Seder departs radically from all other Pesach dinners

It was perhaps the first time anyone ever stopped a Passover seder so the Muslim guests could perform their evening prayers, Episcopalian minister Lyle Grosjean pointed out.

One thing he did not point out, though, was that it was also perhaps the first time an Episcopalian minister conducted a Jewish seder in a Quaker meeting hall.

About 50 Muslims, Christians and Jews held an interfaith Passover seder Sunday at the San Francisco Friend's Center, dividing the ceremony between the three religions.

It was a night of many firsts.

"By gathering for this meal we are responding to the unwarranted verbal attacks on the Muslim community in the wake of recent terrorism in Israel," Grosjean said.

Sponsored by the Interfaith Witness for Peace in the Middle East, the American Friends Service Committee, the Northern California Ecumenical Council and the United Muslims of America, the evening included Christian songs, Muslim chants and Jewish rituals.

In addition to the Muslim evening prayers, Iftekhar Hai, interfaith director for the United Muslims of America, also sang a traditional Muslim call to prayer to start the event.

This night was different for other reasons as well. When people talked about the Arab-Israeli question over dinner, arguments emerged — peacefully — for both sides.

And the menu was not your typical gefilte fish and brisket affair. The seder offered hummus, curried chicken, angel-hair pasta — and of course, matzah ball soup.

Putting together the ceremony itself, however, took particular craftsmanship. The task of typing up a Passover Haggadah that pleased everyone and included all three traditions fell to Allan Solomonow, a Jewish staff member of the American Friends Service Committee.

"Working Islam into it was challenging," Solomonow said. For one thing, "They don't do singing in ceremonies like we do."

That meant no one sang "Dayenu."

Other basics of the Passover ceremony survived but in a somewhat altered form. Much of the ceremony also emphasized the Mideast peace process and other aspects of modern life rather than many of the traditional stories about Jews wandering in the Sinai.

Where the traditional ceremony has four sons ask about the Passover service, Sunday night's service had them ask about compromise and world peace.

Where the 10 plagues include frogs, the revised 10 plagues included pollution and lack of medical care.

Where the traditional rounds on "Dayenu" list what would have been enough for God to have done for the Jews thousands of years ago in the desert, the interfaith service listed what would be enough for God to do for humanity now.

Despite these variations, when participants bit into the horseradish, they all reacted as Jews have for thousands of years.

"Is the bitter herb bitter enough?" Solomonow said, to spirited and pained affirmations.

In the end, however, the seder sometimes raised more questions among non-Jews than it settled. No one at participant Gene Hoffman's table, for example, could tell him why everyone dipped the herb twice.

But when Grosjean asked why Jews hide the afikomen and reward the child who finds it, Jewish participant Emily Rosenberg provided an answer that crossed all cultural boundaries.

Explained Rosenberg, "It's a way to keep the children at the table."