Despite the fact that it’s a celebration, I have bittersweet feelings about Juneteenth.
Its origins are traced to Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, bringing the news of freedom to that region’s slaves—months after the South’s surrender and 2-1/2 years past the Emancipation Proclamation.
That our ancestors were freed from slavery is wonderful. But that they toiled and lived, if they were lucky enough to, a bonus round in bondage because no one got around to telling them the news is horrible. Cynical. Sad.
My own experience for 10 years running is with the African American Men’s Group in Duluth. Every year, we cook and serve more than 400 free meals at the city’s public commemoration of the day.
We’re there because we want to be, the value of our volunteering made ever clear by the heart-rending encounters—especially when the day is marred by rain or unseasonable cold—of those who wait in line a half-hour or more, who are there because they have to be, to eat.
For me, another part of Juneteenth is planning of the event—should we do chicken this year or burgers and brats? — and when the day comes, the priceless faces of preschoolers when asked if they want baked beans or corn. The thank-yous we get in return are payment enough.
Add in singing groups and family activities and a bouncy castle, how could you not have fun? Still, what tinges the day with sadness for me is not its commemoration but its origin, best summed up in two words of black vernacular guaranteed to give any wannabe Chris Rock a field day:
It’s not the embarrassment of the language but the concept of its truth that depresses me. It wasn’t the first time slaves were deceived about their freedom, and not just in the South. Here in Minnesota, as far North as you can get, Dred Scott summered with his so-called master, only to be told by others after returning to Missouri: “Hey—did you know you were free when you were up there?”
That’s what the whole case was about. Look it up.
We free yet, boss?
Maybe I’m just a stick in the mud, or over-internalizing long-ago oppression. Of course freedom is worth celebrating, even if slavery ended with a whimper instead of a bang. That, after all, is what Passover is about, and there’s no question that holiday is a celebration and should be.
But the Jewish liberation theology had a liberator—Moses—let alone God, “with a mighty hand and outstretched sword.” Freed African Americans had only weary Union soldiers mustering out, an assassinated Great Emancipator, and Radical Republicans thwarted by a racist and intransigent Supreme Court. And instead of reaching the Promised Land, black former slaves arrived in the land of Jim Crow, with continued state-sponsored dehumanization.
The result? It’s in the faces of hungry people today, in food lines like ours, where I celebrate freedom and try to repair the world by taking my place in a serving line.
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah has seventy “faces,” but is still one, unified Torah. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai with customs that celebrate the gift of Torah, and show the same diverse presentation of a few unifying core ideas. Each Jewish culture is unique, and at the same time, integrated with the worldwide Jewish community.
There are many special foods for Shavuot, in different Jewish cultures. Dairy is popular because, when the Israelites in the desert received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are sweet, as well. Persian Jews make “Polao mastin” a dish made of rice and milk, and “koltcha shiri,” a dairy cake, while in Greece there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called “sutlag.” In Poland, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with cookies or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children. Iraqi Jews make “sambusak,” a savory pastry filled with cheese. The exact details of the menu are fluid—any interpretation of a dairy meal and dessert would be appropriate. This is an excellent opportunity to try out a new recipe, symbolic of our renewed relationship with Torah, or to take the time for an old family favorite, to celebrate your roots.
It is common for communities to prepare their synagogues for Shavuot with natural decorations. Greek Jews historically decorated their synagogues with green branches and a variety of flowers. Even today Bukharan Jews use red roses. In Poland, synagogues were decorated with flowers, branches, and paper cuttings called “reizelach,” or roses, in Yiddish. German Jews would place two flowering branches on either side of the Ark, as a symbol that Torah is our Tree of Life. Consider decorating your synagogue or home with local, in season, flowers and greenery.
Traditional communities hold a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” a nighttime Torah study session which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to all night long. In some communities this is held in the synagogue, while in others, it is located private homes. People may recite specific passages from different traditional texts, while others prepare different topics, which change from year to year. Study is a potent way of renewing our understanding of Torah.
Shavuot is full of opportunities for communal gatherings and fun. Libyan and Moroccan Jews spray water onto passersby, because the Torah is compared to water, and our reconnection to Torah is a source of blessing. Ethiopian Jews gather together, bringing bread and other grains for the Kes, their religious leader, to bless, after which the entire community eats together. On some Israeli Kibbutzim, people have revived the agrarian side of Shavuot and have a parade with baskets of the first produce of the season. Whether you want to make a meal with seasonal produce, or have a picnic and water balloon fight, you will be in good company among the global Jewish community.
