By Jenni Frazer
It was, perhaps, only at an interfaith seder, with much giggling, that it could have been suggested that the fiercely atheist Richard Dawkins might be a shoo-in to star as Pharaoh in a re-enactment of the 10 plagues.
In a remarkable demonstration of interfaith in action, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi of the Reform Movement, opened her home to Muslim, Christian and Hindu guests last week for a pre-Pesach seder.
It was the second year she had arranged such an event. Together with Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, the Reform Movement’s community educator, Rabbi Janner-Klausner led her guests through a typical seder, using the Reform Haggadah as a guide. It was both serious and light-hearted, with the rabbi urging her guests to raise glasses of grape juice (instead of wine) and kidding them that there was an instruction at the foot of the page: “The Master of the House washes his hands. The kettle is on.”
In brisk fashion the guests – who included the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Dr Shuja Shafi, and St James’ Church Piccadilly’s Anglican priest, Rev Lucy Winkett – were both welcomed and asked to help lay the seder table.
Questions, the essence of any seder, flowed from the outset. Why, wondered BBC Radio 4’s Edward Stourton, presenter of the Sunday Programme, was he putting out dishes of eggs in saltwater? (And why, wondered one of the Jewish guests, were the eggs already served in saltwater? Much hilarity as the two rabbis explained that every family had its own traditions, frequently cited as “the only right way to do it”).
Even more confusion ensued among the guests as the Jewish participants spoke of sedarim in which almost everyone would have a different edition of the Haggadah, with different page numbers and illustrations.
This was certainly unusual, in that everyone had the same version. But it was necessary so that all the participants could read passages from the Haggadah.
Doug Swanney, Connexional Secretary of the Methodist Church, and Father Terry Tastard, priest of St Mary’s Catholic Church in East Finchley, asked Rabbi Janner-Klausner to repeat some of the passages in Hebrew, which they said gave an authentic flavour to the proceedings. Gamely, the guests ate charoset and the other symbolic items on the seder plate, and joined in the songs where they could.
Alex Fenton, Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s public affairs adviser, was the youngest participant and thus led the Four Questions. Soon both rabbis were explaining the principle of leaning in comfort on Roman-era couches, and it wasn’t long before the entire table broke out in a rousing chorus of Dayenu. Much theological discussion centred on the numbers which feature in the seder, from the Four Questions, to the questions asked by the Four Sons or Four Children, to the 10 plagues and the counting songs which conclude the second part of the service.
One of the customs to attract most attention was the cup of Elijah; the rabbis explained how children were often gulled into believing that Elijah had entered the room and drunk the wine, much like Santa Claus enjoying a crafty brandy in households after he had come down the chimney.
But the entire seder party was convulsed when the door was opened for Elijah. “Is that Elijah?” called Rabbi Janner-Klausner. “No,” came the stolid reply. “It’s the mini-cab driver, come to collect someone here.”
Both Muslim and Christian guests found many similarities in their own customs and traditions. The Muslim guests, besides Dr Shafi, included Sughra Ahmed, programmes manager at the Woolf Institute in Cambridge; Onjali Rauf, chief executive of Making Herstory, a company founded to combat the abuse and trafficking of women and girls worldwide; and Shahin Ashraf MBE, project manager of the Muslim Women’s Network, and chaplain to students at Birmingham University. Satish Sharma, the general secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples, was the sole representative of a non-Abrahamic faith.
But Mr Sharma, together with Muslims and Christians, was happily on his feet as the seder guests rummaged through the Janner-Klausner bookshelves in order to find – and ransom – the afikomen, without which the second half of the seder cannot commence. To a great deal of laughter, Shahin Ashraf was put through her bargaining paces by Rabbi Janner-Klausner.
“In return for the afikomen,” said the rabbi, “I will give you this very fine coffee container.” Shahin Ashraf looked at it askance. It was from the Israeli coffee chain, Aroma, and said so in large Hebrew lettering on the side. “You want me to take that back to Birmingham?” she said, “and show my students I got that for a piece of matzah?” For a brief moment, she wavered, and it looked as though she might take the afikomen back to Birmingham instead.
The spirit was such that no one appeared to have a problem with chorusing “Next Year in Jerusalem” – even if they meant “Next Year in East Finchley”.