“The ban on leaven during the Passover week signifies that national liberation also involves moral and spiritual rejuvenation and must not be tainted by moral corruption.”
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.
Something else you may want to do is continue to talk about the story of the exodus, and what it means to transition from slavery to freedom.
To that end, I offer you this letter, written by a former slave named Jourdan Anderson in 1865. It’s the most profound and smart reflection on freedom I’ve ever come across, and it’s also hilarious. (And yes, it’s real.) Happy Passover!
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson,
Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdan, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday-School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free-papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department at Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die if it comes to that than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood, the great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
P.S.—Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
In case you’re wondering, adjusted for inflation, Anderson is asking his employer for $164,391.
Listerine that expired in 2007
A set of acne medications prescribed to someone no one in my apartment had ever met
An apple peeler in the hall closet
Family photos of someone I’ve never met
A pen in the toaster
A book about the Shidduch Crisis
A pillow in a garbage bag
A happy and clean Passover to all!
The holiday of Passover starts at sunset tonight, right? Not really. In our household, Passover started about a month ago — due partly to the fact that my wife is crazy & obsessive, and partly to the Hasidic idea that you’re supposed to start cleansing the specks of hametz out of your life, both physically and spiritually, thirty days before the holiday starts.
But 24 hours before Passover is when it starts to kick in hardcore.
Come back all day. I’ll be doing my regular MJL day-job from home, but I’ll also be updating with all sorts of crazy stuff that’s going on in my house, in the neighborhood, and in the spiritual realms (I think).
6:30 A.M. My alarm goes off. Tonight the holiday really starts, but today is the Fast of the First-Born. As the designated first-born son, that means that I’ve got to get my butt in action and get to synagogue. Or I could sleep 5 more minutes.
6:45 AM. Yes, I am still in bed.
The reason I have to get to synagogue, today of all days, is in order to participate in a siyum, or the completion of a study of a book of Talmud. In Jewish tradition, certain fasts can be alleviated if there’s a reason to have a party. The easiest and most dependable reason to have a party is when someone finishes studying something significant (most commonly, Talmud). If I don’t make it, then I will not eat anything until the seder tonight, when I drink 4 cups of wine — 2 of them before any food is consumed.
Which could make the seder a totally different and wacky experience.
But it also could mean I’d put the pass out in Passover.
6:50 AM. OK, OK. I am going to synagogue. But I really should get dressed first.
8:15 AM. Prayed fast, prayed hard. I called the rabbi last night to ask if there was a siyum at synagogue. He said there was, and also, there was an article about me in last week’s Forward. Which I did not know, and is also an awkward thing to hear — especially when the first sentence that struggles to get out of my mouth is, Do you know anything embarrassing about me now? Yes, I live a weird life. Here’s the rabbi finishing his Talmud volume:
He tells us a bunch of stuff about what time to bring sacrifices to the Temple. And he tells us: When we think about the Talmud, the Talmud thinks about us. It sounds inspiring enough for me to tweet it. Under his breath, a man next to me whispers, “I don’t want to know what the Talmud thinks about me.” And now we can eat!
Somebody brought schmaltz herring, macaroons, and Slivovice. (I pass on the herring.) I also get asked if we have any room at our seder. Our seder has ballooned from 8 people to 15, but I say I’ll ask Itta what she thinks. Remind me to do that.
9:15 AM. I run down the street and dump our last chametz trash bags in the public dumpster. On the way back, I see our neighbors, sitting on deck chairs and eating bagels on the porch.
The father waves me over. “You want one?” he says.
I am chametzed out. I am still stuffed from last night, when we had unbelievable vegan heroes at Sacred Chow and I ate enough seitan and legumes and stuff to keep me protein-ified for 14 days of Passover. (Not that being a vegetarian on Passover is hard, but still.) One other thing: They are wearing rubber gloves while they eat. I could make fun of them, but I’m sure they have plenty of things to make fun of me right back. Really, it’s just awesome that they care that much.
9:55 AM. There goes the last of our chametz.
10:17 AM. OK, folks. In the general New York area, the last time for eating chametz is T minus zero minutes. (I’m not exactly sure the reason in Jewish law, but I always suspected it was to have enough time to…uh, get rid of it. Gastrointestinally.)
Goodbye, bread. It’s been lovely to know ya. Next up: We burn the last remains of chametz! With fire!
11:01 AM. Today’s Jewniverse is out! Yes, I am actually working, too. I added a last-minute link for this awesome handy handout about how to set your seder plate which we released together with Moishe House and Birthright, and which I really wish I’d printed out when I was near a printer that understood what my computer was saying. In other words: You should print this out and have it near your seder plate. And I will wish I was you.
12:05 PM. So, guess what I smell like right now?
1:40 PM. After that particularly inspired bit of pyromania (and, by “inspired,” I mean “inspired by Beavis and Butt-head”), I sat down to focus on work for a bit. In my new hametz-free lifestyle, it’s harder to concentrate, since I’m used to chewing with one hand and typing with the other two. Maybe it’s that I need my mouth to be moving, whether I’m talking or writing? I don’t know.
