columnJewish & Israeli Holidays

Telling our story this Passover and beyond

We Jews, and particularly American Jews, have a great story. Why not tell it again and again?

Sahar Amsalem and his son Shimon perform search for remains of leaven after cleaning their home, in Tzfat on the night before Passover, on April 4, 2023. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Sahar Amsalem and his son Shimon perform search for remains of leaven after cleaning their home, in Tzfat on the night before Passover, on April 4, 2023. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Gil Troy
Gil Troy
Professor Gil Troy is an American presidential historian and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.  

The Passover seder remains one of American Jews’ favorite rituals. Nearly 80% will attend one this year. Beyond the fun foods and catchy tunes, the family dramas and childhood memories, the kid-friendly “Die-Die-eynu” silliness and the adult-friendly substance, the seder perfectly Americanizes traditional Judaism. 

Passover lacks the Eastern European guilt-tripping heaviness of the Days of Awe; it’s also devoid of Shabbat’s weekly, constricting, embarrassing reminders of Jews’ forever otherness. Jews confuse: We look like we fit in, but we just keep sticking out.  

On a more positive, normalizing note, the weird, ancient ritual of the Seder is surprisingly all-American. The Seder is individualistic, encouraging creativity. It’s home-based, empowering participants. It’s family-friendly, representing the nicest, cuddliest, American Jewish values. It’s gratitude-centered, delighting traditionalists and new-agists alike.

Most importantly, most American-Jewish-pride-inducing of all, it’s freedom-focused—telling the great progressive story of the Jews’ emergence as a free people, which American Revolutionaries echoed, African-American slaves reenacted and many subsequent liberation movements revered. No wonder the seder is the Jewish ritual most Jews choose to celebrate with non-Jews.  

But beware. Every seder should come with the equivalent of the Surgeon General’s warning label on cigarette packages: Don’t over-Americanize this blue-and-white event into a meaningless, red-white-and-blue mush. There are only so many times you can sing “We Shall Overcome” and “If I Had a Hammer” instead of “Avadim Hayeenu” (We were slaves!) and “Hallel” (Praise God!).

This year, every elder should seize the moment and the captive audience. Tell your family’s super-heroic origin story. Recreate, dramatically and memorably, your yitziat mitzrayim, your escape from an Egypt of Old World poverty, oppression and depression to this New World of prosperity, freedom and opportunity. No matter where we came from, no matter how far we have, or haven’t, gone economically, it’s mind-blowing how many of us share such similar family tales. 

Judaism has two kinds of mitzvot (commandments): aseh v’lo ta’aseh: thou shalts and thou shalt nots. This Passover, the imperative to tell your story is both. It’s a positive mitzvah: Thou shalt tell your family’s story, so future generations will know where we came from and how far we have come. These stories can inspire and instruct.

My late father-in-law loved recalling how, as he built his real estate empire, whenever he overextended, he would approach a lender two weeks before the due date and ask for the next month off, promising to repay it along with an extra month of interest when the loan ended. That short story told a long, wonderful tale about starting with nothing, thinking ahead, leveraging tomorrow’s promised payoffs to alleviate today’s shortfalls, and, most importantly, creating community and integrity by being an honorable man of his word.

Today, unfortunately, this narrative homework, due on both seder nights and as often as possible thereafter without being annoying, is also a negative mitzvah: Thou shalt not succumb to the Blue State mania haunting most young American Jews, that negates what we accomplished, robs us of our justifiable pride in our achievements and neutralizes the toolbox generations of American Jews needed previously to make it, and what this generation still needs to succeed.

A Big White Lie haunts American Jewry: that Jews are guilty of “white privilege.” This slur is a poison arrow targeting every young, idealistic Jew. It caricatures Jews as white, rich, lazy heirs to America’s riches or, worse, plunderers on the backs of black people, rather than plucky, talented avatars of the American dream. Around the seder table, we need a communal effort to refute this libel, by retelling our story and redefining ourselves.

Refuting the libel

At seder-time we slow down, sit down, calm down and get down on Jewish historical time. On April 5 it will no longer be just 2023. Seder recalls our enslavement 3,000 years ago, and our subsequent liberation. Sitting at seder links us to every ancestor in each Jewish family’s unbroken, millennial-strong chain from the liberated children of Israel wandering the desert to America’s uber-free children all too often deserting Judaism today.

