The Times of Israel
April 14, 2014
Washington - The Spanish diplomat knew the drill. He sang his way through “Dayenu,” and daintily dipped his finger in the wine glass to symbolize the ten plagues. The Latvian ambassador’s grip was more tenuous and he asked about every dip, every tradition.
In the social hall of Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, the two, along with some four dozen of their colleagues, had gathered for what has become an icon among Washington’s many symbolic pre-Passover Seders — the American Jewish Committee’s Diplomats Seder.
It looked like one of the model Seders held in Hebrew schools across the country in recent weeks – complete with take-home haggadot and little plates of horseradish and charoset. But few Sunday-schoolers had their model Seder meal served by gloved staff on fine china. And for members of the diplomatic corps, representing every inhabited continent on Earth, the Passover story struck myriad resonances.
The Latvian ambassador listened politely as the AJC member leading the Seder at his table engaged in traditional exegesis. “Why is matzah, which is translated as ‘this bread of affliction,’ really known as ‘this bread of poverty?’” the member asked, adding that the poverty itself – the process of ridding the Jewish people of their material ties and obligations – was part of the meaning of freedom.
The question hung in the air – and was immediately grabbed by the diplomat, reflecting on his own country’s history of Soviet rule.
“When we were part of the Soviet Union, we always used to say that. Poor but free. We are willing to be poor if it means to be free,” he recalled.
At another table, a Bosnian diplomat examined a reprinted edition of the Sarajevo Hagaddah passed from hand to hand. For him, the story was one of interfaith cooperation in a country ravaged by sectarian violence.
He recounted to his table members how the 700-year-old manuscript volume was rescued from the Holocaust by Bosnian Muslims, who, according to a popular account, hid the book under the floor of a mosque.
That kind of exchange is exactly what the Seder’s organizers at the AJC hoped for when they started the tradition in 1996.
“We are so frequently on diplomats’ doorsteps to ask for things and push them,” said Jason Isaacson, the AJC’s director of government and international affairs. “This is an opportunity to meet them in a different field. We wanted to tell them about ourselves – about our history, concerns, why we look at the world the way we do,” he added.
The Seder seemed to the AJC’s Washington office a natural idea for an annual event that would offer meaning as well as Washington-style socializing.
“Of all the Jewish events in the calendar, the Seder seemed to me and to my colleagues the best living example of what motivates Jewish public policy concerns, what is behind so much of what we advocate,” Isaacson explained. “It emphasizes themes of freedom, liberation and frankly determination, and also unity among the Jewish people as well as a common universal identification with Israel,” he said.
The first Seder was held in a conference room in the AJC’s former offices, but the gathering has long outgrown its original lodgings. It has changed in other ways as well. Isaacson recalled with a tinge of nostalgia a rudimentary menu featuring matzoh ball soup and the required Seder components of horseradish, charoset, spring vegetables, bitter herbs, salt water – plus of course, matzah. Isaacson said that he had “the pleasure of sitting next to a Chinese ambassador when he tried his first matzah ball.”
Modern-day attendees had to rely on diplomatic etiquette when confronted by a chilled slice of jellied gefilte fish. At the recommendation of AJC members seated side-by-side with the diplomats, horseradish was liberally applied.
Here, the Latvian envoy found another similarity. “My father made this stuff too,” he said, pointing at the horseradish. “But I think it was much stronger.”
The rituals of the Seder – dipping celery in salt water, spilling out wine to commemorate the plagues – were an important part of the experience.
“To introduce ourselves over a social occasion, a pleasant meal with good company and interesting rituals that may seem strange and charming to people who may not be familiar… it’s a way of breaking down some defenses and helping people understand who we are and what we do,” Isaacson said.
The event has become a fixture for members of the diplomatic corps. The current ambassador from Cyprus attended the Seder first as a more junior member of his country’s delegation, and when he returned to Washington, now as ambassador, he renewed his annual attendance.
And while it may not yet have solved the world’s problems, the Seder this year did bring adversaries together under one roof, as Ukrainian and Russian delegation members broke matzah. They were seated at separate tables, but they were both listening to others’ tales of freedom, redemption, and national liberation.