that contributed to modifications in the languages, the history can be charted using general dates as turning points: 1250, 1500, and 1750.
Beginning in the tenth century, Jews from France and Northern Italy began to establish large communities in Germany for the first time. Small communities had existed, and spoken German, for some time, but the new residents along the Rhine river arrived speaking a Jewish-French dialect known as Laaz. The new arrivals punctuated their German speech with expressions and words from Laaz additionally, they probably reached into Scriptural and Rabbinic literature and incorporated idioms into their daily speech. Thus, a modified version of medieval German that included elements of Laaz, biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, and Aramaic came to be the primary language of western European Jews. The collective isolation that came to characterize Jewish communities in the aftermath of the Crusades probably contributed to the shift from regular German to a modified, more Jewish form.
In the thirteenth century, the Jews tended to migrate eastward to escape persecution. Thus, Yiddish arrived in eastern Germany, Poland, and other eastern European territories for the first time. The exposure of Yiddish to the Slavic languages prevalent in the east changed it from a Germanic dialect to a language in its own right. Consequently, a division began to develop between the eastern Yiddish of the Jews living in Slavic lands, and the western Yiddish of the Jews who had remained in France and Germany.
By the sixteenth century, eastern Europe, particularly Poland, had become the center of world Jewry. Thus, the language of the Jews increasingly incorporated elements of Slavic, and the divide between the two main dialects of Yiddish grew. It was also in this period that Yiddish became a written language in addition to a spoken one. Yiddish was, and is, written using Hebrew characters.
After about 1700, western Yiddish began a slow and inevitable decline, and the eastern dialect became the more important and widely spoken one. The ebbing of the former was due in large part to the Haskalah and emancipations sweeping through western Europe, while the latter was aided by the Yiddish culture that flourished primarily in eastern Europe. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the Holocaust and the repression of Soviet Jews under Stalin resulted in the dramatic decline in the usage of either strain of Yiddish.
The Role of Yiddish in Jewish History
The central role of Yiddish played in Jewish life, and its eventual decline, are in part attributable to important events and trends in Jewish history. For example, in the aftermath of the First Crusade in 1096, and the rampant persecution of Jews that followed, Jews increasingly isolated themselves from non-Jewish society. This isolation simultaneously facilitated and was aided by the role of Yiddish in Jewish society. The fact that the Jews had a language of their own that was not understood by outsiders made it easy to separate themselves by developing a highly centralized economic and cultural life. The common language allowed them to live in the same areas, trade amongst themselves, and maintain vast international networks among the numerous Yiddish speaking Jewish communities in Europe. At the same time, the development of Yiddish itself was affected by the new self-segregation. Without interference from non-Jews, and unaware of the linguistic trends of the secular languages, Yiddish moved off in directions of its own, while maintaining many elements of medieval German that were no longer to be found in the outside world.
The decline of Yiddish in western Europe was largely a result of contemporary historical trends as well. The Haskalah, which began in the late eighteenth century and gathered steam throughout the nineteenth, promoted secular education and acculturation to the outside society. As a result, German Jews began to enter secular schools where the language of instruction was German to work in professions that required a knowledge of secular language in order to communicate with non-Jews and to look down on Yiddish as a product of the insular, unworldly Jewish Shtetl, a product to be disdained and discarded as soon as possible. One maskil put it this way: "Yiddish grates on our ears and distorts. This jargon is incapable in fact of expressing sublime thoughts. It is our obligation to cast off these old rags, a heritage of the dark Middle Ages." 1 This prevailing attitude also led to the resurgence of the long dormant Hebrew language, which was seen as a "purer language."
The attitudes of the western European Jews, who were desperate to be integrated into their surroundings, were largely informed by the non-Jewish attitude toward Yiddish. Because the language was incomprehensible to them, and because of the general hatred of Jews throughout Europe, Yiddish had long been regarded with suspicion. In the eyes of the masses, it had come to symbolize the "moral corruption" of the Jews. In a letter, the maskil David Friedlaender described this phenomenon: "Given this frame of mind (the speaking of Yiddish). the intellect and most likely the manners of the people were increasingly corrupted." 2
Eager to escape this stereotype, the Jews were more than happy to give up the language. Of course, it should be noted that the Haskalah, and the accompanying disdain for Yiddish, existed in the east as well many maskilim were enamored with the Russian language in particular. However, two factors ensured that Yiddish remained central to Jewish communities in the east. Firstly, the maskilim there, knowing that they were dealing with a population that was by and large less educated and worldly than their western counterparts, were more willing to maintain Yiddish, and use it as a means of convincing the Jews that the other elements of the Haskalah should be adopted. Second, Yiddish culture was so rich in the east that the language had fewer detractors, and was seen as being more central to Jewish identity, than it was in the west.