In any case, burning the hametz was fun. My older daughter kept running close to the trash can (I love, love, our Oscar the Grouch-inspired trash can, by the way), peeking in, and then running away, while the baby squashed matzah into the grass a safe distance away. We didn’t need much tinder (just a paper egg carton). Then again, we didn’t have much hametz — just the traditional 10 pieces of bread that we hid around the house last night, wrapped in old newspaper.
Those big scratchy sticks you see are our lulavs from Sukkot. There’s a tradition that you save the lulav to burn today, along with all your hametz. They burned pretty quickly, and let out a smell like sage, which was a nice contrast to that smoky, lung-clogging malodorous odor that you’d expect. (We save our etrogim, by the way. They dry out nicely, and they look sort of like the etrog equivalent of dried flowers.)
The fire went up pretty quick and died out pretty quick. And, in a puff, that was that. No more hametz in the house. No more hametz in my body. It actually felt pretty cleansing. Now we’re in Passover-land for real.
And then — yes, bosses — I got back to work.
I have always been a Passover hater. There aren’t that many of us, but what we lack in numbers we make up for in fervor.
There are really lots of things on my list of reasons why Passover makes me angry:
–two seders is too many
–here’s an opportunity to trick people into buying expensive things they don’t need
–would you like some cardboard with your cholesterol?
–let’s read a poem about sex and pretend it’s about God
–and let’s clean the entire house, and then spend a week eating the world’s messiest food all over the place
but this year, number one on the list is the amount of waste that goes along with this holiday.
In general, we see an extraordinary amount of waste in our everyday lives. Food waste, which is upsetting if you think about the number of hungry people in the world, but also just a lack of thought about what happens to garbage once it leaves your garbage can. Until we start shooting our trash into outer space we have to make our peace with the fact that there’s finite amount of space in the world for the things we throw out, which means we need to throw out less.
In the observant world, as Passover approaches people begin to purge their homes and kitchens of hametz. This is done, to some degree, via using up non-Pesach friendly items before Pesach, but it also ends up meaning that many people go through their fridges in the days before Passover and toss out odds and ends they might have actually eaten if they’d had the chance. There is undoubtedly a feeling of liberation that comes with purging your fridge, but unless you’re able to get someone to come and take the last few tablespoons of mustard, the heel of cheese, the half bottle of pomegranate juice you never liked, then what you’re doing is just throwing lots of things out–being wasteful.
And it doesn’t end with the preparations. Once the holiday begins we’ll all be eating immense holiday meals, for which there is very likely going to be lots of leftovers. Will the leftovers be finished? If not, that’s more food going in the trash. (And remember, this is a holiday about the hardships of slavery, which includes hunger. We say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat” and then we toss perfectly good food into the trash. I’m just saying.)
Let’s also talk about Passover dishes. Do you have some? Or, are you planning on going the paper/plastic route? Since I’ll be back at my apartment for the last days of Passover I’ve bought a couple of basic cooking utensils, and I’m planning to get a set of Preserve dishes and silverware, but even this is more wasteful than just using real plates. And getting a set of real plates to use for three days a year also seems pretty wasteful. You may notice that lots of families just skip the Pesach dishes thing entirely and go 100% disposable for Pesach. I understand the instinct, but the amount of trash that produces is really upsetting.
Finally, when Passover is over and you still have half a jar of Passover tomato sauce, are you going to use it? Or will it go in the trash when it’s more attractive and enticing non-Pesadik cousin can come back into the rotation? Growing up, the Pesach products were rarely finished by the end of the holiday, and were often kept around with the best of intentions until they grew mold, and we could feel okay about tossing them.
I just think it’s deeply problematic to have a holiday about liberation from slavery that somehow involves all of us creating vast amounts of waste. “Woooo, we’re free, let’s pollute and throw trash wherever we want because no one can stop us!”
In conclusion: Pesach sucks.
Going on vacation for all of Passover (remember this holiday is dedicated to the Moses family) so find other things to do to fill in the time you wasted with me. Go ride a bike. Or build a fort. Just don’t let it involve leavened bread (like building a fort out of bread).
I just mailed in my taxes this morning (the government owes me approximately $100,000, so that will be a nice check). But Judaism has some thoughts about taxes too. Judaism seems to have thoughts about a lot of things.
Passover is in just a few days. Again, if you want–but don’t know how–to properly clean your kitchen for the holiday, here is everything you need to know.
My favorite part of the Passover seder has always been the section on the Four Children. I think a cool viral video would be a “Where Are They Now?” VH1 piece seeing the kids as adults. Someone make that.
Tuscan Spinach Soup! That sounds good, right!??!?
Finally, you might only be aware of the square variety, but there are actually four different types of matzah. I’m not going to tell you what they are though.
Have a good weekend and a Chag Sameach!
“Once we were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One Blessed Be He had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we, our children, and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.
