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April 14, 2014 6:04 am

Passing the Story of Passover to the Next Generation

avatar by Simon Klarfeld

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IDF soldiers celebrate the Passover seder. Photo: IDF.

Storytelling has always been a core tenet of Judaism. Not surprisingly then, some of history’s greatest storytellers are Jews. From the Dubner maggid to Hassidic masters like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, to Nobel literature laureates like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow, to masters of cinema like Kubrick, Polanski, and Spielberg – Jews undoubtedly know how to weave a good yarn.

The ultimate Jewish story is of course the one we read on Passover. “Maggid,” the telling of the Exodus story, is the biggest component of Seder night, yet it barely touches on the biblical text of Exodus itself. Replete with allegory, parable, and Talmudic tales, the Passover Haggada – the primary national, liberation narrative of the Jewish people – has to be one of the most visceral narratives we own as a people. And owning that story is the Seder night’s foremost objective.

“And you should tell your children,” instructs the Haggada, “for in every generation one is obligated to view himself as though he came out of Egypt.” Our challenge then, is to safeguard the evolution of our story by finding ways to bring it to life and understanding its relevance for today. Whereas other festivals generally have fixed texts and prayers, the Haggadah is flexible and ad libbing is encouraged.

In fact, we are told that “anyone who elaborates on the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.” In this way, the Haggadah is the ultimate pedagogical tool and should be used as a means for engaging the next generation. It means doing what we can to avoid a situation in which the children (and adults) present at the Seder sit through the Haggadah bored out of their skulls and wondering when they will finally get to eat something other than matzah and marror.

For some, engagement means taking the idea of “feeling as though you yourself went out of Egypt” to a whole new level by literally acting out the Exodus by marching out the door carrying imaginary impedimenta (as is the custom in many Sephardic homes.) For others, it might be singing Passover-themed songs. But for most, the number one method for engagement is to motivate people at the Seder to ask questions.

The Aristotelian view that asking the right questions is half the answer is reflected in the Haggadah with one major exception: There should be no such thing as “a right question.” Once a child asks a question – even if it’s the “wrong” one – he or she automatically becomes involved. This is why question-asking is such a major theme of Seder night; even the Talmud says that the entire reason for eating karpas is just so the children will ask questions. How classically Jewish!

Our ability to ask questions is what formed us as a nation. Our innate chutzpah, which pushes us to probe, to never be satisfied with any given answer, to keep searching, is what makes Judaism so unique. And questions are the driving force behind storytelling too. A good director will always ask: what motivates a character in a movie to do something? Why is the character the way he is? The other part of the equation is also knowing how to answer according to your audience. Accompanying the Seder night’s four questions are the four sons.

Each son represents a different kind of Jew, and as such each requires different approaches – be they intellectual, affective, or behavioral. We do answer the rasha (the proverbial “wicked son”) in the same way we answer the tam (the simpleton). But our task is to tell the story in compelling enough a way as to elicit questions even from the son who initially “does not know how to ask.”

The story of our formation as the Jewish people is ever-evolving. With every generation we ask again, Mah nishtana – what has changed? For our generation, some of those questions are fraught with complexities. Nevertheless, they must be asked. Why should I care about the Exodus from Egypt? Moses never gets to the Promised Land, so how does Israel play a part in the narrative? What does that mean for today?

How is Israel – today’s Israel versus the myth of Israel, the vision of an ideal homeland and our relationship it – a core part of today’s narrative? What does “Next Year In Jerusalem” mean? What is the meaning of bondage to freedom? What are we to do with this freedom? Where are our areas of opportunity and responsibility today? What does it mean to “tell all those who are hungry to come and eat?” Why must I welcome the stranger, feed the poor, provide shelter for the homeless, fight against injustices?

Even though it’s 3,300 years old, the epic story of Jewish peoplehood has yet to reach its denouement. Our tireless determination to keep on asking questions will ensure its perpetuity for generations to come.

