Feed on

A Different Night

On Passover, we ask how this night is different from all other nights. The answer, of course, is that on this night we eat only unleavened bread, on this night we eat only bitter herbs, on this night we dip our herbs twice, and on this night we recline. At least, that’s what the song “Ma Nishtana” says.  Viewed through a larger lens, the answer is that on this night we are to feel as though we ourselves escaped bondage in Egypt.

Passover, with its theme of freedom from oppression, is and always has been my favorite holiday. I hate the food. (If I never saw a canned macaroon again, it would be OK with me.) I wish seders could end earlier. And honestly, it could be a day (or five) shorter and be OK by me. But the key message, the idea that once a year we should think and act as though we ourselves were liberated from slavery, is powerful to me.

It’s also one that resonates with me as the granddaughter of immigrants. As the ugly history of forced exiles, deed restrictions, hiring and enrollment quotas, violence, and even death makes clear, it hasn’t always been good to be a Jew. For those of us lucky enough to live in the United States today, there is (or should be) a keen sense that in the long annals of history, we have been uniquely blessed with time and place. Taking the time to be grateful for that every year strikes me as a very good idea.

Unfortunately, my own family’s over-familiarity with the holiday and general irreverence towards all things formal can make it challenging to fully appreciate the holiday. We have a tendency to get so busy cracking wise about Passover and teasing each other that the holiday’s true meaning gets buried. I hate that. As a result, I grew to hate my family’s seders, too. It’s awful to say, but true.

So this year, when the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation asked me if I’d lead an interfaith seder, I jumped at the chance. And when I saw that one of the churches requesting a seder leader was an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church in Louisville’s predominantly African American West End, I jumped even higher. Surely, I thought, sharing this holiday with others will make it meaningful to me again. Even more, I hoped, sharing it with the descendants of enslaved Africans in a church borne out of the struggle against oppression would make it even more so.

And that’s how I found myself walking up to Asbury Chapel on the 1800 block of Chestnut St. last night carrying a bag with English haggadahs, matzah, and kosher-for-Passover candy on one arm and a bag with candles, matches, a seder plate, Passover baby toys, yarmulkes from various family events, and Hebrew language haggadahs (haggadot if you want to get picky) in the other. I was promised that leading an interfaith seder required little experience and no Hebrew. Being possessed with an abundance of both, I was determined to go off script. The first bag I described was provided by the CRC; the second was one I scrounged from my house once my plans took better shape.

Thankfully, the 25 or so people gathered in the church rectory were game, to say nothing of gracious and interested. I was flanked by two pastors who insisted I sit at the very center of the head table, one of whom apologized for sounding frazzled when I called him earlier in the day:

“I’m sorry if I sounded odd. I was boiling eggs, chopping apples for the . . . how do you say that? Ha-ro-se-es. And we were still setting up tables and trying to figure out where all the platters would go.”

“Well, Pastor,” I responded, “that sounds about right. You are having yourself an authentic Passover experience.”

I’m not sure he completely understood why I was smiling at his being so flustered.

It’s common for writers to break down experiences into the good, the bad, and the ugly. Given the success of last night’s seder, I’m going to offer a different breakdown: the good, the better, and the sublime. The entire story is after the break:

The Good

Everyone who arrived was polite, attentive, and genuinely nice and welcoming. A few of the older men  insisted on carrying things for me and helping me to and from my car. I’m usually quick to decline offers and assert my independence, but these were southern gentlemen of a certain age rolling out courtly behavior for a guest. My job was to graciously accept, and I did.

Everyone paid rapt attention, too. In stark contrast to the lack of decorum present at so many family seders since, geez, probably since around 1993 when my Zadie died, these folks listened, asked questions, and joined in when they could. They all wanted to be there, and they were all looking to get something from the experience.

The Better

When it came time to tell the Passover magid, or story, I veered off script. The very idea of summarizing the story of the exodus to a group of regular church goers seemed ludicrous. The traditional haggadah tells the story through rabbinic commentary, which was equally inappropriate because the material is so inaccessible to newcomers. So what to do? Well, I decided to take a risk and ask the participants if they would like to speak about what the themes of liberation and oppression meant to them.

It was a risky move, and it could have backfired. I was well aware that asking this question as the only white person in the room could look horribly insensitive. So I offered to go first, told my family’s story, and explained why the holiday’s theme has always moved me.

The next person to speak was an older pastor. He has traced his roots to Gambia and to the Cherokee Nation, and he spoke movingly of the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, and of being an integral part of civil rights protests in Louisville during the ’60s. He marched with local hero Lyman T. Johnson, for whom my middle school was named. At the end of his speech, he offered up a prayer to God for bestowing his blessings of liberty on his people.

Next was a man in his sixties. He grew up poor–dirt poor–the son of an uneducated couple “doing the best they knew how.” One of his earliest memories was of watching white children play at Fontaine Ferry Park through a fence; “Negros” were not allowed. But he got lucky. He was able to finish high school, get a good union job, and make a decent living and retire with benefits. For him, liberty is all about knowing that he was able to give his children the life his parents could not.

Next came one of the pastors at the table. His roots are Jamaican and Scottish, and he can’t trace them for more than three generations. But his wife can trace hers; hers goes back to a plantation in South Carolina. After the Civil War, her family was even able to buy some of the land they had once worked. It’s now held in the entire family’s name with legal protections against it being broken up and parceled out. The family had a reunion there just recently.

And there were more. People speaking of mixed race heritages (from the slave era, not the modern one) they or their ancestors struggled to accept. People speaking of wishing they had done more. Younger people explaining that they know how their parents and grandparents had to work and fight to give them the comfortable lives they now enjoy. Almost all ended with a prayer of thanksgiving. About a third of the room spoke. Behind them were images of heroes like Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth. A truer expression of Passover I cannot imagine.

The Sublime

After the magid, the haggadah listed suggested songs to sing. My eyes landed on “Let My People Go.” I’ve heard Jewish families sing this around the seder table, but it always ends up sounding like a camp song–perky and deeply unsatisfying.

I pointed it out to the Pastor. “What do you think? Do you want to give it a spin?”

He got a gleam in his eye. “I think we can do this one. Come on everyone! I know you know this.” And he began to sing in a rich baritone. Everyone at that table joined in and sang with all their heart. High voices, low voices, young voices, and old voices. I especially enjoyed hearing the old voices, as it transported me back to my own childhood when seders were dominated by the old voices of my  great-uncle Dave and the senior members of my family.

At the end of the night, I sang “Shir Hamaalot” (psalm 126, and part of the traditional after dinner grace) with more gusto and less self-consciousness (I don’t have a great voice, as my family is wont to remind me) than I can remember. The senior Pastor then gave us all the priestly blessing. Members of the church came up to me to thank me for coming and sharing my time and knowledge. I told them all that it was my pleasure and an honor to share my holiday and my stories with them.

I’m sure some thought I was just being polite. I meant every word. I have already established the new tradition of hosting a second-night seder with my mom and my friends. Next year, I’m signing up for another interfaith seder and will be bringing my mother and Simon along with me.


2 Responses to “A Different Night”

  1. Amanda says:

    I would have LOVED to have been there. You were an excellent teacher and had excellent students. I can’t imagine how you didn’t just bawl when people told their stories. We are so privileged, and it’s good to be reminded of just how much. Mazel tov, it sounds like it was a smashing success.

  2. blg says:

    This sounds as though it was a fabulous experience for everyone. Good for you! Wonder if your experience with this church will change your perception of your own family’s Seder?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.