Every Passover, I find that my contributions to the Seder are somewhat limited. My niece and nephew have now been charged with the task of asking the four questions and my mother’s food preparations are almost sacred unto themselves.
This year, though, I’ve been tasked with the delightful job of considering literary readings that are well-suited for Seder. As a veteran English Literature teacher, this list has been a joy to compile—it has indeed given me pause and infused this year’s observance with deeper reflection. I hope it can let you do the same.
Passover provides a beautiful space for literature to exist. Themes such as slavery, freedom, exodus, and renewal align wonderfully with a variety of writings and passages to complement every Hagaddah.
On Passover, we are compelled to acknowledge our freedom, but also to note where slavery still exists. As Emma Lazarus noted: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Indeed, slavery persists in many forms: human trafficking, child labor, forced marriage, and debt bondage are all forms of modern slavery. Because Jews have been delivered from bondage, it is imperative to work to set others free.
“This is true freedom: Our ability to shape reality. We have the power to initiate, create and change reality rather than only react and survive it. How can we all educate our children to true freedom? Teach them not to look at reality as defining their acts but to look at their acts as defining reality.” — Yaacov Cohen
The Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) serves as an appropriate call to both awareness and action. The UDHR is on the cusp of its 70th birthday. It was drafted by representatives of a multitude of nations and cultures and passed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt was a huge champion for its adoption. In fact, if your Seder tends be inclined toward social justice, reading the 30 articles of the UDHR can be wonderfully stirring.
“Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.” Morris Joseph
1. ‘I, Too’, by Langston Hughes
One poem rich with ideas regarding freedom and power that remains as relevant as it is brilliant is ‘I, Too’, by Langston Hughes. An American poet, novelist and playwright, Langston Hughes was a key member of the Harlem Renaissance.
by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
(Check out Vintage Classics’ The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes for more.)
2. ‘juxtaposing the black boy & the bullet’, by Danez Smith
When we gather at the Seder table, and revisit our complex history as a people, it is important to acknowledge what threatens our true freedom. Perhaps we are ‘slaves’ to technology, or to materialism? Perhaps our leaders (Jewish or otherwise) are beholden to interests that blur the line between public and private good? This powerful poem by Danez Smith forces the reader to consider what we as a society at large value. Danez Smith is the author of ‘Don’t Call Us Dead’ (Graywolf Press, 2017) and ‘[insert] boy’ (YesYes Books, 2014).
juxtaposing the black boy & the bullet
by Danez Smith
juxtaposing the black boy & the bullet
one is hard & the other tried to be
one is fast & the other was faster one is loud & one is a song with one note & endless rest one’s whole life is a flash both spend their life trying to find a warmth to call home
both spark quite the debate,
some folks want to protect them/some think we should just get rid of the damn things all altogether.
“On Passover, Jews are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus and to see ourselves as having lived through that story, so that we may better learn how to live our lives today. The stories we tell our children shape what they believe to be possible.” ~ Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
3. ‘I Am the People, the Mob’, by Carl Sandburg
When Moses saw the burning bush it was an awakening that he must deliver his people from bondage. Some awakenings are causes for revolution. On this topic, I am reminded of two authors. The first is Carl Sandburg and his poem, “I am the People, the Mob”:
I Am the People, the Mob
by Carl Sandburg
I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget.
Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then — I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.
4. Excerpt from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Lost in America’
The writer Isaac Bashevis Singer is another author worth exploring when thinking about journeys and awakenings. His memoir, Lost in America, depicts his journey from Poland to America as well as from the ‘old world’ to the new. Singer gave an honest account of the isolation as well as the joy to be found on his journey and his Jewishness is at the forefront of his narrative:
‘I changed my clothes—I had only one other suit then went out on deck…Here, heaven and earth weren’t separate and distant from each other but merged into a single cosmic entity, endowed with an otherworldly light. I stood in the center of the universe, the ferment that hadn’t abated since Genesis and perhaps even long before that, because according to the Bible the abyss and the divine breath had preceded Creation. A solemnity hovered over it all, blue, prediurnal. The sound of the waves fused into a monotonous roar, a seething, a foaming, a splashing that didn’t weary the ear or the brain. God spoke a single word, awesome and eternal.The waves assaulted the ship in an arc, locked it in a watery dance, ready to suck it in within their vortex, but at the last moment they retreated like maneuvering armies, prepared to commence their war games again. Creation played with the sea, the stars, the ship, with the little human beings bustling about within its innards. My despair had begun to fade gradually. There was no room for suffering in the midst of this celestial frolic. All my worries were insignificant and groundless to begin with. Who did it concern whether I managed to accomplish anything or nothing? Nothing itself became an essence.’
