Friday, April 2, 2010

“You Shall Not Oppress A Stranger”

My family just had its Passover seder, and after almost two years as a museum educator, I’m thinking anew the recitation of the biblical passages that say, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” and “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them . . . You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

My inclination is to understand this broadly—we are all responsible for all the strangers in our midst—rather than narrowly. My childhood Hebrew teachers said that this meant that Jews must look out for one another. This is consistent with how I think of Passover; but in the interests of full disclosure, I should add that a narrower interpretation would leave me doing all the dishes at the end of the ceremony.

My family’s Passover Seder is such a mixed lot of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and agnostics that I’m sure we’re going to open the door for the prophet Elijah some day and get the Easter bunny instead. Of course Passover is an easy holiday to celebrate with people who have to be told what they’re celebrating. It fulfills a commandment that says, “You shall tell your child on this day” and is based on the instruction book called the Haggadah. The entire ceremony is designed to explain itself. Participants are meant to ask questions: What are we doing here? Why is there a bone and an exploded egg (I’m a bad egg-roaster) and parsley and mushy things on a plate? Where’s the normal bread?

The answers are nice and concrete—and usually edible: We were slaves in a foreign land until God freed us, and so there’s salt water for tears and horseradish for bitterness, and we taste them both. Literally. The gloppy brown stuff (ours is made of apples and pecans) represents the mortar that the slaves used to stick bricks together while building cities for Pharaoh. And it’s spring and this is a festival about hope, so we eat bright springy green sprigs of parsley.

Mostly it’s a festival of freedom. Whose? Well, the Jews who were enslaved in Egypt, but even as a child I found that too limited an interpretation. I grew up during the civil rights movement. When we sang “Go Down, Moses” in second grade, I knew it was about Moses from my Sunday school classes, but I also knew it was about slaves in the United States and what Dr. King was saying on television. At my childhood Seder, we skipped a lot. Dad read, “‘The great Rabbi Hillel had much to say about this,’” adding, “but we don’t. Next page.” Still, at the end, I always felt my heart lift, because we, or the American slaves, or someone were free.

So when I moved to New York City and acquired a mostly Italian, partly Irish, slightly Japanese family, I wanted to do a Seder with them. Even with the help of a lot of friends named Schwartz, this was awkward. People who have been taught by nuns in the 1950s (much of my new family) tend to think of ritual as serious stuff. They were thinking, “This is holy! Shut up and be respectful.” It took a few years to persuade them that you’re supposed to get slightly drunk and argue.

Having people who have never been at a Seder before makes it a better holiday. Someone needs to be truly asking questions. It shouldn’t become rote, as it might be if it’s always your family and everyone already knows what comes next: here’s where we get horseradish on the tablecloth; here’s where Uncle Irving renews his annual argument with Grandpa Abe about something that happened in 1952. And with newcomers, it’s possible to get genuinely unexpected answers to some of the traditional questions. One year a Venetian-American guest listened to us struggle with the traditional end-of-Seder wish, “Next year may we be in Jerusalem,” when most of us present would have preferred to say, “Next year may we be in Venice.” So what do we make of that—we muttered, as we often mutter—and the Venetian lady said, “Doesn’t it mean that people want to be in their true home—a real place or a spiritual home, their personal Jerusalem?” We thought it might.

It is, of course, possible to do Seder as the story of one people’s freedom and triumph, and the Egyptians get what they deserve, so there. But it’s useful to remember that the angels take this point of view in the Bible, and God yells at them. Even though the Egyptians are the complete bad guys of the story, God says, “You can’t rejoice when some of my people are suffering.” So as part of the Seder, we diminish our full glass of wine—a symbol of joy—a drop for each plague, to mourn the suffering of the very people we were fleeing.

It’s not a Seder that would satisfy everyone. Elijah’s cup is from an old Metropolitan Opera production of Parsifal. Occasionally an Italian brings a Neapolitan Easter cake, though some years the brisket has to be kosher. I’ve cobbled together a Haggadah that makes the coming from slavery to freedom, from oppression to joy, as universal as possible. So: You shall partake of suffering everywhere, because you suffered. You shall remember the poor. You shall remember to hope. Next year, may all be free. And, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” and “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. They shall be like the native-born. You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

This year I was thinking of “strangers in our land.” I’ve given tenement tours to: Third graders, children of immigrants, who tell me our tenement apartments look big to them because they share a single room with their brothers and sisters and parents; the woman who asked her English teacher if the ponds in Central Park were for doing the laundry, like where she came from; visitors who say they were engineers or doctors in the old country, but here they drive taxis or work in construction - sometimes mocked for having “funny accents,” they plan to send their children to college; and the immigrant from Trinidad who was at our Seder—a Baptist minister—who wept, saying that he missed his family but realized that the ties of friendship and ritual can create a new family and a new home, even while the people with whom he shares ties of blood are far away.

- Posted by Judy Levin, Tenement Museum educator


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