Ealier this week, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches and patricide, photography, and Audrey Hepburn. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
It goes against my convictions as a novelist to characterize any person as either a demon or a hero; human nature isn’t so simple. It’s the fascist psyche that adores such black-and-white categories: good or bad, Aryan or Jew, friend or enemy, worthy of life or of extermination. But even in a psychologically mature piece of fiction, there are protagonists and antagonists and what divides them from one another in The Jump Artist is precisely their degree of maturity of thought—i.e., their ability or inability to think in a nuanced, non-binary way. Karl Meixner, a fascist, had a lot of trouble thinking that way. Philippe Halsman’s attorney in the second trial, by contrast, refused to see the world in the polarized terms that would later dominate the politics of Grossdeutschland.
In the first trial, Philippe had been defended by a famous Jewish attorney from Vienna named Richard Pressburger. The proceedings lasted just three days and presented little evidence against Philippe, but the jury convicted him with just as little deliberation. “After hardly a half an hour,” a major Vienna paper reported, “the jury foreman pronounces the verdict: the accused is guilty of murder, with nine against three votes.” (Arbeiter Zeitung, “A Wrong Verdict in Innsbruck? A Half-hour Consultation,” December 17, 1928.) By the second trial on appeal, the Halsman family understood the extent of local prejudices against outsiders. When the family hired the defense team for the second trial, they sought out local Gentiles to represent Philippe. The new attorneys were Innsbruckers Paul Mahler and Franz Pessler.
Pessler was born May 13, 1893 in Linz (an Austrian city halfway between Vienna and Salzburg). Halsman describes Pessler as “a very interesting person, a former Jesuit student,” in a letter dated March 23, 1929. He was a veteran of the First World War, described as “young, daring” in Die Wahrheit, a Vienna newspaper, on September 20, 1929. Pessler married a Viennese woman named Martha Lodenbauer, with whom he lived in Innsbruck at 29 Anichstrasse. According to the records in the Tiroler Landesarchiv (Geschäftszahl TLA-0509/1720-2006), they had no children.
Pessler was deeply committed to the defense of civil liberties even as Austria careened into fascism. His passion for justice is reflected in his own account of the trials, “Ein Bild des Prozesses” (“A Picture of the Proceedings”), published in a paperback volume called Der Fall Halsmann, issued in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights. (The Austrian League was a sister organization of theFrench League for the Defense of Human Rights, which had 20 years earlier defended the Jew Alfred Dreyfus following his indictment and false conviction in Paris.) After the second verdict, Pessler continued to fight on Philippe’s behalf for legal redress, and he took part in the effort to obtain a pardon from Chancellor Johann Schober.
The trials affected him on a personal level, as well. He writes in Der Fall Halsmann, pp. 90-91:
[Philippe] left prison as a broken man. His imprisonment has resulted in a lung infirmity. His engineering studies have been interrupted and subsequently cut off. Who can right all the wrongs he has suffered? Even if we succeed in bringing another trial to court, and prove his innocence beyond a doubt, the years of imprisonment and the horrible accusations have taken their toll.
We must learn for the future to be careful with any trial based on circumstantial evidence. In any such future case we must remember Philipp Halsman.
Philippe, in turn, felt he would never forget his attorney. In a letter to Ruth Römer dated January 28, 1930, Philippe writes: “[Dr. Pessler] sat down on the table and began to weep…. I will never forget how much [his tears] moved me, and how much I loved him the moment he wiped the table dry.”
After the Anschluss with Germany, Pessler ran afoul of the Nazis; he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp as a political prisoner on May 31, 1938 and was not released until almost a year later, on April 22, 1939. According to the Tiroler Landesarchiv, he’d been added to the Nazis’ “Schwarzen Liste,” or Black List, because in 1938 he served as public defender for Friedrich Wurnig, an SS officer who was tried for murder; Pessler lost the case and Wurnig was executed. Shortly after Pessler’s internment at Dachau, his wife moved to Eggenberg. He survived the war and died in the same year as did his former client Philippe Halsman: 1979.
Oh yay. For all of those sick of boy band-themed Passover parodies and Kanye- and Pink-themed Passover parodies and other parodies that cruelly insist that you need to be familiar with this horrid gorgon called pop culture, there’s a Ramones-themed punk-rock Passover video. I can’t promise you it’ll be any good, or that it will have any fewer matzoh ball jokes than other Passover parodies. But now I know how women in the Conservative movement felt in 1973. Finally, there’s someone up there who looks (or, at least, sounds) like me.
Of course, if you’d like to see something that’s actually not a rip-off of a song that other artists wrote several years ago, there are some people putting out actual new Passover music.
I’m not dreading the seders this year quite as much as I usually do, though I’m confident they’ll still be plenty dramatic. But I do have a few tricks up my sleeve that might make things more fun/relevant/interesting/intoxicating than usual. Allow me to recommend:
National Council on Jewish Women has a reading for the Yahatz part of the seder about our broken immigration system in America
Uri L’Tzedek has a haggadah supplement about food and justice
J Street has a supplement to share thoughts and questions about peace, freedom, Israel, and the future of our community.
Some ideas for adding drama (like, actual skits, not just people shouting at each other)
Funny songs to sing at your seder to the melody of classic songs we all know
Hillel offers up a plethora of supplements for everything from modern slavery, to feminism to the righteous gentiles
The Huffington Post offers up something that, frankly, could have used an editor
A recipe for matzah pizza by Spike from Top Chef presented by Oprah (really)