Yiddish Culture in Eastern Europe
Beginning in the nineteenth century, Yiddish became more than merely a language of utility, used in everyday speech and writing. Jews' creative energy, which had no outlet in the surrounding society, began to be expressed through literature, poetry, drama, music, and religious and cultural scholarship. For the first time, the language became a means of expressing and describing the vibrant internal life that had developed in the ghettos and Shtetls of eastern Europe. Yiddish, and to a lesser extent, Hebrew, were the media of choice for this fledgling culture.
Yiddish literature had existed to some extent for hundreds of years, in the form of folk tales, legends, and religious homilies. The nineteenth century literature differed in that novels, poetry, and short stories were now being written for the first time. A more important difference, however, was the self-consciousness of the new authors, who recognized from the outset that they were creating a brand new literary culture, not merely writing stories. For example, Russian born Sholem Jacob Abramowitz, popularly know by the pseudonym Mendele Mocher Sforim ("Mendele the bookseller"), is today considered the "father of Yiddish literature." He wrote his stories, he said, in order to "have pity for Yiddish, that rejected daughter, for it was time to do something for our people." 3
Other important Yiddish authors of the nineteenth century included Shalom Aleichem, and Isaac Leib Peretz. Today, they are considered important literary figures by non-Jewish and Jewish critics alike.
Yiddish drama was another important new development in this era. Numerous drama troupes traveled throughout Russia and Poland, performing in big cities and tiny Shtetls to universal accolades. Their performances ranged from popular plays translated into Yiddish (ironically, works as decidedly non-Jewish as The Merchant of Venice were translated and performed), to specifically Jewish pieces written and performed only in Yiddish.
The Yiddish press was perhaps the most widespread manifestation of the language's prominence in this period. Yiddish periodicals ranged from the daily newspaper The Forward to various scholarly journals, which dealt with political, religious, and social issues. More so than literature or drama, Yiddish journalism also spread to locations outside of eastern Europe, where the majority of Yiddish speakers lived. The American Jewish community in New York, for example, quickly founded their own newspapers within a short period of immigrating, several of which, most notably The Forward, are published to this day.
In certain cases, Yiddish and the culture it spawned became the bases of important Jewish political movements as well. The Bund, for example, a Russian Jewish socialist party, considered the retension of the Yiddish language, as opposed to Russian or Hebrew, to be a central part of its platform
The Death of Yiddish.
The six million European Jews who died in the Holocaust comprised the majority of the world's Yiddish speakers. Thus in a period of six years, between 1939 and 1945, Yiddish was dealt a near mortal blow. The majority of those Jews who escaped Europe and made it to Israel or to the United States soon learned the local language and made Yiddish their secondary tongue, at best. The large number of Yiddish-speaking Jews who remained in the Soviet Union found Yiddish outlawed by Stalin during and after the Holocaust. Because of the Holocaust and these repressive Soviet measures, Yiddish came to an almost immediate standstill. The post-Holocaust generations were being taught the local vernaculars, not Yiddish. It was predicted that Yiddish would quickly become a dead tongue.
. and its Resurrection
Despite these obstacles, Yiddish is today enjoying a resurgence. Several populations use it as their main language: primarily the generation that lived during and immediately after the Holocaust, and the ultra-Orthodox populations living in New York and parts of Israel. But more significantly, Yiddish is today receiving attention from the non-Jewish scholarly community as a real language, and not as the "corrupted tongue" that it was considered throughout history. Many universities worldwide offer courses and even degree programs in Yiddish linguistics, and the literature of the Yiddish cultural period is receiving attention for its astute depiction of contemporary Jewish existence. Even linguists of the German language are learning Yiddish, because the development of the German language, is related to the medieval versions of it that today are manifested only in Yiddish.
Sources: "Germany." Encyclopedia Judaica Zvi Gitelman. A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russian and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present. Indiana University Press, 2001.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Judah Reinharz. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. Oxford University Press. New York, 1995 Photos courtesy of Bergen County (NJ) Public Schools
1. Osip Aronowich Rabinowich [Russia Our Native Land: Just as We Breathe Its Air We Must Speak Its Language], Razsvet, no. 16 (Odessa, 1861), pp. 200. Translated by R. Weiss.
2. David Freidlaender, Sendschreiben an seine Hochwuerdigen, Herrn Oberconsistorialrat und Probst Teller zu Berlin, von einigen Hausvaetern juedischer Religion (Berlin 1799), pp. 27. Translated by S. Weinstein.
