This year, Easter and Passover, despite being reckoned by different calendars, coincide in the same week, as they did at the start, when Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover seder and the events of the Passion of Christ unfolded.
I happened to attend seders -- ritual meals conducted in Jewish homes to commemorate the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt -- on both the first two nights: one a traditional type, the other a zombie seder, sort of, pretty rudimentary but it will probably develop as other themed versions have.
Jews living in the diaspora, or "exile," traditionally hold two seders, while those in Israel observe one night. There are historical reasons, but it allows some space for creative leeway and one result has been second night innovations: human rights, gay rights seders, etc. I linger on this since it’s somewhat askew to what’s become the conventional version of Jewish history: that exile was generally about misery and persecution leading to the need for and creation of the state of Israel. The realities are richer and more complex.
I thought about this while watching Kathy Wazana's new documentary film, They Were Promised the Sea, on Morocco’s ancient Jewish community in which she grew up. She takes a contrary tack to that mainstream narrative, portraying a large Jewish population (about 350,000) living in harmony with Arab and Berber compatriots. They, with their neighbours’ support, tried to resist pressure from governments in the 1950s and ’60s to uproot and move to Israel, but failed. Wazana’s revaluation is implicit in things like the gorgeous landscapes she shows in Morocco and explicit in accounts of how the migrants were promised a life in the Israeli coastal city, Haifa, but deposited in development towns in the desert. They were expected to abandon their "Arabic" culture yet weren’t treated with the same dignity as European Jews. It was like going into exile.
This is controversial, which is why it's useful. Jewish artists continue to stir the pot where it’s needed, versus an economic-institutional establishment that’s tried to impose a top-down conformity on Jewish attitudes (in my opinion). Art Spiegelman's Maus dug into the topic of the Holocaust through his relations with his survivor dad, in ways that challenged the pat, sometimes kitsch, versions that have proliferated. The late, great Harvey Pekar did the same for Zionism in his last graphic novel, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me. Wazana takes on the official line about unrelieved Jewish misery in exile. It’s liberating and, as good work should, provokes further rethinking.
For instance, “positive” Jewish views on exile may predate the Babylonian and Roman exiles of 586 BC and 70 AD. Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony, in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, claims the Old Testament (the Jewish-Hebrew part of the Bible) is rooted in "the ethics of a shepherd." All the main founder-heroes there -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David -- thrived in wandering, rural lives. Settled, urban locales like Babylon, Egypt, even Jerusalem, were far more ambiguous morally. Moses dies just as the Hebrew tribes end their 40 desert years. David's moral compass deteriorates when he's king in Jerusalem. Hazony implies an original biblical preference -- albeit a complex one -- for wandering.
My favourite seder (if we're allowed to rank) was a second seder at the home of Toronto rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl. It included the full ritual. It started at 9 and ended at 2 and was riveting throughout because his family were so at ease with it. They included private traditions like a knock at the door when "an old Jew" appears and asks to enter. It was the rabbi himself, who'd slipped out the back door.
For the final song, "An Only Kid" (as in goat), which is like "The Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly," except The Holy One Blessed Be He, finishes off all competitors -- each guest was assigned one verse. The sole child, a 12-year-old, got The Holy One and, at his moment, went silent. The rabbi squealed with delight and said, "The still small voice!" which is how God's presence is portrayed in the Bible, when the (desert) prophet Elijah demands to actually meet Him. Talk about creative traditions and living culture.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star.