Blacks and Jews and Matzo: My First Swirled Passover

28 Mar

Diana, Sophia, Ishmael

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.

Sophia enjoying matzo ball soup

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.

Jomo standing and Ismael, Lucas, Darla, Sophia and Kat

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.

Alex and Michael

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.

Diana serving dessert

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.


Finding the Afikomen. Sophia, Lucas, and Darla


Kat and Sophia

Lucas holding Haggadah, Fatima, Dick

Sophia and Darla

14 Responses to “Blacks and Jews and Matzo: My First Swirled Passover”

  1. Miriam Gilbert March 28, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Very cool Wendy! Thanks for sharing. Happy Passover 🙂

    • Wendy Jane March 28, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

      Hi Miriam,

      Thanks for reading, and for the holiday wishes.:)

  2. Susan March 28, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    “Levels of oppression are not a contest.” I love this, for its straightforward, important, honesty. The description of the holiday celebration was beautiful, and made me smile. Thank you for sharing your Passover with us.

    • Wendy Jane March 28, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

      Thank you so much for the feedback, Susan. Of course I always worry about putting my foot in my mouth, or sounding too gosh, golly, I got to be with black people on Passover–you know what I mean? I appreciate that you felt the beauty of the evening that I felt with everyone.

  3. Diana March 29, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Love it Wendy, and I’m honored. Thank you for writing so beautifully & poignantly about this. I would also like to mention that while the Ahkenazi Jews are “white”, there has been a not-too-distant “whitening” of the Jews in North America through the assimilation process. Sephardic Jews are historically brown. Moreover,, Jews of all denominations come in all shades. My daughter is mixed; her dad is a Black Ameican as you know. So the outrage of your previous commentator is problematic on multiple levels. We could go further to explore the sexism, homophobia, racism and other forms of oppression that exist both in Jewish and Black communities–sadly, the historically oppressed in turn oppress, and you say, the “contest” is fruitless when our energies are better spent doing something about it, as we all just did by virtue of the creation of our own shared spaces where our intersections are acknowledged, reflected on and celebrated! Hugs!! Btw, I’m reposting 🙂

    • Wendy Jane March 29, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

      Diana, Thanks so much for your feedback, reflections, and sharing of knowledge about the assimilation of Sephardic Jews. As I wrote this, I thought about the many Jews of all shades all over the world, and that Ishmael and Michael growing up with Jewish culture being a part of your family.

      I like how you note we can do better by creating our own shared spaces where our intersections are acknowledged, reflected on and celebrated. Thank you again for creating this space. 🙂

      • Fatima Martin March 31, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

        I am neither black nor Jewish, but as a student of anthropology many, many years ago, my orientation was on slavery systems and race relations, so to read your blog, Wendy, and Diana’s feedback “the creation of our own shared spaces where our intersections are acknowledged, reflected on and celebrated!” couldn’t be more apropos. Thank you Diana for sharing your tradition and Wendy for your rumination!

        • Wendy Jane March 31, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

          Thanks for reading, and for your reflections, Fatima. It was wonderful to share the evening with you and Lucas.

  4. Ntombi March 29, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    I’m Jomo’s sister, and was directed to this blog entry from Diana. Oh, how I wish I could have been there! It sounds like a lovely and lively Seder. I grew up going to Seders, and, since I’m Black and my mom and stepmom are lesbians, all that I attended have been diverse in terms of race, but also in terms of sexual orientation, which adds another layer to the ritual of discussing oppression and survival. You’re right, there should be no oppressed competition, just an acknowledgement of support for each other’s struggles, past and present.

    Growing up, the historical Black/Jewish in the United States was just a fact of life; I lament that that part of our shared history isn’t being passed along as it should. On a personal note, I haven’t been to a Seder since I moved to the west coast, and I’m sorry for that too.

