BYU's Passover meals draw attention

Published: Friday, April 15 2011 4:35 p.m. MDT

PROVO — It may look like a Jewish Passover Seder celebration, but the gathering at BYU was different according to an article in The Jewish Daily Forward. "(T)he tables were set with all of the Passover staples: bitter herbs, haroset, parsley sprigs and salt water, a Haggadah at each place setting. … But this was no Hillel-sponsored event, a fact that would become apparent as soon as the invocation was given 'in the name of Jesus Christ.'"

The Seder tradition at BYU began in the 1970s through the efforts of Victor Ludlow, a professor of ancient scripture. An article in Mormon Times reported: "For 35 years (now 38 years), Brigham Young University professor of ancient scripture Victor Ludlow has re-enacted the symbol-packed Passover observance, teaching how it has evolved over the centuries and how it relates to Christianity and the Book of Mormon. The re-enactments are performed with a profound sense of appreciation and respect for Jewish tradition."

For the traditional wine, adjustments are made, according to the article in Mormon Times: "The service also included four cups of grape juice — which Ludlow described as 'new wine,' or more simply, 'Welch's.' "

The Jewish Daily Forward article recognized that in some ways the BYU event is not unique — but other parts are distinctly Mormon: "While it has become increasingly common for Christian groups to host Passover Seders — both because of a hunger to connect with Christianity's Jewish roots and because of the belief that Jesus' Last Supper may have been a Seder — for Mormons, the ritual meal has additional significance: Many of them identify with the Exodus narrative, given their ancestors' flight from the Midwest to their own 'Promised Land,' in Utah."

At one point in the meal, Ludlow recites a version of the "Dayenu" song. Dayenu means, basically, that "it would have been enough for us" and refers to how if God had just delivered the Jewish people from slavery it "dayenu" or "would have been sufficient." But God did more than that. The article in The Jewish Daily Forward said Ludlow "included all of the customary lyrics — about the parting of the sea, the manna from heaven, the giving of the Torah — in addition to some with unique significance to the BYU community: 'Had He scattered us among the nations, but not gathered us in the Rocky Mountains, dayenu; had He gathered us in the Rocky Mountains, but not given us Latter-day temples of our own, dayenu; had He given us Latter-day temples of our own, but not given us a special university, dayenu; had He given us a special university, but not a mighty basketball team, dayenu.'"

Matthew Schmitz commented on BYU's Seder at FirstThings.com. Schmitz called the BYU Seder "a little strange." But he also thought, "There's something wonderful and quintessentially American about this enthusiastic interfaith embrace." Then he adds, "But I can't help but wonder what the Jewish students on campus … make of all this."

A Mormon blogger in The Jewish news weekly of Northern California looked at another Mormon-led Seder. This time in Jerusalem at BYU's Jerusalem Center: "During the Seder, Ophir Yarden, the Center's Hebrew instructor, goes through the ancient text of the Haggadah, narrating the Jews' liberation from Egypt through portions of the Talmud and special blessings, rituals and songs."

Mormons aren't the only ones trying to get in on the act. A Greek Orthodox Christian restaurateur in Buffalo Grove, Ill., named Pete Panayiotou has prepared Seder meals for Jewish custormers for 15 years reported the (Illinois) Daily Herald. He makes nealy 3,000 matzo balls for more than 300 guests. "Having prepared more Passover meals than many of his guests," the (Illinois) Daily Herald reported, "Panayiotou kiddingly tells customers 'I'm more Jewish than you guys.'"

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