What We Talk About When We Talk About Passover
I understand the relevance of Passover if you have children at your Seder. Teaching a child about the Exodus narrative with a series of built in rituals and tools is a slow pitch for a happy holiday memory. I understand the relevance of Passover if you live in Israel where Passover is to Israelis like Thanksgiving & the Holiday Season is to Americans. It’s as much an exercise in commercialism and unity as a Publix advertisement in November. Everyone comes together with their families and they confront their racist uncles and announce they’ve decided to vote Meretz.
American Jews have Thanksgiving for four hour meals filled with family traditions, tensions, and reflection. We spend the months of November-January exchanging gifts, decorating, researching new recipes, and generally feeling charitable. We consider all our blessings and bounties. We celebrate often and through a variety of mediums whether they be religious, secular, or patriotic. We are on the same page as our neighbors, regardless of faith, and it feels really good.
I was taught that Passover is a time to rejoice in my freedom. We were slaves and had there not been a holy intervention we would still be slaves. Lest we forget to be grateful, we retell the story of our liberation in detail, using ritual symbols and practices to engage all of our senses. Great idea. I wish more people had opportunities to unpack their historical narratives and conceptualize their freedom as something holy.
The thing is that I have yet to attend a Seder where that occurs. I have attended fun Seders where I am surrounded by people I care about and who care about me. I would never trade those memories or experiences — but they were not about unpacking my historical narrative or conceptualizing my freedom as something holy. I have never attended a Seder that was on par with Thanksgiving — together with my family, full and happy, sharing what we are grateful for, remembering how blessed we are to be with one another, content, warm, and safe. A day where at least for a moment we think about our identities as Americans who have more than our great-grandparents could have ever dreamed for us.
What are we doing on Passover in America? I’m still searching for the answer to that question. Some of us hold political and subversive Seders. We talk about the struggle for freedom that others are engaged in. In the past few years I’ve seen the promising evolution of Seders recognizing that Black American Jews are not free and we must acknowledge this to properly observe the holiday of Passover. More often than not though, we hold Seders, like all the ones that came before. They are beautiful and rote. We are missing an opportunity to do hard and holy work. Many of us, including myself, have been the wicked child for as long as I can remember. We go through the motions and we don’t truly believe that this has anything to do with us. Passover is perhaps the most relevant holiday in Judaism. We spend an entire week altering our behavior drastically to make sure we recall in detail that with a mighty hand and outstretched arm we were made free. Which begs a huge question no one has ever asked me on Passover: Are we actually free?
We’re not. None of us are free until all of us are free, therefore I am not free and neither is anyone else I know. On a personal level I am not free. I live my life wary of violence because I am a woman. Rarely do I engage on that fact of life through a Jewish lens, but I’ve been presented with the opportunity every year of my life to take a week to do so. The Jewish community is not free. We internalize anti-Jewish oppression, ripping ourselves apart, dividing our Jewish family into “good” and “bad” Jews. Americans are not free. We exist in failing systems that favor people based on race, class, gender expression, orientation and geography. Israelis are not free. They have to endure an endless state of war and occupation that poisons their souls and kills their children.
If we are not engaging with all of these truths on Passover, if we are simply declaring ourselves free and happy while recognizing that others are not free and happy — then we are the wicked child. We have distanced ourselves from a tradition that has been practiced thousands of years. For goodness sakes, the Conservative Jewish Movement only just made Mizrachi and Sephardic Passover Kashrut traditions actually “Kosher” last year. A progressive movement of Judaism completely neglected to validate the experience of Jews who aren’t European until last year. That is just a small illustration of how deeply we’ve been missing the mark. We have rejected a gift of eight days to wrestle, dissent, and reflect on our freedom and oppression. We have accepted the way things are. Had we been been in Egypt as slaves, then we surely would have been the generation forced to wander the desert for forty years, clearing the way for the Israelites who would build a better society in a promised land.
That might be our fate. In forty years I will be old enough to be a grandmother. Maybe my children will be the ones to roll up their sleeves, and perhaps my grandchildren will know what it means to be truly free. I would much rather my generation roll up its sleeves and act on the belief that none of us are free until all of us are free. My liberation is tied up in the liberation of women, queer people, Palestinians, Native Americans, immigrants, and Jews. We will not get freer because someone else is oppressed. We will not lose freedom because someone else gets free. There is enough freedom to go around. I promise you. Chag Sameach.