    • Wendy Jane March 29, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

      Hi Ntomi,

      Thanks so, so much for reading and for your thoughtful reflections here. It’s interesting what you say about having sexual orientation adding another layer of discussion on oppression and survival–indeed it does, as today we wait for the marriage equality bill to pass. My older sister is a lesbian, and so I hadn’t thought about that diversity being a part of our family Seders–probably because she was “just my sister.” 🙂 Any ideas on how to pass the historical Black/Jewish relationship in the US as we knew it growing up would be appreciated. My sister who is now in Washington State has not been a part of too many Seders, and I miss having my immediate family scattered around–we haven’t had the Seder I grew up knowing in many, many years.

      That’s why it was extra special to have our Seder with Diana and her family and loved ones. It would be wonderful to meet you at one of the future Seders that you’ve been missing.

  5. Sherry Gordon August 31, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    Dear Wendy Jane,

    Hi, there, Wendy Jane! Wow, what a spectacular blog post article in which you have so brilliantly composed, and I can tell how hard you worked on it in such a fine, elegant, and gracious manner! I so love all of your fantastic and fabulous blog post articles and other very fine and excellent writings!

    I have such a special love in my heart for Jewish people I have my dear friends where I live who are Jewish. They are a married couple and her husband is the Rabbi where I live in Iowa City, Iowa. They are such cool and dear, great people just like you are my dear and special friend and sister, Wendy Jane! I have had a swirled Passover with them and a swirled Hanukkah also. They have often invited me to the synagogue for Passover and Hanukkah! What beautiful services they were with such yummy, delicious, and delectable food! I had such a grand and a fun time, and I am so, so very honored and blessed that they invited me!

    My dear and special, precious white and Jewish sister, you are a great blessing to me and such a gift! I love how you love, care for, and cherish all of us as black people, and how you love and enjoy black culture in general, education, music, entertainment, and care for our health and well being! I have such a love in my heart for Jewish people with a special place in my very heart! I absolutely hate and detest anti-Semitism! We as Jewish and black people have so, so very much in common-we have suffered so, so very much and endured so much oppression, hatred, and discrimination! You are so cool and wonderful, Wendy Jane! I am so, so thrilled and eternally grateful and blessed that I have found you and your wonderful website!

    My very precious and special white sisterfriend, Wendy Jane, please have a very nice, fun, special, and a relaxing Sunday! Enjoy your Sunday to the hilt! I am going to read more of your very super archives!

    Very Warmly and Sincerely Always,

    Your lesbian black sisterfriend in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

    • Wendy Jane September 6, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

      Hi Sherry,

      Thanks so much for your beautiful response here. It’s so cool to hear about your “swirled” experiences with your Jewish friends in Iowa City–crossing cultures is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?:) I also so appreciate your comments that Jewish people and Black people have so much in common–I got in trouble for lightly intimating that here before on the blog–yet, everyone is entitled to their feelings and opinions.

      thanks for your supporting the connections and friendships between Blacks and Jews and thanks for continuing to be such an avid reader and supporter of WJSS!

      All the best to you my sisterfriend,
      Wendy Jane

  6. Sherry Gordon September 7, 2014 at 6:12 am #

    Dear Wendy Jane,

    Hi, there, my swee,t special, and precious white and Jewish siaterfriend, Wendy Jane! I forgot to also say how many wonderful Jewish people welcomed my family and I when we first moved to Cleveland Heights, Ohio when I was a little girl! They were just the best and the absolute greatest people! I learned how to swim Summer 1969 at the Jewish Community Center in Cleveland Heights, and had such fun there also at Summer Day Camp! What wonderful and cherished memories I have of this spectacular and caring JCC!

    Wendy Jane, you are just the best and the absolute greatest white and Jewish precious, special, and sweet sister and friend to me! I so enjoy writing to you and I just love your fantastic blog! What a joy you bring to me and your very fine and excellent blog! You are my eternal blessing, Wendy Jane!

    Please have such a very nice, relaxing, and a special Sunday, my friend and sister who you are so, so very much, Wendy Jane! I am going to read more of your spectacular and brilliant archives!

    Very Warmly and Sincerely Always,

    Your lesbian black sisterfriend, Sherry Gordon

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