Tuesday, April 11, 2017

On Passover

Last night, I enjoyed my first Passover Seder in eight years, and one of only four seders I have had since I graduated college. In 2004, I attended a seder hosted by the Israeli ambassador in Hanoi. In 2008, I attended a Passover in Budapest held for quite a few people who did not learn about their Jewish ethnic background until relatively late in life. In 2009, I had Passover with relatives at their lakehouse in Michigan. Last night, a colleague messaged me with an invitation at the last minute. We had seder in the group kitchen of her apartment building.

When I was growing up, I found the lessons of Passover alienating. Are we really going to vilify the Wicked Child for daring to ask a question? Are we really going to get off on killing the first-born children of our enemies, children who are not guilty of their parents' crimes? I grew up in a liberal household which believed in free inquiry and opposed collective punishment. And the whole story seemed to be wallowing in a memory of victimhood. I thought the upper-middle-class Ivy-bound Jews I knew could pay a little more attention to the actual slaves in their own country. As I got older, I cringed at thinking of the next year in Jerusalem, because there was plenty going on in Jerusalem that I did and still do not like.

I had a social justice seder, which pretty much meant that we were able to work through these many questions, admittedly finding the answers that we wanted to find in the story. As one of the participants pointed out, you are required to mention very few parts of the story in the Seder and you are welcome to bring up as many problems as you like. So, I learned that the Wicked Child is wicked for his desire to cut himself off from his community, which is fair, although the Wicked Child faces a conundrum when his community is doing something he doesn't like. So what makes the Wise Child better? Does he take the community on its own terms, embraces it, but still asks questions, learning from his brothers, sisters, and parents, while quietly asking himself even harder questions? The definition of Jewishness at the table emphasized the ish. We believed in expanding the notions of community as far as possible. We believed that culture was anything but static. When we thought about liberation and enslavement, we did not just think of the literal slaves in our backyards, the immigrant laborers who work in conditions that fit our legal definition of involuntary servitude, as well as those caught up in wage slavery. We also thought about our inabilities to liberate ourselves from the capitalist order, to free ourselves entirely from the responsibilities of the person who is inadvertently an oppressor, the people who just can't leave Omelas.

The seder was more significant as many of us had come to the realization that classic, brandy-distilled anti-Semitism was alive and well in America in the past year. But we did our best to understand our suffering within the American, and even larger diasporic context.

I will never be more than a non-practicing diletantte when it comes to the history of Jewish thought. I will always know more about Philip Roth and Max Fleischer than the Book of Genesis. I know more about cultures that are not my own than I do about many religious Jewish subcultures. But a vigorous, humane, open approach to the study of Judaism, as well as the definition of Jewishness is one I can get behind. A static definition of Jewishness and a closed idea of the Jewish religion is dangerous. I despise tribalism in all forms, and, after American nationalism, Jewish tribalism the most. No one tells me whom I have to hate, whom I get to love, or whom I get to call my brother.

Anyway, in celebration of Passover, I offer the two greatest things Jews ever gave America.

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