The idea of making a different type of Seder came about because of my discomfort with a ceremony that in many ways glorifies Jewish exceptionalism and also serves as a justification for the Israeli dispossession and suppression of the Palestinian people and their culture. Passover now appears to me to be the most Zionist of all Jewish holidays, and its celebration, the reading of the Haggadah, the Hebrew text which defines the Seder, clearly reflects this fact.
The first problem comes at very beginning of the ceremony when the host recites the Kiddush declaring that God chose the Jewish people above all other peoples. This type of exceptionalism is very much out of favor with many these days, as it should be, whether it is applied to Jews, Israel or to American foreign policy.
Secondly, there is the glorification of God’s horrible vengeance upon those who have wronged the Jews or those who do not believe in their God. God’s killing of Egyptian innocent children is awful even as a symbolic tale.
After drinking the third of the four cups of wine, the host instructs the presumably tipsy guests to rise and pour a fourth cup. Referring to God, he then recites from the Psalms:
Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not, and upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name; for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Thy rage upon them and let Thy fury overtake them. Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the Eternal.
A bit over the top, no? Especially, when the present-day real God of many American Jews, Israel and its mighty army, has laid waste to Gaza in a succession of criminal assaults which continue today as a brutal siege and a weekly massacre at the eastern Gaza border. The first Seder this year takes place on a Friday, which is the day of the week most of the border killings occur.
Oh, and one more thing, the Hebrew word for “nations that know Thee not” is “goyim,” which is also the derisive name Jews call non-Jews in their common vernacular. Who wants to say that, even if all your guests speak no Hebrew and may not hear the “g” word?
Thirdly, I recoil at the allusion to the perpetual victimization of the Jewish people which is uttered with only the fortification of one cup of wine.
For more than once have they risen against us to destroy us; in every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction. But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.
This, for me echoes the recent false claims of anti-Semitism from which we are protected, not so miraculously, by the smears of pro-Israel lobby operatives directed at people such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else who criticizes Israel and its apartheid government.
And lastly but very importantly, is the oft-quoted declaration toward the conclusion of the reading of the Haggadah of “next year in Jerusalem.” This phrase is frequently and ludicrously cited as proof of the long-time (2000 year) Jewish longing for return to their homeland, and it is employed as a justification for the entire Zionist enterprise.
This is ironic because the “telling” (haggadah) of the exodus story is especially irksome since most people actually believe in its veracity as recorded history even though this story has absolutely no basis in fact. There is actually zero historical evidence that the Jews were ever slaves in Egypt.
Passover, as with all Jewish celebrations in Israel, means “closure” for the Palestinians under occupation. That entails restricted travel and other prohibitions which make the lives of the Palestinians even more difficult than normal.
As they say in another context in the Haggadah, “dayenu?” or “is that not enough?” to explain why an alternative Seder may be in order. For me it is more than enough.
So here is what I have come up with as a replacement.
My Seder is called a seder lo b’seder, or loosely translated, a Seder that is not right or not OK. It sounds better in Hebrew. It is held on the second day of Passover and may serve as an antidote for guests who have participated in a traditional Seder the previous evening. Seder means arrangement or order and lo means not. So this is a Seder with no order, the opposite of the meaning of Seder and the tradition of doing the ceremony in a proscribed manner.
My motto is “skip the (traditional) Seder, do a Seder lo b’Seder.” The Hebrew verb for skip is the same as the name of the holiday. Just as Passover, i.e., pass over, in English, is synonymous with skip.
Thus there is no order in which the meal is to be eaten. All foods from soup to dessert will be available to the guests throughout dinner. All can eat what they want when they want and just as importantly not eat what they do not desire.
Some usual Passover foods will be available. They include gefilte fish, matzoh (the cracker that is central to the symbolism of Passover), red wine and grape juice. Also, charoset which is a mixture of nuts, dried and fresh fruits, nuts and honey because it tastes really good. Bread and shrimp (prohibited by Jewish law during Passover) will also be available and are placed in close proximity to the matzoh and gefilte fish, respectively.
