Passover has always been my favorite Jewish holiday; the Passover Seder my most cherished tradition. The holiday celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery under the Pharoahs’ rule in Egypt over 3,000 years ago.
I have fond memories of the Passover Seders held at my house with my family, grandparents and cousins. The dining table was lengthened with card tables hidden beneath Russian lace cloths that had belonged to my great-grandmother. It was set beautifully with dishes of charoset, parsley, salt water, horseradish, and matzoh in the center. The charoset represented the mortar Jewish slaves used to build with, the parsley dipped in salt water represented the tears the Jews cried during slavery. Horseradish or morar, the bitter herb, to remind us of the bitterness of that time.
These small dishes were placed around the table for all of us to share, along with several plates of matzo, representing the hurried conditions in which the Jews had to make bread as they fled across the desert, leaving no time for it to leaven. At the head of the table, closest to my father’s seat, was the china Seder plate, that held all of the symbolic foods, including a lamb shank bone. The bone symbolized the instruction the Jews were given by God to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb so that the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes, sparing the Jews from the ten plagues brought down upon the Egyptians, and giving us the name of our holiday, Passover.
This year, my two daughters and I shared Passover with my friend Diana and her family. Diana, an Anthropology Professor and all around cool lady, led the Seder service, and we all took turns reading from the Haggadah. The Haggadah contains the story of Passover, and instructs in what order how to partake in the various blessings and eating of symbolic foods, as well as songs, and the Four Questions. The Four Questions are recited by the youngest children at the table and ask why we do things differently on this night than on every other night. At our Seder they were beautifully recited in Hebrew by Diana’s daughter Sophia.
Sitting around the table were Diana’s two stepsons, Ishmael and Michael, their girlfriends Kat and Alex, my daughters, Leni and Darla, Sophia, Diana’s boyfriend Jomo, friend Fatima and her son Lucas, and Diana’s late mother’s partner, Dick.
Now you know, my entire blog is built around what I call my humorous obsession with race relations; with connecting across color lines. So, I was already glad going to Diana’s knowing I would be sitting at my first Seder that would include black and white faces sitting around the table. This is something I hadn’t given much thought to in years past–the fact that the Seder tables I sat around were filled with fellow, white Jews and non-Jews.
With the mix of adults and kids at the table, the wine flowing, Diana’s enthusiastic leadership, I was simply having fun, feeling festive. Yet, there were moments that resonated so deeply, that I felt myself being taken to another level of spiritual connection, one I had yet to experience at previous Seders.
As we read together aloud sections of the Haggadah, all of us reciting in unison, the words, slavery, oppression, and freedom, my heart grew fuller. As we sang Let My People Go, and Jomo who sat beside me, related jokingly that he used his Paul Robeson register to sing the tune, I imagined an aura of golden glow circling our dining table.
When Israel was in Egypt land…
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand…
Let my people go!
So the God seyeth: ’go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell all Pharaoes to
Let my people go!’
Now, I know my sentiments may sound Rainbow Coalition cheesy to some, and it’s not as if everyone around the table knew I envisioned us bound together, glowing, but when Diana’s son Michael emphasized his voice to rise above others when reciting the words oppression and freedom, and spoke about “breaking it down” in regard to the Hagaddah’s story of these two ideas, I knew I wasn’t alone in making connections.
As I helped to clear the matzo ball soup bowls from the table, I had a brief chat with Diana in the kitchen, and thanked her for inviting me to my first diverse Seder. She quickly mentioned the Black Jew connection, which made me think of a much earlier post I wrote here, I’m Oppressed, You’re Oppressed.
In the post I reflected on the connections and frictions between Jews and Blacks, the commonality of knowing oppression and being considered less than human, the support of Jews during the Civil Rights movement, and the tension between Brooklyn’s Hasidic/Orthodox Jewish and Black residents. I had one black reader comment that he was insulted that I even try to compare the Jew’s oppression with that of the centuries of slavery that black people endured. He also noted that because of our white skin, Jews will always enjoy the status of white privilege never afforded to Blacks.
At the time, fearful of having offended, I deeply apologized to the reader. I would still apologize for offending anyone with the sentiments I express here, yet I think I would have added some new thoughts I’ve had on that encounter.
Levels of oppression are not a contest. It would never be my place to want to wager whether the suffering the millions of Jews experienced during the Holocaust, was equal or greater than the degradation and suffering of imposed slavery upon black people for numerous centuries, and for all of the systemic, institutional, and internalized racism that continues to exist in this country today; a fallout from the socially constructed idea of race and superiority created by white people.
We didn’t engage in this conversation at our Passover Seder, yet the topic of race came up briefly when Ishmael who is black and Kat, his girlfriend, who is white, spoke about how now living in Florida is opening their eyes to more overt forms of racism than they experienced while living in New England.
We continued into the evening, just hanging out, experiencing the rituals of Passover together, eating the delicious food, sipping wine and grape juice, and singing songs like Dayenu, which means, it would have been enough. The song recounts how if God hadn’t done all he had done to help the Jews escape slavery, it would have been enough.
If Diana hadn’t invited us all together, so many of us meeting for the first time, from different places, of different races, and if she hadn’t cooked for several days, plates of steaming matzo ball soup, roasted lamb, gingered carrots, and flourless chocolate cake, and if she hadn’t hidden the afikomen (matzo) for the children to find, and if she hadn’t led us to mouth the words together of slavery, oppression and freedom, reminding us that her own mother who passed away just a year ago used to lead her and her family in the same Seder rituals, and if she hadn’t done this all with joy in her heart and an infectious enthusiasm for the night, it would have been enough.
Happy Passover y’all.