5. Excerpt from Julia Alvarez’s ‘How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents’
What are the effects of an Exodus on an individual, or a people? It is no accident that so many Jewish organizations are invested in welcoming ‘the other’ to their homes. It is simultaneously very troubling that so many Jews in various regions have chosen to overlook what connects us with those fleeing war or injustice. Kindness is essential. In Julia Alvarez’s story, ‘How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents’, the Dominican writer explores her character, Yolanda and her immigration from Dominica to New York City. This passage fuses history with a sense of place and touches on how it feels to have to resettle in a foreign land:
Excerpt from Julia Alvarez’s ‘How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents’
‘Our first year in New York we rented a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the Sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look peculiar, like dolls in mourning. I liked them a lot especially my grandmotherly fourth grade teacher, Sister Zoe. I had a lovely name, she said, and she made me teach the whole class how to pronounce it. Yo-lan-da. As the only immigrant in my class, I was put in a special seat in the first row by the window, apart from the other children so that sister Zoe could tutor me without disturbing them. Slowly she enunciated the new words I was to repeat: laundromat, corn flakes, subway, snow…”
Check out the book for the full passage.
What is national freedom if not a people’s inner freedom to cultivate its abilities along the beaten path of its history? ~Aẖad Haʿam, 1902
6. Ghazal: America the Beautiful
The poem, ‘Ghazal: America the Beautiful’, by Alicia Ostriker, has prayer-like qualities when read aloud and it ponders the myths and potential of America, ‘Land of the Free’. The audience is asked to think about where such an ideal falls flat.
On Passover in America, we might ask ourselves how to help our country live up to its iconic potential. Perhaps this means working to end homelessness, or seeking justice for any number of oppressed people in our nation. Perhaps it begins with an awakening regarding others’ suffering. Regardless, this poem is a thought provoking and profound read:
Ghazal: America the Beautiful
by Alicia Ostriker
Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity
in first grade when we learned to sing America
The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner
and say the Pledge of Allegiance to America
We put our hands over our first grade hearts
we felt proud to be citizens of America
I said One Nation Invisible until corrected
maybe I was right about America
School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days
when we learned how to behave in America
What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents
who didn’t understand us or America
Only later learning the Banner and the Beautiful
live on opposite sides of the street in America
Only later discovering the Nation is divisible
by money by power by color by gender by sex America
We comprehend it now this land is two lands
one triumphant bully one still hopeful America
Imagining amber waves of grain blowing in the wind
purple mountains and no homeless in America
Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
somehow or other still carried away by America
7. ‘The seder’s order’, by Marge Piercy
Seders, no matter how differently executed, are bound together by the Jews that enact them as well as the themes that are pronounced during Passover.
The seder’s order
By Marge Piercy
The songs we join in
are beeswax candles
burning with no smoke
a clean fire licking at the evening
our voices small flames quivering.
The songs string us like beads
on the hour. The ritual is
its own melody that leads us
where we have gone before
and hope to go again, the comfort
of year after year. Order:
we must touch each base
of the haggadah as we pass,
dipping this and that. Voices
half harmonize on the brukhahs.
Dear faces like a multitude
of moons hang over the table
and the truest brief blessing:
affection and peace that we make.
8. ‘Wildpeace’, by Yehuda Amichai
The Seder ends with sentiments urging for a better, more peaceful tomorrow.
by Yehuda Amichai
Not the peace of a cease-fire
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill, that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds - who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
(If you’re not yet an Amichai fan, check out one of his poetry collections for some breath-taking words.)
Happy Passover, here’s to next year in a peaceful world.
Jess Burnquist is the Director of Rock Your World, the human rights educational division of Creative Visions Foundation. She is also a co-founder and author of Kindred Spirits, a human rights focused education blog sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, NPR.org, Time, Redbook, Salon, Natural Bridge and her poetry chapbook, You May Feel Your Way Past Me is available through Dancing Girl Press.