Chag sameach.

The writer is the Director for Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in America.

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  • My Jewish Friends:

    As an Iranian American, I wish Jewish community a happy Passover. I wish the readers of my remark a Zissen Pesach!

    I agree with the author on his core wisdom. Jews are famous for asking questions, especially during Holidays. Certainly, my Jewish brethren and I must ask questions about Israel, the US, and Iran.

    I have inscribed Letters to the Supreme Leader on violations of human rights in Iran. I also have written similar letters to the Israeli Prime Minister, President Obama and political leaders in Congress and Senate on the similar infringements. I deem I treated the political leaders fairly although based on my information they consider my Letters harsh and unfriendly.

    Yet, in this Passover, I invite my Jewish brothers to help me resolving several questions. Please inform me when I am mistaken. This memo is not intended for discord, it is designed to help me, and several Iranian and American friends and peers to better understand Israel and its people.

    As of WW II, except for the US, Israel has bombarded, attacked, and occupied more countries than other state in Africa and the Middle East. Israel’s victims have been and are Egyptians, Jordanians, Iraqis, Lebanese’s, Palestinians, Syrians, Sudanese’s, and Yemenis. Thru its horror web, Israel has used covert terrorist attacks in dozen countries, and has executed murders, for examples, in Asia, Dubai, Europe, and Iran, even the US. My question is why?

    Israel’s protrusion of military clout and its ability for pursuing belligerent combats is in step by its near-total exemption. Frequent breaches of universal laws have occurred, but rarely censured at a world court, the United Nation, or by the US government. Committing war crimes and torture have been routine. Israel maltreatments have not been subject to sanctions! Persistently, Washington is the main supporter of Israel brutalities. Effectively, the US is responsible for nearly all crimes by Israel. Repeatedly, Security Council Resolutions have been vetoed by the U.S. Vitally, my government forces European allies to help the U.S. in the cited spites. Is this practice in line with the teaching of Nabi Moses?

    Anthem of Intolerance. Americans witness countless Israeli politicians and icons chanting anthem of intolerance. For example, Naftali Bennett, one of the faces of ultra-right Orthodox Judaism has stated in a cabinet meeting “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.” Is not this nonsense a stain on my good Jewish friends?

    Famous basketball trainer Pini Gershon’s career and public distinction didn’t fall off when he clarified his “tribal concept” for blacks to a class of “tickled army officers” in 2000. He averred, “The mocha-colored guys are smarter, but the dark colored ones are just guys off the street,” Gershon whispered. “They’re dumb like slaves; they do whatever you tell them.” Is not this remark a clear sign of racism in Israel?

    Prime Minister Netanyahu boasted in 2007 that the cutbacks he had crafted to child supports had produced a “positive” outcome, which he “classified” as “the demographic effect on the non-Jewish public, where there was a dramatic drop in the birth rate.” Wow! Must a future PM utter these remarks?

    Consider the outrage if an American officer crowed openly that his cutbacks to child aids had cut the “non-Christian” childbirth rate. Picture the outrage by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the rest of the American Jewish establishments. Yet, in Israel, in 2007, zilch comes from the lips of a future Prime Minister! Why my Jewish friends are silent in such cases?

    Is Israel an Apartheid State? I ask this question as racism in Israel is experienced by both Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews! Former Israel Minister of Defense, Moshe Arens, condemned the treatment of minority in Israel, articulating that minorities do not receive the full pledges of Israeli nationality, nor were they offered the full civil liberties of citizenship! Based on the U.S Department of Treasury, over 20 countries have received the terror of sanctions, but the website does NOT include Israel. My friends: Why is Israel not sanctioned?