If a Seder doesn’t feel layered, if it doesn’t echo the old country and long-gone relatives, it’s missing something. At Karpas, the greens course symbolizing spring, the Troys eat potatoes because—as my father told us that his father told him—in Russia, around Passover time, nothing green was available, only kartoshke, potatoes. Consider the countercultural power of entering America’s bounteous supermarkets, passing those dazzling greens, and choosing pale, clumpy potatoes for Karpas.

I added a new memory, layered on my father’s and grandfather’s. In 1985, I spent Passover in Soviet Russia visiting Refuseniks, celebrating our freedom holiday with unfree Jews. Kartoshke were one of the few kosher-for-Passover foods I could eat in that atheist, Jew-hating, freedom-sucking dictatorship— again and again and again.

Similarly, while my grandparents rarely told old country tales, we sang certain old country dirges at seder that evoke the Eastern European Jewish vibe. More powerful was my late grandfather Leon Gerson’s “Shfoch Chamatcha,” “O Lord, pour out your wrath” on our enemies. He sang it with pained power, without explanation; no additional words were necessary. When my short, timid, beloved grandpa stood and poured out those words, he turned from Leon the scared yid into Aryeh Leib the Maccabean Lion. And we metamorphosed from young, ambitious Americans into traumatized yet healing Jews, the winners of the Jewish historical lottery, the luckiest Jews born in 2,000 years, born into freedom and America’s welcoming miracle. 

Grandpa died in 1998. Each seder, I try replicating his power, his pain, but can’t. He was born into darkness. I’m a child of light. With trembling voice and shaking hands, in that 32-word prayer, my grandfather returned us to those awful moments when other Polish conscripts played “pin the Jew against the electrified fence,” victimizing him, and that horrifying tale, oft told by my grandmother, about how her cousin unintentionally smothered her baby to death in a crawl space while quieting the child during a pogrom.

Instantly, Grandpa summoned the anguish of Auschwitz, the curse of Kishinev, the misery of mass martyrdom throughout Jewish history.

In doing that, Grandpa instinctively, unconsciously and preemptively inoculated us against today’s nonsense. Clearly, I see that racism still festers in America. I acknowledge that when I walk down the street in this all-too-race-conscious society, I get treated a certain way because of the color of my skin, but also because of the nerdy-academic uniform I wear and the vibe I put out wherever I go. 

Refuting the “white privilege” libel doesn’t require counter-lies imagining a race-neutral society. But when that lovely, thoughtful, thwarted and scared man I revered as “Grandpa,” walked down Main Street in Queens, no one thought, “Oh, there’s a white guy, part of the ruling class.” Even before he opened his mouth, with his elegant, correct, but accented English, people thought “there goes a yid” or a “Jew”—depending on their perspective. It was, pardon my ethnic stereotyping, his large nose and prominent ears, his shuffle, the way he held himself and how he dressed—formal but never, ever fashionable, God forbid!

And yes, my Polish refugee grandfather still saw antisemites behind every tree and quaked at policemen, unlike us, his confident, cop-friendly, all-American grandchildren. But seder night, we absorbed his pain. So now our kids deserve to hear his story. 

Both my maternal grandparents, whatever traumas they endured, felt immensely grateful to their new home, America. (My paternal grandparents died too young for me to know them well). They often exclaimed that they lived a miracle or serial miracles catapulting them from the worst ghettos. They escaped Eastern Europe’s virtual economic slavery and Jew-hating barbarism to live America’s wonders.

We Gerson-Troy grandkids were lucky. Our grandparents lived into the 1990s, when my two brothers and I were in our twenties and thirties. We could absorb their amazement at the tape-recorder and television and radio and refrigerator and washing machine in their modest Queens home, which either did not exist or were unavailable to commoners when they were born about 120 years ago. Each freedom, each techno-wonder, each goodie they enjoyed, they shoved into the same category: “America.”

When they said “America,” it was a goosebumps moment, a magical word meaning progress, opportunity, civility, dignity, liberty, life itself. Of course, they suffered from American Jew-hatred and Depression-level poverty, even before the Great Depression. Of course, they endured indignities in their day-to-day American lives. Still, they never forgot their good fortune, especially because had they stayed “there”—they often said the word with a shudder—they would have been Hitler’s cannon fodder.

