I remember the Seders at the home of my uncle Jack and Aunt Joy in Brantford, Ontario when I was a child. My aunt made a lineup of gravity-defying sponge cakes, lined up like trophies on cake plates. Their dining room was set with a pressed white cloth, fine china, and crystal wine glasses. I remember red carpet and heavy drapery along the tall windows, a dining room that radiated formal, and the unspoken be careful not to spill your juice. My uncle Jack Brown, my mother’s brother, used to say each Jew should regard himself or herself as if he/she/they had personally come out of Egypt. In the story, Egypt is the place where the Jews were oppressed as slaves and cry out. This idea was something embedded into the book itself, the book called The Hagaddah. What that meant was that this story about civil disobedience was one that you were supposed to take personally. I didn’t know then that there was an ancient papyrus document that told the story of slaves fleeing from a palace, which is now housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. My uncle made this comment, but he did not elaborate about how he understood taking it personally. I didn’t ask. I was shy.
My question remained unanswered for decades. What exactly did it mean to feel as if you had left Egypt? What did it mean to be free? I had a good imagination, but it was still hard to imagine you had been a slave when you were growing up with food, shelter, two healthy working parents, shoes, socks, running water and electricity. I wondered about this issue every year at Passover. Even years later, when my uncle was no longer alive, I remembered him making this comment about taking it personally. My uncle was the warm generous entrepreneur who operated the family’s clothing store. In the middle of the Seder, my sisters and I would perform a commercial about Shake and Bake chicken. This commercial had nothing to do with Passover. I don’t know how this ritual came to be embedded into the evening’s experience, but I think our performance functioned as an annual release valve for what would always be a long evening. We made everyone laugh. The best part of the night was searching my uncle’s house for a strategic hiding place for the matzah that was required to finish the Seder. My uncle gave the children handmade tiny red velvet bags filled with new dimes as a prize. I loved the creative vision that underpinned those little parcels. The bags closed with a tiny gold drawstring, and holding one on the way home felt like receiving a plush artful gift. The dimes chimed. My maternal grandparents would close down the evening with their beautiful Yiddish singing—their voices rising and falling after a generous amount of wine—but because I didn’t speak or understand Yiddish, the language remained—like Egypt—a mystery.
My question about Egypt remained unanswered and unasked. I wondered how exactly was I supposed to feel as if I had left Egypt? I had never been to Egypt. I read later about the Jews of Cairo who were expelled from the place they had called home. It was a wonderful memoir, The Man in The White Sharkskin Suit, by the great late Cairo-born writer and journalist Lucette Lagnado, that illuminated an era of warm hospitality between Arab Jews and their Arab neighbours. I felt like I could inhale the jasmine blossoms and smell the morning coffee wafting from the Cairo balconies. What I realized later was that in the Haggadah, Egypt was not only a physical location but a symbol. Slavery could exist anywhere and everywhere. Look around wherever you happen to be in the world, in ancient or modern times, and sniff a bit; read a newspaper and you will see oppression in everything—from voter suppression to unsafe working conditions. Michael Walzer’s book, Exodus and Revolution, explores this issue of the powerful grip of both freedom and slavery.
The Passover seder is the most observed Jewish holiday in the world. Seders have been observed in concentration camps, in outdoor tents, inside tiny apartments around the world, and on rooftops, beaches and desert sand. The Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky recounts that it was the night of the Seder when KGB agents came knocking at his door, sending him to the Gulag. He responded by holding a Seder in the Gulag while in solitary confinement during his long push for freedom. He had learned some Hebrew illegally underground before he was arrested.
Jews read from a book called a Haggadah or hagaddot, which means the telling. The National Library of Israel has the world’s largest collection of these books, more than 8,500 versions, including Braille. This year, I noticed that The National Library of Israel’s site included a most generous offer to download haggadot at no charge. The versions included books from France, Morocco, Germany, Spain, France, and The Netherlands. The library collection features rare and beautiful illuminated manuscripts from 15th century Spain, kibbutz-era versions, as well as Yiddish send ups. We would be bereft without our robust sense of humour. The National Library of Israel’s collection does not include the DIY industry, and so the number of these tellings in the world is impossible to count. Each year community groups publish new versions and many families make their own. This year we’ll have even more due to the lockdown.
The Seder is a time to ask questions. Jewish civilizations possess a love affair with questions. And so my Passover question this year is one that the wonderful Rabbi Yael Splansky posed during one of the online programs at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple: “What has this year taught you about freedom?”
