Passover: let everyone come to the table
I’m a product of disparate influences. I’m the child of a Jewish father and a Chinese mother — the latter a raging atheist — so my cultural and spiritual sensibilites are a pastiche as organized as a Jackson Pollock image.
More than once, my backgrounds have made me a peculiarity to others. My visage is a that of the ambiguous ethnic. As a result, I’ve been called Mexican, Native American, Greek and Arab. I’ve stopped counting the times strangers have approached me and spoken Spanish. When I inform them “Yo no hablo,” they look at me strangely and ask, “Only English?” To further their confusion, I sometimes respond, “That and French.”
To many, my spiritual identity is just as confounding as my appearance.
Yes, I’m Jewish. But no, I don’t believe in god, at least not in a conventional sense. My Jewish background is more about heritage than faith. I need to remember the persecution that my ancestors suffered, both in ancient times and, more recently. I’ve visited Auschwitz and seen the gates that say, “Work brings freedom.”
Recognizing my ancestors’ plight and embracing the fundamentals of the Jewish religion, however, are not the same.
As a young boy, I attended Sunday school and studied everything from Jewish history to “Death and Dying the Jewish way.” As a youngster, I struggled with some guidance I received at the synagogue I frequented. A few instructors at Sunday school emphasized how Jews were god’s chosen people, a concept I’ve found to be anathema, regardless of the religion from which it sprouts. Like all organized religions, the most extreme members of the congregation concerned me. They focused too much on rules and too little on people. These more extreme members of the congregation (and many others, I’m sure) would have dismiss my “Jewishness” as apocryphal: I never had a bar mitzvah and my mother is decidedly not Jewish.
Interestingly, most of my spiritual beliefs are centered around another Jew, one who just happened to be excommunicated because of his break from traditional: Spinoza. In simplistic terms, Spinoza felt that all living things were interconnected, that god was ubiquitious. Some would call Spinoza’s views a sort of pantheism.
Of course, since my early childhood was grounded in a specific religion, my rather individualized approach to spiritulaity remains rooted in some Jewish traditions.
My favorite Jewish holiday happens to be Passover, a far less heralded event than Hannukah, but one far more important to my sensibilities. Unlike some of the more stoic services held in the synagogue, the Passover Seder is a wonderful event that combines food, family and religion.
Passover is about remembering the Exodus, how the Israelites escaped slavery of the Pharoah. The holiday is more than about remembering the past; it is about hope for the future, hope that events like the Holocaust and slavery and subjugation will not repeat themselves.
It’s been a few years since I celebrated Passover (You can understand why some view me as a “bad Jew.”), so I recently pulled out a Haggadah, the book that outlines service readings for the Seder. Based on my formative memories, I recalled Passover as a holiday that seemed to extend beyond Judaism. I was worried that I had projected this concept into my romanticized memories of the holiday, so I perused the Haggadah to see if my recollections were in any way accurate. To a degree, I probably have added my Spinozan take on this holiday. However, as I looked through the Seder text, I found a decidedly inclusive tone in many passages.
Yes, the Seder is about Jewish history. It reminds us that, even when freed from captors, we should not wish ill on them. When the Red Sea crashed down on Pharoah’s army as fleeing Jews escaped, God warned the Israelites not to celebrate. People were perishing; there was no call for celebration.
But Passover isn’t just about the end of slavery and subjugation for Jews. It’s about the end of subjugation for all. My Haggadah (a 1994 version edited by Herbert Bronstein), notes that the Seder should attempt to fuse “the particular Jewish experience of deliverance with the universal human longing for redemption.” The Haggaddah is very clear about how we should treat others: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger … having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
When closing out a Seder, one of the last things participants say is, “Next year in Jerusalem.” That’s a line I’ve said dozens and dozens of times, me a pantheistic half-Jew joined by my atheistic mother.
I look to the future and I imagine a Seder to which everyone is invited, one that includes Jews and Christians and Muslims from American and Israel and Palestine. We’d sit together at the same table and remember our shared histories, one in which we are all oppressed and oppressors. We would eat and pray and hope together. Collectively, we would say, “Next year in Jerusalem. Next year, may all be free!”
David Weinshilboum is an English professor at Cosumnes River College. Even with a Jewish background, he finds gefilte fish to be repulsive. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.