Chutzpah and Soul

Passover 2024: The Diaspora Angle

I traveled to Philadelphia April 14, 2024, from Boston, to attend a special pre-Passover Freedom Seder at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. I made the journey in search of positive public expression of American Jewish identity since October 7. I was not disappointed.

The museum, located directly across from Independence Mall, is centrally located and features a gargantuan mural of an Israeli flag painted on its side. This mural has not been vandalized or defaced in any manner, and one can only imagine how it might be received in Berkeley for example. Such public display of Jewish pride in Philadelphia, is representative of Jewish vitality in that city and state.

Open seating, and I chose to sit with a table of eight, consisting predominantly of African Americans. This choice was not out of “political correctness” rather it was due to age and demographic factors, my natural affinity with black culture. The abbreviated Seder seemed designed especially to reach out to people unfamiliar with the tradition, like the Second Son of that profound Passover metaphor of the Four Sons. Approximately three hundred and fifty people attended split equally between Jews and others. The “split” was not psychological or cultural, all tables were ethnically mixed. Nothing felt forced or formal; it was a relaxed and authentic gathering of kindred souls.

A traditional Passover meal was served, the usual rituals were performed sans Afikomen (with too many to accommodate), after which, the unspoken subconscious question: “Why is this Seder different from all other seders”? was addressed.

Was it different? You betcha! A plethora of performers, from the vast rainbow spectrum of contemporary identity and culture, representing various genres and talent, channeling Black and Latino hip hop culture, with first amendment uninhibited language, was the answer, complete with at least three exclamation points.

There was also a jazz-klezmer fusion brass band with tuba and trumpet who closed the Seder with an uplifting and original take on Dayenu.

If you’re still not persuaded that this array of guest presenters is a Diaspora angle on the essence of Passover, consider the two formerly incarcerated African American men, who spoke from the soul of suffering overcome by the triumph of freedom over oppression. Each had been wrongfully convicted of murder and incarcerated for more than twenty-five years and were freed partly by the efforts of the Restorative Justice Project, which represents a radical reform of the criminal justice system. (The sponsors of the Seder are deeply devoted to this project.)

Neither of these freed Black men projected any bitterness, and despite the current level of crime and violence ravaging Philadelphia, skepticism about their innocence, maintained by each, was not present.

Where were “the Jews” in this cornucopia of performance artists? Allow me to reassure you with the following: two outstanding, dynamic, intensely Jewish presenters, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Vanessa Hidari stole the show.

Waskow, now in his eighties and significantly physically disabled, was one of the founders and visionaries of the revival of Diaspora Judaism, with a neo-Chassidic overlay, from the late 1960s. Waskow address Sunday was an urgent clarion call to the Jewish conscience, extemporarily delivered by this righteous Jew whose quivering voice was that of a modern day prophet. The audience was silent.

Vanessa Hidari, is a charismatic and sexy Sephardic American Jew with a style that could not be more distinct from Waskow’s.

She’s a “spoken word performance artist”, with unabashed chutzpah, openly proud of her resistance to antisemitism in all its varieties, a dynamic non-stereotyped persona and a New York cultural style that incorporates and speaks to every ethnic group. She goes by the actor’s name, The Hebrew Mamita, and unabashedly stands her ground against anyone who might minimize her, or Jews in general.

In short, Vanessa deserves an enthusiastic “shout out” from American Jews and our allies. From this writer’s point-of-view, she’s a heroine in short supply .

Passover is coming and is the most widely observed Jewish holiday that has also been celebrated universally. It has a universal message and a user-friendly format. I’ve attended or created Seders oriented around the Black freedom movement and this is the most common of the “alternative” Seders, given long term identification by Blacks through their history and culture. Think of “Go Down Moses”; with people who’ve overcome addiction and crime and see “freedom” as symbolic of their new path. With Jews who espouse reconciliation with Palestinians, with Jews in Brookline of Iranian descent, and in all forms of Jewish tradition.

Hiding Passover (Pesach) as we hide the afikomen, would be like burying a secret gem. Pesach represents the essence of our culture and it would be insane to keep it to ourselves; instead it should be shared as widely as possible. It is universally admired and is now celebrated in the White House since Bill Clinton.

So Happy Passover for a future where liberation is universal!

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