Why is this Passover, in the U.S. and Israel, different from all other Passovers?
A modest seder setting at home / RadRafe, April 24, 2005 (public domain)

The eight-day observance of Passover, which begins this year on Wednesday night, April 8, is the most celebrated holiday in the Jewish calendar year, more even than the so-called “High Holidays” of the New Year (Rosh Hashone) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). One part of the explanation is that the central event of Passover is not a trip to the synagogue—at least half of all Jews, including in Israel, consider themselves secular—but the ritual meal, the seder.

Besides featuring all of the family’s special traditional holiday foods, and even besides the ingathering of relations and invited guests, the historical significance of the joyous festival is what has kept the Jewish people focused on the most positive aspects of being Jewish. Not religion and ritual per se, but the teachings of fairness and justice, of empathy and support for the refugee and the oppressed, that emerge out of this foundational myth.

A family sitting around a spread seder table discussing the Haggadah, the seder prayerbook. From the Haggadah for Passover (the ‘Sister Haggadah’), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century / British Library (public domain)

According to the Biblical account, Passover is the story of a people’s freedom, the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, the long search for a national identity and homeland. Jews are commanded to tell and retell the story every year at the seder (many attend more than one seder during the Passover season), so that these lessons may never be forgotten. Each year, with changing circumstances in the world, and as participants age and acquire new levels of understanding of the story, Jews are urged to ask questions: What does this story mean to me now?

Passover also figures significantly in Christian theology. It is no accident that Passover and Easter occur at the same time of year. Indeed, the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples was a Passover seder. The egg is one of prescribed foods on the seder plate—anticipating the Easter egg. Going back into pre-history, both Passover and Easter have strong pagan roots as celebrations marking the solstice and the coming of spring: New growth, new life, new light, a green re-awakening of the world from its winter slumbers.

Archeologists, anthropologists, Egyptologists, and even many rabbis today, acknowledge that the historical authenticity of the Passover story is unverifiable. It goes unrecorded and uncorroborated in any ancient texts apart from Jewish scripture. If the story is in essence but another example of a foundational myth to which many peoples trace their origins, it is nevertheless a narrative with profound resonance throughout history. Its teaching that a people can fight back against oppression, slavery and tyranny and free themselves has served many freedom struggles over time.

Jews observed Passover secretly during the time of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, praying for a time when they could live in their lands as equal fellow subjects of the realm. In the German concentration camps, Jews scrambled to find some way of commemorating the holiday even as they suffered on a scale far worse than Egyptian slavery. One famous Holocaust memoirist told of a seder when the only food on the table was a single beet: In remembrance of those direly oppressed Jews under the Nazis, some Jews today include a beet on the seder plate. At times of state-sponsored anti-Semitism even in socialist countries after World War II, Jews longed for Passover’s reassurance that full freedom would come some day. The emergence of the State of Israel in 1948 was seen by many, Jews and non-Jews alike, as the fulfillment and apotheosis of the long Passover chronicle.

In America, of course, it inspired enslaved Africans on Southern plantations and eventually became fused with the Union’s hard-won victory over slavery in the Civil War. And it has continued to bring comfort and transcendence to the long civil rights struggles that followed.

Image adapted from a cartoon by Ellis Rosen, “Who called this meeting again?” / Courtesy of the Sholem Community

Thus, even if apocryphal in its origin, the story still contains essential meaning that cannot be dismissed, and each year new aspects emerge of what it means to be free.

Passover 2020 (or 5780 in the Jewish calendar, running from the 15th to the 22nd of the month of Nisan) is looking quite different this year. If families gather, these will be extremely small units of people who normally would be sheltering in place, or “quaranteaming” together. If others are invited, they will log in to Zoom or some other internet platform to virtually share meals and teachings across town or across the world. For Jews, like just about everyone else on the planet, are also vulnerable to COVID-19. Some have already died, almost as a grim modern-day actualization of the plague of the death of the firstborn (that is, the eldest). Jews being one of those groups with a low birthrate, except in the ultra-Orthodox communities, that trends toward an older demographic.

