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