Grandma’s Seder Plate: It’s Not the Story You Think It Is

The plate came into my possession along with many artifacts from my late Grandmother when my Dad was moving to a new house years ago. Several things were set aside for me: a hand-crocheted blanket of many colors, delicate lace pieces, faded photos and the plate that my Dad described as a “brass souvenir from the Holy Land.”  The first thing I noticed was the Hebrew writing inside of six neat circles around the edge of the plate. In the center was another circle with a detailed image of a family around a table that had a cup of wine, candelabra, and a prayer book. I recognized it right away as a Seder plate. Perhaps commonplace for many Jewish families, but not for me, as my Grandmother was Isabel Beatrice Johnston, a devout Christian. What was she doing with a Seder plate from Israel?

My Grandma’s treasured ‘souvenir brass plate.’

“As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people, from this time forth and forever.” (Psalms 125:2)
It’s complicated. Grandma Isabel dreamed of “The Holy Land”her whole life, the land of the stories from her Christian Bible study classes, and the three week trip she took late in life to walk on that soil was beautiful in every way. I, too, grew up hearing the ancient stories from the Bible, the Catholic version, and imagined what it would feel like to be in Jerusalem, the city that holds so many revered religious relics. That’s where things get more complicated for me – thinking about the modern conflict around land, water, buildings and artifacts that nearly half of the population on the planet hold sacred.
But, the plate seems to simplify things. When I held that brass plate for the first time, I saw it as a physical memory of the journey of faith Grandma Isabel had taken.   “Dad,” I said, “It’s a Seder plate for Passover. We use it to display special foods that help tell the story of the Exodus.”  He offered, “I knew you would know what to do with it.” I did. I do, proudly, because years ago I chose a husband who happened to be Jewish and later chose Judaism for myself.  The Seder plate felt like a bridge between my Grandmother’s beliefs and mine, a connection between different types of people of Abraham.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.” (Psalms 122: 6-7)
I’ve had the plate for years, during which I have prepared for what is about to be my own pilgrimage to “The Holy Land.” Now, this is complicated! I will study mostly in Jerusalem for two and a half weeks while my husband stays behind and handles everything at home with our three children.  (I love that guy.) I’ll take a photo of the Seder plate with me to remind me of the simple truth I felt when I first held it; that I knew I needed to see Eretz Yisrael for myself.
Julianna Johnston Senturia
(In my 3rd grade Parent/Child Hebrew class, kids call me ‘Morah Chanah’)
You can follow my journey on I am deeply grateful that this trip is made possible by the Ratner-Goldberg Israel Fellowship that I was awarded earlier this year through the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.