In Hebrew the holiday is known as Pesakh, which means “to pass over.” According to the account in the Book of Exodus, told in advance of this last and most tragic plague, Jews smeared lamb’s blood on their doorposts to alert the Angel of Death to “pass over” their homes and move on to smite the Egyptian firstborn on the very first “Passover” eve. Which is why a lamb bone is a traditional item on the ceremonial Passover plate each year—and which also helps to explain why Jesus is referred to as the “Lamb of God.”

The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim,” which means “a narrow place,” reflecting geographically the slender piece of land dividing Africa from the huge Asian continent. But psychologically and emotionally it means a place of confinement, of feeling restricted, contained. A good metaphor for sheltering at home! This analogy will not be lost on people this Passover. Liberation from this particular Mitzrayim will come when the all-clear signal sounds that we can move freely about once again.

Every seder implicitly acknowledges the oppression of food deprivation by stating, “All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are in need, come share Passover with us.” This invitation has generally been interpreted to welcome non-Jews as well as Jews. But of course, inviting strangers into the home at this time would be folly—unless everyone agreed to munch their matzoh through a mask! In a time of social distancing, it is still possible to practice social solidarity donations to food banks, homeless centers, and other helping organizations.

Which recalls a joke that’s circulating now. Gallows humor has always cropped up in difficult times—it may be the only thing left to one’s humanity, the ability to laugh in the face of extremity. A woman comes to see her rabbi. She’s very distressed. Her husband has the virus and is in shutdown in their bedroom. She asks, “Rabbi, what’s the best food I can give him?”

Without a moment’s hesitation he replies, “Matzoh.”

“Matzoh? Why matzoh?”

Says the wise rabbi, “It slips under the door.”

Eating of bitter herbs is part of the annual seder ritual, reminding us of the tears shed in slavery, and now of our newly lost family and friends. Another joke that’s making the rounds: Because of the severe COVID-19 problem, the load of horseradish (khreyn) for the seders is stranded at the Madrid airport. So unfortunately, the khreyn in Spain stays mainly on the plane. (Permission to groan, Reader.)

A standard seder tradition is the ritual washing of hands. This year, despite reduced numbers at the table, there will be plenty of that!

More even than “Do not murder” or “Honor the Sabbath,” the Biblical command to welcome the stranger “for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” is repeated over and over again. For many reasons, Jews were forced to migrate and set down roots in new lands, and often migrate again. For their own safety as well as for others, it remained important over the past four millennia or so to keep on reminding the world that we are all passing through in one manner or another and that an open hand is always sweeter than the closed fist.

The crisis at America’s borders—a moral and medical crisis among other ways to characterize it—and in fact at many international borders nowadays, will certainly be recalled at seder gatherings this year. Contributions to HIAS and other immigrant and refugee relief groups are very much needed. It was because of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue’s involvement with a HIAS program that the mass killer there attacked Jews for supposedly helping to “de-whiten” America with immigrants. It raised for many Jews the old specter, Are we really so “white” in the racist’s mind, and will we forever be subjected to accusations of “dual loyalty?”

Who are the pharaohs of today?

In the 1930s and 1940s, no one would have had any problem answering the question, Who are the new pharaohs of our time?

As Jews got involved in subsequent issues, such as civil rights, the feminist and LGBTQ movements, the environmental cause, a variety of answers might have been offered: The Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow, the whole patriarchal system, Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Pharma, or maybe the Military-Industrial Complex.

President Obama hosts a traditional Passover seder dinner on April 9, 2009, with friends and White House employees and their families in the Family Dining Room of the White House / Pete Souza (public domain).

What are people going to say this Passover? Somehow it doesn’t seem like a mindless coronavirus quite fits the bill, although that’s the single issue on most people’s minds. Perhaps some word that rhymes with “lump,” “rump” and “dump” will be uttered at Passover tables this year, signaling not the virus itself but the cavalier way in which millions of human lives and livelihoods have been foolishly, mercilessly tossed aside out of some lethal combination of carelessness, stupidity and cupidity, ego, false pride, toxic nationalism, xenophobia, profit and ambition.

