You haven’t truly heard The Four Questions until you hear them recited in multiple languages. Most of us at our seders will hear them in two: The usual Hebrew and their English translations. But at the first of what is hoped to become an annual event, 14 dignitaries from consulates across the Puget Sound region as well as several religious bodies learned on March 18 how Passover night was different from other nights. But they heard it in French, from Consul General Denis Stevens of Canada and dean of the Consular Corps; in German from Hon. Consul Petra Walker of Germany; in Spanish from Hon. Consul Luis F. Esteban of Spain; and in Turkish from John Gokçen, hon. consul of Turkey and president of the Consular Association of Washington. Rabbi James Mirel of Temple B’nai Torah led Monday’s diplomatic and interfaith seder, a program hosted by the Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
Celebrating a feast of freedom on March 18 was fitting — the next day, noted keynote speaker Elena Poptodorova, marked the 70th anniversary of her country’s effort to save its 50,000 Jews from the Nazis. This came at the same time, Poptodorova, Bulgaria’s ambassador to the U.S., noted, that “11,343 were deported from Macedonia and Northern Thrace.”
The seder focused heavily on the Haggadah’s theme of moving from slavery to freedom. Poptodorova spoke of Bulgaria’s constant fight for freedom over its 1,600-year history, more than half of which was under slave rule, from the Byzantines to the Ottomans to the Nazis to 45 years of Communist rule.
But, she noted, “we cannot spend our life dealing with issues of controversy that happened so many centuries ago.”
Yet freedom, she added, should not be taken for granted.
“Freedom is just the first step. When you get freedom, you have to know what to do with it,” she said. “Freedom is never easy, it’s never smooth, it’s never unconditional, it’s never forever.”
As the representative of a country that only in the past 25 years has once again experienced freedom, Poptodorova knows firsthand the challenges of maintaining it: Building the institutions that will promote freedom, and fighting to ensure it doesn’t go away.
“It always comes at a price, it always comes as a sacrifice,” she said.
The AJC created a Haggadah for the event that included readings of articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in addition to the standard telling of the story of the Exodus.
Another seder comes on March 28, after the holiday begins, building on a biannual tradition in Olympia that brings legislators from both sides of the aisle to Temple Beth Hatfiloh. Lawmakers and many Jews whose holidays must come second to legislative work get together to break matzoh and put this feast of freedom into context with the work they’re doing.
On alternate years, when the session last three months, Passover almost always falls near the end when the legislators are working feverishly to meet the final bill cutoff.
What originally began as a way to give the elected Jewish delegation a quick opportunity to celebrate the holiday has since expanded into a festive meal of more than 100 participants.
Zach Carstensen, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which plans and sponsors the event, said the seder is a good way to raise consciousness among lawmakers about people in the state who are constantly struggling to get by.
“This year our focus is on, as we still are recovering from this recession, the struggles of people just trying to keep their heads above water, finding a good job, ensuring that their family has adequate health care, [and] adequate supports so [they] can be economically secure,” Carstensen said.
Carstensen noted that the story of moving from slavery to freedom resonates in many ways today, from the journeys of modern-day refugees to economic security.
“It never ceases to amaze me that when we tell the Passover story all these thoughts come flooding back — the recognition that freedom and struggle often go hand in hand,” he said. “I think if legislators can walk away with that then we’ve done a good job.”