A Secular Passover

First, my best wishes to anyone celebrating Easter, Passover or any other holiday. As a representative of one who celebrates the latter, in my own secular way, I thought I’d post a few words about it. After all, my knowledge of Easter is quite limited, although I was happy to send Jenny her Paas Easter egg dyes a few weeks ago. I wonder if the “Paas” has anything to do with Paasover…?

Passover is a Jewish holiday that is supposed to celebrate the biblical (and mythical?) exit from slavery in Egypt. Archaeologists are not entirely confident of the biblical account, but no matter; whether the Jewish slavery story is concrete or metaphoric, its message is important.

To a certain extent, the true meaning of the holiday (in my humble opinion) has been hijacked by a host of largely irrelevant rituals. “Kosher for Passover” stamps on foods at the supermarket and so on. I have little patience for what I deem as superstitious rituals, but the meaning of the holiday has a lot of symbolic importance for me.

So did I have a Passover meal with my family? I did.

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Perhaps not what you envisioned? A Chinese and Thai combination Passover meal? Well why not?

But we did have home made Matzah ball soup. Well more precisely, Matzah ball and Matzah cube:
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My son asks “why is this Matzah shape different from all other Matzah shapes?”

To a certain extent, secular Jews have been attacked by their religious counterparts for being “lite,” for not having any serious “content” and for being immersed in materialism and capitalism with little regard for moral and educational matters. As though only through religion can one be conscientiously concerned with issues of morality. I find this truly condescending, to say the least.

So at our little family Passover gathering, what did we do (aside from the food, of course)? My spouse brought up the question of what values do we all want to pass down to the next generation. Language, heritage, culture. And why this is important.

As for me, I have recently become interested in the Jews who lived in America’s deep south, in the pre-Civil War Confederate America. It turns out that there were about 25,000 Jews living in the south (many fewer than the north), mostly in New Orleans, Shreveport, Lousiana (where I visited for a seminar a couple years back, not knowing that this was a key city for southern Jews ~150 years ago), and Memphis, Tennessee.

While most of these Jews were not wealthy plantation owners, some were, and I asked my children to imagine a “Passover Seder” where Jews were celebrating freedom from slavery while being served by African American slaves. How surreal!

The Jews of the south were, by all accounts, extremely loyal to the Confederate, with over 1000 Jewish men who served in the army. This seems to have stemmed from a strong desire for acceptance, which was clearly lacking in Old World Europe. In any case, we learned the fascinating story of Judah Benjamin, the so-called “Brains behind the Confederate.” He was a Jew from a Sephardic or North African background, probably quite brilliant as he attended Yale law school at the age of 14.

Benjamin rose up the ranks of the south and became perhaps the closest confidante of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate leader. Some say that this was enabled because Davis felt no threat of being “overthrown” by a Jew, especially one as loyal as Benjamin. He was alternately finance minister, minister of war (during the civil war times) and played a major role in all decisions in the south. At one point he owned a plantation with 150 slaves, which he sold when he became entrenched in politics.

During the course of the civil war, and particularly as the south began to crumble, Benjamin became known for his radical proposal that the south should emancipate any slave who volunteers to fight in the army against the north. Imagine that idea: African American slaves potentially fighting to keep their fellow slaves enslaved! This was strongly vetoed as going against everything the south was fighting for. One politician criticized Benjamin’s idea by saying that “if the black slaves could make good soldiers, this jeopardizes everything that our belief in slavery stands for.”

Following the assassination of Lincoln, despite his having nothing to do with it, Benjamin was rumored to be involved. He fled over the pond to England where he lived out his life as a successful barrister. An American historian and biographer, Eli Evans, speculated that had he stayed in the US, America might have had its own “Dreyfus Affair.”

Based on these issues, we were also able to explain to our children the “Blood Libel,” the centuries’ old story that Jews make the unleavened bread, or Passover Matzah from the blood of Christian children. Absurd as it sounds, my own grandmother and her family propelled themselves away from the “Pale of Russia” to the New World to escape the pogroms carried out to avenge the alleged killing of Christians.

Well, enough said. I suppose that my explanations of our secular Passover will not convince those who make it a point never to be convinced, but I am secure in my own lack of faith and secular lifestyle–secure in that I do not feel any moral inferiority.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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16 Responses to A Secular Passover

  1. Thanks for the very interesting history lesson, Steve, and all the best for Passover to you and yours. American history of this period is full of interesting twists and turns; this general part of Ontario being heavily connected to the Underground Railroad, for example. I’d never heard of either Judah Benjamin, or the community of Southern Jews, so thanks for that. 🙂

  2. chall says:

    Lovely story about Passover ‘tradition’ or not Steve!

    I thought it was very interesting when I realised that there are at least 4 temples in Memphis,TN. I mean, it’s a very religious city with several hundred (I’m sure) Christian and non-denominational churches and a mosque or two but the temples/jewish communities are an integral part of the city. The schools and community centres are very well used and liked. All in all, I ended up reading up on it when I moved here since I just didn’t know about the history of jews in the south…

    Anyway, I really liked the concept of thinking about “old times and the oppressed being in a different seat” – it’s sometimes very hard to see the forrest for the trees…

    I celebrated Easter eating ham, which to me is a ‘Jul’tradition and not Easter, but in the end it’s all about reflection, being with family and having a nice weekend imho ^^ Glad Påsk!

