For your Seder table discussion: Three stories of oppression, liberation and empowerment
As the war in Ukraine makes painfully clear, suffering at the hands of violent oppressors is hardly a thing of the past and certainly not ancient history. Inhumanity persists through time immemorial, and even a celebration of liberation is tinged with the reality that no people are free until all are free.
Here are three essays about oppression and injustice, as well as ways to overcome their legacy, from three different cultural perspectives to add to Seder discussions this Passover.
Beyond the Four Questions, listen to children asking the unanswerable
A key feature of the Passover Seder is the Four Questions, and it’s no accident that the responsibility for posing them is bestowed upon children. Questions come naturally to children, even those who do not yet have the words to ask them. But unlike the scripted questions of the Haggadah, their organic interrogations may not always be easy to answer.
My childhood was no exception. In school, upon being told that one plus one equals two, I raised my hand and asked the teacher, “why?” She looked annoyed and proceeded to ignore my inquiry. Almost three decades later, I still do not know the answer (one of the many reasons I’ve gone into writing and lawyering instead of mathematics).
It was the whys that kept me company in my lonely childhood as an undocumented immigrant in New York City. Every day, I went to school with an empty stomach, scavenged through the Brooklyn sidewalk trash, and accompanied my mother to work at the sweatshop, where we earned pennies per article of clothing. Overnight, I’d gone from being the pampered daughter of professors in China to what felt like the lowest caste of American society, by the metrics of status, race and gender, and class. Amidst that abrupt sea change, I had little to hold onto except my dreams.
To give me some other sense of grounding, both my mother and father instilled in me the practice of asking questions, but like with my mathematical inquiry, they often went unanswered: Why did people like us scrape for food and money while others dwelled in excess? Why were immigrants like us nowhere represented in American books or media? Why did our race seem to make us subhuman in the eyes of so many? Why did we have to live on the run from authority? Why did I even dream of living differently?
Having since arrived at that once-unknown future — where I am now well-fed, documented, and privileged — the whys of my childhood still keep me company. But where back then I did not have the capacity or security to see anything beyond my own needs, my lens has since broadened: Why do certain communities still have to scrape for food and money while others wallow in excess? Why are undocumented immigrants still faceless in American books and media? Why does race still control whether an individual is seen as a full human being?
Though my individual circumstances have changed, I cannot step outside without seeing a child foraging through the sidewalk trash, wondering when her next meal might materialize. And this poses the most vital why of all: Why did I ever think my own freedom and exodus from want might mean anything when the conditions of my childhood continue to exist for so many others? Why has so much time passed with so little social change?
Seder tables bring us the same Four Questions year after year, and the rest of the Haggadah is in answer to them. It commands us to teach our children to view each Passover as if it were our first, as if we ourselves have just emerged from the long journey of Exodus.
Yet because they are children, a new “why?” will invariably emerge — one that you are not equipped answer. When it comes, I hope you reflect on what it might teach you about Passovers past, present, and future, and what new whys are still unasked.
Trauma of Indian boarding schools has not passed over
Passover is a holiday about collective memory, as many Jewish observances are. It compels our responsibility as Jews to acknowledge the liberation and redemption of others. As we were enslaved out of the Egyptians’ xenophobia, we understand through all iterations of modern antisemitism what it means to be othered, to be viewed with fear and suspicion, to receive collective punitive harm.
A theme that should be particularly resonant this Passover is the establishment of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative by Interior Secretary Debra Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna/Pueblo of Jemez).
While I personally view the forced hard labor, theft and sale of Indigenous children as a form of enslavement, this in no way is meant to incite competition of which group’s oppression is worse. Rather, it’s to take this time of introspection to build understanding and a sense of shared responsibility toward justice.
Similar to how Jews in Egypt were seen as a civic threat, Native Americans were viewed by the United States government as a persistent threat to the arrivals from Europe and the concept of “Manifest Destiny” (or as it’s known in Indian Country, Manifest Larceny). In order to accomplish the domination of Indigenous Peoples of what is now the United States, stringent policies of assimilation were imposed, to say nothing of broken treaties and massacres.
From 1860 until the late 1970s, Native children were rounded up and taken to federal Indian Boarding Schools where they were no longer allowed to speak their languages. Names were changed, hair was cut, and western clothing, food, and lifeways standardized.
These were not schools as we know it, but sites of religious conversion, indoctrination, physical and sexual abuse ,whose goals were to train a legion of Indigenous laborers and domestic servants. As Jews were forced to perform hard labor for the crime of being Jews surrounded by a non-Jewish population, boarding schools had a similar goal for the generations of Indigenous youth they targeted.
