Passover and Preserving History in 2021
Cecil B. Demille’s famous film “The Ten Commandments” was a massive box office hit. Decades before, in 1923, Demille made a silent film of the Exodus story, in which 250 Orthodox Jewish immigrants were hired as Israelite extras.
A depiction of this powerful scene was described as follows: “these extras did not need to act. As one witness recounted… ‘these Jews streamed out of the great gates with tears running down their cheeks, and then without prompting or rehearsal, they began singing in Hebrew the old chants of their race….’ Another remembered an elderly woman, overcome with emotion, who fell to her knees and shook a fist at the gates of Pharaoh, weeping and casting sand on her head…”
We, too, reenact the Exodus every year at Passover, with the Haggadah enjoining the seder participant to feel as if he or she was actually enslaved in Egypt. But how does one approach the Jewish movie extras in their depth of emotion, tender passion, or their incredible attachment to a historic event?
So much of modern life suffers from the withering of bonds to the great institutions that once stirred the hearts of women and men: religion, family, community, country, literature, the arts. Indeed, the synagogue of yesteryear was filled with the cries of cantor and congregant, a flurry of emotional release that is wholly alien to modern laity. As I overheard a disappointed tourist in Jerusalem complain at the Wailing Wall: “where’s all the wailing?”
The solution, and the root of the problem, is education. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel termed this “education for reverence, the development of a sense of awe and mystery… but our system of education fails to develop it and the anti-intellectual climate of our civilization does much to suppress it. Mankind will not perish for a lack of information; it may collapse for want of appreciation.”
To narrow in on the issue, allow me to highlight two events from my upbringing in which I was fortunate to have had my reverence cultivated.
When I was younger, my fifth grade class took a field trip to the Thomas Paine Museum. We planted a tree as a class gift, and to mark the occasion, my teacher delivered a speech presumably about freedom and history. I don’t remember the details, but what stirred me was how serious the usually jovial Mr. Tedesco was. He spoke with such gravitas, that the elevation of the moment became palpable, building into my emotional capital that remarkable feeling for the American founding. This sentiment was also recounted by President Abraham Lincoln: “I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for.”
The second experience recurred often at my grandparents’ house for Jewish holidays. Their synagogue service was captivating, with everyone held in suspense by a beloved and esteemed man — the “chazn” or cantor. When he ascended to the rostrum with his booming voice, operatic flourish, and tasseled cap, I could feel the emotive reactions from the old-timers — which in that place was everyone. And also in me.
These seeds were dormant for years. But as I engaged the Founding Fathers in college, and became an amateur cantor, the emotions that I received through osmosis as a child welled up, and made me connect to my heritage. Because I experienced what it meant to care about America and cantorial music, I was able to seamlessly carry the torch in me.
Today, the firmest obstacle to achieving this ardor is a pernicious ideology known as critical theory, which instructs students not to learn and appreciate, but to find faults and attack. Adding warning labels to everything from Dr. Seuss to George Washington can often suck the emotion out, and neutering the sentimental binding to great stories and great people.
The charge of the Haggadah’s Wicked Son against his parents is, “what is this service to you?” In other words, do you even care? Society today has answered that question with: not really. Our youth ask if religion, America, Israel, and history are noble. Modern man often refuses to give an explicit yes, unable to resist focusing on and listing the mistakes each has made in the past.
To maintain our way of life, it is imperative to transmit not just ceremony, but the emotional heritage. We must embrace the unabashed fullness of religion, patriotism, literature, music, and the rest in all their glory. “Happy the people who are thus fortunate.”
Joshua Blustein is a New York-based consultant, and High Holidays cantor at Congregation Mount Moses in Danbury, Connecticut.