March 28, 2014

In Tel Aviv: The orange on the Passover seder plate

African refugees and asylum seekers at the
Freedom Seder in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv
Passover (or Pesach) is a sacred myth that celebrates the escape of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Our original Independence Day, Passover marks the shift from a nation of slaves to a free people, from a collection of tribes to a nation of law. And the covenant between them and the one God. The festival offers rituals, lessons, and actions for any Jew whether a particularist or a universalist, and for anyone of any faith or none.

We are commanded (Exodus 13:8) to retell the liberation story to our children (of any age, including ourselves) yearly. We do this at the seder meal, a  ceremony featuring a seder plate containing symbolic foods, each with special significance in the festival narrative.

Since the early '80s, adding an orange to the seder plate
represents solidarity with marginalized people
Though we follow the Haggadah ("the telling" — compiled between 280 CE and 360 CE), "It is praiseworthy to expand on the story of the Exodus from Egypt." For in our telling and listening we can internalize lessons, notice contemporary parallels, and find ways to repair broken parts in ourselves and our environments.

When is Passover?
In the Hebrew (or Jewish) calendar, Passover falls on Nissan 15 through 22. Nissan is the seventh month of the religious year and the first month of the civil year. In 2014, Passover starts Monday, April 14, at sundown, and continues through sundown, Monday, April 21 (outside Israel, through Tuesday, April 22).

Solidarity with marginalized people
in the Jewish community and beyond
The Haggadah begins with an introductory blessing, then we read, in Aramaic:
כָּל דִּכְפִין, יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוּל; וְכָל דִּצְרִיךְ לְפַסַּח, יֵיתֵי וִיפַסַּח   
Let all who are hungry, come and eat! Let all who are needy, come and celebrate the Passover with us. 

Who is hungry? Who is needy?
In 2013, the Israel National Insurance Institute and the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that Israel’s poverty rate was 23.5 percent! One-fifth of families and one-fifth of retirees are officially poor. Further, the Israel National Council for the Child reported that one-third of Israel’s children live in poverty.

And, in the past decade, more than 60,000 hungry and needy refugees and asylum seekers have entered Israel seeking safe harbor from wars, conscription, violence, and dictators in their homelands. Most fled from Eritrea, Southern Sudan, Darfur, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other African nations.

Passover Freedom Seder for Israelis and
African Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Since 2007, the Joint Freedom Seder has become an annual expression of collective remembering turned into action. This seder, which retells our story and stories of people still enslaved, oppressed, and suffering, has been held in Levinsky Park between south Tel Aviv's Neve Sha’anan neighborhood and the Central Bus Station, a seedy, rundown living area of mostly poor Israelis, African refugees, southeast Asian foreign workers, streetwalkers, and junkies.

"Every heart to love will come like a refugee" (Leonard Cohen)
In Levinsky Park, refugees demand legal residency for eligible applicants.
A coalition of activist-volunteer-visionaries from a wide spectrum of synagogues, Zionist organizations, youth movements, and international humanitarian agencies organize and prepare the Joint Seder for hundreds of people, double the number initially anticipated.

In Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, and outside the Negev southern desert Holot detention center for refugees and asylum seekers. 

To those people who ask, How is a seder relevant to African refugees and asylum seekers?

I cite the biblical injunction:
כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם, וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם 
Like the native among you shall be the sojourner who sojourns among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Leviticus 19:34

At the 2010 Freedom Seder: 3 profiles in courage
Profile: Philmon, age 23, is an Eritrean psychology student seeking refuge from political and religious persecution. Until he can safely rejoin his parents and siblings in his homeland, Philmon does menial jobs that Israelis don’t want, for low pay without benefits.

Philmon (left) and Kidane hold up the multilingual Refugee Voice
English, Tigrinya (spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia), Arabic, and Hebrew
Profile: Nine-year-old Hebrew-speaking Saram
As did most African refugees, Saram's mother (shown with Saram in the photo) entered Israel through Egypt, from where the Israelites in the narrative escaped to freedom millennia ago.

We seek help from you, people
who understand our misery"
Profile: Johannes (shown in the photo) graduated from an Eritrean university with a degree in political administration. In our conversation, I sensed that he spared me details of the harsh life he has known since his government arrested him and fellow students protesting against the military regime. For more than a year, they were beaten, tortured, starved, and enslaved until Johannes escaped, as did many "fortunates" — as he calls surviving political prisoners.

We came to Israel, a place of miracles, and we seek help from you, people who understand our misery, he replied to my dumb question, Why come here? As I probed, with his permission, the narrative of his suffering touched on key points: longing for home, loneliness, unemployment, language barriers, fear. I came through the way that Moses and his people, your people crossed. Help us, please help us get out of this suffering, he pleaded.

° ° °

Kabbalat Shabbat 

The seder ended. The sunny spring afternoon turned to dusk. I forgot the oranges on the seder plates and the stories shared over the ritual meal. The loud music and singing were silenced. Yet instead of releasing the struggles and cares of the week at the weekly prayer service welcoming the Sabbath Bride, I was replaying Johannes' exodus story, and I couldn't stop listening to his plea screaming inside me.

My related posts

March 16, 2014

Purim celebration in Tel Aviv

Dancing in Purim costumes
[Note | I updated the festival dates this year from my original post on Purim 2009.]

Purim celebrates a story in the biblical Megillat Esther (Book of Esther), in which Queen Esther saves the Jewish people from (Ahasuerus advisor) Haman's plot to destroy them.

This year, 2014, Purim started after sunset on Saturday, March 15, and continues for two days until Monday, March 17. In the Hebrew calender, a day begins at sunset on the previous day.

Purim eve, 2009, Tel Aviv's tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard was a virtual sacred space where the Megilla reading, singing, playacting, and music blared under glowing night-lights while children and dogs wandered around and beneath rows of white plastic chairs.

On this holiday (observed with fanciful costumes), the spirited multigenerational crowd also listened to Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau's history lessons and encouragement. Other highlights included "Secrets of the Palace," an enactment of the Purim story told in the Megilla, awards for best costumes, and merry singing and dancing — all celebrating the festival in which, instead of being annihilated, the Jews lived.

Watch my video (5:13 minutes).

Four mitzvot, commandments on observing Purim:
  • Listen to the reading of Megillat Esther
  • Participate in the Purim feast
  • Send Mishloach manot, gifts to friends
  • (most important) Give Matanot LaEvyonim, gifts to the needy
My Purim posts

March 02, 2014

Happy 107, Alice Herz-Sommer: Oldest surviving Holocaust survivor

Note: I first published this post November 14, 2010. On February 23, 2014, Alice Herz-Sommer died in London. She was 110 years old. Her memory is a blessing.

I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times — including my husband, my mother and my beloved son. Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.
Alice Herz-Sommer

During World War II, Czech-born Jewish classical pianist Alice Herz-Sommer performed for her Nazi Germans captors in the Theresienstadt (English, Terezin) Jewish ghetto.

"As long as they wanted music, they couldn't put us in the gas chambers."

Listen to and watch Alice Herz-Sommer (3 minutes).

“I have not spent one minute hating”
Herz-Sommer's spiritual cousin, American Mamie Till, uttered these words years after the bereaved mother forced the nation to look at the horror of racism in the racially motivated murder of her son Emmett Till (1941-1955), in the Mississippi Delta. She had demanded the U.S. federal authorities to return the 14-year-old's mutilated body to his hometown, Chicago, and placed in an open coffin on public view.

Related posts