Around the world, Jews celebrate Shavuot in a variety of ways—but at their root, they come back to the same sources and the same ideas. It celebrates the diverse ways in which we relate to Torah, all of which are true, just as we have diverse ways of celebrating, all of which are the real Jewish way to do things. One thing is for certain—whichever way you choose to celebrate Shavuot this year, you will meet one of Torah’s seventy faces.
Passover is a time for storytelling. One of the main purposes of the holiday is to allow one generation to tell the next generation the story of how we came out of Egypt and journeyed from slavery to freedom. There are many children’s books that engage young minds by going beyond the telling found in the traditional Passover haggadah. In choosing among the possible additions the Seder, we have focused on books that celebrate the diversity of Jewish families and those that introduce the themes of Passover in new or particularly engaging ways:
A relatively newcomer to the Passover scene is the colorfully appealing Afikomen Mambo, by Joe Black and illustrated by Linda Prater. Sold together with the book is a CD with performance by Black, who is well known for his music. Geared to the 3–7 set, this playful combination of illustration and song, do exactly what the Afikomen is meant to do — pique the interest and engagement of the younger set so they stay awake until the end of the Seder. Somewhat puzzling is the plethora of children and the paucity of adults seated around the table. From the looks of it, one set of parents has invited a whole brood of young ones to join in the Passover fun. But at least everyone looks happy doing the Afiokmen Mambo.
The theme of grandparents passing on traditions to grandchildren is a familiar part of Passover; less familiar is the twist it takes in Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrated by Diana Bryer. Jacob loves to prepare for Easter with his grandmother, but one day she tells him a secret. Like many others whose Jewish ancestors who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, this family of anusim continued to practice Judaism their Judaism in secret. For the 4–8 set, this is a wonderful introduction to an element of Jewish history that still plays out today. We love that this story brings attention to the stories of individuals who are now, after hundreds of years, finding their way back to their Jewish heritage.
Mindy Avra Portnoy’s A Tale of Two Seders, also offers a different take on the classic family themes of the holiday. The story follows a little girl who after her parents divorce spends one Seder at her mother’s and one at her fathers. Over the years the Seders vary and as Valeria Cis’s illustrations highlight how the people attending the two Seders are themselves varied. Adding to our sense of possibilities are the four recipes for charoset that are included. This book acknowledges the difficulties that the young protagonist faces, without presenting her situation as a tragedy.
The diversity of Passover observances around the world take center stage in two different celebrations of global Jewish life. From the National Geographic Holidays Around the World series comes Celebrate Passover and from Tami Lehman-Wilzig, Passover Around the World. As one expects from National Geographic, there are bold, beautiful photos depicting Jews from Africa to China, from Budapest to Ohio. Lehman-Wilzig’s book moves from place to place as it goes through the Seder, beginning in America and ending in Morroco; the journey is depicted in softly colored illustrations by Elizabeth Wolf.
Elements of the Exodus story can be frightening for children ages 4–8, but in this telling of a traditional tale, facing fears pays off. Nachson, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story, by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Jago, is a retelling of the rabbinic story of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who had to wade into the Red Sea until the water was up to his neck, in order to make the waters part and let the Israelites to escape the Egyptians on dry land. In the gentle illustrations, the characters’ features and skin tones blend and shift with the background, giving the book warmth and no clear racial focus.
Children ages 9–12 who are reading on their own may enjoy Private Joel and the Swell Mountain Seder, by Bryna J. Fireside and illustrated by Shawn Costello. Set in the Civil War, it tells the story of how Union soldiers improvise to make their Seder happen, even in the midst of a war. While not raising the possibility that there are Jews with dark skin and of African decent, the story does highlight the parallels between the African American experience of slavery and the ancient Israelite experience. The book shines a light on the possibility of sharing stories and traditions.
This modern Passover Miracle story is perfect for sharing with friends and family at your Seder.
At Passover, every person is supposed to feel as though he himself left Egypt. For me and the Jewish community of Uganda, we do not need to imagine. In our lifetime, we were rescued from ‘slavery’ and saved by divine intervention in order to celebrate.
When Field Marshal Iddi Amin Dada took power in Uganda by way of the gun in 1971, he outlawed Judaism and confiscated our synagogues and most of the Hebrew books. Practice of Judaism was punishable by death. He was a modern day Pharaoh. He gave the community two alternatives, either to convert to Islam or Christianity, or remain unaffiliated. He murdered anyone suspected of opposing his rule and judicial executions were the order of the time. Many Abayudaya feared for their lives and converted to the two majority religions, Islam and Christianity. However, things did not go well for the Christians either. The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda was run over by army trucks in a stage-managed accident; and the chief Justice, who was also Christian, was shot dead on Amin’s orders.