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Chall and Richard,

    I actually knew next to nothing about Jews of the south a week ago. So the idea of the holiday had a positive effect in prompting me to do a little background research, at least on the surface. It turns out that I forgot to mention that there is a book by Mathew Lopez called “The Whipping Man” about Passover in Civil War times that has recently been made into a play: http://www.samuelfrench.com/store/product_info.php/products_id/8388 . I hope it comes to Omaha!

  4. Happy Passover, Steve.

    We’re celebrating our own distinctly secular Easter with a few days of family inactivity and the distribution of a lot of pretty disgusting chocolate to the kids. We are second or third generation irreligious, so no hint of Christianity – except that some teacher or assistant at nursery school has been telling our nearly-four-year-old about the Christian story of Easter (which has rather annoyed my other half) and occasionally he repeats some of it. I actually overheard our seven year-old daughter explaining to him earnestly yesterday that:

    “There probably was a man called Jesus, but all that stuff about him being the son of God and rising from the dead is made up” (….!).

    The Blood Libel has a long and infamous history, of course, and it is beyond depressing to see that there are still people around that make use of it, and the Protocols, to foster anti-semitism. Though I was equally depressed to see the Blood Libel evoked a few days ago here.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I think my own ambivalent feelings about Israel’s current course are by now well known on the OT circuit. But when I read Grass’ poem and comments a few days ago, and his attack on Israel AND “Western Hypocrisy,” I definitely couldn’t help thinking about who is the true hypocrite in the story–all of the western world, or Mr. Grass, the spokesman of German ‘morality’ for half a century, despite his own rather checkered past.

      • Yes, Grass’ tortured past and (very, very late) mea culpa over his wartime service make him a rather compromised figure, to say the very least.

        Still, I think there is quite a lot of sympathy in Germany, and the rest of Europe – whatever the politicians are saying publicly – for his point that it is laughable that Western Govts still publicly sign up to the ‘deliberate ambiguity’ that Israel has no (declared) nuclear arsenal. And that this does, in turn, open the West up to charges of hypocrisy over Iran. Though no-one would argue – or at least I wouldn’t – that there is remotely any comparison between a nuclear-armed Israel and a nuclear-armed Iran.

        PS Prompted by some of your past comments, I have now taken to including Haaretz in my online reading whenever anything Israel-related turns up in the news. I find they often say a lot that I agree with.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          No question that Haaretz is the best newspaper in Israel. The editorials are always extremely carefully written and well balanced. As for the columnists, the bulk are center and left of center, although there are rightists. But almost exclusively this paper is read by the center-left in Israel (and abroad).

          The Grass poem is a big ado about nothing, and in my opinion the present government in Israel is delighted by: 1) Having Iran to plug as an existential threat and remove the Palestinians and peace from the agenda, 2) Having the Hamas in Gaza (and Hizbollah in S. Lebanon) firing rockets into Israel (the ultimate rationale being–look what happens when we return land and give independence–no way we can do that in the west bank due to its proximity to population centers, and 3) Having Gunter Grass and others “illustrate” the anti-Israel and anti-semitism and why Israel needs to hunker down and remain strong against world criticism.

          For Netanyahu, these are all ‘gifts’ that keep him in power, and will ensure that no solution can be made on the territories until its too late (if it isn’t already). Sad.

          • Yes, it is incredibly depressing for people my age to look at where the Middle East is now relative to where it was around 1980… and just wonder what would have happened if there had been some kind of land-for-peace deal / two-state solution some time in the early or mid 80s. What if Carter had been re-elected in 1980, rather than Reagan…. what if there hadn’t been the Invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and all that followed… and so on. Missed opportunities.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    The very biggest miss was prior to Rabin’s assassination. I think Arafat (and I was one who said “give him the Nobel Prize, it’ll keep him from ever going back to terrorism.” How wrong I was…) messed up the Palestinians for good. 98% of the territory was offered. The settlements were in a state such that it could have been done (with perhaps a small scale civil unrest in Israel’s right). With everything that’s happened since, no one in Israel will ever make such an offer, and if he/she did, it wouldn’t be accepted either by Israel’s public or by the Palestinians. The situation today is truly a result of a multitude of lost chances. It seems so hopeless today.

  6. It would be remiss of me not to post evidence of how much the Paas dyes were appreciated! We had to use duck eggs because it’s almost impossible to find white hen eggs here, and completely impossible to find ones without the date stamped on them.

    Thank you!!!

    All my eggs in one basket

    Paas duck eggs

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    Very pretty- didn’t realize duck’s eggs were so small!

  8. Me neither. But they do, due to altered fat content, actually float, which is kind of cool.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      So is that where the famous “Duck’s egg blue” (mentioned earlier by RPG in his house parable) comes from?!

      • I seem to remember ‘duck egg blue’ being quite a greenish pale blue. Remember painting a lot of it on the underside of my Airfix model WW2 fighter planes when I was a small boy.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          My knowledge of “Duck’s egg blue” comes from the famous scene in the BBC’s production of Eliot’s Middlemarch, where Dorothea’s uncle (Robert Hardy) enters the Rev. Casaubon’s house, and proclaims “A little duck’s egg blue would brighten up the place a bit…. bachelor, you know.”

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