Telling Our Story This Passover and Beyond
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The Jewish Journal 04.04.2023
Telling Our Story This Passover and Beyond
The Passover Seder remains one of American Jews’ favorite rituals. Nearly 80% will attend one this year. Beyond the fun foods and catchy tunes, the family dramas and childhood memories, the kid-friendly “Die-Die-aynu” silliness and the adult-friendly substance, the seder perfectly Americanizes traditional Judaism.
Passover lacks the Eastern European guilt-tripping heaviness of the Days of Awe; it’s also devoid of Shabbat’s weekly, constricting, embarrassing reminders of Jews’ forever otherness. Jews confuse: We look like we fit in, but we just keep sticking out.
On a more positive, normalizing note, the weird, ancient ritual of the Seder is surprisingly all-American. The Seder is individualistic, encouraging creativity. It’s home-based, empowering participants. It’s family-friendly, representing the nicest, cuddliest, American Jewish values. It’s gratitude-centered, delighting traditionalists and new-agists alike. Most importantly, most American-Jewish-pride-inducing of all, it’s freedom-focused — telling the great progressive story of the Jews’ emergence as a free people, which American Revolutionaries echoed, African-American slaves reenacted, and many subsequent liberation movements revered. No wonder the Seder is the Jewish ritual most Jews choose to celebrate with non-Jews.
But beware. Every Seder should come with the equivalent of the Surgeon General’s warning label on cigarette packages: Don’t over-Americanize this blue-and-white event into a red-white-and-blue, meaningless mush. There are only so many times you can sing “We Shall Overcome” and “If I Had a Hammer” instead of “Avadim Hayeenu” (We were slaves!) and “Hallel” (Praise God!).
This year, every elder should seize the moment and the captive audience. Tell your family’s super-heroic origin-story. Recreate, dramatically and memorably, your yitziat mitzrayim , your escape from an Egypt of Old World poverty, oppression and depression to this New World of prosperity, freedom and opportunity. No matter where we came from, no matter how far we have, or haven’t, gone economically, it’s mind-blowing how many of us share such similar family tales.
Judaism has two kinds of mitzvot (commandments) aseh v’lo ta’aseh (to do and not to do): thou shalts and thou shalt nots. This Passover, the imperative to tell your story is both. It’s a positive mitzvah: Thou shalt tell your family’s story, so future generations will know where we came from and how far we have come. These stories can inspire and instruct. My late father-in-law loved recalling how, as he built his real estate empire, whenever he overextended, he would approach a lender two weeks before the due date and ask for the next month off, promising to repay it along with an extra month of interest when the loan ended. That short story told a long, wonderful tale about starting with nothing, thinking ahead, leveraging tomorrow’s promised payoffs to alleviate today’s shortfalls, and, most importantly, creating community and integrity by being an honorable man of his word.
Today, unfortunately, this narrative homework due on both Seder nights, and as often as possible thereafter without being annoying, is also a negative mitzvah: Thou shalt not succumb to the Blue State mania, haunting most young American Jews, that negates what we accomplished, robs us of our justifiable pride in our achievements, and neutralizes the toolbox generations of American Jews needed previously to make it, and what this generation still needs to succeed.
A Big White Lie haunts American Jewry: that Jews are guilty of “white privilege.” This slur is a poison arrow targeting every young idealistic Jew. It caricatures Jews as white, rich, lazy heirs to America’s riches or, worse, plunderers on the backs of Black people, rather than plucky, talented avatars of the American dream. Around the Seder table, we need a communal effort to refute this libel, by retelling our story and redefining ourselves.
Refuting the Libel: We Jews Shall Overcome Our Whitening!
At Seder-time we slow down, sit down, calm down and get down on Jewish historical time. On April 5th it will no longer be just 2023. Seder recalls our enslavement 3,000 years ago and liberation 400 years later. Sitting at Seder links us to every ancestor in each Jewish family’s unbroken, millennial-strong chain from the liberated children of Israel wandering the desert to America’s uber-free children all too often deserting Judaism today.