Growing up during this era was a hard pill to swallow. Adults and children would shout insults at Jews and no one did anything to stop them. We were not permitted to wear any Jewish symbols including kippot. Nor were we allowed to appear anywhere near the synagogue premises. We dared only to pray and learn under the cover of the night in our bedrooms. My father, Rabbi Yondav Keki, was caught studying Torah in the Sukkah that he had built in the back yard of our house and only survived after the arresting officer demanded a bribe. Three leaders of the community, including Yaakov Were and Yaakov Kasakya, were arrested and tortured for collecting iron sheets that had been blown off the roof of the Moses Synagogue in Nabugoya.
In that same year when a hijacked plane full of Jews was held at Entebbe by Palestinian terrorists with the permission of Amin, a fast was secretly declared and silent prayers were conducted, each family praying in their bedrooms. The daring rescue of the hostages gave hope to community members that soon or later Amin would go.
This came to pass on Wednesday 11, April 1979, corresponding to 14 Nisan, 5739, Erev Pesach when the new Government, comprised of Ugandan rebels and Tanzanian troupes, declared freedom of worship. This was considered a miracle from above and was celebrated in a special style. More than four cups of 80% proof Uganda banana wine were served making everyone excessively happy by the end of the Seder. No more than 300 of the nearly 3,000 earlier members remained steadfast and loyal to Judaism, which makes me think that had Amin’s regime continued for another five years, the community would not have survived.
Passover remains a special moment for all us. I will always remember my first Seder ever. It is amazing that the reign of terror ended and that freedom of worship was reinstated at the season of freedom. Each year as the community grows, Passover is the moment that we celebrate both our ancient and modern freedom. With the help of Jews from around the world the synagogue that was destroyed is being rebuilt to be better and stronger than ever and the numbers of our community have nearly returned to their earlier size. That Uganda would have been a Jewish state had Herzl’s proposal been successful, that the hijackers chose Entebbe airport as their final resting place, and that Amin like Pharoah was humiliated on the Eve of Pesach could not have simply been a mere coincidence. It was our Passover miracle.
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Hanukkah is observed with joy and celebration in Jewish communities around the world. There are 8 nights of lights and blessings the world over but there are also many ways different communities make the holiday uniquely their own. Here are 8 customs and ideas to help you make your celebration just a little more global.
1) In Alsace, a region of France, double-decker Hanukkah menorahs were common with space for 16 lights. The two levels, each with spots for 8 lights, allowed fathers and sons to join together as they each lit their own lights in one single menorah.
2) There is a custom of placing your menorah in a place where people will be able to view the lights burning and appreciate the miracle of the holiday. In some Jerusalem neighborhoods, there are spaces cut into the sides of buildings so people can display them outside. Historically in countries like Morroco and Algeria, and even some communities in India, it was customary to hang a menorah on a hook on a wall near the doorway on the side of the door across from the mezuzah.
3) In Yemenite and North African Jewish communities, the seventh night of Hanukkah is set aside as a particular women’s holiday commemorating Hannah whose sacrificed seven sons rather than give in to the Greek pressure to abandon Jewish practice and in honor or Judith, whose seduction and assassination of Holofernes, the Assyrian emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s top general, led to Jewish military victory.
4) Gift giving at Hannukah time is primarily a North American custom, but it is easy to make it global by gifting Jewish items made around the world like hand made necklaces from Uganda, challah covers from Ghana or kippot from China.
5) In Santa Marta, Colombia, Chavurah Shirat Hayyam a new Jewish community, has started their own traditional Hanukkah recipe, instead of eating fried potato latkes, they eat Patacones, or fried plantains.
6) The Ethiopian and parts of Indian Jewish communities split off from the larger Jewish community in ancient time before Hanukkah was established as a Jewish holiday. They only began celebrating Hanukkah in modern times, when their communities were reunited with other Jewish communities.
7) In 1839, thousands of Jews fled Persia, where the Muslim authorities began forcibly converting them, and settled in Afghanistan. While some of them lived openly as Jews, others hid their Jewish identity. When Hanukkah time came around they would not light a special menorah, for fear it would attract the notice of Muslim neighbors. Instead they would fill little plates with oil and set them near each other. If neighbors stopped by, they could simply make the menorah disappear by spreading the plates around the house.
8) The rich culinary traditions of the Moroccan Jewish community know not of potato latkes or jelly doughnuts. Rather they favor the citrusy flavors of the Sfenj doughnut, which was made with the juice, and zest of an orange. Notably, from the early days of nation building in Israel, the orange came to be associated with the holiday of Hanukkah as the famed Jaffa oranges came into season in time for the holiday celebrations.