The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews). At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.
However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.
As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.
However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.
Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.
I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.
Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.
My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.
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Are we doing enough to nurture Jewish introverts?
It’s a fair question. Jewish culture is often depicted as loud, full of debate, everyone cracking a joke or raising their voice to make a point. And here in the South, hospitality is so important – but does Southern Hospitality, and Jewish community, do enough to be genuinely nurturing to the more introverted among us?
Susan Cain is the author of Quiet, a book that challenges cultural biases for and against extroversion and introversion. The term introvert, she points out, denotes a personality style that is often more “reserved, contemplative, and passive” while the term extrovert denotes a personality style that is often associated with “assertiveness, charisma, gregariousness, social dominance.” But, why, she asks, are extroverts viewed as superior to introverts?
My sister sent me this TED talk and—rather than infer whether or not she sent it to me because she thinks that I am an introvert—I have spent some time wondering whether the Jewish community fits Susan Cain’s characterization of many modern day institutions which she suggests are structured for extroverts – including schools, offices and camps. The Jewish community, as a microcosm of the world at large, is made up of similar institutions and places tremendous value on the concept of “community” which seems intrinsically extrovert friendly. (How much more so, those of us working in Community Engagement?!)
Ms. Cain points out that many change-makers would describe themselves as shy, soft-spoken and quiet. She names Ghandi and Rosa Parks as examples. Soft-spoken leaders, she argues, are popular because people know that they are not at the helm because they are craving power and attention. Instead, they are at the helm because they don’t think that they have a choice. They have a mission. She mentions that her grandfather who was a Rabbi—spent a lot of time in solitude. Yet, he led a congregation in Brooklyn and gave sermons in front of large audiences. She shared a suitcase of books written by her grandfather’s favorite authors and talked about how, as a child, reading and wandering off in her own mind, was one of her favorite things to do. When she went to camp, she was encouraged to be more “social.” Ms. Cain acknowledges the importance of being social but believes that the world loses out when introverts are expected to be pretend-extroverts and, like her, are not encouraged to read books at camp. As a girl, she figured out that the suitcase of books she brought with her to camp belonged under her bed.
She ends her talk with three calls to action which made me consider whether there are calls to action that would be particularly appropriate for members of the Jewish community to reflect upon. Here are my calls to action:
-Share ideas on how your Jewish community provides space for people who may be introverts to thrive Jewishly.
-Ask yourself: Does our community make introverts feel guilty for wanting to experience Judaism on their own? If so, how can we change that?
-Ask yourself: What is in your “suitcase?” Why did you put them there? If you are an introvert, on occasion, have the courage to, as Ms. Cain says, speak softly and share your thoughts and wisdom with the community. If you are an extrovert, share what is in your suitcase and have the courage to recognize the value of the soft-spoken people in your midst.
This morning, my friend and co-worker Nonnie asked me if I had seen the Oscars. I told her I had watched some of it.
“Did you see the speech by Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave?” She asked. “At the end of the speech, he talked about modern day slaves!”
Steve McQueen’s words, which I looked up this morning, included this statement: “Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live… I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”
21 million people who still suffer slavery today. It’s impossible to comprehend the weight of that number. The pain. The lack of human dignity. The violations.
Nonnie was grateful that the issue of human slavery took center stage during this hugely televised event, even if for just one minute. In fact, just the week before, she heard a report about the astronomical number of people living in servitude today, and how not enough is being done.
“What can we do?” She had asked me.
Here in Mississippi, we are abuzz with talk about the upcoming 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. There is an effort underway to commemorate Freedom Summer and energize people around the four issues the volunteers worked on during Freedom Summer: Voting rights, Education, Health Care and Workers’ Rights. All important issues.
But what about slavery itself? What can we do?
This is one idea came from one of our fellow members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable: The Jewish Council For Public Affairs (JCPA) is having its Annual Plenum in Atlanta, Georgia, March 8-11 2014. They will be voting on whether to adopt resolutions proposed by various agencies. One of the resolutions that is up for debate and discussion is the Resolution on Combating Human Trafficking. Many communities in our region have delegates representing them at this conference through their local Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRC) and Community Relations Committees (CRC).
Let’s let our local representatives know that we want modern day slavery to be a priority of our community and that we want to commit our time and resources to advocating for policies and strategies that will help eliminate this inhumane practice.
Let’s talk about this issue not as something past, but as something real and present today, as we prepare to sit around seder tables next month.
Let’s be a part of ending slavery.
Please share your ideas of what our readers can do to help eliminate modern day slavery in the comments below!