    Are All Israelis, or Even Most of Them, Bigoted? Certainly Not! Does it signify Israeli leaders hearten racial discrimination? Of course, Yes. The typical conducts listed above are unlikely in the U. S. in most cases. Notably, the leaders of the U.S. Jewish outfits, Israel’s utmost respected, loyal, resolute supporters, keep attacking even unseemly or possibly tactless quip about Jews or the Jewish state. The ADL and the rest of the American Jewish enterprise deal with Israeli racism with a puff. In contrast, anti-Semitism brings ADL knuckle! I suggest the ADL and the entire American Jewish institutions should adjourn their campaigns against anti-Semitism for a while. Why not look at what’s going on in Israel? Have my Jewish friends objected to Israeli racism? If not, why not.

    A poll by Tel Aviv University found in March 2010 that 49.5% of Israeli Jewish high school students do not consider Israeli Arabs worthy of the same rights as Jews in Israel. A related poll shows 56% Israeli think Arabs should not be entitled to serve in Israeli parliament. Based on a report by Human Rights Watch in 2001, Israel’s school organisms for Arab and Jewish children are separate and have uneven conditions to the hindrance of the Arab children who consist of one quarter of all students. Israel’s citizenship and entry into Israel Law bans immigration by family reunion to couples of an Israeli citizen and a Palestinian resident of the Israeli-occupied lands. The law has been denounced by Amnesty International as “racial discrimination.” Why is Israel not criticized by its people?

    On 7 Dec 2010, a group of 50 state-paid rabbis signed a letter instructing Orthodox Jews not to rent or sell houses to non-Jews. The letter was later endorsed by some 250 other Jewish religious figures. In May 2012, displeasure toward Africans and calls for expulsion and “blacks out” in Tel Aviv boiled over into mortality menaces, fire bombings, rebelling, and property demolition. Demonstrators toss eggs at African immigrants. Israeli society in general, particularly Ashkenazi Jews, hold bigoted attitudes towards Jews of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry, known as Mizrahi Jews, Oriental Jews, and Sephardic Jews! Why are my American and Israeli friends silent against the prized teaching of precious Moses?

    Members of feminist movement have alleged Israel of a “sterilization policy” intended towards Ethiopian Jews. Contraceptive drugs such as Depo-Provera have been purposely prescribed for the community. Ironically, a member of the Israeli Anti-Discrimination Legal Center “Tmura,” Dr. Yifat Bitton, asserted: Ethiopians count one percent of people, but 60% percent of the women getting this contraceptive are Ethiopian Jews! Why are you silent my brothers and sisters in Israel and the world?

    Many children of Yemenite families vanished in 1950. How many? 1033! The parents maintained that authorities advised them their children were sick and needed hospitalization. On visiting the hospital, the parents were told that their children had passed away, yet no bodies were presented or graves! Apparently, secular Israeli Jews of European parentage collaborated in the “evaporation” of babies of Yemeni Jews! Are these reports right or wrong?

    In my studies of history, I find In November 1974, Mr. Peres arrived in Pretoria to convene covertly with South African Chiefs of Sadism. After the outing, he penned a “love letter” to them recognizing them for aiding to found a “vitally important” bond between the two regimes. Mr. Peres, regularly censured apartheid in the world at large. In his historical Letter, he averred, “this cooperation is based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and refusal to submit to it.” Mr. Peres foretold, “The new links which you have helped to forge between our two countries will develop into a close identity of aspirations and interests which will turn out to be of longstanding benefit to our countries.” The next year in Switzerland, Mr. Peres united with South African Defense Minister P.W. Botha to sign an Agreement that set the footing for a lasting military rapport for “Saving Atrocity” Why must a nation of Israel have relation with bigots. Is not this relation indicative of Israeli governments views towards racism?

    As to relation with Iran, Israeli governments have ignored the role of Cyrus the Great in their freedom from bondage. My lovely hometown, Esfahan, was solely established by Cyrus 2500 years ago to shelter Jews! Is this the Israeli officials’ indebtedness towards the valiant people of my birth land?

