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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June 12 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi and an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
Evers’ name has been prominent lately. In addition to the upcoming anniversary, his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. An article by Jerry Mitchell on the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ assassination by white supremacist terrorists was featured this week in USA Today. Jackson, Mississippi newspaper The Clarion-Ledger also plans to re-publish a 1963 short story on the assassination that was written by Eudora Welty.
In honor of Medgar Ever’s accomplishments and sacrifice, The Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute is sponsoring several commemorative events. Today in Washington, D.C., there will be a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery (10:30 a.m) and a symposium on his legacy at the Newseum (7:30 p.m.) Events continue in Jackson, Mississippi, tomorrow through Sunday. If you are in or near either city, please view the full schedule and consider attending one or more of the ceremonies.
As we each find our freedom bound up in the freedom of others, we should take this opportunity both to celebrate the brave accomplishments of those who came before us and to mourn the loss of Medgar Evers and other activists who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom. Now is a good time to ask: What have we done and what can we still do to pursue justice, freedom and equality, for ourselves and, most importantly, for others?
I’m involved with a wonderful collection of people in Jackson who work hard to put on Figment, a participatory arts festival that we like to describe as an “art pot luck” party. Artists are asked to install pieces that encourage some kind of artistic participation.
My project was inspired during a meeting when the Figment team was trying to figure out a way to create a border around the festival, which was taking place on the streets of Jackson’s Midtown neighborhood. Earlier this year I had received information about a wonderful exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum. It’s a Thin Line was an exhibit about the Manhattan eruv and included a fascinating short video about its history and significance. Inspired by this very public and creative Jewish tradition, I thought of adapting the practice for my Figment project.
My idea was to create a Figment Eruv that enforces the 11 principles of Figment within its borders. Really an inverse of the Jewish tradition, this eruv was intended to be a place in which people are reminded to keep the rules.
An eruv in Jackson, Mississippi? Certainly the first of its kind and I was ready for the challenge. I did a little research and figured out it would take about 3,000 feet of pink masonry twine, a 15 foot ladder and one handsome brave husband to climb said ladder. Over three days it took us about 5 hours to hang all of the string. I gained a new appreciation for ladder safety.
On the Tuesday afternoon before the festival, some guys who own the local garage along the route came out to see what we were doing. I worried they would be upset that we were stringing along the side of their building but the three men just looked up. Without questioning why we were doing it, they immediately began advising us on the best place to wind the string and how to avoid electrocuting ourselves on the transformer.
I’m glad they were amenable because it was important to me that this eruv not create barriers or borders with negative connotations within the neighborhood and its residents. I wanted it to create an inclusive temporary sacred space that separates the joyful Figment world from the ordinary and mundane.
During the weekend I had a great time watching visitors discover the eruv. They would bend down to read a short description of the project, then stand up, look to the sky and smile and they circled around to see how the string encompassed the area.
I was happy to have brought a secular interpretation of this often obscure religious practice to my neighborhood. Even my friends that have a pretty good Jewish education, probably because of being friends with me, had never heard of an eruv. It was a neat chance to talk with people about the tradition and why it works in this particular occasion.
Because one of the principles of Figment is “Leave No Trace”, on Sunday I pulled most of the string down. A few small pink knots were stuck up on the electric poles, tied around nails and staples. I decided not to worry about it. Much like a Jewish eruv represents the commandment to keep Shabbat, those tiny pink knots will represent the principles of Figment and be a reminder to sneak in just a little bit of that creative Figment spirit into ordinary mundane days.