In the land of the free

Prof. Jonathan Sarna draws a poignant parallel between the Jewish and American concepts of freedom.

By DAVID GEFFEN
March 29, 2010 17:58
Prof. Jonathan Sarna (Ariel Jerozolimski)

Jonathan sarna 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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‘Passover has become a universal parable whose symbolism has meaning for all people who strive toward freedom and a new life,” Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum was quoted as saying in the New York Times’ Pessah feature in 1970. The article pointed to a trend, which has continued to this day: the introduction of “new and updated versions of the Haggada relating to the contemporary scene. All underscore a basic adherence to the meaning of human freedom.” This year, one of the newest Haggadot to hit the shelves actually takes a historical look back at American Jewish tradition over the past two centuries. Published by the American Jewish Legacy, 100,000 copies are now available free of charge at ShopRite stores throughout the United States.

What awaits every reader of this Haggada are the tales of George Washington’s centennial inauguration on Pessah 1889, marked by a Hebrew prayer from then chief rabbi Yaakov Yosef and by the placement of portraits of the first president in Jewish homes. There are tales of matza baking during the California gold rush and in Savannah, Georgia, and New Orleans, Louisiana, during the Civil War. There are descriptions of Seders during the Civil War, for the Yankees and the Rebels. There are photographs of Seders for American soldiers in Iran and Iwo Jima during World War II.

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“What is most exciting about this Haggada, is that American Jews will learn about their legacy in the United States,” says Professor Jonathan Sarna, the historical consultant on this project, who is the 2009-2010 senior scholar at the Mandel Institute in Jerusalem. “There is documentation in this text pointing to the observance of Passover from the 18th [century] through the early 20th century and the practice of Jewish tradition in the United States in this period as well.

“Since the Seder is a major learning experience, reading this new Haggada will fascinate the participants, teaching them much that they did not know previously,” continues Sarna, who is very enthusiastic about this publication.

AS THE Pessah holiday begins, one can learn a great deal from this outstanding interpreter of American Jewish history on how the concept of freedom, embedded in this important Jewish festival, parallels the teaching of American liberty.

“When the peace descended upon the new nation in 1783,” Sarna writes, “it seemed like nothing short of the redemption, an ideal roughly parallel to the millennium that pious Christians preached, and reinforced for the Jews by the fact that Congress proclaimed the cessation of hostilities just prior to the start of Passover, the Jewish holiday of freedom.” This statement of American freedom so close to the Pessah holiday suggested to American Jews that their new nation and their ancient nation were linked.

When George Washington, the first president of the United States, visited the Newport, Rhode Island, Jewish congregation, the leadership praised the new government for “generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” and thanked God “for all the blessings of civil and religious liberty that Jews now enjoyed under the Constitution.”



As Sarna points out, American Jews were blessed with the liberty promised to them by the basic legislation of the United States. In addition, what was quite significant, and has been the case since the Jews’ arrival in America over 350 years ago, was the basic observance of Pessah as a means of reinforcing freedom over and over again through key religious symbols.

In various scholarly papers, Sarna has pointed out how raisin wine was used in 19th-century America to make sure that the wine was completely kosher for Pessah. He has also referred to the fact that the Sephardi congregations in America would distribute haroset made from dates to assure that every member of the community had an acceptable type of haroset for the ritual observance. One noted American Jewish figure, Mordecai Manual Noah, whose biography Sarna wrote, once sent a note to his wife asking that she get the “thin matza” which he preferred.

THE CONCEPTS of liberty and freedom had special significance for American Jews celebrating Pessah during the Civil War.

“We possess two lengthy accounts [from the Civil War],” notes Sarna; “one from the Union and one from the Confederacy, about Passover observance in 1862 – a sure sign of how significant commemoration of the holiday of freedom was to Jews on both sides of the struggle.

