Thursday, April 5, 2012


 I often marvel at how Jews are such a tiny percentage of the American population, and yet attributes of our culture, some of our religious tenets, aspects of our rituals and celebrations, our humor, and other characteristics of just "being Jewish" have crept into and become a part of American life and popular culture.  It speaks positively about the freedom and welcoming nature of America, and it speaks volumes about what Judaism and the Jewish people bring to those willing to open their hearts and minds.

Pesach, or Passover, is a prime example.  If you would have told my grandparents, all of whom came to America in their late teens and early twenties in the early part of the last century, that an African-American president (that alone would have knocked them over) would hold a seder in the White House, they would not have believed it. 

One of my grandfathers asked me on several occasions if Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon or if it was all a fake.  Not an entirely unreasonable question from a man who took a horse and carriage to catch the train to catch the boat for America. 

Passover does seem to have found a special place in America.  Americans relate to its message of freedom, caring for the stranger, and liberation.  Why shouldn't we?  We love freedom, we like to think of ourselves as sympathetic to those who yearn for liberation, and we have a history of welcoming the stranger, even if some of us display a little ugly backlash now and again. 

As is often said, Passover has a universal theme. Everyone loves and relates to the story of an oppressed people escaping their oppressor and starting out on a new life, seeking freedom and self-determination.

 Plus, the Passover story, encapsulated in the Haggadah, is readily adaptable to new circumstances, and adapting it and making it "relevant" is encouraged.  There are liberation Haggadahs, peace Haggadahs, vegetarian Haggadahs, LGBT Haggadahs, Christian Haggadahs, Women's Haggadahs and on and on.

Some might feel that some of this adapting and making relevant borders on using or exploiting the Passover story to advance personal or political agendas.  That's o.k. with me.  If people find meaning, sustenance, and support from the story of the Jewish people, led by a modest and righteous man, albeit an apparently pretty good politician and sociologist, breaking the ropes of bondage and heading out to be a free people, that's fine. 

I need not totally understand how my people's story relates to their quest.  I don't even have to support it.  Once you've engaged in one of the greatest stories of freedom against all odds, with first-born male babies being spared, plagues being imposed, and the sea being parted, and once Charlton Heston has starred in a movie about the breakout, you can't really claim proprietary privileges. 

The only thing that bothers me a bit is that a lot of people, including a lot of American Jews,  who relate to,  draw strength from, and perhaps use or exploit the Passover story to bolster their own cause or commitment, seem to stop at the breakout and escape.

They love the liberation.  Many seem to have forgotten, or choose to ignore, or feel uncomfortable with, or never knew about, or outright criticize and condemn, the second part of the story, a part that is equally important to the Jewish people. 

 Sparing the first-born males, imposing a lot of plagues, and parting the sea, were all pretty impressive feats.  But equally impressive is what happened after the get-away. We wouldn't be around to tell this story if we didn't have a place to go. Wait a minute.  We didn't, and that was a real problem for Moses, as it was for Jews in future generations. 

Moses, reportedly with a little help from a guy or woman or some kind of extra-terrestrial power that no one else could see or hear, had to mold an often disgruntled, sometimes rebellious group of former slaves into a cohesive, organized, determined nation ready to build and defend their own  nation in their own land. In short, he was the leading Zionist of his day. 

The people had to think of themselves not as helpless slaves but as capable people deserving of their own place on earth.  And they had to have the willingness and confidence to build it and, when necessary, fight for it.  There surely were doubters, naysayers, balkers.  And, of course, there were kvetchers. 

Many people, including many Jews, love the part of the Passover story that speaks of freedom, liberation, and caring for the stranger.  All unbelievably worthy lessons to teach to our children and from which to gain insight and inspiration.  Some seem to have a problem with the rest of the story.

Equally worthy are the lessons gleaned from that last part:  the Jews are more than a group of religious adherents.  They are a people and a nation with a land to which they have a long and continuous attachment.  The nation and the land are integral to their freedom and they owe no one an apology for recreating it after being dispossessed of it. 

The defense of the land is not always a pretty picture.  Sometimes you must do things that you would rather not have to do. You must always be willing to challenge yourself, to measure your behavior against your standards.  But there is no doubt that molding a people into a nation and asserting their claim to their land are lessons of Passover equal in importance to the themes of liberation, freedom, and caring for the stranger in our midst.

Because without defending the nation and the land, the freedom and liberation of the Jews that Passover celebrates are fleeting and ephemeral at best. 

Or, as Duddy's grandfather put in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz:  A man without land is nobody.


  1. Re your earlier article on Pesach- just a comment. I want to suggest that freedom as we commonly understand it and is generally conveyed in these sort of seders that are celebrated in public venues like the White House may not be the rabbis ' definition of freedom that is intended in the Haggadah. My understanding, that of a lay person with a speckled knowledge of Jewish tradition, is that the "freedom" celebrated on Pesach is the freedom to follow the Halacha- that is the freedom to be Jewish and practice Judaism unfettered by the majority population that has other ideas about how we should conduct our lives. In that sense, it isn't the freedom to do whatever we want, it is the freedom to be Jews. I was once at a very interesting weekend with the family at Brandeis-Bardin, one of my favorite places, attending a series of seminars before Pesach. During one breakout session, the predominate issue seemed to be having the freedom not to invite certain relatives to the seders- that sounds sort of funny, but I am serious- the rabbi conducting the main session stressed expressing freedom at Pesach and this is how it tranlated out in a small group setting.

  2. Just a note here at Passover time that I am enjoying your thoughts, travelogues and other ruminations of a Jewish elder (unless they raise the age limit on you).

  3. I love the way you write, Alan. Thanks so much for including me.