Seasons of Reinterpretation -- Transforming Passover. By J.J. Goldberg

APRIL 21, 2000 16 NISAN, 5760

Seasons of Reinterpretation

How a radical demonstration 32 years ago changed the culture of Passover

By J. J. Goldberg

The world has an odd habit, alert readers have noticed, of exploding in springtime, smack in the middle of the Season of our Liberation. Sometimes these explosions disrupt those carefully laid Passover plans in the most annoying way. At other times, Passover just gains new meaning.

It was this time last year, for instance, that Kosovo went up in flames. NATO had begun bombing the Serbian province in early April, to stop Serb outrages against ethnic Albanians. The bombings provoked worse outrages: mass expulsions, tearing at the West's conscience. Yet reactions from Washington were appallingly slow. At the time it seemed a case of blindness or worse. It turned out the problem was partly bad timing: Too many key Washington players had left town for Passover.

This year, of course, the action was right there in Washington, where the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were meeting under near-military siege conditions. Thousands of left-wing activists had gathered to protest the inequities of the global economy. The D.C. police responded with massive force, determined to ensure the bankers' meetings started and ended on schedule. Besides those who had countries to run, many of the global economy's key leaders -- World Bank President James Wolfenson, IMF Deputy Director Stanley Fischer, U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and others -- had to get home for the seder.

For one veteran protester, the teargas and D.C. police barricades evoked memories of another Washington Passover, 32 years ago. That was a Passover that changed Arthur Waskow's life. Waskow, in turn, changed the way American Jews celebrate Passover.

The nation's capital was under military rule during Passover 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated April 4 in Memphis. Riots erupted in Black neighborhoods nationwide. In Washington, federal troops were called out to impose order.

Waskow was a 34-year-old researcher at the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies, estranged from Judaism, deeply involved in the antiwar movement and sympathetic to black militants. In the polarized America of 1968, he was on the side that saw American troops as agents of repression, not guardians of public safety.

Passover came 10 days after King's death. Waskow was downtown, helping bring food and medical supplies to areas under curfew. "That evening," he recalls, "I was walking home to my family's seder, past detachments of the army patrolling the streets. My guts started saying, 'This is Pharaoh's army, and I'm going home to do my seder.' I thought of all the black spirituals about Pharaoh's army and Israel in Egypt land, and it all kind of erupted in me."

At the seder that evening, "when we reached the part about how each of us must look upon himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt, we stopped the seder and just talked. It was a life-turning moment for me."

He spent much of the next year compiling his own Passover haggadah, "The Freedom Haggadah." It included poetry by Allen Ginsberg, passages about Vietnam and civil rights, portions of the secular Israeli kibbutz haggadah. The central narrative, Waskow says, was a retelling of the Exodus in which Moses was a labor organizer among the Hebrew bricklayers. It had been written in 1943 by pacifist teacher A.J. Muste, and "he kept moving back and forth between Hitler and Pharaoh," Waskow says.

Waskow's haggadah was unveiled in April 1969, on the third night of Passover, at an event he dubbed "the Freedom Seder." Held in a black church in downtown Washington, it was broadcast live on a left-wing New York radio station, then rebroadcast on Canadian television days later.

The seder caused an underground sensation. Thousands of Jewish radicals had split from the New Left after the Six-Day War and were searching for an identity. Waskow's haggadah became a rallying point. The next year freedom seders took place across the country. "It showed people for the first time how you could open up the haggadah," he says.

It also sparked furious debates. Many activists didn't consider Waskow's text pro-Israel enough. They countered with the Zionist "Jewish Liberation Haggadah," then the more religious "Fourth World Haggadah." The year after, a Brooklyn women's collective produced the first feminist haggadah. After that, Waskow says, "there was just an explosion of different haggadahs."

Though Waskow didn't know it, he was continuing a Jewish leftist tradition going back generations. Yiddish-speaking socialists had been holding public "third seders" since the 1930s, substituting politics and poetry for the haggadah's religious texts. A similar tradition grew up among Israel's kibbutzim -- Waskow's direct inspiration, through a sister-in-law in the Negev.

For Waskow personally, the Freedom Seder was the beginning of a long journey back to Judaism. He began attending meetings of a leftist Jewish group in Washington. He studied rabbinic texts. He began keeping kosher. He wrote a series of books advocating his own breed of religious Judaism, heavy on environmentalism and human rights and increasingly mystical.

In 1983 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College invited him to Philadelphia to set up an institute to teach his ideas, the Shalom Center. He later broke away, joining forces in 1993 with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Lubavitch-trained guru of new-age Jewish Renewal. Finally in 1995, at age 62, Waskow was ordained as a rabbi.

Today, at 66, Waskow remains as rumpled and radical as ever. But his Freedom Seder has gone mainstream. It's begotten Soviet Jewry haggadahs, environmental haggadahs, Israeli-Palestinian haggadahs and a half-dozen competing feminist haggadahs. Its influence is clearly visible, too, in more conventional haggadahs of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

Black-Jewish freedom seders, meanwhile, are held everywhere, sponsored by Reform temples and Anti-Defamation League chapters. There are Jewish-Christian interfaith seders, gay seders, even diplomatic seders where foreign envoys sample matzah and liberation. Feminist third seders, the fastest-growing permutation, now draw thousands each year.

This year, too, there was a new "Freedom Seder" in Washington, Waskow notes approvingly. It was organized by a group called Jews for Global Justice, to kick off the protests against the World Bank and IMF.

But when the meetings and protests were done, countless IMF and World Bank officials went home to their own seders, where many used contemporary haggadahs inspired by Arthur Waskow's, confident that liberation comes through lending.

And as the bankers and protesters offered their warring visions of liberation, NASDAQ and the Dow were visiting their modern plagues upon us all, reminding us how strange and unknowable are the ways of the Infinite.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

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