If a Seder doesn’t feel layered, if it doesn’t echo the old country and long-gone relatives, it’s missing something. At Karpas, the greens course symbolizing spring, the Troys eat potatoes because — as my father told us that his father told him — in Russia, around Passover time, nothing green was available, only kartoshke , potatoes. Consider the countercultural power of entering America’s bounteous supermarkets, passing those dazzling greens, and choosing pale, clumpy potatoes for Karpas.
I added a new memory, layered on my father’s and grandfather’s. In 1985, I spent Passover in Soviet Russia visiting Refuseniks, celebrating our freedom holiday with unfree Jews. Kartoshke were one of the few kosher-for-Passover foods I could eat in that atheist, Jew-hating, freedom-sucking dictatorship — again and again and again.
Similarly, while my grandparents rarely told old country tales, we sang certain old country dirges at Seder that evoke the Eastern European Jewish vibe. More powerful was my late grandfather Leon Gerson’s “Shfuch Chamadcha,” “O Lord, pour out your wrath” on our enemies. He sang it with pained power, without explanation; no additional words were necessary. When my short, timid, beloved grandpa stood and poured out those words, he turned from Leon the scared yid into Aryeh Leib the Maccabean Lion. And we metamorphosed from young ambitious Americans into traumatized yet healing Jews, the winners of the Jewish historical lotto, the luckiest Jews born in 2000 years, born into freedom and America’s welcoming miracle.
Grandpa died in 1998. Each Seder, I try replicating his power, his pain, but can’t. He was born into darkness. I’m a child of light. With trembling voice and shaking hands, in that 32-word prayer, my grandfather returned us to those awful moments when other Polish conscripts played “pin the Jew against the electrified fence,” victimizing him, and that horrifying, oft told by my grandmother tale about how her cousin unintentionally smothered her baby to death in a crawl space while quieting the child during a pogrom.
Instantly, Grandpa summoned the anguish of Auschwitz, the curse of Kishinev, the misery of mass martyrdom throughout Jewish history.
In doing that, Grandpa instinctively, unconsciously, and preemptively inoculated us against today’s nonsense. Clearly, I see that racism still festers in America. I acknowledge that when I walk down the street in this all-too-race conscious society, I get treated a certain way because of the color of my skin but also because of the nerdy-academic uniform I wear and the vibe I give wherever I go.
Refuting the “white privilege” libel doesn’t require counter-lies imagining a race-neutral society. But when that lovely, thoughtful, thwarted and scared man I revered as “Grandpa,” walked down Main Street in Queens, no one thought, “Oh, there’s a white guy, part of the ruling class.” Even before he opened his mouth, with his elegant, correct, but accented English, people thought “there goes a yid” or a “Jew” — depending on their perspective. It was, pardon my ethnic stereotyping, his large nose and prominent ears, his shuffle, the way he held himself, and how he dressed — formal but never, ever fashionable, God forbid!
And yes, my Polish refugee grandfather still saw antisemites behind every tree and quaked at policemen, unlike us, his confident, cop-friendly, all-American grandchildren. But Seder night, we absorbed his pain. So now our kids deserve to hear his story.
Both my maternal grandparents, whatever traumas they endured, felt immensely grateful to their new home, America. (My paternal grandparents died too young for me to know them well). They often exclaimed that they lived a miracle or serial miracles catapulting them from the worst ghettos. They escaped Eastern Europe’s virtual economic slavery and Jew-hating barbarism to live America’s wonders. We Gerson-Troy grandkids were lucky. Our grandparents lived into the 1990s, when my two brothers and I were in our twenties and thirties. We could absorb their amazement at the tape-recorder and television and radio and refrigerator and washing machine in their modest Queens home, which either did not exist or were unavailable to commoners when they were born about 120 years ago. Each freedom, each techno-wonder, each goodie they enjoyed, they shoved into the same category: “America.”