Last year for Passover we found ourselves in the middle of a panicked first lockdown, and vaccines were just a theory. I remember co-hosting an event that I had always done in person, and suddenly scrambling to see about 30 screens populating my computer with people whom I knew and people I had never met. People had joined us, Zooming in from New York, California, Kentucky, as well as Canada, the country I am fortunate to call home. Family invited friends. There were both Jews and non-Jews coming together. I was—like many folks—a Zoom newbie. This year, I came to the screen with more experience with the technology, and with new questions. It was of course not the same as being physically together, but at the same time it was certainly not nothing.
We had our first real experience of being physically confined—our first experience of having our freedoms limited. I am talking here about everyday freedoms, like getting a coffee with a friend, plunging into a pool, listening to live music at a concert hall or seeing a play. I’m also referring to the freedom to hug. I wrote and illustrated a children’s book called The Hug, so hugging is close to my heart.
We’ve had the collective experience of having our freedom curtailed for a common good. This limit on freedom is one we exercise in an act of citizenship, but we’ve also been shown—like an MRI—that there is tremendous inequity. How can you exercise freedom of citizenship when you don’t have access to masks? How can you be free if you’re a cashier in a grocery store, a front line worker in a warehouse or someone with a compromised immune system and you don’t yet have access to a vaccine? We’re now in the process of adjusting to Covid, and if any of us didn’t yet know what a plague is (if locusts and frogs sounded like science fiction from the Passover story), well we’re more acquainted today with the horrible power a plague can unleash. But the concept of freedom has also become more complex. What about the health care worker who wants to exercise her freedom not to get the vaccine? There is freedom to and freedom from. We want the freedom to be mobile, and the opportunity to be free from illness.
At the same time, I want to say that we are also more acquainted with hope. The hope emerging from the availability of vaccines, the story of musicians playing on the street to provide joy, the Zoom concerts, lectures, and programs opening their virtual doors around the world for free. “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” is what the prophet Isaiah called out for in his refrain contained in the Haggadah. The prophets were among the first voices for radical inclusiveness. And while there is more physical hunger, there is also hunger for community, for touch, and for learning. Moses is famous for saying “Choose life.” Choosing life has many facets and forms.
There is a beautiful Jewish tradition that before any holiday we give tzedakah. This word is often translated as charity, but in Hebrew it means righteous. Giving is an act of justice. What this means is that we are obligated to be generous. Being generous creates more good. One writer described the ethical centre of Jewish living as the clothing we wear is not our shirts, but the deeds that characterize our lives. The idea is that goodness creates more goodness. This notion may sound a bit corny, and so I want to share one illumination of its power. A guy named Joseph Gitler, an American lawyer from Chicago, moved to Israel with his wife and kids years ago. He started learning Hebrew. Years ago, he saw a caterer about to dump beautiful food in the garbage. Gitler said this excess is common in corporate cafeterias, for weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs because of the buffet factor. In Israel, the socialist founders influence even the hi-tech sector cafeteria systems where food is provided for all. The buffet factor means that the caterer knowingly makes 25% more because people don’t want to get to the buffet and discover all the food has vanished. At weddings, this is what Gitler calls the “Bridezilla” factor.
Gitler used to see this waste and—like most of us—he said “Shame.” But on this particular day, he decided to take the food to an organization. What prompted him was that he had read a newspaper story about poverty amongst families in Israel. He put the food in a tub in his car. He delivered it. During a recent conversation online from Israel with my Toronto synagogue The First Narayever, he said “he did not think his vision was going to work but he did it anyhow.” He saw excess food on the one hand and hungry families—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Arab and Druze families—on the other. The organization now also rescues produce from Israeli farms. His first break in overcoming distrust from skeptical farmers was a call from a South African born farmer with damaged persimmons. Gitler now has partnerships with 1,000 farmers throughout Israel. Decades later, he is now the founder of LEKET in Israel, one of the most innovative food recovery and food rescue NGOS in the world.
LEKET is a Hebrew word and it means gleaning. This idea comes from Jewish sacred text. We always leave a LEKET on the farm—we do not consume everything we grow. We are obligated to share. The money corollary is that we don’t spend everything we make. Hope is not naïve sentimentality but a position. It’s David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, declaring that to be a realist you have to believe in miracles. It’s rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing that despair is a luxury we cannot afford. For me, hope is connected to the idea of tikkun or repair. This idea of tikkun is part of the freedom within our possession. We remain enslaved if we don’t exercise our freedom. So, decades after my childhood seders in Brantford, Passover for me means that slaves have a collective memory. Consequently, if we are now are free, we have agency to make change. Choose life.
Lesley Simpson worked as a journalist for Canadian daily newspapers before returning to school to complete a PhD in Jewish studies at York University in Toronto. She is writing a book based on her research about non-material legacy letters called ethical wills, and paradigms of Jewish memory. She works as a writer and teacher in Toronto. In her other writing life, she writes picture books (lesleysimpson.ca)