“The southern soldiers purchased the requisite matza in Charleston, South Carolina, and cooked a fine traditional dinner – a pound and a half of fresh kosher beef. The northern soldiers in West Virginia obtained from Cincinnati, Ohio, some of the supplies that they needed for their Seder, the traditional ritual meal that accompanies the retelling of the Exodus story, and then went out and foraged for the rest.”

Sarna quotes one of the participants: “We consecrated and offered up to the ever-living God of Israel our prayers and sacrifice. There is no occasion in my life that gives me more pleasure and satisfaction than when I remember the celebration of Passover 1862.”

According to Sarna, in a 2007 radio interview, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, can be viewed from a distinctly Jewish perspective: “Abraham Lincoln is assassinated on the Jewish holiday of Passover. Of course, it is also Good Friday. So it was natural that Christians who memorialized him made use of Good Friday’s imagery, but that was not going to do for Jews.

“Here there was Passover, Exodus, Jews automatically analogized. It was Abraham Lincoln to Moses; just as Moses died just as he is about to enter the promised land, so Abraham Lincoln is shot down just as he is about to enter the promised land of the reunification. The analogy is perfect given the celebration of Passover.”

One of the facets of Pessah in the United States in the post-Civil War period, according to Sarna, is that the observance of the holiday waned. This occurred, he posits, because the reform Jews from Germany generally eschewed ritual observances of all kind. They did not find the holiday at home as important as the traditional observance had always been.

Pessah observance was revitalized in the 20th century, especially for reform Jews, with the creation of a new Haggada – the Union Haggada of 1908. It carried a significant message of freedom which linked the celebration of Pessah to America’s own basic values.

THROUGHOUT ALL of the major American wars of the 20th and 21st centuries – World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War – Pessah-time reinforced the message of liberty and freedom among the nearly one million American Jews who served on behalf of the United States. Through the efforts of the Jewish Welfare Board and the United States military, Pessah Seders were held throughout the world for these soldiers.

A specific description of Pessah and freedom was offered by Lt. Gen. Mark Clark at a Seder held in the European Theater in 1945: “Tonight you are eating unleavened bread just as your forebearers ate unleavened bread. Because the Exodus came so quickly the dough had no time to rise.” Clark emphasized, “There was a time of unleavened bread in this war; the time when it looked as though we might not have time to rise – time to raise an army and equip it, time to stop the onrush of a Germany that was already risen.

“But the bread has begun to rise. It started at Alamein. It was rising higher when the Fifth Army invaded Italy. It is reaching the top of the pan and soon time will come when it will spread out into a finished product – unleavened bread ready to produce a complete triumph.”

IN THE last 50 years, the message of Pessah has also influenced the decades-long battle on behalf of black Americans. Sarna, in his book American Judaism, shares with us the civil right’s teaching of the noted American Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“On January 14, 1963, Heschel met Martin Luther King Jr. and electrified his audience by linking the black struggle to the Biblical Exodus. At the first conference on religion and race, centuries ago, Heschel noted in his unique fashion, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end, Heschel stressed. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but it is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

In 1969, a young Jewish American leftist, Arthur Waskow, was working in San Francisco as a contributing editor for Ramparts, the leading US weekly magazine, whose purpose was to expose the suppression by the “establishment” of black people, women and other marginalized groups. Calling upon his Jewish roots and his deep concerns for the black struggle in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Waskow used the magazine as a platform to publish his own version of the Pessah Haggada, called the Freedom Seder. The Freedom Seder was the first widely published Haggada that intertwined the concept of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt with the more modern liberation struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, the notion of rewriting and revising the Haggada to fit with the contemporary needs of the Jewish people is nothing new; in fact, the more one tells of the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy it is – kol hamarbe harei ze meshubah. Yet, the universal message of freedom, however it applies in this day and age, still penetrates deeply into the public conscience.

The writer has a PhD in Jewish civilization from Columbia University and is the editor of the American Heritage Haggadah.

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