When they said “America,” it was a goosebumps moment, a magical word meaning progress, opportunity, civility, dignity, liberty, life itself. Of course, they suffered from American Jew-hatred and Depression-level poverty, even before the Great Depression. Of course, they endured indignities in their day-to-day American lives. Still, they never forgot their good fortune, especially because had they stayed “there” — they often said the word with a shudder — they would have been Hitler’s cannon fodder.
My maternal grandparents lived long enough to see their two children move from apartments to houses, and their son, my uncle, become “a millionaire,” that wondrous word in immigrant Jews’ vocabulary. More than success, more than status, it meant comfort, protection, insulation from life’s vicissitudes, undoing centuries of Jewish history. They lived long enough to see every grandkid accepted into universities they only read about in The New York Times. And they lived long enough to know that our lives would be so much better, richer, safer, cushier than theirs — thank God and thank America.
So thanks to my grandparents’ long lives, we could taste their fear, their trauma, their roller coaster story, their lack of privilege, to laugh off these silly, ahistorical, mind-messing “white privilege” accusations.
We American Jews created “something from nothing” — also the name of Phoebe Gilman’s lovely children’s book. Everything my brothers, cousins and I have is not just a blessing, but also a hard-earned, sweat-stained, talent-generated miracle, refuting our Polish-Ukrainian-Russian past — and the white privilege charge. The “white privilege” accusation launched against Jews is a power move to make us feel perpetually guilty for anything we enjoy. It’s a false accusation, short of a blood libel, but inching too close for comfort to such ugly, demonizing, territory.
This essay emphasizes my family story. But note how generic my personal story is. “White privilege” negates every Jew who had the gumption to leave some 19th- or 20th-century Egypt-like hellhole and start the long passage to America. It underestimates the nerve required to learn a new language, master a new economic, social, cultural and political eco-system and build a new life. It wipes out the pride we should feel in every job our ancestors landed, every degree they earned, every house they bought, every baby step they took, whether or not it became the big life-changing giant step that so many were lucky to take.
Refuting this guilt-spewing “Jews-have-white-privilege” libel, this American-Jewish-perspiration-and-inspiration invisibility ray, this rags-to-riches oversight, does not ignore racism or others’ suffering. It simply reasserts our story, our achievements. And it acknowledges the wondrous, now ironic, arc of American Jewish triumph. Lured by tales of a Goldene Medina , a prosperous country whose streets are made of gold, Jewish immigrants arrived to find that the streets were paved with concrete and potholes, but wide open with opportunity. Then, many — not all! — earned enough to move into Golden Ghettos. As a result, irony of ironies, their most precious possessions, their most delicious achievements, their children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, ended up falling for the same initial con — this time with a mean-spirited, petty, un-American, anti-Jewish political spin, that the streets for Jews were made of gold, yet for others, were made of coal, or worse.
Retelling: In Detail
We Jews, and particularly American Jews, have a great story. Why not tell it again and again? We should be shouting it from the rooftops, not slinking away from it in shame. The Haggadah commands us, “Ve’higgadetah le’vincha, ” “tell your children!” The Seder’s child-centered shtick is a clever, traditional yet surprisingly hip way of initiating young Jews into the Jewish club, by telling the ultimate, defining Jewish story: We were slaves, now, wow, we’re free.
Today, too many Jews understand freedom only in part. They are, to use Sir Isaiah Berlin’s subtleties, so addicted to asserting their “freedom from” that they forget how wonderful it is to have “freedom to.” Yes, we want freedom from oppressive, heavy-handed defining structures. But Momma Troy wisely warned: If you’re too open-minded, your brains fall out. Passover affirms the power of specific memories, commandments, commitments. We recline to assert our freedom; our freedom to slouch celebrates our freedom from slavery.
Too many American Jews don’t understand that dimension of Judaism’s genius and why we still do the Seder in remarkably similar ways that our ancestors did. It’s because the devil isn’t in the details; holiness and memory are. Because we nitpick, especially on Passover, by sweating the small stuff, every Seder swims in historical time, guaranteeing another copy next year. It’s two overlapping problems. If we made it too generic, or spent too much time reading Martin Luther King’s wonderful “I have a dream speech” instead of our particular Maggid, the retelling, Passover would lose its countercultural power, blurring into the general liberal mush most Jewish kids imbibe. And if we made it too passive, quickly passing on some fleeting cliches and good feelings, we would not be leveraging the specific ritual acts rooted in history, consecrated by history, which convey values not just stories, maintaining continuity.