My maternal grandparents lived long enough to see their two children move from apartments to houses, and their son, my uncle, become “a millionaire,” that wondrous word in immigrant Jews’ vocabulary. More than success, more than status, it meant comfort, protection, insulation from life’s vicissitudes, undoing centuries of Jewish history. They lived long enough to see every grandkid accepted into universities they only read about in The New York Times. And they lived long enough to know that our lives would be so much better, richer, safer, cushier than theirs—thank God and thank America.

So thanks to my grandparents’ long lives, we could taste their fear, their trauma, their roller-coaster story, their lack of privilege, to laugh off these silly, ahistorical, mind-messing “white privilege” accusations. 

We American Jews created “something from nothing”—also the name of Phoebe Gilman’s lovely children’s book. Everything my brothers, cousins and I have is not just a blessing, but also a hard-earned, sweat-stained, talent-generated miracle, refuting our Polish-Ukrainian-Russian past—and the white privilege charge. The “white privilege” accusation launched against Jews is a power move to make us feel perpetually guilty for anything we enjoy. It’s a false accusation, short of a blood libel but inching too close for comfort to such ugly, demonizing, territory. 

This essay emphasizes my family story. But note how generic my personal story is. “White privilege” negates every Jew who had the gumption to leave some 19th- or 20th-century Egypt-like hellhole and start the long passage to America. It underestimates the nerve required to learn a new language, master a new economic, social, cultural and political eco-system and build a new life. It wipes out the pride we should feel in every job our ancestors landed, every degree they earned, every house they bought, every baby step they took, whether or not it became the big life-changing giant step that so many were lucky to take.

Refuting this guilt-spewing “Jews-have-white-privilege” libel, this American-Jewish-perspiration-and-inspiration invisibility ray, this rags-to-riches oversight, does not ignore racism or others’ suffering. It simply reasserts our story, our achievements. And it acknowledges the wondrous, now ironic, arc of American Jewish triumph.

Lured by tales of a Goldene Medina, a prosperous country whose streets are made of gold, Jewish immigrants arrived to find that the streets were paved with concrete and potholes, but wide open with opportunity. Then, many—not all!—earned enough to move into Golden Ghettos. As a result, irony of ironies, their most precious possessions, their most delicious achievements, their children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, ended up falling for the same initial con—this time with a mean-spirited, petty, un-American, anti-Jewish political spin, that the streets for Jews were made of gold, yet for others, were made of coal, or worse.

Retelling: In detail

We Jews, and particularly American Jews, have a great story. Why not tell it again and again? We should be shouting it from the rooftops, not slinking away from it in shame. The Haggadah commands us, “Ve’higgadetah le’vincha,” “tell your children!” The seder’s child-centered shtick is a clever, traditional yet surprisingly hip way of initiating young Jews into the Jewish club, by telling the ultimate, defining Jewish story: We were slaves, now, wow, we’re free.

Today, too many Jews understand freedom only in part. They are, to use Sir Isaiah Berlin’s subtleties, so addicted to asserting their “freedom from” that they forget how wonderful it is to have “freedom to.” Yes, we want freedom from oppressive, heavy-handed defining structures. But Momma Troy wisely warned: If you’re too open-minded, your brains fall out. Passover affirms the power of specific memories, commandments, commitments. We recline to assert our freedom; our freedom to slouch celebrates our freedom from slavery.

Too many American Jews don’t understand that dimension of Judaism’s genius, and why we still do the seder in remarkably similar ways that our ancestors did. It’s because the devil isn’t in the details; holiness and memory are. Because we nitpick, especially on Passover, by sweating the small stuff, every seder swims in historical time, guaranteeing another copy next year.

It’s two overlapping problems. If we made it too generic, or spent too much time reading Martin Luther King’s wonderful “I have a dream speech” instead of our particular Maggid, the retelling, Passover would lose its countercultural power, blurring into the general liberal mush most Jewish kids imbibe. And if we made it too passive, quickly passing on some fleeting cliches and good feelings, we would not be leveraging the specific ritual acts rooted in history, consecrated by history, which convey values not just stories, maintaining continuity.

Consider the possibly apocryphal yet illuminating confrontation between America’s WASP-y, antisemitic Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1954.

