Passover 2020

Alana Newhouse is the editor in chief of Tablet Magazine, which recently published her book The Passover Haggadah: An Ancient Story for Modern Times.

On March 30, 2020, she wrote in the New York Times:

“This year, Passover falls at the beginning of April — smack in the middle of what some experts estimate will be the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in America. It’s not just the timing of the holiday — built around a retelling of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt — that feels off. It’s that every aspect of its story and rituals now seems almost cruelly ironic…

After Jerusalem was sacked in 586 B.C.E., the Jews were forced out of Judea into what became known as the Babylonian Exile, taking with them this powerful reminder that a people who had been brought out of exile to freedom might once again retrace that journey.

More than 2,500 years later, the Passover Seder has not simply survived. It is now, by a long shot, the most popular Jewish religious observance. And what it is, essentially, is an agglomeration of a long and global inheritance. The basic order of the evening stretches back to the third or fourth century; we end the night with a set of group songs from the 15th century; some of us whip one another with scallions during the song “Dayenu,” a tradition designed by Persian Jews; and we all make different kinds of charoset, the sweet paste meant to signify the mortar used by the Jewish slaves. Italian Jews use eggs. Gibraltan Jews make theirs with the dust of ground bricks. And African-American Jews incorporate sugar cane, and cocoa powder, the crops of American slavery…

Recently, some of my colleagues and I set out to create an American Haggadah — one that included the entirety of the traditional text along with elements that speak to the particular history and experience of Jews in this time and place, like entries not just on the Four Sons but also the Four Daughters; essays on food waste; cocktails based on the Ten Plagues; and more.

While putting it together, I was struck by something I hadn’t ever fully explored — that of all the things included in the universe of Haggadahs, one thing is conspicuously missing from them all: the story of the exodus itself.

“The Haggadah is like the theater sets and costumes and reviews of a play, without the actual play,” Rabbi Noa Kushner of San Francisco told me recently, about a month before the coronavirus began derailing everyone’s Passover plans. All of a sudden the quixotic words of my high school rabbi came back to me: “Reading the exodus is for the already free.”…

As I write this, I am looking at a heart-stopping picture of five people baking matzo in 1943, in a secret oven they built beneath the Lodz ghetto. These were Jews made slaves again in modern times, insisting on celebrating their God-given right to freedom even as they were being denied their earthly equivalent. But what I really can’t get over is the smile on the face of one of the women. There it is, again, still: the joy and the sacrifice. It is the smile of someone who knows she is doing something miraculous by making Passover her own.

Our circumstances are much less dire than hers, but our task this year is the same. Last week, a group of major Orthodox rabbis in Israel announced that they would permit people to use Zoom videoconferencing for their Seders — a previously unimaginable accommodation to stringent Jewish law. But that’s the point. We may be away from loved ones, or shut out of communal spaces. We may not be preparing with the same vigor, or shopping with the same zeal. But we will do what millions of Jews have done before us: manifest our hope for liberation.

That is our obligation, and our privilege. All the more so in moments when the taste of freedom — from oppression, from want, from disease — is not yet ours.”

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