Consider the possibly apocryphal yet illuminating confrontation between America’s WASP-y, antisemitic Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1954.
“Tell me, Mr. Prime Minister,” Dulles sneered, “who do you and your state represent? Does it represent the Jews of Poland, perhaps Yemen, Romania, Morocco, Iraq, Russia or perhaps Brazil? After 2,000 years of exile, can you honestly speak about a single nation, a single culture? Can you speak about a single heritage or perhaps a single Jewish tradition?” Smiling, Ben-Gurion noted that the Mayflower sailed from England 300 hundred years earlier. “Now, do me a favor,” he said, “find 10 American children and ask them the following: What was the name of the Captain of the Mayflower? How long did the voyage take? What did the people who were on the ship eat?”
Ben-Gurion knew that few American adults could answer such questions, but most Jewish children in that day knew Moses, the 40 years in the desert, and the Matzah then Manna as the answers, the details illuminating our old-new tale. Similarly, when a British Lord asked why Chaim Weizmann cared about Palestine, not any other random landmass for the Jewish people, Weizmann asked the Lord why he passed dozens of other random old ladies every Sunday, as he traveled 20 miles to visit his mum.
So, yes, we keep reliving the original Yetziat Mitzrayim. But we add our American Jewish twist. Now, we are privileged to add another layer: the Zionist story of a broken, humiliated, wandering people, finally coming home.
Telling this story is particularly important this year despite the political tension. This is still the 75th birthday of Israel’s miracle. Consider the words of the thinker Hillel Halkin, who moved to Israel from America as a young idealist in the 1970s, which we Troys read every year around our Seder table in Jerusalem:
“A great adventure. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. There’s been nothing like it in human history. A small and ancient people loses its land and forgets how to speak its language; wanders defenselessly for hundreds, thousands, of years throughout the world with its God and sacred books; meets with contumely, persecution, violence, dispossession, banishment, mass murder; refuses to give up; refuses to surrender its faith; continues to believe that it will one day be restored to the land it lost; manages in the end, by dint of its own efforts, against all odds, to gather itself from the four corners of the earth and return there; learns again to speak the language of its old books; learns again to bear arms and defend itself; wrests its new-old home from the people that had replaced it; entrenches itself there; builds; fructifies; fortifies; repulses the enemies surrounding it; grows and prospers in the face of all threats. Had it not happened, could it have been imagined? Would anyone have believed it possible?”
This year, Jews should leave an empty seat, or two, at the Seder to acknowledge the Jewish people’s losses this year due to Palestinian terror — especially two brothers murdered instantly, the Paley brothers at a Jerusalem bus stop and the Yaniv young men in a Huwara ambush. Even more important, during “Dayenu,” when we detail the miracles of liberation, or during “Hallel,” when we say “thanks,” Jews worldwide should contemplate how lucky we are to be living in a world with a democratic Jewish state and ask themselves, “How should we celebrate the 75th anniversary of this ongoing miracle, April 26?” At minimum, serve ice cream for breakfast, to the young and the old, so that we taste the sweetness of living in a world with this state.
Redefining: From Slavery to Freedom in America and Israel
If in the Old Country successful Jews downplayed their achievements so antisemites wouldn’t target them, today some Jews are downplaying their achievements so they won’t hate themselves or their kids won’t hate them. It’s not surprising that in this finger-pointing era, when so many try making American winners feel guilty, Jews would excel in these guilt Olympics.
It’s time to end the competitive breast-beating and start the story-telling. Let’s hijack the Seder to tell two simultaneous stories. Tell the American Jewish story from slavery to freedom, from persecution to safety, and tell Israel’s Zionist story from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to home. Then raise a glass, saying, with all the challenges, how lucky we are. And ask the question: Is there another moment in Jewish history in which you would rather be living?