Italian food which is a popular cuisine in my upstate New York community, since there is a large Italian-American presence here, will be featured. The main courses will be a vegetarian lasagna and Utica greens which is a popular indigenous local dish invented by my sister-in-law’s cousin.
Instead of the traditional not consumed glass of red wine for the prophet Elijah, a glass of wine will be placed on the table in memory of my dear departed friend and neighbor, Bruce, who would have been a willing enthusiastic participant in this Seder.
The only restriction placed on the food that is acceptable at this Seder is that it is not wholly or partly produced at Israeli companies. This Seder is officially and proudly designated as a pro BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) event. Luckily, neither this Seder nor anything I or my wife do is funded by the State of New York because the New York State governor, Andrew Cuomo, has bowed to the pro-Israel lobby, or as it is known in Israel, the Jewish lobby, and cut state funding to all supporters of BDS.
The only part of the typical Seder that is included in the seder lo b’seder is the performance of the song Chad Gadya which ends the festive meal. In my Seder the song is performed both before and after dinner. Prior to eating, the guests are invited to listen and view a video (with English subtitles) of the Chava Alberstein (Hebrew Wikipedia entry) version of this iconic Passover song which she recorded at the height of the First Intifada in 1989. In this rendition, which is sung mostly in Hebrew instead of the more traditional Aramaic, Alberstein added protest lyrics in response to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Echoing the words of the Haggadah she sings,
And what has changed for you?
What has changed?
I myself have changed this year
And on all nights, on all nights
I have asked only four questions
Tonight I have another question:
How long will the cycle of horror last?
… Hunter and hunted, beater and beaten
When will this madness end?
Alberstein’s protest song roiled much of the Jewish Israeli population and it was banned from the radio despite or maybe because of the enormous popularity and artistic reputation of the singer. Younger readers will take note that the suppression of speech critical of government policy, especially in relation to what goes on in the territories, did not start with Netanyahu.
A couple of weeks ago I came across a video of the Rana Choir performing an Arabic/Hebrew version of the Alberstein Chad Gadya at a 2016 Arab-Israeli Remembrance Day Ceremony. The choir is a group based in Jaffa, composed of Palestinians and Jews, which is unusual in Israel. I am usually rather skeptical about joint ventures in the apartheid reality of Israel which are derisively and understandably termed “normalization” by many Palestinians. Most end up with members of the stronger group, the Jews, setting the agenda, and ironically reproducing the unequal power relationship of the occupation. I have been told that the Arabic is almost unintelligible. However, despite all this I will present this version to my guests as a possible source of hope. This beautiful and haunting once censored protest song is, at least, still being performed.
As in the “normal” Seder, the meal and ceremony concludes with the host, me, singing Chad Gadya with the guests invited to join in. They are especially encouraged to, at the very least, sing the chorus. The song in our Seder is sung in Aramaic as is usual.
I like this song because it arguably is understood as having no significant meaning and as being pure melody and wordplay. In other words free of the cant, rant or any political significance of which I may find objectionable but ever present in the normal Seder.
So that is the outline of my planned Passover meal. It is an attempt to quietly declare that Zionism is not tenable or moral and rites of Judaism that support Israel are also not tenable. I do not mean my Seder to be offensive to any of my fellow co-religionists, but if it is so be it.
In our American culture those who renounce Catholicism are not generally censured by the general population, but those that criticize practices of Judaism that serve Zionism are. Why is that?
Unfortunately, my Seder will not happen this year due to family commitments having nothing to do with Passover. However, I plan to do it next year. The guests will include my 94-year-old mother-in-law and her daughter, my wife’s sister, both of whom attended my initial alternative Seder two years ago. My wife and her family are not Jewish; however all told me they had a wonderful time. I already have three dear friends who are pro-Palestinian activists committed to the event. Two of them will be recovering from the previous night’s first Seder. All three have been falsely accused of anti-Semitism by the local Jewish Federation in response to their political activity.
Zionism means dispossession of 700,000 indigenous Palestinian people and their future descendants. Today it means the ever-expanding Judaization of Jerusalem, the oppression of the Palestinian people including the brutal siege of Gaza and the continual killing of Gazans at the border protests.
That is why I say, “Next year in upstate New York, I will have a seder that will be lo b’seder.”