Passover, peace, and Palestine: An Arab-style seder in 1920s Long Island

Irma Lindheim. Credit: Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America.

By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org

Passover at Irma Lindheim’s Long Island home in the 1920s was not your standard Jewish holiday experience.

There was plenty of matzo ball soup and brisket, to be sure. But the dining room was occupied by a makeshift tent, the Passover table was replaced by a pile of sheepskin rugs, and the Lindheim children were dressed in Arab garb. For Mrs. Lindheim, the national president of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, from 1926 to 1928, Passover was an opportunity to make a dramatic statement about what she perceived as the common heritage of Arabs and Jews and her hopes for peace in Palestine.

The path that led to Irma Lindheim’s unique Passover seders began during a trip to the Holy Land shortly after World War I. A visit to a Bedouin encampment near the Syrian border deeply impressed her. The sheik received her “so courteously,” the wives of his harem were so attractive, his children were so charming, the ample food was “so delicious in taste and aroma,” that Mrs. Lindheim had to wonder, as she put it, “Under what possible circumstances could such people and I possibly be enemies?”

In Mrs. Lindheim’s eyes, the Arabs of Palestine closely resembled the Jews of biblical times—so, surely, they should all be able to get along. She marveled at the fact that her host “pulled off my boots himself, and laved my feet with cool water, [just] as Abraham had done with the three strangers,” as recounted in Genesis 18:1-4.

“The customs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were customs of the present-day Bedouin,” she wrote. “When Abraham sat before his tent in the heat of the day… he did no differently than a Bedouin sheikh we encountered, resting before his tent in the Plains of the Huleh.”

As her personal contribution to the cause of Arab-Jewish amity, Mrs. Lindheim decided to radically revise her own Passover seders. Her children “would wear the robes of the desert Bedouin and would eat their meal in a tent… to commemorate not only the flight of their forebears from slavery to freedom, but also bonds with the Arab people who lived now exactly as their forefathers lived then.”

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (pictured), the foremost American Jewish leader of his time, was part of Irma Lindheim's first Arab-style Passover seder. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

On their first such Passover, “young Norvin [her eldest son] stood, tall and darkly handsome in his Bedouin robes,” to recite the story of the exodus before a group that included Sir Wyndham Deeds, first secretary of the British government in Mandatory Palestine, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the foremost American Jewish leader of that era. Wise was a renowned orator, and “his beautiful great voice boomed out” as the hosts and their guests all joined in reading sections of the Haggadah. Lindheim’s youngest son, Stephen, who was named after Wise, recited the Four Questions.

“To the children, to ourselves, and to our many guests,” she later recalled, “the seder [was] at once an unforgettable experience in itself and, in its way, a family landmark.”

But Mrs. Lindheim was not content with symbolic gestures such as her unorthodox Passover seders. She and the Hadassah organization undertook a series of projects in Mandatory Palestine aimed at improving Arab-Jewish ties, including providing free health care to Arab communities, establishing the U.S. Jewish leadership’s only Committee for the Study of Arab-Jewish Relations, and building the first Jewish-Arab playground in Jerusalem.

Generously funded by Mrs. Lindheim’s aunt, Bertha Guggenheimer, the Zion Hill playground opened near the Zion Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1926, complete with supervisors trained by the American Playground Association.

Sadly, it did not last long.

In the late summer of 1929, Arab residents of Hebron and Jerusalem carried out widespread anti-Jewish violence. Since the Zion Hill playground was situated in a predominantly Arab neighborhood, the supervisors, fearing for the children’s safety, quickly shut down the facility. Two months later, when they returned to the site to reopen it, they were horrified to find local Arab children painting slogans such as “Down with the Jews” and “Down with the Balfour Declaration” on the equipment and walls.

Although one of the goals of the playground had been to promote good relations with the local Arab residents, chief supervisor Rachel Schwarz found that “amongst the Arab neighbors are many who took an active part in recent riots and are very active at present in the [anti-Jewish] boycott.” Schwarz reported to Mrs. Lindheim and the other American sponsors of the project that Arab children were harassing the Jewish children with shouts of “We will slaughter the Jews” and “The Jews are dogs,” and there had been incidents in which “the Arab boys ran after the Jewish children, throwing stones at them.”

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of 14 books about Jewish history, the Holocaust, and Zionism, including the Historical Dictionary of Zionism (coauthored with Prof. Chaim I. Waxman).

By the autumn of 1930, the majority of the playground’s sponsors decided to close it for good. Mrs. Lindheim opposed shutting down the facility, on the grounds that “the Arab and liberal press will make capital of this” to prove that the Jews were not sincerely interested in cooperation with the Arabs. But her colleagues were convinced that, despite their noble intentions, the site had become too dangerous.

As Irma Lindheim’s experiences demonstrated, the notion that American Zionists ignored the Palestinian Arabs in the pre-Israel years is a myth. Not only were American Jewish leaders well aware of the local Arabs, but some, such as Mrs. Lindheim, were acutely sensitive to Arab concerns and invested considerable time, effort, and funds to improve Arab-Jewish relations.  

But no matter how deeply American Zionists yearned for peace, and even when they went so far as to radically revise their Passover celebrations in order to foster positive feelings toward the Arabs, their good intentions often went unreciprocated.

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Posted on March 25, 2013 and filed under Features, Passover, Special Sections.