    In the past few years, the Israeli Prime Minister has served as an Anti-Semite by his conducts. He inflames the world by his untrue remarks and threat against Iran. In America, my best friends in private and professional life have been Jewish. I know a true Jewish heart discerns one fact: Iran is not a threat to Israel, the US, or the world. The 200 to 300 nuclear bombs Israel holds are the greatest dangers to Israel and the entire world! Those who consider nuclear weapons as deterrents are indeed insane. These ignorant politicians require “mental treatments.” Instead, they are running 9 world powers!

    As an Iranian American, I am severely disappointed that Israeli leadership has no royalty to my Country. More than any ally, the Israeli officials repeatedly have insulted President Obama and Vice President Biden. Ironically, President Obama offered Israel the greatest amount of aid compared to former Presidents. Each year, Israel robs this nation at least $3 to 5 billion, the money we desperately need to shelter our people. Our friends are expected to: 1) respect our President and Vice President, and importantly our country; 2) consider US national interests as an important priority; and 3) maintain standards of civility akin to our citizens; and 4) must not commit acts that represent violation of human rights. They must not be occupiers of land belonging to all Palestinians, that is, all native Jews, Christians, and Moslems.

    Co-Existence with Palestinians. Israeli leaders, particularly, Mr. Netanyahu, do not intend to live side by side with the Palestinians in two independent states. They do not allow Palestinians live in Israel by having equal rights to Israeli!

    Yet, the outlook above is irrelevant for Israeli leadership. What were the consequences of this irrational stand by Israeli leaders? American governments have assisted in killing the brave men and women of this decent nation, creating 1.5 million veterans, with one-third (500,000) suffering from mental illness, trillions of dollars that were used for committing genocides after annihilation. Each day 22 veterans commit suicides due to the agonies they encountered and witnessing innocent Iraqis.

    What are the Aspirations of my Life? As a chemist, I seek the truth and report it accurately with precision. We harm our society, ourselves included, if falsehood is attested. In the journey of life, we fight for liberty, equality, justice, righteousness, and pursuit of happiness in this land and afar. This is the message of Passover.

    My Jewish brethren. I believe President Obama has genuinely tried to end repeated cycles of wars. This is the biddings of our citizens. Why my Jewish friends do not help America when we need assistance not opposition to our national interest? True Jewish men and women are exceptionally kind-hearted. I know many in my profession and private life.

    My Jewish friends: You can transform your life and human existences for all, becoming wholesome, uniting with President Obama to realize peace, coexistence, prosperity, and happiness with Palestinians and Iranians.

    This I know. I finish this Post with a promise in this Righteous Season of Passover. My family, friends, and I will not rest until Iranians and people of Palestine are free from economic sanctions and torture. For us sanction represents economic terrorism. This does not lead to the destruction of Israel. In contrast, it shelters Israel against the follies of its leaders. My Jewish brothers and sisters: Why not join hand with us to bring peace to all. You and I have one world to live. Let us stop bloodshed. Let us have a truly happy Passover for centuries to come.

    True celebration arrives when no human is in pains anywhere, no man is hungry or homeless anyplace, and when there is no war, and no nuclear weapon wherever.

    Professor Akbar Montaser

    From The noble 13th century Persian Sufi Poet Rumi:
    “I go to a synagogue, church, and mosque, and I see the same spirit and the same altar.”

  • When we attack Israel it opens the door to Anti Semitism. With a Strong Israel and Strong Jewish the Anti Semites back off.

    American Jews who love their children unconditionally. Love Israel conditionally only if Israel does and behaves, as they want. If Israel violates one of those imposed conditions these Jews turn to helping the Palestinians who want to kill every Israeli and Jew.

    If you love Israel unconditionally you won’t abandon and betray Israel as many of you have done.

    If you stand up for yourselves and Israel you will be respected. If you don’t you will be seen as weak and disrespected and Anti Semitism increases.

    That means you support Israel no matter which Government is in control.