Archives For Passover

Today is Easter Sunday.

As is typical, the days prior are filled with conversations exploring the hidden meanings of the holiday’s commercialized symbols, such as fully bunnies and pastel eggs. In the past, The Wild Hunt has done its own contemplations on the subject. Are there really ancient Pagan origins nestled within the sacred Christian holiday?

As infinitely interesting as that discussion may be, I would like to focus on something entirely different; something often not discussed. This weekend also saw the celebration of another major religious holiday – Passover.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

Growing up surrounded by a Jewish family and having mostly Jewish friends, I never marked the entrance of spring with rabbits and divine rebirth. I was never coerced into wearing pastel dresses adorned with satin and tulle. For myself and many others, spring was ushered in by matzo, moror and mishpocheh.

At some point in April, when the dark New Jersey winters began to yield their annual grip, Passover would arrive. My Jewish family would come together for the sacred Seder tradition. Gathered around an extended dining room table with adults at one end and us, children, at the other, we’d eat, drink and recount the story of Passover using the Haggadah. Admittedly, there was always a whole lot of nonsensical giggling during the plagues. Nothing is funnier than frogs, boils and locust when you’re are five.

For Jews, the world over, Passover does in a way mark the beginning of spring. While many children cheer when the Cadbury eggs arrive in supermarkets, I was always overjoyed upon seeing store shelves packed with macaroons, Gefilte fish and Manishewitz wine. Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover was my favorite. Matzoh, Matzoh brei, Matzoh balls, Matzoh farfel cupcakes.

To this day, the springtime holiday holds a space – a sacred space – within my life. Although I was never religiously Jewish and I am now Pagan, I have retained a deep connection to my Jewish heritage and the traditions that come with it.

And, as I have learned, I am not alone in that feeling. While the majority of first generation Pagans and Heathens do come from Christian backgrounds, there are those that do not. Of that small sector of the population, many are of Jewish heritage.

Ilan Weiler, an eclectic Israeli Pagan studying Hermetic Magic, said, “I still consider myself Jewish. I view my Judaism as being more of an ethnic/tribal and cultural nature, and I recognize the Jewish deity on two levels: as the tribal deity of my ancestors on a polytheistic level (recognizing an ancient practice of henotheism), and on the occult level of Kabbalistic-Mystical concept, which I incorporate into my magical practices.” Weiler added that he sometimes attends temple service and “[studies] Jewish history, lore and scripture as to learn my ancestors beliefs and traditions.”

American Hermeticist Jonathan Korman also acknowledged honoring the Jewish deity as a “personal tribal deity.” He said that, on his Pagan altar, he maintains “an empty space for that god.”

Deborah Bender, an American Pagan of Jewish heritage, explained, “Jewish identity isn’t strictly religious. Secular Jews identify themselves as Jews on the basis of culture or ethnicity, often without having had much exposure to the Jewish religion or much education about it.”

While some Pagans with Jewish roots embrace their heritage, as Bender suggested, others do not. Illy Ra, a Kemetic Pagan living in the small town of Kadima in central Israel, said, “I don’t consider myself Jewish, I define myself as a Hebrew Pagan,” adding that she incorporates nothing from Judaism into her own Pagan practice. Similarly, Moon Daughter, an eclectic Israeli Pagan from Moshav, said, “I personally do not consider myself a Jew from the religious point of view, but I am a Jew in my cultural heritage and ethnicity.”

It is true that not every Pagan of Jewish heritage clings deeply to their roots. Interestingly, in some cases, these differences are marked by nationality. Very generally speaking, it would appear that Israeli and American Pagans have a different relationship with Judaism and Jewish culture. Moon Daughter speculated, “I live in Israel and I think a lot of Pagans here, not all naturally, are quite angry at monotheistic religions and certainly Judaism … The attitudes toward [the religion] are more complicated [than in the United States] since Judaism is not just a religion, it is also a national identity.”

[Photo Credit: Yehuda Cohen / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Yehuda Cohen / Flickr]

When becoming Pagan, Israeli Jews may have a more difficult time negotiating through their own internal “identity politics” than American Jews. As Moon Daughter noted Judaism in Israel is a religious practice and a national identity, both of which are married to culture, ancestors and family. Illy Ra added, “Even if one chose to leave the Jewish religion, the community will still see them as part of the Jewish community and culture.”

