A Secular Passover
By MICHAEL FELSEN
My family is religiously “blended.” My wife, Tolle, is not
Jewish. I am. We have three boys, aged 24, 21, and 17. I should note at the
outset that while our family is “blended,” Tolle and I both consider ourselves
to be spiritual but secular in our belief systems. For us, observance of
otherwise “religious” holidays are cultural experiences, opportunities for
contemplation and self-reflection and family or community gathering times,
rather than holy days reserved for ritual piety.
Passover is one such holiday. I have vivid memories of experiencing Passover as
a child in the 1950s, at my grandparents' farm in southern New Jersey. Both my
parents, and their parents, had escaped Nazi Germany shortly before the war
broke out. My maternal grandparents, having left urban Frankfurt, and having
been resettled as nouveau poultry farmers, were observant Conservative Jews.
Our family observance of Passover with them meant listening to my grandfather
read the entire hagaddah in Hebrew,
with no translation, literally for hours (or so it seemed!). I recall slumping
lower and lower in my chair, until I was virtually under the table and asleep
by the time the ceremonies were over.
Fast forward 50 years. What had been for me a formal and rather tedious
observance by our small nuclear family has now taken the shape of an animated,
sometimes boisterous, highly participatory gathering of a widely extended
family. This is the Boston
Workmen's Circle community seder, attended by as many as 175 members and
their families and friends. For several years now our family, including my
father when he was alive, has joined with other friends to mark this holiday in
our own ever-evolving way.
In fact, a great many of the families who belong to the Workmen's Circle and
participate in our seder are mixed, “interfaith” couplings. We are Jewish,
Catholic, Protestant, multi-racial, gay and straight, atheist, agnostic, and
“believer.” As a community we identify ourselves as secular and progressive,
and, usually, at least one member of the family has Jewish roots. We operate a
thriving Sunday school (“shule”) from
which all my boys have graduated and attained their Bar Mitzvah, each having
spoken publicly to the community about what it means, to him, to be Jewish. We
are proud to be home to what we believe is the largest Yiddish chorus in the
country, if not the world! We offer other cultural and educational programs, as
well as social action activities, that speak to our Jewish immigrant roots. But
also central to our organization's identity is its inclusiveness, its embrace
of the diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds that characterize our
member families and their extended families.
Our seder reflects our central view that while we are grounded in Jewish
culture and heritage, our frame of reference is really all of humanity. We take
very seriously the challenge offered each year by our communally prepared
hagaddah, “to connect our history with our present and to act to bring justice
to the world.” It continues: “Let us celebrate our freedom and strengthen
ourselves to join the fight against injustice wherever it exists today. For as
long as one person is oppressed, none of us are free.”
Our hagaddah draws our attention to the struggles for freedom and for social
justice of many different peoples around the world; it also gives special focus
to the ongoing crisis in Israel/Palestine, which is, of course, a particularly
Jewish concern. For me, among our most transcendentally beautiful readings is a
poem called “Ishmael,” by Amy Azen. My eyes tear up each time I hear it read,
this poem that lyrically recalls the common ancestry, the now seemingly
forgotten brotherhood, of Jews and Arabs:
How long shall we age war with one another?
How long must there be rancor and mistrust?
How much more blood must be spilled
Before the final epic?
How many shall we shovel in the sand?”
Our seder asks, demands, that we ponder these questions.
It also movingly commemorates the Passover 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, by
telling the story of courage and resistance and hope in the face of utterly
devastating odds. This remembrance is especially resonant for my family, since
my father's sister, as best we can tell, perished in the ghetto. The seder then
continues by honoring the memory of those Jewish women, like Hannah Senesh, who
parachuted behind enemy lines in Hungary and Slovakia to organize resistance,
and Vladka Meed, who served as a courier and smuggled arms for the ghetto
fighters, and Rosa Robota, who organized the smuggling of dynamite to blow up a
crematorium at Auschwitz. Finally, we remember those individuals, like Raoul
Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, who during World War II “crossed boundaries” to
save people of other groups; and we honor those Jews who today “cross the line”
in Israel and remind us of the common humanity, and the mutual needs for
safety, work, and home that we share with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.
And while our hagaddah presents these weighty matters of conscience seriously
and forcefully, their gravity is tempered by a liberal sprinkling of songs,
children's rhymes, tastings of the traditional charoset, maror, parsley, and matzo, and, of course, the obligatory
four glasses of wine followed by a sumptuous pot luck supper! By the end, a
moving, filling, and splendid time has been had, I daresay, by all. And this
includes my kids. While I can't attest that over the years each of them has
listened to every word, they've sung, they've read, they've discussed, they've
searched for the afikomen, they've
eaten until they could eat no more. In a word, they've taken it all in!
My wife finds meaning and joy in this celebration much as I do. The critical
reason, I think, is that we share, along with our fellow participants, a
secular system of values that honors, above all else, our common humanity with
all those others with whom we share this planet. And while Passover urges us to
recall a telling chapter in our ethnic past, it more importantly insists that
we be mindful of a world still much in need of repair, still crying out for
social justice, still needing us all to focus less on our differences and more
on how alike we really are.