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Published: Saturday, 4/8/2006

Author aims to preserve knowledge of holiday rituals

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Ira Steingroot Ira Steingroot
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Passover is a holiday for celebrating freedom, but, unfortunately, Jews can feel bound to a list of indecipherable and rigid rituals, according to Ira Steingroot.

A former Toledoan living in El Cerrito, Calif., Mr. Steingroot sought to demystify the holiday and explain its unique and meaningful ceremonies in his book, Keeping Passover: Everything You Need To know to Bring the Ancient Tradition to Life and to Create Your Own Passover Celebration (HarperCollins).

Passover, the two-day holiday that begins at sundown Wednesday, commemorates the Israelites' deliverance from bondage under the Egyptian pharaohs more than 3,300 years ago.

A central part of the holiday ritual is the Passover Seder, a meal usually observed by families in their homes and modeled after the one prepared and eaten by the Jews before they fled Egypt.

The exodus story is told through the reading of the haggadah, a small volume that includes psalms and songs to celebrate freedom.

Mr. Steingroot, 58, attended B'nai Jacob when he lived in Toledo. That Orthodox synagogue later merged to become Etz Chayim.

He said the inspiration to write Keeping Passover, published in 1995, came while he worked at Cody's Books in Berkeley, Calif.

"I began working there in 1976 and ran the Judaica section. I started to accumulate a collection of haggadot [plural of haggadah] which eventually became the largest selection of Passover materials for sale in the world," Mr. Steingroot said in an interview this week.

He estimated that Cody's had more than 3,000 haggadot, including ones written in a multitude of languages, by numerous Jewish movements, and ones published by families or special-interest groups, such as gays and vegetarians.

With computer publishing and the Internet, he estimated that there are probably more than 4,000 haggadot published today.

"During my time at Cody's, it became clear to me that there was a book missing, and it was the one I wrote, Keeping Passover," he said.

Much of the Passover ritual is led by the senior male in the household, with the rest of the family following along, he said. The Jews who immigrated to the United States usually were aware of the meanings of the Seder rituals, but their children often were limited to the surface meanings and not the depth of the observances, he said.

"In my grandfather's time, he basically decided, 'I'm the only one who really gets this, so I will read the text as fast as possible and the obligation will be fulfilled,'●" Mr. Steingroot said. "But everyone else at the table didn't understand why."

When family elders passed away,was a book missing, and it was the one I wrote, Keeping Passover," he said.

Much of the Passover ritual is led by the senior male in the household, with the rest of the family following along, he said. The Jews who immigrated to the United States usually were aware of the meanings of the Seder rituals, but their children often were limited to the surface meanings and not the depth of the observances, he said.

"In my grandfather's time, he basically decided, 'I'm the only one who really gets this, so I will read the text as fast as possible and the obligation will be fulfilled,'●" Mr. Steingroot said. "But everyone else at the table didn't understand why."

When family elders passed away, the knowledge is too often lost, he said. Their children continue to observe Passover but when they follow the haggadah, they don't understand the deeper meanings of the rituals.

"I wanted to get back to the original knowledge and at the same time make it more relevant for my own generation and my son's generation," he said.

The variety of haggadot stems from the differences among cultures and the freedom for individual families to write their own volume of rituals.

Just as Passover is a holiday to celebrate freedom, there is freedom in how one interprets the rituals, Mr. Steingroot said.

"Every family has to come with a way that's right for them," he said.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154



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