Passover in NZ: ‘We were once strangers‘

First Person – While many spent Easter indulging in chocolate, NZ‘s Jewish community were eating unleavened bread and other yeast-free products.

Food on the Passover table, including the traditional charoset and Matzah bread. Photo: RNZ / Sophia Duckor-Jones

The Passover holiday, which ends today, tells the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.

The story goes that when the Pharaoh finally agreed to let them go free, the Hebrews had a short amount of time to leave, much less enough time to wait for their bread to rise.

So in this modern day, during the week-long holiday, we eat a form of flat cracker like bread called Matzah in place of bread, and no ingredients with yeast.

This year, a group of about 20 Jewish youth gathered on the third night of Passover to celebrate by singing songs and talking about the meaning the holiday.

The group met at a house in Auckland, occupied mostly by young Jewish tenants, where the living room had been converted into a dining room.

Matzah ball soup – a favourite delicacy at this holiday, was boiling on the stove top.

We gathered around the table and took our seats, and read the story of the exodus from Egypt from a book called The Haggadah, with breaks for traditional Hebrew songs to be sung during the celebration.

There is a main plate in the middle of the dining table, called the Seder plate. It‘s a special plate containing symbolic foods eaten during the holiday.

The foods include:

  • Maror – which in English is bitter herbs and represents the bitterness and the harshness of the slavery the Hebrews endured in Egypt.
  • Charoset – A sweet mixture of chopped nuts, grated apples, cinnamon, and sweet red wine, which represents the mortar and brick used by the slaves to build storehouses and pyramids in Egypt.
  • Karpas – another herb, usually parsley, which is dipped in salt water, which represents hope and renewal.
  • A hard boiled egg – representing the circle of life.
  • A shankbone symbolizing the sacrificial lamb – this is the only part of the seder meal that is not eaten.

The story of Passover marks the first of many exoduses Jews have had to make throughout time.

For myself, as a descendent of Jews who escaped Eastern Europe for refuge in the United States, Passover is the most relevant holiday for me and the one that I feel that I can relate to the most.

In this day and age though, when we celebrate Passover, we talk about all races and ethnicity who have also experienced a similar exodus, or who currently are.

In recent years, a banana has been left on the seder plate to signify the current refugee crisis in Europe. A few years ago, when the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi was washed up on a Turkish beach, his father shared that he and his brother, who also died, loved bananas.

The fruit has been added to the seder plate now in their memory, and in the memory of everyone who has perished in the current crisis.

For 26-year-old Mor Karon, who was born in Israel but grew up in Auckland, the story of Passover is a good reminder for her to always help out others in need.

“One of the quotable lines that comes out from Passover is welcome the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, and it‘s just that reminder that Jewish people are very good at remembering and we remember, we remember this pain and that we must now use that … that knowledge, with that empathy, with that struggle to help others.”

Elena Pesina is from Israel, and has been in New Zealand for seven months.

She said in Israel the holiday is public and it‘s easy to keep kosher for the holiday there. The number of Jews living in New Zealand is between 5000 and 6000.

She enjoyed celebrating with a smaller community, but admitted it was hard to stick to the strict dietary restrictions here.

“Even in vitamins, you don‘t intuitively think that ‘oh, this is the vitamin that might be with yeast, and yeast is something you don‘t need for passover‘. You have to be very conscious about what ingredient you are buying.”