The Rev. Wilbur Johnson looked a little perplexed. He had never seen matzo balls before. "And what are we looking at here?" he asked, giving the firm, doughy circles a push with his spoon.
Matzo balls, unleavened dumplings, were one of several traditional Jewish foods to which Johnson and other leaders of Pasadena's black community were introduced during a "post-Passover Seder" held last week as part of a continuing effort to unite the Jewish and black communities in the San Gabriel Valley.
Even though Passover was past, a small group of Jews and blacks gathered at the home of Elaine Motta, head of Pasadena's Human Relations Commission, for the traditional seder.
The seder feast is usually part of the eight-day Passover celebration marking the exodus of ancient Jews from Egyptian enslavement.
But this was no ordinary seder.
A Baptist minister sat across from a spokesman for the Jewish Federation Council. The Haggada--the book containing Jewish songs and blessings to be read during the service--contained such musical selections as "Go Down Moses" and "We Shall Overcome" and quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
There were also the customary Jewish blessings, mostly in Hebrew, which proved difficult for the unpracticed tongue. But most important, noted Doug Stone of the community relations committee of the Jewish Federation Council's eastern region, the seder provided an opportunity for the two groups to "sensitize each other to what we're going through."
Since February, a small group of blacks and Jews including Stone, Johnson and Motta, have been informally meeting once a month to talk about relations between the black and Jewish communities and to plan ways of uniting the two groups.
Political developments like Jessie Jackson's "Hymie" remark during his presidential campaign and Israeli parliament member Rabbi Meir Kahane's disparaging remarks about blacks and other minorities, have weakened what were once strong ties between Jews and blacks, Stone said.
"We are two communities that still have a lot at stake," Stone said. "We're still minorities and there are still organizations that view us as social and political persona non grata. "
The informal group has a core membership of nine black and Jewish community leaders and is seeking to expand and take in members from other areas of the San Gabriel Valley. Although still in its infancy, the group is beginning to look for social issues that affect both minority groups on the local level.
"We're not going settle the problem of apartheid in South Africa," said Aaron Hock, co-chairman of the Jewish Federation Council's community relations committee of the eastern region, and a member of the group. "But there has to be a problem that has to do with schools; local problems that we can address ourselves to.
"I have a feeling that we're talking with people who are on the cutting edge of the black leadership of Pasadena," Hock said, referring to Johnson, college administrator Jackie Jacobs and other black members of the group, all of whom live or work in Pasadena.
"I feel very positive about it," Hock said of the group. "And I'm ready to have other people join us."