Uncategorized · April 27, 2024 4

Our Living Haggadah


Marty Levine

April 27, 2024

I’m writing this in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Our household celebration focuses on two Seders (Passover service/meal) around my dining room table along with friends and family. We use a self-created Haggadah, the framework for the ceremony. Carole and I have worked over the years to curate our celebration around how three motifs of the traditional observance speak to us in the reality of today:

  • Let all who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover with us.
  • This year we are slaves; next year we will be free.
  • This year we are here; next year we will be in Israel.

My need to make my Passover current and relevant came as a reaction to the Seders of my youth. These were led by my Grandparents in a language, Hebrew, I could not understand. The English translation that came along were dense and difficult to make meaningful.  It had something, in my child’s mind, to do with my history as a Jew, of a time when Jews were slaves in Egypt and how we were freed by a powerful and vengeful God. My family seemed to be gathering around that Seder table as an obligation to a tradition with no connection to how we lived our lives or how we confronted the problems around us.

Things changed when Carole and I married and started our family.  With a responsibility for us to lead, however we would observe this holiday, we began, year by year, to evolve a Seder that would be more than a hollow echo of our childhood experiences. We wanted to make this ritual speak to our lives in the moment as well as the challenges we saw before us.

We begin with these words:

Tonight, we gather together to celebrate Passover, our holiday of freedom. We will eat a great meal together, enjoy four glasses (at least!) of wine, and tell the story of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. We welcome our friends and family members from other backgrounds to reflect with us on the meaning of freedom in all our lives and histories. We will consider the blessings in our lives, pledge to work harder at freeing those who still suffer and begin to cast off the things in our own lives that oppress us.

Our challenge is to make these more than words we say ritualistically and then forget once we complete our Seder. We wanted to remind all who were gathering with us of the work of creating a world of freedom, a world free from hunger, and a world with a Jerusalem we all would want to return to. All of this is work that still needed to be done.

This year has been a difficult year to “celebrate” Passover. While we want to feed all who are in need, we are living with the horror of a man-caused famine in Gaza taking place in front of our eyes. We are living with the threats to our own nation’s democracy becoming more and more dire. And we are living with an Israeli government hell-bent on destroying any semblance of Palestinian life across the face of Israel/Palestine making the thought of returning to Jerusalem repulsive. Unless it can be see as a shared aspiration with our Palestinian brothers and siters.

I was taken this year with the prescience and the sadness of reading from the writings of the Jewish-Israeli Novelist Amos Oz :

I see no validity in the annexation of populated regions to the bounds of the State of Israel without the agreement of their inhabitants. The residents of Nablus and Gaza are not “human material”, nor “human dust”, nor “sub-human rabble who have to be expropriated so as to create living space”. They have to be seen as a vanquished enemy; not less, and no more than that. We did not set out on a “jihad” to wipe them out and to liberate our embezzled lands. We launched the Six Day War to defend our lives, our rights, our wellbeing, and our liberty. On the day when all these are assured, we will be free — and we will be obliged — to honor the right to independence, the liberty and the wellbeing of the Arabs of Palestine. 

These words were written in the summer of 1967, just a few days after the 6-Day War ended and Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza and had become the ruler over millions of Palestinians, many of whom were refugees driven out of Israel in 1948.

As we began our Seder that occupation had lasted for more than 50 years. Israel had been an occupying force for more than 50 years. Israel has become a nation that sees itself as the Jewish state and, in that name, is able to marginalize others living anywhere in the land. Oz’s fears that his nation would see Palestinians as “sub-human” have been realized as Israeli leaders describe the people of Gaza as “animals” as they justify the killing, maiming, and starvation that has gone on for the last 6 months.

Every worry that Oz had about the corrupting impact of Israel’s victory have been realized. Not only has Jewish-Israeli society been corroded and debased.  

After months of street protests against the brutality of Israel’s response to October 7th,  Pro-Palestinian protests have spread to college campus “occupations”. The demands of the protestors are for an immediate end to the war on the people of Gaza and the liberation of the Palestinian people. The ideology of Zionism is being challenged by these protestors and Israel is described as a racist, colonialist enterprise much like South Africa under its white supremacist leadership.

The hostile response to these protests brought me back to 1968 when I was demonstrating on the campus of Columbia University against the Vietnam War and the University’s expansion into Harlem.

On the sixth day of the student occupation, nearly 1,000 police were sent in to clear the buildings. This resulted in a violent clash where police action on the protesters sparked a student and faculty strike, shutting the university down. Columbia University ended up terminating its contract with the Institute for Defense Analyses and decided not to build the gym in Morningside Park. Thirty students were suspended from Columbia as a result of the occupation and protests.

The hostile response to the current campus protests by conservative politicians has been as expected. But the response from any in the American Jewish Community has been more disturbing.  We too have seen our institutions and our leaders corrupted by the decades of occupation. Campus protestors are being labeled as antisemites because they demand that their universities divest from Israel. A non-violent strategy that many were comfortable supporting when it was used to bring about liberation in South Africa is now condemned as an act of hate.  Expression of national aspiration, and chanting “River to the Sea” have also become statements of hate in the minds of Israel’s supporters who have been corrupted by their own fears of religious persecution, the military power of Israel and its ability to dominate another people.

So, my Seders this year were bitter sweet. Sweet because being with friends and family is sweet. Bitter because of the lessons we have failed to learn, and the human suffering that failure brings.

I hope that words that we have thought about at the beginning of every Seder going back almost 20 years may finally be heard

  • Simeon, the son of Gamaliel said, “By three things is the world preserved; by truth, by judgement, and by peace.”
  • Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it.”
  • One who can prevent members of his household from committing a sin and does not do so, is punishable for their sin. If one can prevent his fellow citizens from committing a sin, and does not do so, he is punishable for their sin. If one can prevent the world from a sin and does not, he is punishable for the sin of the entire world. SHABBAT 54b

That is my Passover prayer this year.