Hillel#039;s quot;Chocolate Sederquot; lifts many spirits

by Beacon Staff • April 12, 2006

Emerson Hillel, the college's Jewish student organization, held its first "chocolate seder" this year for both Jewish and gentile students to commemorate Passover, one of Judaism's holiest holidays.,It's been called the "Time of Spring," the "Holiday of Matzah," "The Time of Our Freedom" and "Pesgeh." But on Tuesday night in the Emerson Dining Hall, most of the 76 students who attended Emerson Hillel's celebration of Passover just called it good.

Emerson Hillel, the college's Jewish student organization, held its first "chocolate seder" this year for both Jewish and gentile students to commemorate Passover, one of Judaism's holiest holidays. The large turnout made it Hillel's biggest event ever, according to juniot film major Yoni Vendriger, the organization's president.

According to Vendriger, guests at the dinner included students from Suffolk University and Boston University as well as Emerson students, and the "buddies" of Emerson students who were participants in the the Best Buddies program, which pairs students with developmentally challenged adults. In some cases it was the student sharing his or her faith, Vendriger said, and in some cases it was the partner who had been raised Jewish. Many other students were visibly proud to share their traditions with non-Jewish friends who came to share in the feast.

"We encouraged people to bring their non-Jewish friends so that they can experience the culture of their friends," Vendriger said. By using Hillel of New England's chocolate seder program, developed in 2003, Vendriger said he hoped to introduce new people to the dinner custom while giving those for whom it had become habit a chance to "explore it again in a new way."

The symbolism of the feast is the most important part of the meal: Passover's customs concern much more than Charlton Heston ever let on. Originally an agricultural festival, this spring celebration took on new meaning for the Hebrew people as a time to commemorate their liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt by their leader and prophet, Moses, according to Rabbi Al Axelrad, chair of the Center for Spiritual Life at Emerson. The seder, which means "order" in Hebrew, is based on the idea that freedom is a privilege with a price, and that compassion, even for ones enemies, is the highest act of humanity.

Because of its roots, Axelrad said, Passover can be enjoyed as a "universal message" as well as a Jewish one.

"The clear upshot of [our history] is that we are not to tolerate oppression and slavery, or the enslavement of others, wherever it rears its ugly head, and no matter who is its target or victim," Axelrad said.

When freedom was awarded to the Jews, Axelrad said, "it became a mandate for opposing tyrannization."

Each Passover, Jews reiterate this as they read the Haggadah, a special prayer book. Its name means "the retelling." Tuesday's celebration had its own abridged Haggadah, published by the Hillel Council of New England, which read right to left like the Hebrew language, and contained shortened versions of ceremonies and chants with English translations. More than 20 people volunteered to read sections from the booklet, even braving the Hebrew words, while many other sections were recited as songs by the group. Where some Hebrew was not provided, those who had been raised Jewish were able to recall the songs of their childhood and carried the tune as all joined in.

Vendriger, an Israeli Jew whose first language is Hebrew, said that despite some students' worries that they were turning Passover into a parody, he felt that a seder by any other name was just as sweet.

"It definitely doesn't make fun [of the tradition]," he said. While the chocolate version included humorous twists and replaced Kosher foods with candy, Vendriger said, "There are portions [of the Hillel's Haggadah book] that follow completely. The idea is to take this thing that we are all used to and enjoyed as children, and let us explore our Judaism again."

The traditional seder meal begins with gefilte fish, a breaded dish, for an appetizer, followed by the traditional matzo soup, made with yeastless breading. The main course is usually a chicken or turkey dish. On the side, cracker-like matzah is spread with two different substances: maror, or "bitter herbs" (usually horseradish) and charoset, a paste made from apples, cinnamon and wine. By making a "mini-sandwich" of the matzah and pastes, according to Axelrad, the Jewish people commemorate the bricks, mortar and clay they used during their forced labor. During the chocolate seder, members of Hillel made their own improvised sandwich: Fluff (for the maror) and a mixture of chocolate and nuts (for the charoset).

Throughout the feast, four glasses of wine are poured to commemorate the four promises of freedom made to the Hebrew people. Yet one part of the Haggadah calls for each person to pour a little wine out of their glass as he or she recites the 10 plagues that were visited on the Egyptian people by the Hebrew god. At the chocolate seder, students poured milk instead of wine, which seemed a more suitable complement to the copious amounts of chocolate-covered matzah.

"We do that out of commiseration and solidarity with the Egyptian people," said Axelrad. "By diminishing our wine, it's a way of saying 'We diminish our joy when we think of our Egyptian brothers, and we don't glory in their suffering.'"

The dinner also includes a celebration of spring: green vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, both representing regeneration of life, are dipped into saltwater, which represents the tears shed while suffering oppression. In the Emerson version, green MMs and chocolate eggs could be dipped into chocolate syrup.

For dessert (as if this were necessary at this point), the afikomen (Greek for "dessert") was served as it is traditionally. The afikomen, a large piece of matzah hidden earlier in the night, is searched out by children during the evening, and the winner is given a gift. Emerson students recalled getting silver dollars, books or other prizes during their childhood, but the winner at the dining hall version was a non-Jewish student who had never attended a seder before, according to Vendriger.

Sam Wachz, a sophomore TV/video major who attended the chocolate seder, recalled raging against the prohibitive Passover diet during his childhood.

"Anything you might want to eat, you can't eat," he said. Later, however, he recanted his bitterness: "At the same time, [now] I think Passover is a really important holiday, and I understand the significance of it."

When asked if the tasty chocolate version would be held on campus next year, Vendriger said, "Who knows? Maybe it will become an Emerson tradition."