Having been there ourselves, it is up to us as Jews to confront the bitter and difficult truths of United States history. It is up to us to support Haaland’s commission, and it is up to us to support the redemption of the Native Tribes as truth (emet) and justice (tzedek) are collectively advanced.
For those of us who are a product of U.S. educational systems that overlook Native modern histories and collective responsibilities toward treaties obligating United States citizens in their relationships with Tribal Nations, it might feel like the concept of boarding schools is as Mitzrayim. Many may be shocked to learn that these institutions were still operated until the lifetimes of many of us. While many American families were enjoying road trips on Route 66, Disneyland, McDonald’s and drive-in movies, Native families saw Bureau of Indian Affairs agents violently removing their children from their homes. Families often were not able to see them for years, if ever again.
Canada has led the investigation of mass graves at its school sites, with many now being treated as crime scenes, uncovering the remains of thousands of children. It’s estimated that more than a hundred thousand bodies are expected to be retrieved and returned to their communities and families. The United States has not begun this process, but Haaland’s commission is a necessary first step.
The Jewish people have long faced our own challenges in the United States and abroad. Most came as refugees, many without our families or strong ties to our own culture and history. It can be difficult to confront the idea of the United States that offered so many of our own people safety also created so much pain for others, even in recent history.
Our seders are rife with metaphor for our hardships: Karpas for flourishing turned to tears. Maror for the bitterness of what we survived. Haroset for our labor taken by others. Zeroa and beitzah for our sacrifices and the cultural observances we as a people are no longer able to engage in. Even where we are now free and living safe, stable, and beautifully rich, Jewish lives, we remember these hardships.
For Native families, where most of our homes were personally affected by boarding school policies, these memories aren’t distant or metaphorical. We as Native people haven’t had a chance to heal as we as Jews have from our time in Egypt in the distant past. Collective memory is long and while we don’t live our lives stuck in the memory of our most difficult struggles, we work through them together.
We honor our hardships and our sacrifices. We remember those we lost and hold our histories as a people. We can and must support our neighbors through their acknowledgement of histories, truths, and healing.
On the Seder plate or not, Black liberation is inseparable from Passover story
During last year’s virtual Seder between my home in Minnesota and other family members in Massachusetts, my daughter said I needed to raise my laptop so the crew on her end could see us better.
A 1,000 page volume sitting an arm’s length away was just the right height. When I placed it under the computer, she asked what book I had chosen.
“Parting The… Waters!” my wife and I said together, both realizing the double-entendre as we read the book title.
The symbolism is, of course, in the reference to Moses at the Red Sea. But the title is actually a metaphor for the Black liberation story, chronicled by Taylor Branch in the first volume of his trilogy about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s the movement I grew up in, with my mother leading meetings of the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP in our Chicago living room as I played off to the side. Those sessions would lead to sit-ins and marches that I participated in as a preschooler.
I remember them as clearly as yesterday, and in fact, have no memory of the movement not being a part of our lives, just as being Jewish goes back to the age of my consciousness. And in what I now know was a concerted effort by our parents to instill in my brother and me that our interracial, interreligious family was perfectly normal, we celebrated Passover with another Black and Jewish family – in the 1960s, when we were less visible than today.
It was also a time when Seders were less progressive, or politically correct, than today. God was still the masculine and punitive Lord; the second son was still wicked.
Since then, the Seder table has evolved to include Miriam’s Cup in celebration of previously ignored women of the Torah, and an orange, symbolic of LGBTQ empowerment. In what I’d call the most fluid of Jewish holidays – perhaps because it’s celebrated largely in the home rather than at shul – the Seder plate is welcoming to any statement of identity you’d like to add.
Few are better at integrating African American culinary traditions into that mix than Michael Twitty, who wrote the book, literally, on Koshersoul, and whose offerings were celebrated in a New York Times article last week. The reporter went on to include how others express their Blackness at the Seder table, and eventually got to… me.
Despite our unapologetically Black Passover observances, my family did not mark it with a particular dish. Yet we never differentiated between slavery in Mitzrayim and in America. Whether you sang “Go Down, Moses” or not, how could you possibly speak of one without conjuring up the other?
We also didn’t need to be reminded of the Black freedom struggle because we were still living it. If the children of Israel were wandering 40 years before reaching Canaan’s edge, African Americans were still short of the Promised Land. And still are.
As an adult and historical journalist, I’ve gone on to document the movement in film and articles, with bookshelves full of volumes that have become valued reference materials.
Or if needed, a way to uplift everyone in the Seder.