That is also partly true in the United States. There is a sense of Jewish-ness that exists beyond the practice of the religion itself and beyond spiritual belief. I can still feel that “belonging.” After telling my Aunt, a Jewish Atheist herself, that I was Pagan, she reminded me, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God. If Hitler came today, you would still be sent to a camp with all the other Jews.” And that, in her eyes, was enough.

This sense of tribal belonging – that Jewish-ness – is something that can be and is carried into Pagan practice. Bender explained, “The Jewish religion has a very strong tradition of discussion and argument, and the Talmud records minority opinions. I take from this that it’s okay to arrive at a different conclusion than other people if it’s based on reason and evidence and you don’t make yourself an enemy of the Jews.” She added that the Jewish people are “used to being a religious and ethnic minority, and not basing our self-image on what the dominant culture think.”

In our conversation, Bender also noted the similarities that she personally finds within Judaism and her Pagan practice. She said, “Judaism shares with Wicca the outlook that what you do is more important than what you believe. Wiccan sacred time is cyclical. Jewish sacred time is both cyclical and historically linear. The calendars of both have a lunar month and a solar year. Judaism and Wicca both concentrate on living this life but recognizing something beyond. Both teach that the world is fundamentally good that physical pleasures are divine gifts that we are responsible for our own actions.” She went on to list more.

Because of the strong cultural aspects that thrive within Judaism, many Pagans, at least in America, do not reject their Jewish heritage with the same level of hostility and frustration as often expressed by Christian peers. However, as noted earlier, Moon Daughter clarified that this generalization does not necessarily apply to those in Israel where Jewish culture informs the dominant social structure. Moon Daughter said “I guess [American Pagans] still feel like a minority that needs to stick together and do not want their criticism of Judaism to revert to anti-Semitism.” And that may be partially true.

American Pagans of Jewish heritage are minorities within a minority, which complicates the building of a religious and personal identity, especially when you still embrace your Jewish-ness. I have attended Pagan gatherings where I have felt moderately alienated, simply because I had no context for something happening or being discussed. The very first time that my coven sang Pagan “Yule” carols, I was a bit lost. The Frosty and Rudolf parodies were no issue, but when they got to “Goddess Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” I just sat quietly dreaming up Pagan words to the Dreidel Song. “I have a little cauldron. I may it out of clay….

But getting back to spring and Passover, many Pagans of Jewish heritage still make their way to family or friends’ homes by sundown as tradition dictates. Once there, they relive an ancient story and participate in a sacred ritual and, more importantly, a family tradition. Moon Daughter said that she has attempted to find a Pagan interpretation for Passover Seder but “that is not always easy, since holidays are about family, and most of my larger family are of course non-Pagans.” Illy Ra said, “I do celebrate the holidays with my parents to respect their belief and culture, but I guess I would do the same if they belonged to any religion.”

Weiler also emphasized that the Seder is a time for family, describing his own tradition as being “secular” and “nothing more than a glorified family dinner.” However Weiler added that when he has his children, he would like to do a “real Seder, incorporating traditional, modern and Pagan notions.”

Bender, on the other hand, doesn’t like to mix her rituals. She said, “I try to stay within Jewish tradition when I’m doing Jewish rituals. If I want a fully Pagan ritual, it’s separate.” However, she did add that it is possible to “adapt” the Seder structure into a spring Pagan ritual, but she said, “You would have to do it carefully to avoid incoherence and cultural appropriation.”

As for me, this Jewish heritage has remained close by my side. I can still sing the four questions in Hebrew and make tasty kneidels, even though I no longer participate in a formal Seder. Should an emergency occur, I do own multiple Haggadahs, a matzo cover and a Seder plate. Each spring, as I prepare for Ostara, I also purchase a box of matzo and a few cans of macaroons. Like many others, this Jewish-ness colors who I am and, in many ways, the practice of my adopted Pagan religion.

Springtime cheers to all our readers who are enjoying this weekend’s religious festivities, whether it be for family, tradition, faith or simply matzo. L’Chiam and may you always find the afikomen!

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
Source: thedailygreen.com

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 aclj.org

Source: David French of aclj.org

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?