Yet even that will for many not quite explain the overarching first cause of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Western nations. Maybe it’s even bigger than the absence in the United States of a Medicare for All system, for as we know, the virus has laid waste to thousands who were covered by socialized or nationalized healthcare systems in their countries too. In a season of asking questions, and comparing the responses to the virus between socialist and free-market societies, even greater numbers of people may conclude it is Capitalism itself that is the great modern pharaoh.

Here again, there are teachings from Passover that are worth studying. After “the greatest labor walkout in history,” the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching their “promised land” in Canaan. But during those forty years of trial and privation, a rag-tag tribe that had been enslaved and now were free had to figure out who they were as a people. By what principles and laws shall they live? Thus, the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and many other regulations devised during those hard years.

We are in a similar moment. The systems we thought we could depend on—government, insurance, steady employment, “gold-plated” union healthcare plans, the ingenuity of the market—are crumbling before our eyes. We are adrift facing an unknown future. Suppose we instituted short-term expanded paid sick and family leave, unemployment assistance, paid vacations when we return to work, rent and mortgage waivers, decarceration, widespread solidarity and mutual aid efforts to help our neighbors and communities, and Medicare for All to get us over this crisis. And then we figured out—with a little guidance from the likes of a Bernie Sanders—that, hey, with people not having access to these programs even before the coronavirus, we’ve actually been in a crisis for many years. What do we gain if we return to the old ways? So let’s keep our newfound public benefits as the rights we naturally own in America. Would it be so terrible after all? Many countries in Europe have these programs built into their very identities, and people there enjoy happiness quotients far higher than ours.

And while we’re at it, we can start asking questions about some of our other institutions. When it comes to everything important in a society—banking, infrastructure, communications, manufacturing, energy, medical and scientific research, war and peace, trade, relations with other countries and much more—maybe other forms of socialized organization of people and resources could be fairer and more productive. This is an opportunity for the broadest possible conversations about the safest, sanest, most equitable ways forward.

Seeking a homeland

Forty years of wandering in the desert ended when the Jews reached Canaan. In recent years, theologians re-reading these texts in the light of current struggles over the land, have started questioning whether or not the example represented in the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” is one we should still continue to honor.

The Biblical account of the Jews enforcing their claim on the Canaanites’ land because it had supposedly been promised by God is bloody indeed. Reading it can make a person cringe at the rapacious, wholesale killing and looting that are presented as a defensible price to pay in order to settle and repopulate the land with another people—the “chosen” people! These passages come across today as a blueprint for colonization and occupation.

The Puritans sailing to New England, the slavers establishing plantations in Virginia, the Roman Catholic conquerors of Mexico and Peru, the sugar, mining and coffee barons of Brazil, the Dutch, Belgian, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese imperialists who brought their civilization to Africa and Asia in the name of Christianity. They all read their Bible and took smug comfort in their rampant spoliation, even in the face of a holocaust of infectious diseases they carried with them, knowing they had brought religion to the savages.

Modern-day Israel partakes of the same triumphalism. Although from the earliest days of Zionist immigration to Palestine at the end of the 19th century the end-point could not be clearly seen, there were from the start those who believed, whether sincerely or out of convenience, that a return of the Jews to Israel was a perfect solution: “A people without land for a land without people.”

Of course, there were people there, just as the Canaanites were there thousands of years ago (again assuming the account has any historicity at all, which some scholars also doubt—that part of the story may have formed part of the larger foundational mythmaking of the Jewish people to bind them together in a common perceived history).

Jewish Americans this year will unquestionably find themselves more concerned with immediate life-and-death issues at home than with Israel; and in any case, a large majority of them have repeatedly demonstrated that Israel is way down on their list of concerns when it comes to election time.

Still, current developments show the long-term dangers of thinking that one people’s liberation must necessarily come at the cost of another’s.

According to the activist group If Not Now, “the Palestinians in Gaza face the COVID-19 crisis with a health infrastructure battered by 13 years of blockades and wars and 52 years of occupation. There are only 40 available ICU beds and fewer than 20 available ventilators in Gaza right now.” Although so far coronavirus deaths in Israel and the settlements are still under 100, and fewer than that in the West Bank and Gaza, when the virus peaks we will undoubtedly see massive unpreparedness and death.