“Tell me, Mr. Prime Minister,” Dulles sneered, “who do you and your state represent? Does it represent the Jews of Poland, perhaps Yemen, Romania, Morocco, Iraq, Russia or perhaps Brazil? After 2,000 years of exile, can you honestly speak about a single nation, a single culture? Can you speak about a single heritage or perhaps a single Jewish tradition?”

Smiling, Ben-Gurion noted that the Mayflower had sailed from England 300 years earlier. “Now, do me a favor,” he said, “find ten American children and ask them the following: What was the name of the captain of the Mayflower? How long did the voyage take? What did the people who were on the ship eat?” 

Ben-Gurion knew that few American adults could answer such questions, but that most Jewish children in that day knew Moses, the 40 years in the desert, and the matzah then manna as the answers, the details illuminating our old-new tale. Similarly, when a British lord asked why Chaim Weizmann cared about Palestine, not any other random landmass for the Jewish people, Weizmann asked the lord why he passed dozens of other old ladies every Sunday as he traveled 20 miles to visit his mum.

So, yes, we keep reliving the original Yetziat Mitzrayim. But we add our American Jewish twist. Now, we are privileged to add another layer: the Zionist story of a broken, humiliated, wandering people, finally coming home. 

Telling this story is particularly important this year despite the political tension. This is still the 75th birthday of Israel’s miracle. Consider the words of the thinker Hillel Halkin, who moved to Israel from America as a young idealist in the 1970s, which we Troys read every year around our seder table in Jerusalem:

“A great adventure. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. There’s been nothing like it in human history. A small and ancient people loses its land and forgets how to speak its language; wanders defenselessly for hundreds, thousands, of years throughout the world with its God and sacred books; meets with contumely, persecution, violence, dispossession, banishment, mass murder; refuses to give up; refuses to surrender its faith; continues to believe that it will one day be restored to the land it lost; manages in the end, by dint of its own efforts, against all odds, to gather itself from the four corners of the earth and return there; learns again to speak the language of its old books; learns again to bear arms and defend itself; wrests its new-old home from the people that had replaced it; entrenches itself there; builds; fructifies; fortifies; repulses the enemies surrounding it; grows and prospers in the face of all threats. Had it not happened, could it have been imagined? Would anyone have believed it possible?”

This year, Jews should leave an empty seat, or two, at the seder to acknowledge the Jewish people’s losses this year due to Palestinian terror—especially the Paley brothers, murdered at a Jerusalem bus stop, and the Yaniv brothers, murdered in a shooting in Huwara. Even more important, during “Dayenu,” when we detail the miracles of liberation, or during “Hallel,” when we say “thanks,” Jews worldwide should contemplate how lucky we are to be living in a world with a democratic Jewish state and ask themselves, “How should we celebrate the 75th anniversary of this ongoing miracle, April 26?” At minimum, serve ice cream for breakfast, to the young and the old, so that we taste the sweetness of living in a world with this state.

Redefining: From slavery to freedom in America and Israel

If in the Old Country successful Jews downplayed their achievements so antisemites wouldn’t target them, today some Jews are downplaying their achievements so they won’t hate themselves, or so their kids won’t hate them. It’s not surprising that in this finger-pointing era, when so many attempt to make American winners feel guilty, Jews would excel in these guilt Olympics. 

It’s time to end the competitive breast-beating and start the story-telling. Let’s hijack the seder to tell two simultaneous stories. Tell the American Jewish story from slavery to freedom, from persecution to safety, and tell Israel’s Zionist story from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to home. Then raise a glass, saying, with all the challenges, how lucky we are. And ask the question: Is there another moment in Jewish history in which you would rather be living?

So don’t be shy. Bring out your best tableware. Buy the choicest, juiciest roast. Look your best. And don’t let the hyper-judgmental, “woke” historical grave robbers rob us of our joys.

It’s time to surprise your kids or grandkids. Tell your family origins story. Toast the Zionist miracles of the State of Israel. Then, get personal, get existential. Don’t just ask the young ones “What are you doing, what are you studying, where are you going to college?”—all of which they accurately hear as “How are you going to make the money we did?” Throw them a curveball. Ask them “How is your soul, what are you struggling with, what kind of person do you want to be, what kind of Jew do you want to be? And how does your story fit in with ours?”

Chag Pesach Sameach.

Professor Gil Troy is the author of The Zionist Ideas and the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People, now available at www.theljp.org.

Originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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