Often reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for one of the first major strike in American history was taken in Yiddish and involved an ancient Jewish oath.
Most of us take for granted the bathroom breaks and workplace safety that are, not always but generally, the standard in the United States. As Labor Day approaches, it is worth taking a moment away from the barbecues and the back to school prep to remember that some of these basic workplace amenities came to be through the hard fought battles of early labor organizers many of whom were Yiddish speaking women.
In the early years of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants combined with industrial mechanization gave rise to sweatshops and factories with grim conditions, low wages, and long hours. Workers were rarely in a position to negotiate time off, overtime, or even bathroom breaks. Workers were crammed together with little fresh air and breathing in the byproducts of their manufacturing process. Machine safety was an afterthought. Threats of strikes and unionization were undercut by threat of unemployment for the same workers who could ill afford it and the easy supply of replacement labor.
Still there were those who understood that the power for change would only come through unionization and strikes. Unless business owners faced real loss they would have no incentive to change. In 1909 there were a series of small strikes. These were grassroots affairs that engage a largely female Jewish immigrant population involved in the needle trades. But the bosses beat picketers, had them arrested and the strike fund dwindled. Time was running out.
Nonetheless the members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a meeting inviting all the workers in the shirtwaist industry. Thousands came and listened to a roster of important union bosses, most of whom were men, speak in broad terms about the importance of strikes and the challenges to the efforts. The momentum might have been lost had not Clara Lemlich stepped to the podium for an impromptu speech.
Lemlich was a Russian immigrant and a self taught socialist who had become a union organizer in the United States. She had been arrested and beaten but felt compelled to act. She was frustrated by lack of action and new that something needed to be done. Speaking in Yiddish she admonished the union leaders and roused the crowd. “I am a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here to decide is whether we will or will not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now.” Following her lead, the assembled masses raised their right arms and swore loyalty to the union using the words “If I forget thee o’ union may my right arm forget its cunning.” Playing off the ancient oath not to forget Jerusalem. The vote to strike carried. The numbers swelled to 20,000 and it became impossible to ignore the workers needs. Though only some of the needed changes were made, a 52 hour week and 4 vacation days, it was the start of a new era.
Since those days Yiddish has largely become the language of Jewish jokes not of American politics or social reform. Yet in recalling the passion and purpose of Clara Lemlich and the other brave women she rallied that night, we remember that the story of those still struggling for safe working conditions and reasonable pay is our own story. We cannot distance ourselves from the farm, box store or fast workers who despite actively contributing to the economy cannot necessarily afford the basics of food, shelter, and healthcare or be assured safe working conditions.
In a few weeks it will be 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a Jubilee year when we are supposed to set our slaves free. Take a page from Clara Lemlich and begin this year with a call to justice. Write to your representatives and to the stores in which you shop, post to your communities on social media and remind them that we all need to work together to have a society in which work and human dignity and survival go hand in hand.
In the fortunate cases it is the grandparents, often it is the parents, and sometimes even a sibling who stands before the congregation and presents a tallit. Early in the service, the child celebrating becoming bar or bat mitzvah the tradition is literally handed down generation to generation. As the child takes the sacred object from their elders and wraps about their shoulders, the message of the day is clear. Just as I have done, you too shall do too.
Continuity has a power of its own. It is wondrous to see grandsons and sons stand side by side with fathers and grandfathers that are similarly wrapped. But even today rare is the grandmother or even the mother who covers the top of the beautiful outfit with a tallit. Yet, the girls in my community, with only the exception of those who affiliate Orthodox, not only wear a tallit on the day they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah but make it part of their regular religious garb. They are breaking new ground.
The tallit has become a symbol of not only of continuity but also of change.
On the rare occasions when I attended synagogue as a child, my father’s tallit was both a refuge and a source of entertainment. But when it came time to celebrate my coming of age, the mere fact that I would chant Torah (with my father saying the blessing with me—lest the agency be mine entirely) was so radical that we had to travel far from home to find a rabbi willing to allow it. A girl wearing a tallit was literally unthinkable.
At the start of the Jewish feminist movement, women and girls battled and largely won the right to take their place at the Torah. But when it came to adopting the ritual wear that historically goes with the privileges and opportunities of Torah reading, the issues were significantly more complex. In part, I suspect that there was a desire to push forward but not too much. Even as Jewish women asserted their power they did not want to ‘be men,’ as they were often accused of being. In addition to the historic prohibitions on women reading Torah, there are prohibitions against women taking on ‘the dress of men.’ Furthermore, 30 years ago the Reform movement, which played a significant role pioneering change, did not encourage ritual garb regardless of gender.
Today in most communities—even Orthodox ones—the place of women next to the Torah is no longer a question. But change is happening when it comes to tallit.
I bought my first tallit in my early 20s. It was large, woolen and woven like my fathers but had colored stripes instead of the traditional blues and blacks. It was as wildly different as the very fact that I dared wear such a thing. Today, as I shop with my daughter ahead of her being called to the Torah, I am struck by the array of feminine materials, cuts, colors and designs that she has to choose from in addition to the more historic types. No one would confuse a lace pink flowery tallit with the ‘dress of men.’ The modern bat mitzvah can choose a tallit that both expresses who she is as a person as well as her pride in her tradition.
Each time I attend bat mitzvah service in different synagogues of my community, I am struck by the passing on of the tallit. More than with the boys, this moment with the girl and her family encapsulates my hope for the next generation of Jews—regardless of gender. Wrap yourself in our tradition but make it your own and don’t be afraid of making change.
As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.
The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!
- Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder. So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
- Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked? The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
- Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah. Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
- Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
- Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus. Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
- Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
- Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy. There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
- We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
- Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom. This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
- Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
- Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
- Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction. We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
- Miriam’s Cup: Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
- Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.
Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!