Passover, which commemorates the flight of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage, is the rationale of Israelite national existence. Our original Independence Day, Passover marks the transformation from a nation of slaves to a sovereign people, from a collection of tribes to a nation of law.
On this occasion for praise and thanksgiving, we are commanded (Exodus 13:8) to retell the liberation story to our children each year. We do this at the ritual seder meal ceremony, which includes a Passover seder plate containing symbolic foods, each with special significance in the narrative. (Since the early 1980s, many celebrants place an orange on the seder plate, representing solidarity with marginalized people.)
When is Passover?
In the Hebrew calendar, also called the Jewish calendar, Passover (or Pesach) falls on Nissan 15 through 22. In the Hebrew calendar, Adar is the seventh month of the religious year and the first month of the civil year. In the Gregorian calendar year (which runs from January 1 to December 31), in 2013, Passover starts Monday, March 25, at sundown, and continues through sundown, Tuesday, April 2.
The genius of commanding a storytelling
At the brilliantly scripted annual ritual meal, "it is praiseworthy to expand on the story of the exodus from Egypt" (Haggadah ["the telling"], compiled between 280 CE and 360 CE). For through our storytelling we can refine and improve ourselves, internalizing the lessons and noticing contemporary parallels. The African Refugee Development Center that organizes the pre-festival Joint Passover Seder for Israelis and African Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel with non-profit, non-governmental Israeli organizations and others, publishes this wonderful free, downloadable, alternative, Hebrew-English Haggadah.
The Joint Passover Seder has become an annual expression of collective remembering turned into action. I participated in this event in 2010, in Levinsky Park, in south Tel Aviv's Neve Sha’anan neighborhood near the New Central Bus Station, a seedy, rundown living area of mostly African refugees, southeast Asian foreign workers, streetwalkers, and junkies. Retelling our story and the stories of people still enslaved, oppressed, and suffering moved me deeply. And I missed my friends — Bhutanese refugees in Atlanta, Georgia, who are rebuilding their lives following exile from their homeland, Bhutan, and decades' subsisting in refugee camps, in Nepal, before coming to the USA as legal refugees starting 2008.
My seder companion was 23-year-old Filmon, an Eritrean psychology student seeking refuge from political and religious persecution. Until he can safely rejoin his parents and siblings in his homeland, Filmon does menial jobs that Israelis don’t want, for very low pay and no benefits.
Eritreans Filmon (l.) and Kidane hold the The Refugee Voice
(in English, Tigrinya [spoken in Eritrea], Arabic, and Hebrew)
(in English, Tigrinya [spoken in Eritrea], Arabic, and Hebrew)
° ° °Solidarity with marginalized people
in the Jewish community and outside
At the top of the seder, immediately after the introductory blessing, we read from the Haggadah:
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 the past six years, more than 35,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Southern Sudan, Darfur, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other nations have entered Israel; more than 20,000 live in Tel Aviv. And while most have fled from armed conflict, civil wars, and fear of persecution — and thus Israel has not deported them, it has not granted refugee status and does not permit them to work legally.
An orange grove of fruits on scores of tables Volunteers set oranges on scores of seder plates in the Levinsky Park seder. A coalition of passionate activist-volunteer-visionaries from a wide spectrum of synagogues, Zionist organizations, youth movements, and international humanitarian agencies organized and prepared the joint seder for hundreds of people, double the number anticipated.
The Haggadah describes four children
One child has wisdom of the heart, one is rebellious, one naïve, and one cannot ask questions. To my contemporaries who ask, How is a seder relevant to them, the refugees and asylum seekers?
My reply, a paraphrase of the Torah injunction:
כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם, וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם ...Treat foreign residents living among you as your native-born. Love each one as yourself because you were foreigners in Egypt...
Rebuilding shattered lives
Most African refugees, like nine-year-old Hebrew-speaking Saram (shown in the photo with her mother) entered Israel from their native lands through Egypt, from where the Israelite slaves similarly escaped to freedom millennia ago.
Daily, Israelis and other concerned people locally and from abroad are helping this vulnerable population to access basic social services, and they are raising awareness on emergency issues, among them trauma and other health crises, destitution, unemployment, and homelessness. (Every night in all weather, scores of people sleep in Levinsky Park.)
We seek help from you, people
who understand our misery
Johannes (shown in the photo) graduated from an Eritrean university with a degree in political administration. In our conversation during the seder, he spared me seemingly few details of the harsh life he has known since his government arrested him with 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 "fortunate" 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.
At the next weekly service welcoming the Sabbath Bride, I had forgotten the orange on the seder plate and the story behind the ritual. Gone was the beautiful sunny spring late afternoon. No longer ringing in my ears was the loud music sung in the languages of the seder participants. The seder had ended. Yet instead of releasing the struggles and cares of the week as Shabbat was beginning, I was hearing Johannes' Exodus story, and I couldn't stop listening to his plea, screaming inside me.
My related posts
- In Tel Aviv: Levinsky Park (includes video)
- Breaking Into Israel: Video report and interview with my Eritrean hero Kidane Isaac
- Josh Gomes: My Eritrean brother can dunk; he just wanted a little help this time
- Atlanta’s Bhutanese refugees and their new neighbors
- At Chinky Beach, Singing the "Song of the Sea" (includes video)