Chag Sameach

Today is the 15th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar, which means it’s the eve of Pesach. Pesach being the Jewish festival commemorating the Exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. You all know the story right? Pharaoh enslaves the Israelite minority, forces them to build pyramids for him, orders the sons killed at birth (which doesn’t quite make sense, cause he has a good economic incentive to keep reproducing the slave population). Baby Moses’s mum leaves him floating in the Nile, where he’s found by Pharaoh’s daughter who raises him as her son. As an adult, Moses is approached by God, in the guise of a burning bush, who orders him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Ten gruesome plagues later Moses and the Israelites are walking out of Egypt, towards Canaan. I’m sure you’ve all watched the movies.

When I was a kid this was my most hated holiday, because it mostly involved sitting at the dinner table for hours, listening to grown ups read from a book in an archaic language I didn’t really understand, getting hungrier and hungrier, waiting for the whole ritual to be finished so we could finally eat.

Now that I am a grown up (or at least pass for one), it’s become my favourite Jewish holiday. Because if you ignore the whole God-will-save-you-from-oppression thing, it’s actually a really inspiring story about an oppressed group of people fighting for their liberation. So for me, it’s very much a holiday for celebrating liberation struggles everywhere.

Of course, there are some problematic aspects to the Pesach story. Not least of which, is the part where the ancient Israelites, having been delivered from slavery to freedom, having spent forty years wandering in the desert eating nothing but manna, arrive at the Promised Land of Canaan and proceed to murder and colonise the local population. Not exactly the heartwarming ending I like my anarchist fairy tales to have. I see this as a cautionary tale: it reminds us how easily the oppressed who are fighting for freedom can go on to become oppressors themselves.

This tale reflects the story of modern Ashkenazi Jews, a persecuted minority in Europe, delivered into freedom (if you can call it that…) who arrive at the Promised Land of Canaan, now called Palestine, and proceed to murder and colonise the indigenous population. It’s hard to celebrate Pesach and not think of the ongoing liberation struggle in Palestine today.

Which is why the first part of my Pesach offering is this poem by Aharon Shabtai:

Passover, 2002

Instead of scalding
your pots and plates,
take steel wool
to your hearts:
You read the Haggadah
like swine, which
if put before a table
would forage about in the bowl
for parsley and dumplings.
Passover, however,
is stronger than you are.
Go outside and see:
the slaves are rising up,
a brave soul
is burying its oppressor
beneath the sand.
Here is your cruel,
stupid Pharaoh,
dispatching his troops
with their chariots of war,
and here is the sea of Freedom,
which swallows them.

It used to be, that Pesach also marked the beginning of the new year, what with it being springtime in the northern hemisphere and all. So part two of my offering is this poem by Martín Espada:

Imagine the Angels of Bread

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year
that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.

This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth;
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.

If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.

So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.

My mother likes to say that every Jewish holiday can be summarized in nine words: They Wanted To Kill Us, We Won, Let’s Eat. So part three is this recipe for vegan kneidalach (matzoh balls) from the Post Punk Kitchen. I make these every year and they are delicious (though not strictly kosher according to Ashkenazi tradition). Be’teavon.

The traditional toast at Pesach is, ‘le’shana ha’ba’a be’yerushalayim habnuya,’ next year, in Jerusalem rebuilt. In this day and age I’d say this phrase has more relevance to Palestinians than it does to Jews. My Pesach toast is ‘le shana ha’ba’a be’falastin ha’bnuya.’

Next year in Palestine rebuilt.

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