Column: A Pagan Looks at Passover

Heather Greene —  March 31, 2013 — 18 Comments

For many, today is Easter. While I have never personally celebrated the holiday, I confess to having enjoyed some of its trappings, such as egg hunts, pastel M&Ms and peeps. While those were always a treat, springtime marked a very different religious celebration for me.

You’re thinking of Ostara. Of course, that’s true. But also…Passover.

Passover Seder Plate

Passover Seder Plate

I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d come home from school and don our fancy clothing. That meant a tie and jacket for my brother and a pretty dress for me. Then we’d watch Mom pace back and forth as we waited for my father to return home from work. We absolutely had to make it to my Uncle’s house before sundown.  As I child, I was sure this had something to do with Vampires. I was quite disappointed to learn otherwise.

Upon arriving at my Uncle’s house, my mother would head to the kitchen to deliver her farfel cupcakes while my brother and I were inundated with hugs, kisses and pinches. We would all schmooze a bit while the final guests arrived. Then, at last, my Uncle would call everyone to the super-extended dining room table. The men and boys quickly affixed their yarmulkes and the Seder would begin.

Yes, Passover was my favorite Jewish holiday – gefilte fish and all. Even after twenty years of being Wiccan, I still buy a box of Matzoh. I have even found myself humming “The Four Questions” on occasion. This is sort of like the Passover caroling.

There are very few Pagans who are second-generation practitioners like Wild Hunt columnist Eric Scott.  Most of us have an alternate religious heritage with one or more stops along the way.  In order to embrace our Pagan path, we’ve had to acknowledge, reject and walk away from these traditions. For some people, like myself, the transition was painless. For others it was and still may be a struggle. In either case, something else was there, in secular or spiritual form, during our lives B.P. (Before Paganism)

Growing up as a “none,” I didn’t have to uproot any religious dogma – only a deeply-embedded cultural tradition. At the time of my 3rd degree initiation, I was forced to examine my nostalgic attachment to Jewish custom. Was I trying to walk two paths?  Why did the culture mean so much?  What if I say “Oy Gevalt” in the middle of ritual?

At first I tried to reject my Jewish-ness but then I realized how senseless this was.  My family’s heritage is as much a part of my spiritual journey as anything else. That epiphany got me thinking.  If Judaism, in part, has defined my understanding of religiosity, how have other people’s Pagan practices shaped by their own experiences B.P?

This idea came to light one Mabon while my covenmates were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer. We never did this at Seder or otherwise. Jewish prayers were said with heads up, eyes open and wine glasses raised.  Is “hand holding and head bowing” a remnant of Christian tradition?  If so, that’s not a bad thing, just a curiosity. Our history enriches our lives. Denying its existence is denying a part of the self.

Source: David French of

Source: David French of

Since fully embracing my Jewish identity, I feel more complete. In addition, I have discovered why Passover was such a highlight. It is the powerful importance of family and tradition.  Every spring we sat around that same table with the same crowd of people to tell the same story and eat the same food. I felt like I was a part of something magical. These people were my tribe. Despite all political differences, divorces and dirty dishes, we came together year after year after year.

Recently, I began to wonder how these memories could be used to enhance my Pagan practice. What can I borrow from Passover, for example, to strengthen my Wiccan journey?  No, I’m not talking about making a Pagan Seder. I’d consider that cultural appropriation as defined by Yvonne Aburrow: “taking someone else’s practice and doing it in a completely different context where it does not fit.”

Nor am I suggesting that we tell the Passover story within an Ostara ritual. Nobody needs to be re-enacting the ten plaques. Blood, Frogs, Lice, Flies, Pestilence, Boils, Hail, Locus, Darkness…Death of the First Born Son. That could get pretty ugly.  Plus, I’m quite certain that it violates the “An ye harm none” clause.

So what can we do with these tales of religions past?

In his recent Patheos post John Morehead, the custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, asked, “Will we ever be able to move beyond our history of ignorance, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, bigotry, and combativeness?”  He later goes on to say, “It would seem to me that we have limited options in the way forward.”  Could our experiences B.P. be one of these “limited options”? Could our memories of participating in other religious cultural moments become the tools of interfaith outreach – the stepping stones to better communication?

