A Zionist Eye For The Seder’s Whys…

Seven suggestions to root your seder in the Zionist ideology that is as natural to the Pesach story as matzah and wine…

The New York Jewish Week

March 27, 2018

A Zionist Eye For The Seder’s Whys…

Seven suggestions to root your seder in the Zionist ideology that is as natural to the Pesach story as matzah and wine…

T he Jewish people’s grumpelstiltskins, those perma-kvetchers who answer “how are you” with an all-purpose “oy,” are reeling. How can they gripe when the Gallup Poll shows Americans more “staunchly in Israel’s corner than ever” and Israel just scored eleventh on the World Happiness Index? Americans support Israel as a democratic country that has made concessions to make peace opposed by Palestinians who remain addicted to terrorism. Meanwhile, Israel’s happiness proves that meaning, tradition, family, and community make people happy — even amid adversity.

By contrast, in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where so many American Jews live – or aspire to live – unhappiness is epidemic. Their cushy misery warns that being too insulated from life risks sucking its joy away. We needn’t be monks, renouncing wealth or fun; we just shouldn’t be hogs. And we need grounding.

Given that, as Israel throbs with the busy-ness of Passover cleaning, preparing another national week of mass joy, perhaps some American Jews will consider giving their Judaism a makeover this Passover. It’s too easy to transform seders into Civil Rights celebrations, with Martin Luther King upstaging Moses in our desperate attempt to make Judaism seem hip.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve sung “If I had a hammer” as lustily as anyone after Dayenu. And I’m as proud as any American Jew that our Exodus has inspired so many oppressed groups achieving freedom. But seeing seder through a Zionist eye puts the accent where it should be – on peoplehood, meaning Jewish identity, as a way IN to universal human rights and social justice – not universal human rights and social justice as a way OUT of Jewish identity and peoplehood.

It’s Judaism’s most basic lesson yet one hard many American Jews resist, especially those of us propagandized in college — family first! You build identity through deep overlapping ties to community. That triggers your idealism, including your contribution to the world.

This has long been America’s way too. Patriotism fueled the spread of American ideals. Without that identity-pride-idealism fusion, the Civil War would not have freed the slaves, World War II would not have crushed totalitarianism. Alas, today, postmodernists denigrate American patriotism as toxic to liberal ideals – while anti-postmodern hyper-patriots do whatever they can to confirm that assumption that liberalism and patriotism clash.

Zionism balances nationalism and liberalism, particularism and universalism, identity and freedom. So rather than reducing the seder into yet another limp, watered-down, American Jewish attempt to worship the zeitgeist, Zionize your seder, give it the makeover it needs with the kind of passion and flair the Queer-Eye-for-the-Straight-Guy guys bring to their work.

Root your seder – wherever you live – in the Zionist ideology of nationalism and idealism of freedom and self-sufficiency, that leaps off the Haggadah’s page and is as natural to the Pesach story as matzah and charoseth.

Consider adding:

A blue-and-white theme to your décor – and-

blue-and-white desserts — emphasizing that this celebrates Israel’s 70th anniversary too.

Israeli songs at strategic moments and the end (download lyrics beforehand).

a mini-biography of a famous Israeli – prime minister, president, writer, thinker, celebrity, hero on every plate -or mix it with some favorite Israelis you know personally. Ask each person at one point in the seder to introduce their hero – and explain their significance.

a moment at one of the seder’s many points of thanksgiving – liberation from Egypt, the two Hallel’s, the grace after meals — listing ways we are grateful for Israel’s existence, focusing on Israel’s contribution to Jews and the world.

On a more sobering note, leave one empty seat at your seder, for one of the 65 people Palestinians have killed since September, 2015, including three – Adiel Kolman (32), Ziv Daus (21) and Netanel Kahlani (20) in the last month. Tell one victim’s story – and think about how to reach out to the survivors with love.

Finally, and most important, go deep. Make a true Korech – a Hillel Sandwich – meshing the Passover text with Zionist ideas – they harmonize together beautifully. Before saying the Kiddush over wine, which defines the nation-building experiences of Creation and Liberation from Egypt, read Joseph Soloveichik’s teaching about Israel’s mission being to go from merely a “Camp people” with a shared fate – like slavery – to a “Congregation nation” with a shared destiny from Sinai – to live ethically and do good in the world. While contemplating slavery and freedom, learn from Natan Sharansky that by discovering his Jewish identity in the Soviet Union, he then started demanding freedom for himself and others – too many today think you need to free yourself of Jewish commitments before helping others. When recalling the wicked or rebellious son, consider Berl Katznelson’s 1934 essay “Revolution and Tradition,” about the need to have enough “memory” to remain grounded, and enough “forgetfulness” to rebel, to innovate. More practically, consider David Ben-Gurion’s charge that Jews are chronic idealists – and ask how the Jewish state fulfills our ideals collectively, and yes, where it falls short. Read Golda Meir’s tenth anniversary speech to the UN, and discuss how far Israel has come since then, and what else it needs to accomplish. End, perhaps, with Rachel Sharansky Danziger, who talks about the next generation’s burdens – how do we fill the shoes of giants who created the State, who resisted oppression – while embracing today’s responsibilities and opportunities. (Space considerations preclude my quoting extensively. Please consult my new book The Zionist Ideas or www.zionistideas.com for 18 examples with fuller texts linked to specific Haggadah texts, explanations and same questions).

More broadly, while remembering how the rabbis sat around debating the texts, have a mini-Zionist Salon. Even without adding texts, do what Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues did, think big: ask: “What’s the most inspiring experience you ever had in Israel? Jewishly in general? “”What does having a State of Israel mean for us today?” “What should we be doing to celebrate Israel’s 70th?” “Do we seek a closer a relationship with Israel – why or why not?”

In short, celebrate Israel with fun, with personal connections, with meaningful connections, and with challenging ideas.

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Gil Troy  is the author of  The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s . His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. Professor Gil Troy is Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University.


Follow on Twitter  @GilTroy .


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