So don’t be shy. Bring out your best tableware. Buy the choicest, juiciest roast. Look your best. And don’t let the hyper-judgmental, “woke” historical grave robbers rob us of our joys.
It’s time to surprise your kids or grandkids. Tell your family origins story. Toast the Zionist miracles of the State of Israel. Then, get personal, get existential. Don’t just ask the young ones “What are you doing, what are you studying, where are you going to college?” — all of which they accurately hear as “How are you going to make the money we did?” Throw them a curveball. Ask them “How is your soul, what are you struggling with, what kind of person do you want to be, what kind of Jew do you want to be? And how does your story fit in with ours?”
Chag Pesach Sameach.
A Modern Dayenu Celebrating Israel’s 75th Anniversary
After thanking God for the many miracles of the Exodus, the flight from Egypt, let’s contemplate the amazing self-generated miracles of the Zionism movement. This was a flight from a latter-day Egypt of Exile, of powerlessness and humiliation, into a movement that helped create a modern state that, for all its challenges, still makes all of us prouder, stronger, freer. This year, let’s use the Seders not just to start counting the Omer toward Shavuot, but also to count toward the Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day celebrations, no matter what the headlines say!
How many benefits did we generate for ourselves and the world with the Zionist Leap of Hope — Theodor Herzl’s vision that tomorrow will be better than today, and that it is our responsibility to roll up our sleeves and make it happen?
If Zionists had only reestablished Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland — Dayenu! That would have been miraculous enough.
If Zionists had only offered a welcoming Jewish home to Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands, and other oppressed Jews while preserving civil liberties and free immigration for all — Dayenu! That would have been miraculous enough.
If Zionists had only returned the Jews to history, transforming Jews’ image from the world’s victims to actors on history’s stage, with rights and responsibilities — Dayenu! That would have been miraculous enough.
If Zionists had only built a western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor — Dayenu! That would have been miraculous enough.
If Zionists had only created a dynamic old-new Jewish culture making Israel a central force in revitalizing Jewish secular and religious life in the Jewish homeland and abroad while serving as a bastion of Western culture too — Dayenu! That would have been miraculous enough.
If Zionists had only revived Hebrew, developing “lashon hakodesh ,” the Holy Language, into a living language for everyday life reflecting and fueling our national revival — Dayenu! That would have been miraculous enough.
If Zionists had only strengthened a proud Diaspora, giving all Jews throughout the world more spring in our steps and more inspiring songs in our hearts — Dayenu! That would have been miraculous enough.
How much more so are the many benefits that Zionism doubled and quadrupled for us, in Israel and throughout the world? Thanks to this movement of Jewish nationalism, rooted in our sense that we are people, Am Yisrael, with ties to a particular homeland, Eretz Yisrael, and rights to establish a state in that homeland, Medinat Yisrael. Therefore, in merely 75 years since 1948, we, the Jewish people:
•Reestablished Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland.
•Welcomed home over three million Jewish refugees.
•Transformed the Jew’s image from the world’s victim to actors on history’s stage.
•Built a western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor.
•Created a dynamic old-new Jewish culture.
•Strengthened a proud Diaspora.
We did all of this while being well aware that we must keep dreaming, building, improving. Because for all we have achieved, we have not yet fulfilled all our high ideals. Still, at this moment, we celebrate all the good, keep striving for better, continue to escape from our old traumas, our old weaknesses, our perennial powerlessness, our ever-so-draining victimhood, and sing “Dayenu!”
Some might prefer to thank God, others thank the Zionists, still others thank both. Think about it. Did Zionism have to be secular enough to succeed yet Jewish enough to be legitimate or Jewish enough to succeed yet secular enough to be legitimate? No matter how secular and person-centered you might be, it was the Jewishness of the state, the longstanding ties to this particular homeland of Israel, that united Jews, mobilized them, and connected them to one another and to Israel. And no matter how religious and God-centered you might be, if you credit God with creating the State, the Zionist movement still had to speak the secular languages of nationalism and national rights and democracy and national institutions, to function in the modern world and be accepted in the community of nations.