“Our tradition teaches us,” If Not Now continues, “that celebrating our own liberation means fighting for those who have not yet tasted freedom, for we were once slaves in Egypt too.” Will Jewish Americans, or will Americans in general, respond to the call when the healthcare situation in the Occupied Territories deteriorates to catastrophe? Given his open hostility to Palestinian aspirations, it is highly unlikely that any aid will be coming from the Trump administration, which itself is asking for aid from the rest of the world.

The current parliamentary crisis in Israel is worth commenting on too as part of our Passover considerations. After an unprecedented three elections in which the indicted-for-corruption Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to fend off a challenger in the person of Blue and White Party candidate Gen. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu was not able to secure a majority (at least 61 out of 120 Knesset seats) for a Likud-led governing coalition.

But now, after Gantz finally decided he would not include the Arab-led Joint List, with its 15 Knesset seats, in any proposed coalition that he might lead, his own jerry-built party came apart at the seams. It appears as though Blue and White is now effectively history. Its right wing broke off and will work with Netanyahu. Gantz himself, contradicting his pledge never to do so, has agreed to serve in a shared “unity government” with Netanyahu.

Even leading members of the Labor Party, which governed Israel for its first several decades and which at least formally was affiliated with the Socialist International, have defected to Netanyahu. The Labor Party itself may be headed to a place in the history books. With these numbers added to the Likud coalition, the Prime Minister may now be able to govern with an absolute majority and without Gantz, who may soon become a footnote in Israeli political annals. We shall see.

Netanyahu’s claim now is for strong government, under himself of course, in the fight against COVID-19. Some Israelis warn of martial law during the Passover season—and possibly beyond—in that fight.

After the virus, the immediate political danger is the proposed legal annexation of the West Bank into Israel, which may come as early as this summer. Netanyahu would seem to have the votes for it, and though weakened at home, Trump would give his full support if for nothing else than possibly to peel off a few more right-wing Jewish votes for his re-election.

In the meantime, however, many Israelis are seeing in hospitals and clinics a large number of Arab workers, from staff to aides to nurses and doctors. In percentages, they range anywhere from 20% to 50% depending on the facility and location. These are all professionals exhibiting the highest level of expertise, all collaborating and self-sacrificing alongside their Jewish Israeli counterparts, and all fluent in Hebrew and Arabic.

Together with the historic level of Arab election turnout and results in the Knesset, the Arab commitment in the health crisis has shown Israelis that peace can be envisioned, with parity in law and opportunity among all citizens regardless of religion. The Joint List, which includes the Communist Party of Israel, attracted an estimated 28,000 Jewish votes in the last election, suggesting that some percentage of the Jewish population is now seeing the future in egalitarian terms.

The challenge for the Joint List, with the likely evaporation of Blue and White and the evisceration of the nominally liberal Labor Party, will be to expand its program to include Israelis of all cultural backgrounds and reconstitute a viable secular left that will work cooperatively with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank for mutual advancement.

American soldiers celebrating Passover, circa 1945 / American Jewish Historical Society / Photographer unknown (public domain)

These are some of the issues Jews around the world will be confronting during this unusual Passover. Despite everything going on, it’s still about liberation, but more and more we have to question, Liberation from what? And to what?

We are turning to our trusted doctors these days for information and hope, so let’s hear from Dr. Seuss (of blessed memory), in comments about social distancing captured from recent social media:

I do not want you in my house
I do not want you or your spouse
I do not wish to eat with you
At Seder one or Seder two!

Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re nice
But the CDC gave this advice,
“Ten Plagues are enough, you don’t need one more
Turn away Elijah, the prophet, if he shows up at your front door.”

This year’s only guests: Father, mother, sister, brother.
Next year in good health! We will say to each other.
From now on at each seder, this story we’ll tell,
How God saved his people with a squirt of Purell!

And with that, I wish you and your loved ones safety, good health, and liberation from what enslaves you.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.

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