I would venture to guess that there are very few religious groups that have as many followers as Pagans do who once were “something else.”  This is a unique quality that can ultimately work in our favor. The sharing of common experience can open doorways, disarm the mind and break-down the barriers between people. Nostalgia is a wonderful bonding agent.  I can  schmooze with Jewish people about Passover, keeping kosher and the best charoset recipe. Add in a bit of Yiddish and we have an instant connection.

What do you remember from life B.P.?  Maybe it’s that single magical moment sitting quietly before a Christmas tree filled with gifts? Perhaps it is the beautiful harmony of a Church choir? Or maybe you remember the frantic need to collect more plastic eggs than your brother?  Perhaps it’s more simple like the smell of your Grandmother’s homemade Baklava or the struggle to make it through fast.

Source: Old Salem Inc of Flickr

Source: Old Salem Inc of Flickr

These captured moments are a part of the creation that is each of us. As Pagans, especially those who engage in interfaith work, we can use these memories to help us build a bridge to those of others faiths. Instead of entering the conversation with shields up, we can enter the discussion from a point of remembrance. Once that platform of trust is built, a deeper discussion about spirituality and journeying can happen.

I do understand that not everyone has had a painless religious journey. I am privileged in that respect and I speak from that point. In addition, not everyone has been called to or is interested in interfaith work. However, for those that do, this is something to consider when casually coming in contact with non-Pagan activities or engaging with them in formal settings.

How have you incorporated your past religious heritage into your current practices?  What remnants of life B.P. still remain?  Have any of those experiences helped in your Pagan journey or in interfaith work?



Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Byron Ballard

    Lovely, Heather. Thanks! I reminisced about Passover seder with a rabbi buddy in my most recent post on Witches and Pagans. :>)

  • This is why I have written a Pagan Seder that celebrates both traditions, as I could not leave behind my Jewish roots and my adoration of the story of the Exodus as a flight from slavery into freedom. We are all enslaved in some way – the Passover story shows that liberation is possible……

  • Laura

    Thank you for sharing that your transition from your old traditions to Paganism was pretty painless! It’s good to hear that I’m not alone in that. It seems like the narrative of turning to Paganism after being seriously burned by one’s old traditions was just about all I heard.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Vampires? LOL!
    I was firstborn of a Judaeo-Methodist mixed marriage, carefully exposed to each tradition on appropriate holidays. My Jewish grandfather was a cantor, and Hannukah at his apartment was my first experience in living-room religion. Years later, when it came time for me to adopt a Craft name, I chose the first word out of his mouth in prayer.
    A gesund an dein kopf!

  • kenneth

    I was raised Catholic, more to keep family peace than from any deep piety. It was in the 70s and 80s, so the church wasn’t the crazy, foaming at the mouth brownshirt theological Tea Party rally that it is now. I was an altar boy, the whole nine, and there was even some minor buzz about the possibility of seminary. I was a very good theology student, and came to figure out by 16 or so that I didn’t believe any of the theology or doctrine or the premise of Christianity at all.

    I did love the liturgical year with its seasonal nature and I learned the art of ritual. It turned out that I was living Catholicism as a pagan from day one and just didn’t have a way to know it. So I took that experience with me and the knowledge that the majority of street-level Catholics are nothing like the bishops and the core of angry conservatives that surround them. I got a formal separation from the church a few years back and I can now relate to that religion as a complete outsider and with an understanding of who my enemies are, and are not, within it.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    “What do you remember from life B.P.?”
    Sitting in a church full of people yet feeling very much alone and never having a prayer answered.

    Concerning the ‘spiritual journey’. I can get looking over what practices were done in the past, but I feel that, sometimes, it is appropriate to leave them in the past. Otherwise, why did you stop them, in the first place?

    Personally, I like seeing heterogeneous cultures. Mixing and blending, to me, devalues the ‘donor’ cultures.

    I am not saying that other people should not do what they feel is right or what works for them, all this is my personal stance.

  • GearoidMacConfhiaclaigh

    I personally think it’s possible to separate the religious and the cultural in most “big” holidays these days. You can do the Easter eggs as a pagan. You can do some of the Passover stuff as a pagan too. If it’s your culture or ethnicity you should be able to find a balance to celebrate, or not celebrate, the holiday as you see fit.

    I, and some of CRs I know, sort of celebrate St. Patrick’s day (not just the beer celebrating either). It’s both a religious holiday AND a national holiday. I can respect him as a good man and Christian and part of the history of my family all while still being a pagan. Though I would avoid the mainly religious parts, it always feels rude to me to take part in Christian stuff on their holidays uninvited.