3. In A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russian and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present. Zvi Gitelman. Indiana University Press, 2001.
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Our first seder in outer space
There’s going to be a seder in space in the next few years. It won’t be a lot of people, at least not the first night. But we, the Jewish people, are totally unprepared.
When seeing the earth as a whole from space, astronauts have described an expansion in their consciousness. As their viewpoint grows to include the whole world, their compassion and personal journey for meaning also expand to include all of humanity. They return energized, bigger than when they left.
However, we the Jewish people, who have long ago spread across the world, can’t even accept ourselves. We justify xenophobia, ethno-centrism, and competing historical accounts to exclude fellow Jews. For the emerging generation colonizing space, we need to reconceptualize ourselves, the Jewish people, as a civilization. We are not a singular Judaism nor a singular Jewish culture. Rather, we are part of an ancient yet richly enduring enterprise of many Judaisms and many Jewish cultures.
Passover is a medium to relive and therefore recreate our origin story. It’s an age-old technology to articulate ourselves: past, present, and future. Just as astronauts leave the established world into the infinite possibilities of outer space, so too did we leave the dominant civilization in order to be free. Like the astronaut seeing the continents and oceans as one, at the seder we experience the Jewish story across epochs as a whole continuing through our voices. Both are multigenerational sagas, journeys into the unknown. With the Exodus, it’s our duty to retell it, to relive it. With the space age, it’s here, and there is no time for our bread to rise.
There’s a joke about a lone Jew in space, or a desert island, somewhere remote. Though alone, there’s two shuls – the one they go to and the one they’d never visit. There’s an honesty to the quirky and contradictory depiction of the Jew in the joke, resonant of the relationships many have with their own communities.
From the outside, though, the joke is sad. Ingrained social division echoes the fearful, disparate tribalism of a primitive, pre-Exodus humanity. The joke probes the assumptions of a “true” Judaism, resonating the objection to and exclusion of many Judaisms and many Jewish cultures.
When we recall the Exodus at the Passover seder, we retell of all the tribes, together, yet still distinct in their tribe-hood. What’s lost on the Jew in the joke, who is play-acting a shtetl-mired mindset, is the opportunity to live in the present and to create the future.
While the joke is enjoyed by religious and secular Jews alike, it reflects a divided people. This division is real, resting upon the fallacy of historical Jewish homogeneity. A fallacy that Jewish civilization ought to be one thing, and that all Jewish people were once of a certain lifestyle and will return to a certain lifestyle again. However, it’s not history, it’s not the future. It’s not even Torah: It’s a mythology.
Typically, the simplicity of such thinking relegates xenophobic communities to rural social peripheries. However, adherents of such Judaisms have extensively lobbied and marketed to have their mythologies dominate our civilization and define our identities. They have effectively obstructed opportunities for inclusivity with the mosaic of Jewish peoples that make up our civilization.
Instead of a civilization dominated by mythology, we need to live mythically with one another. The media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, offers a distinction between consuming mythology and living mythically. Mythologies are stories told to explain the unknown. Living mythically is an attempt to forgo a point of view switching to “a mode of simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects.” Modern youth live mythically. They are not looking in the rearview mirror, as McLuhan would say, they are not attempting today’s work with yesterday’s concepts.
When I studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, our Rosh Yeshiva, Dr. Rabbi Ritchie Lewis would say in response to questions formulated “…doesn’t Judaism say…” something like: Be Careful. Judaism is thousands of people over thousands of years speaking on thousands of issues.
To which I add, we are a civilization, of many Judaisms and many Jewish cultures. To be a light to other nations and beyond, we need to accept ourselves.
It’s likely there will be seders in space within the decade and seders on Mars not long after. If it’s not earthly gravity, is it still kosher? If the participants are mostly gentile, from earth or beyond, is it still Jewish? Are people disconnected from the Matzah if its printed from a machine? When heading to Mars, without the intention of returning to Earth, what do the words “next year in Jerusalem” even mean?
Astronauts will be limited in what they can carry but they bring forth humanity. The space age ethos for discovery is absolutely Jewish but is incongruent with fallacies of homogeneity. The universe is vast, and our stories barely imagine what we don’t know.
Being in awe, including others, and asking better questions are Jewish values and necessary skills for the space age. They’re embodied by Albert Einstein and they are the process of the Passover seder. If our civilization is to persist in the space age, Jews must welcome other Judaisms and Jewish cultures in their story of our people.
Jewish civilization is unprepared for the space age so long as we project our past into uncharted possibility. Just like the Jews leaving Egypt, we, the Jews at the dawn of the space age, go forward boldly. We will once again be limited in what we can bring yet unlimited in who we will become.