More simply, this is a chance to ask about the “miracles” of Israel. How do they affect your life? And what is the next miracle we most desperately need in the Promised Land today?
Leave an Empty Chair
Sadly, I am updating something I wrote in 2003, when Palestinian terrorists were targeting Israelis, as they still are today:.
Once again, during this year’s Seders, we will celebrate our joyous holiday of liberation with heavy hearts. Even as we revel in our freedom, some of our brothers and sisters in Israel, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are in pain. This year, as in previous years, we must reclaim our symbols, remember our losses, reaffirm our commitment to Israel, to the Jewish people, and to a true peace.
Over the years, and in this particular surge since last March, when the Palestinians turned toward violence yet again, too many have died, too many have been injured, on both sides. And too many Seders will have empty chairs: missing husbands, fathers, brothers, sons; missing wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.
The Seder’s power comes from its ritualization of memory. It is a primal, sensual, literal service. The Seder plate, evoking the mortar used in building with charoset, and the tears shed by the slaves with salt water, helps us visualize the trauma of slavery.
The physical acts of reclining, of eating special foods, of standing to greet Elijah the prophet, help us feel the joy of Yetziat Mitzrayim , of leaving Egypt. And, in an affirmation of the importance of peoplehood, we mark this special moment not as individuals but as a community.
In that spirit, we cannot proceed with business as usual during these challenging times. We must improvise a new ritual that marks our present pain, that illustrates our vital connection with Israel and Israelis today.
Let each of us, as we gather at our Seders, intrude on our own celebrations by leaving one setting untouched, by having one empty chair at our table. This year, as we mourn two sets of brothers brutally murdered, we might consider two empty chairs, to honor the memory of eight-year-old Asher Menahem Paley and his six-year-old brother Ya’akov Yisrael Paley who were run over at a Jerusalem bus stop, and to honor 21-year-old Hallel Menachem Yaniv and 19-year-old Yagel Yaniv, ambushed in cold blood by a terrorist released from an Israeli jail just months before he committed his heinous crime.
Let us take a moment to reflect on our losses. And let us take the time to learn the name of at least one victim murdered since last Passover, or one victim murdered years earlier, one Jew who cannot celebrate this year’s holiday, one family in mourning, one family with an empty seat at their table and a hole in their hearts.
Let us call out the name of Koby Mandell, age 13, an American immigrant murdered in May, 2001, whose father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, noted the empty seat at his Shabbat table and shared the pain of watching other boys grow up, watching their voices deepen, their shoulders broaden, their gaits quicken, even as his son lay dead.
Let us call out the name of Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old soldier killed by Hamas in August, 2014 but whose remains Hamas holds in a cruel assault on Hadar’s family and civilized norms.
Let us call out the names of Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, ambushed in October, 2015, slaughtered in their car’s front seat as their four children sat in the back.
Let us call out the name of Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year-old kid enjoying his yeshiva “gap” year, gunned down at a traffic stop.
Let us call out the name of Erez Orbach, who fought his army exemption for physical disabilities and was accepted into officer’s training, only to be run over with three other cadets by a truck-driver-terrorist on Jerusalem’s promenade in January 2018.
And let us call out the name of Amir Khoury, a 32-year-old Israel-Arab police officer, who was killed with two young fathers and two foreign workers, just a year ago, on March 29, 2022. Amir helped save many lives that day, but left behind a widow and four young children.
As we call out these names, let us commit to some action, to embrace the victims’ families. Moreover, let us build a friendship with Israel and Israelis, which is not just about politics and not solely about mourning.
And as we call out these names, unlike our enemies, let us not call for vengeance. Instead, as we mourn, let us hope; as we remember the many lives lost during this crazy and pointless century of war, let us pray more intensely for a just and lasting peace, and for an end to the global scourge of terrorism afflicting Jews and non-Jews.
A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org ) . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.
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