Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Obama and the Seder: Freedom and Multiculturalism

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The New York Times on March 28, 2010 had a front-page article on the Seder planned at the White House for this year, apparently the second annual one (not counting the impromptu one during the campaign two years ago) – “Next year in the White House: a Seder tradition” by Jodi Kantor. I became a little teary reading it, but I tend to do that about things that are about bringing people from different backgrounds together, sharing, and finding common-ness. Just as I tend to get furious and angry about those who sow distrust, difference and divisiveness. I was going to say “sow hate”, but it’s hard to attack people and say you’re against hate, although it is their hatred I abhor.

The Seder is the celebration of Passover, marking the story of Exodus, the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Its significance for African-Americans who were in slavery in this country is obvious, and was obvious to the slaves who were being converted to Christianity and learning this story as they suffered in bondage; many of the spirituals they created used the thinly-veiled metaphor of the Israelites in captivity. Thus it should not be surprising that it is the first African-American President who brings the Passover tradition of the Seder to the White House, or that it is attended by “mostly Jewish and African-American guests”. Nor is it surprising that the event is a “ritual that neither the rabbinic sages nor the founding fathers would recognize.” Hopefully this will not matter to those Jews who observe the Passover with the fully religious celebration, although it may offend some of those who are interested only in division and distrust. I was once warned, on being invited to a Seder, that this was a “Jewish” holiday, and that the host would not enjoy bringing in references to those “others”.

At least that host was aware that many people do. It was certainly true in the secular tradition in which I was raised, in which Passover, not Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur which are the High Holy Days of the Jewish religion, was the main holiday precisely because it honored liberation and appealed to larger human hopes. It was true of our Seders, in which “Go Down, Moses” was as integral a tune as “Dayenu”. In addition to remembering the enslavement of Jews and African-Americans, remembrance of the Holocaust was of course central, with particular focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising* of 1943 (a 40-day armed resistance to Nazi deportation of Jews from the Ghetto, the final episode beginning with a Nazi attack on Passover eve), was a part of our Seder having occurred not very long in the past. In modern secular Seders, the plight – enslavement, genocide, torture, especially when it is conducted by religion or ethnicity or gender or race or sexual orientation – is remembered and condemned.

Of course, the story of the Exodus is also a story of ethnic exceptionalism – the name of the holiday comes from the story that the Angel of Death “passed over” the houses of the Israelites, smeared with lamb’s blood, as he systematically killed the first-born son in the house of the Egyptians. But it is the story of the liberation, of the undying hope for freedom in the human spirit, that is its most important characteristic, that resonates most for me and many others (possibly including those at the White House Seder). In a world of individualism, group-ism, exceptionalism, it is important that we remember that we are all people, and all in it together.

I recently posted on this blog’s “sister” Facebook page a quote from “The Volunteer” the journal of the Archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (ALBA), the group focused on remembering and documenting the participation of Americans as volunteers on the side of the Republic in Spanish Civil War. It was about the effort to identify a black volunteer (Mystery Photo: Gift to Obama Puts ALBA in the Spotlight) in a photo taken by Catalan photographer Agusti Centelles that his children wanted to send as a gift to President Obama. Although not yet identified by name, the soldier is apparently Afro-Cuban, not African-American. But, the article by James Fern├índez and Sebastiaan Faber, continues:

“In the end, of course, who he was is not that significant —nor, for that matter, which nation issued his passport. National identities were of little importance in the Spanish Civil War. The almost 40,000 volunteers resisted being singled out as heroes; they had joined an international, multi-ethnic and multi-racial coalition because they believed fascism was a global threat that demanded international solidarity, and they went to Spain despite the fact that many foreign governments opted for non-intervention.”

On the blog page I ask “Could there be anything more beautiful?” I mean not only the fight against fascism, but at a deeper level: Can we maintain our own identities and traditions but understand that, at our core, we are the same?

*Many of the links are to Wikipedia entries, because they are well-know and easily accessible. There are much better and more authoritative sources, however, for spirituals, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Spanish Civil War, and the other links
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2 comments:

Fat Doctor said...

This is a beautiful post. I'm sending it to a few people who need to read it.

Amy said...

Well said Joshua

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