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Why is Passover such a big deal for Jews?

Passover is a holiday about freedom, because it celebrates the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. It’s also a holiday about reaching Israel, which for almost 2,000 years (since Roman times) was an unfulfilled aspiration. But, after Israel was established as a state in 1948, that part of the holiday has taken on a whole new layer of significance.

The Passover story in Exodus has been extremely resonant for non-Jews as well. African-Americans in slavery, in particular, used the story of Exodus as a metaphor for their struggle and an expression of hope for their own liberation: the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” is about both ancient Jewish and antebellum African-American slaves, and Harriet Tubman became known as “Moses” herself.

Because the Seder (the traditional Passover dinner) is organized around telling the Passover story, it’s an opportunity for Jews to connect themselves with their history; to think more consciously about those who are still oppressed today; and to hope that people today will know freedom. Many Jews make an effort during the Seder to connect the suffering of ancient Jewish slaves to contemporary oppression of Jews and all people, addressing ethnic strife and migrant rights, poverty, or other issues.

The Seder traditionally ends with participants saying ”next year in Jerusalem,” which historically has been an aspirational call for the return to the Jewish homeland. Since the creation of Israel, having next year’s Seder in Jerusalem has become actually doable. That lends the line — and much of Passover — a degree of contemporary political significance. US Jewish attitudes toward Israel are complex: for some Jews, the holiday touches on desires to support or even join the Jewish state; at the same time, some Jews (many of the same Jews) are reminded of ongoing concerns about the Israel-Palestine conflict, including what it means for Jerusalem and whether it has left Palestinians bereft of the freedoms that the holiday so cherishes.

Passover also distinguishes itself from other Jewish holidays because it’s a holiday primarily celebrated in the home, rather than at synagogue. This can make the holiday feel more like Thanksgiving than like a traditional, dress-up-and-go-to-services holiday. It also means that individual families have a lot of leeway to create and maintain their own Passover traditions. It’s extremely unlikely that any two Seders you go to will be identical.

Judaism is a religion of remembering, and the tradition of Passover is a great example of how the concept of memory preservation works in Judaism. The story of Passover includes multiple occasions of God protecting the Hebrews because he remembers the promise he has made to them. Passover, then, is the time when Jews remember that God remembered them.

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