April 29, 2005

The biggest Pesach ever

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When America's Jews sat down earlier this week to have their Passover Seders, there is a good chance they were not alone.

One little-noted consequence of the high intermarriage rate in the United States is that more non-Jewish Americans than ever are living with a Jew in their household. That may portend dire consequences for the numerical future of American Jewry, but it also means that Passover-during which a whopping 77 percent of American Jews attend a Seder-may be more widely celebrated today in America than at any other time in history.

"Because of the increase in the number of households that include Jews as a result of intermarriages, it increases the probability that more Americans that are not Jewish will participate in a Seder," said Prof. Leonard Saxe, director of the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

Passover long has stood as a beacon of Jewish observance in America. More American Jews go to Seders than light Chanukah candles, fast on Yom Kippur, or have visited Israel, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

America, in turn, long has noted the observance of Passover. Perhaps the most salient symbol of Passover in America is the Maxwell House Haggadah, first published in 1930 as part of that company's promotion of its kosher-for-Passover coffee. In the years since, Passover greetings by Tiffany's, Bloomingdale's and Macy's in America's newspapers have become a fixture of the Passover season.

Even as American Jews have assimilated, Passover has persisted. In Manhattan, restaurants whose regular fare includes such items as shrimp cocktails and ham sandwiches offer Passover menus where gefilte fish stands in for clam chowder and roast chicken replaces bacon cheeseburgers.

It's no surprise that this year has brought further evidence of Passover's penetration into the unholy temple of popular culture.

The cartoonists behind JibJab, which produced a riotously funny cartoon during the 2004 US presidential campaign mocking George W. Bush and John Kerry, put together a Passover offering this year in which an Eminem look-alike raps about the holiday staple: "I got a question / 'bout the bread that is unleavened causin' indigestion / called matza / eat it for a week we gotsa / no bread no pasta / best believe it Jewish docta'." (See www.jibjab.com).

Another internet cartoonist, William Levin, did a version of the popular rapper 50 Cent singing about the Ten Plagues: "Blood in the river / back off nigga' / Don't you f--k with 50 Cent / I'll pull the trigga'." With more than 1 million hits, the cartoon, at www.shabot6000.com, was ranked No. 7 in the Top 10 "movers and shakers" on the web this week, according to the web tracking company Alexa (The Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club ranked No. 2).

"There is a growing, almost cliché trend of making Jewish culture 'in-your-face' cool by mixing in elements of hip-hop and rap," Levin said. "I was trying to poke fun at that trend a little bit."

Jews are introducing these expressions of Passover into popular culture, though gentiles often are collaborating with them. The JibJab cartoon, for example, was produced with help from NBC's Jay Leno and "The Tonight Show."

This is a reflection of the way Passover is being celebrated in America today. It's still a Jewish holiday (unlike Chanukah, which has been purged of its more particularistic elements and become virtually indistinguishable from Christmas); it's just being shared by a growing number of non-Jews.

This stands in stark contrast, of course, to the history of celebrating Passover.

The paragraph preceding the recitation of the Haggadah's Hallel section, "Pour out thy wrath upon the nations," was added to the liturgy during the Crusades, when the Jews of Europe suffered devastation and murder at the hands of Christian crusaders. The custom of opening up the door at that point in the Seder actually is not to welcome Elijah the Prophet, as children typically are taught, but because Jews used to open their doors at that point in the service to make sure there were no non-Jews in the vicinity who could hear them calling upon God to "pursue [our enemies] in anger and obliterate them."

In America, the open door is a sign of welcome, and many have entered it. About 31 percent of married Jews today are wed to gentiles, and the proportion is a far larger 47 percent among Jews who have married since 1996, according to the NJPS study.

That accounts for why Howard Dean, the one-time Democratic Party front-runner in the 2004 race for US president, and Cameron Kerry, brother to 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, both regularly attend (or host) Seders on Passover. Both married Jews, and Kerry converted to Judaism.

The stubbornly high intermarriage rate in America, the wide acceptance of Jews and Jewish culture by Americans, and the modern penchant for Western ecumenicalism all mean that it is likely that more Americans than ever before attended a Seder this Passover.

It also means that it's possible that the number of US Jews observing Passover in future years may rise, or at least hold steady. Because chances are that Jews reticent to go to a Seder will be asked to arrange for one by a non-Jewish spouse, relative or friend interested in experiencing one.

It's not your typical tale of Jewish return, but it sounds better than an exodus from Judaism.