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Meal serves up Jewish traditions

Kaitlynn Riely | Thursday, April 13, 2006

With most of the Notre Dame community focused on preparations for the end of Holy Week and the celebration of Easter Sunday, a small group of students departed from traditional Catholic Lenten practices to observe the Jewish feast of Passover with a Seder meal Wednesday night.

Approximately 30 students gathered in Welsh Family Hall to recall the escape of the Jewish people from slavery under the pharaoh of ancient Egypt. The Seder meal, typically celebrated the first two nights of Passover, tells the story of the Exodus and uses food and drink such as bitter herbs and wine to symbolize events in the birth of Israel.

Members of the Notre Dame Jewish Student Club were present at the meal, but the participants were mostly non-Jewish. The leader of the meal, typically the father figure in a household, was instead a Catholic priest. Father Michael Driscoll – who teaches a graduate level course on the Eucharist and has led Seder meals in the past – walked the participants through the liturgy with his knowledge of Hebrew songs and Jewish customs. For sophomore Lisa Zickuhr, Wednesday was her first Seder and she said she was pleasantly surprised by the joyfulness of the celebration.

“I’ve always been into the Jewish religion and I saw this as a good opportunity to get an understanding of the traditions and maybe participate in them,” Zickuhr said.

Rabbi Michael Signer, an Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture, described the experience of being Jewish at a Catholic university as a chance to share his religion’s customs with members of a different faith.

“We focus on very different ‘events,’ but both Passover and Easter disclose a similar

focus on remembering the poor and less fortunate, the need to empathize with those who are oppressed and provide occasions for hope in a very dark and cruel world,” Signer said.

The structure of the Haggadah readings makes the Seder meal a family-oriented event. The liturgy includes dialogue between parents and their children in the form of question and answer sequences to pass on the symbolism within the meal. In the liturgy, children question their parents about the meaning behind the different food and drink served.

“Parents are having their children eat their history,” Driscoll said.

Monica Zigman, the president of the Jewish Student Club, is staying at school this year during Passover week and will observe the two Seder meals of Passover without her family.

“You’re used to the type of Seder meal your family has and being around your family,” Zigman said. “Going to other Seders, it’s just different customs.”

Zigman said it is sometimes difficult for her to live out her faith at Notre Dame, not because of the Catholic nature of the University, but because of the lack of a Jewish community. Even in the Jewish Student Club, Zigman said, only three or four out of the 15 members are Jewish.

“Hopefully, through the Jewish club growing in population, there will be a more active Jewish community,” Zigman said.

Second year law student Rachel Wolock celebrated the first night of Passover in Welsh Family Wednesday, but will return home to eat the second Seder with her family. Wolock said attending a Catholic university has not negatively impacted her faith life.

“I think a lot of people here – their faiths are very important to them so they’re respectful of other people’s traditions,” Wolock said.

During Passover, some Jewish families in South Bend invite Jewish Notre Dame students to join in their Seder meal. The Jewish Federation of Saint Joseph’s Valley, a large community in South Bend, serves a large faction of the local Jewish community.

The Federation’s programming and social services director Ethel Bartky recounted the history of the Jewish people under slavery and the symbolism behind the observation of Passover.

“Through the Seder, we attempt to bring alive for us today that Exodus experience,” Bartky said. “We are supposed to feel as though we were slaves in Egypt and we are liberated, because for Jews, history is not a dead thing. It is a very living thing.”

Bartky said though the influence of Notre Dame and its Catholic traditions are palpable, the Jewish community has lived and survived as a minority population for thousands of years.

“The minority experience is something that’s very familiar. I think for the most part people go about their business,” Bartky said. “We live with Christmas all the time … It’s part of being in America.”