  • Jessica

    I can say my transition was also pretty painless. I grew up Mormon, by about age 13 or 14 I had decided I didn’t believe in it and became a closet atheist till I was about 17. The worst part of coming out about that was my Grandmother, but even then she only made snide comments now and again. As did my mom. Around age 12 was when I started realizing I believed a lot of things others didn’t in my church. One example being when a boy and I got in a screaming match over gay rights. I also realized I had no real connection with Jesus or God like everyone else did. To top it off when my whole family went inactive for a while the things that were said about us were awful. Looking back though I do have fond memories. Such as Young Womens camp. A particularly good memory reared up as I read this. In 6th grade we had to do a “Wax Museum” project. We had to pick someone in history, dress as them, and read a paper we wrote on the person by heart. My pick was Esther. Hers was always my favorite story. It was also my favorite Mormon video to watch. I always loved her because she was so strong and brave regardless of being female. Looking back I think it’s one of my earliest idols, then came calamity jane, helen keller, amelia earnhart. The list goes on. I suppose that was my connection. I couldn’t look up to God so I looked up to all those women. I guess one could say that is why I was drawn to Wicca, the Goddess is the strongest woman a girl can look up to.

  • Amber

    Thank you for sharing. It is great to hear other perspectives. I too grew up in a Jewish household, but in all honesty I have since given up the seder. It was a while coming since BP time. What I liked was seeing family. Since then, cousins have gone separate ways and trying to mend ties is fruitless. What I didn’t love was how much it felt like temple to me. I felt very off and disconnected in temple. As time went on, I didn’t want to read from the haggadah and wanted to be an observer so I could listen to the the words objectively, but depending on who was running the seder they would require me to read, which began to feel like a “lie” when the words left my lips.

    Once paganism found me (or I found myself a pagan rather), I felt kind of weird celebrating the reception of the 10 Commandments, the first of which I am obviously breaking as a polytheist! I also have several statues of gods from various pantheons, including Egyptian around my house!

    My transition wasn’t completely painless, but it could have been worse. I have no problem attending dinner for any of the holidays but I will no longer go to temple as it is the theology that does not work for me. For me the seder is like being at temple at home. I know the story well and understand it. I respect why people do it and love it. I love matzoh ball soup! But if it is anything beyond dinner I just draw the line. I went to a Jewish sleep away camp for four years where I learned a ton that even my family doesn’t know. I’ve read books and taken classes as well before I finally accepted that the religion wasn’t for me. I am starting be able to find a common ground with my parents on the matter, or at least my mother, that was a long time coming.

    Hoping this doesn’t sound totally bitchy on my part. I loved reading a different perspective on this!

  • I grew up in a very mixed & open household, but my mother’s family is Jewish, and we did seder and went to temple on the High Holidays (as well as going to church on the Christian High Holidays, and celebrating the equinoxes and solstices – like I said, open and mixed). I enjoy the sense of ritual, and the idea of a single person challenging a huge institution, but none of the rest of it made any sense to me.

  • This is a very interesting read. While I personally never grew up in the Church I was often taken by my Grandmother as was my brother to Church, Christian Scientist when a child I never drew to it at that time and only later in life when I was older started my own spiritual journey being in the Church and then leaving it and finding my way home to my true path that of the Old Religion.

    I remember seeking in so many places and one of those places took me to a Christian Jewish group where we celebrated the Jewish holidays and I enjoyed them to me they held great power and spirituality. The one thing different I did notice was that they held their heads to their God not bowing, now I personally as a practicing Witch do not bow my head to my Gods, I do look up to them eyes wide open and in my daily rites do the same eyes open facing them without fear. I think many who do come to Wicca are seeking to find a truth that they could not find in the Church or the Church in some way betrayed them and came across as hypercritical (I know that is why I continued my search). We can say that coming from one religion into another is a way to find ourselves but many do tend to bring into their new path those ways in which they were born or taught, honestly as a personal decision I see nothing wrong with that, but as a group each person must do what is right for them, in their heart. If you choose to look up and raise your glass or bow down is a personal choice. I was taught in my Craft family that you never look down or away from the Gods, but when you entreé another’s for a memorial mass any where you are supporting another you do bow down out of respect for that belief. And you do not speak ill of any religion no matter your experiences. When you reject one religion you reject your own.

