People used to be curious about my first name, but now, everyone wants to know the real deal with my last name. Specifically — am I related to Jared Kushner?
The short answer: no.
I am also not related to other famous Kushners: Tony, for instance. Or Rabbi Harold. Or France’s famed Bernard Kouchner. Or even the towering Russian poet Aleksandr Kushner.
Occasionally, my parents receive mail intended for Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, which they promptly forward, but that’s about as far as the connection goes.
I try not to view news stories about Jared Kushner and, say, his efforts to evict tenants so that rental prices can be jacked up, or, say, his jaunt to Iraq, personally. But somehow the juxtaposition of Kushner and Haggadah got to me.
To be fair, the article recently posted on McSweeney’s about The Kushner Haggadah is hilarious. It includes sections like this entry for The Four Questions:
We’re not answering any questions today. No questions.
It also rewrites the Ten Plagues, making them into these contemporary issues:
Gender Neutral Bathrooms
Tuition-Free Public College
Paid Family Leave
Sensible Gun Control
$15.00 Federal Minimum Wage
Campaign Finance Reform
Universal Health Care
And best of all, the Kushner Family Passover Haggadah, written by Terry Heyman, who describes herself as “a writer living in Pennsylvania and is phenomenal at making a mountain out of a molehill,” has a certain “leader” positioning himself as better than Moses.
The problem with all of this is that the Kushner-Trump clan make bizarre representatives for Judaism, or Jewish values. The Haggadah, and the Passover story of exodus from slavery, is a central Jewish text, and the idea that in each generation, every person should see herself as if she herself were a slave and was led out of bondage, is beautiful. It can be the source for humility, gratitude and a lifetime commitment to social justice.
The other problem is, well, that I grew up in a Kushner family, and we had plenty of meaningful Haggadot. One was in German — easily the best language to hear the plagues in. One was in French — a purchase from my time studying at the Sorbonne. Several were elaborate, illustrated Hebrew versions purchased over a lifetime by my grandfather. And one of our joys, as a family, was comparing Haggadah editions, noticing differences in vowels, and occasionally, more dramatic departures in wording. We had plenty to talk about, because the words meant something. And now, we are in an era in which words mean nothing.
This year, I purchased three children’s haggadot. Two were complete Haggadot, along with commentary for children, and one was an abridged children’s version. One of the complete versions featured the entire Passover story in rhyme; I was charmed, but the seven-year-old recipient preferred the original. So much for the allure of poetry, dragged on a plane from Tel Aviv.
But it was the abridged version that truly got a reaction. Its four-year-old recipient commented that in her new hot-pink Haggadah, “Chad Gadya” was in Hebrew, but the real song is in Aramaic.
I was amazed and moved by her observation.
That close reading, and its insistence on language, and the telling of history, is the true power of the Haggadah, It is also the power of a family.
I knew that my four-year-old relative had inherited that interest in language, and that the conversation she had heard, from people who knew Hebrew and Aramaic, and had made it possible for her to make such a gorgeous comment. Judaism, at its core, is about the original language, about the unabridged version.
I worry that the prominence of these particular Kushners in Washington, DC will offer the opposite vision: of a diluted Judaism, where language means nothing.
Sure, The Kushner Family Passover Haggadah is a fun read. But the subtext — the assault on language which is a direct assault on Jewish history, safety, and peoplehood — is not. This Passover, we cannot forget that language and story, the combination that makes history, were what kept the Jewish people alive.
In fact, the sages say that one of the reasons the Jewish people were freed from Egypt is that they held on to their Hebrew names; liberty came from clinging to what words actually mean.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau.) Follow her on Twitter at @AviyaKushner