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Jewish families make Passover memories during 8-day observance
Ultra-Orthodox Jews prepare special matzo, a traditional unleavened bread. - photo by Sebastian Scheiner

Sundown on Friday marked the beginning of Passover for the Jewish community around the world.

“Passover is a spring festival that represents the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt,” said Rabbi Mitch Cohen of the Shalom b’Harim synagogue in Dahlonega.

The eight-day observance began Friday, April 3, and will continue until Saturday, April 11.  The Jewish holiday is based on the biblical story of the final plague — death to the firstborn males — the Egyptians suffered as they held the Israelite people hostage, Cohen explained.

“The angel of death passed over the home,” he said. “The Hebrew name, Pesach, actually is the sacrificial lamb that was used to get the blood to put on the door post, that allowed the angel to know that was an Israelite home.”

Cohen said while all of the Jewish holidays are important, Passover is one of the most observed of the year “even by people who are identify as atheists, cultural non-practicing Jews.”

“They still find their way to a Seder,” the rabbi said. “I think for the family aspect, the community aspect and the theme of freedom, redemption from slavery.”

Seder, meaning order, is a traditional meal held during the first two nights of Passover. The special meal brings families and friends together to observe a night filled with order and tradition.

Before the Seder was defined, 1,500-1,800 years ago, the practice was to eat roast lamb on unleavened bread with bitter herbs, Cohen said.

“Symbolically to me what Passover represents is we don’t eat leavened,” he said. “It’s one of the main things of the holiday. For 8 days in the diaspora, you don’t eat bread, you don’t eat cake, you don’t eat anything that leavens. You eat matzo, or matzo meal.”

During Passover Cohen takes the opportunity to look within and find the things weighing him down. He decides what things he needs to get in his life, or what he needs to let go. When Cohen teaches classes about Passover, he will often ask his students to share some of their favorite memories of the holiday.

“All of us, myself included, have just absolutely wonderful memories of being little kids and sitting at the Passover table with our grandparents,” Cohen said. “It’s important to tell the story and to discuss it, and even to debate it, and some people will talk about arguments; that’s pretty common, to discuss and debate.”

Happy family memories that emerge for Cohen about Passover are best described as similar to the memories many Christians have during Christmas based on the traditions. 

“The traditional Seder meal is an order of rituals and practices that we do. The number four is huge,” Cohen said.

“There’s four cups of wine that are drunk throughout the Seder. There’s four questions that are asked by the youngest child about the meaning of Passover. There are the four different types of sons that are talked about. And again there’s a symbolic story of we’re all parts of that.”

But not all memories are happy. Charlotte Janis felt a sadness when celebrating Passover as a child with only her parents, who survived the Holocaust.

“I never had grandparents,” she said. “It was always a little bittersweet and sad, because we didn’t have any family to
celebrate with.”

Now the woman, who splits her time between her homes in Dahlonega and Sandy Springs, makes her own Seder memories with her family.

“Now luckily I have sons and one of them is married and has kids,” she said. “I really always looked forward to it, because we had special food. It was a time we sat down at the table together and shared. I like it now better because I have more family.”

For Janis that’s what Passover is.

“It’s always been about family and the connections,” she said. “Remembering how precious freedom is.”

This year Janis will spend time with her growing family, her daughter-in-law and her family, all gathering for a Seder on Saturday night with 35 people in attendance. 

“For nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people maintained the connection to the land of Israel; and that’s always remembered during Passover and during the Seder,” she said.

“So we now celebrate the miraculous birth of the state of Israel and recommit ourselves. Remembering the Exodus, to ensure the ongoing safety and security of Israel.”

“The first two nights you celebrate Passover where you get together and you have this wonderful meal, with significant traditional dishes.”