    I think to many instead of accepting who you are deny it and that can cause issues. While I personally do not celebrate many of the secular holidays anymore as I did when I was growing up I do respect them and instead of pushing them aside I incorporate my beliefs. An example this Easter which for me I honour in a different way I focused on the Spring Equinox and the Persian New Year and brought in the feast of Kore/Persephone as the main yesterday as she is known as the Savior and was returned by Mercury to her Mother Demeter during this time I brought that energy into yesterday and honouring Persephone and her Resurrection to the land of the living, while wishing those around me who are not of the Old Religion a Happy Easter.

    Easter dates back further than many know as do all of the feast days look into the history and do not deny any religion, respect them as you honour yours.

    • I have never considered myself B.P., my ancestors were pagan and ultimately I ended being the one in the family who ended up on the path of my ancestors remembering who I was and having dreams and memories all my life, it was only when one is mature and able to handle that information and if they are the one of that line to carry on the tradition that we come to our true path.

  • Cat C-B

    It has always seemed to me that a Passover seder is precisely the way to pass along a religious tradition to the next generation: by doing, by singing, by traditions much more than by lengthy explanations and texts. And the way that Judaism is a cultural identity as well as a religious practice seems to me to be very much in keeping with the Paganism that I practice: an important aspect of both is being a People. (I know there are those who disagree, but the experience of community life is so central to my own life in Paganism that I cannot separate the two.)

    I think Paganism can learn a lot from Judaism. Not (obviously) theology, but on the level of weaving together culture, family, community, and knowledge. And seders are the perfect illustration of this; above all else, a seder should be fun (not to mention delicious)! Having watched how seders instruct children in Judaism, and comparing it to how most First Gen Pagans try to pass along Paganism to our kids, often with way too many lectures, and way too little fun, I could wish all Pagans had Jewish roots–or at least, Jewish friends, to teach us a different approach than Sunday school with a gloss of Paganism!

    Of course, it probably helps that my own Craft teachers are Judeo-Pagans. (No–I don’t get it either, but they tell me that “No other gods before Me” stuff doesn’t rule out gods a little bit after or alongside. Hey–if it works for them, great!) At times in my own training, it was hard to tell the Trad material from kashrut laws… But then, folk magick/customs have a lot in common, and a good deal of Judaism is a very long folk memory.

    Of course I honor those Pagans who have chosen to leave their birth religions behind. But, at least here in the East, braiding together Judaism and Paganism is so commonplace as to be almost a tradition in itself… and that’s not even including those Pagans who have chosen to revive the ancient goddess traditions of Israel.

    While we do not want to appropriate practices that are alien to us, still, it is a wonderful experience to see our work by another religion’s light. And I will freely admit to being especially happy to see Paganism illuminated by shabbat candles. These two traditions can speak to one another, and the effect can be lovely.

    • You manage to bring up several things important to me: paganism as an ethnicity (or a People as you put it), looking to Judaism for inspiration on how to keep going (the way we do our weekly Thor’s hallow celebration owes a debt to shabbat) and the inclusion and teaching of children in paganism.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I wouldn’t call Paganism an ethnicity. A culture, certainly possible, not not an ethnicity.

        • Cat C-B

          Culture sounds closer to what I was thinking of… but I think we may not actually even have a word in modern English for this thing. Tribe, community, clan… none of them are quite right.

          Which makes a kind of sense. Modern culture is very bad at this thing we’re talking about, and which is so crucial to at least some forms of Pagan experience. Perhaps we’ll grow a term for it as we get better, at least among ourselves, at nurturing the reality of it.

  • Thank you for mentioning and interacting with my recent essay at Sermons from the Mound. I am flattered, and I appreciate this effort at interreligious reflection.

  • RabbitGoddess

    What i have always admired about the Jewish faith was their inbuilt ,love of life, and sense of belonging. No matter where they go, they have a community. They even invite the stranger in to take part in their community many times. Wouldn’t it be nice if paganism had the same kind of arrangement?

    Unity in diversity.

    The face of the ten thousand things is the face of diversity on the surface that makes up the grail and the “oneness” which is the spark of life, the sun turned to wine that fills the goblet, is the force that moves the cosmos.

    It is al the same thing we are speaking of, just different language after all…but a thing of beauty is a joy forever..whatever you are calling it.