On Monday, walking home from a seder in Islington, I told my friends that the only time I’d felt so Jewish was at my barmitzvah.
On reflection, it is not surprising that Passover should inspire this response. The seder has been my favourite Jewish tradition for as long as I can remember. It is hard to imagine a denser or deeper ritual. The Haggadah reminds us that we are not telling this story because our ancestors were slaves in Egypt but because “we” were slaves in Egypt.
Freedom lies in moments of exceptional festivity – the absolute central question of the seder is ‘why is this night different from all other nights?’ – but also in everyday profanity.
This seder was hosted by Jewdas. It’s a group I’ve known about for a while. My mum – a Jewish scholar and educator, now living in Jerusalem – told me today that she gave a talk at one of the first ever Jewdas events ten or 15 years ago hosted under Waterloo Bridge. In more recent years, since
I came back to London after some time working in Sierra Leone, I’ve spent a few Jewish festivals with Jewdas. I knew a number of those at the seder from various stages of my life; like my former jazz piano teacher from when
I was 15, and other dear friends from university, and acquaintances from London. Most seders that I have attended over the years involve non-Jewish guests too, who get the unique opportunity, I believe, to experience life as Jews for one night.
One particularly notable guest at this seder was Jeremy Corbyn. Sat at my table, I was initially star-struck to see a man with a grey beard in a black suit and blue shirt with a few buttons undone, his hands in his pockets, mingling around the entrance to the room, and generally looking like…Jeremy Corbyn. I think I did about 13 double takes.
There was a buzz of excitement in the room. But moments later, as he took his seat, he seemed as at home in the surroundings as any of us.
He arrived with maror (horseradish) – the ritual food that reminds us of the bitterness of slavery – fresh from his allotment. (There are many layers and depths of symbolism to unpack there I’m sure).
During the evenings’ lengthy and joyous proceedings I found myself glancing up every now again over in his direction, and each time saw him following and singing along to the passages and songs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, surrounded by friends.
He nodded with familiarity as one of the older participants told us about some key moments in Jewish Socialist London history that slightly predated many of the younger participant’s awareness. He stayed until the sweet end, chatting with old friends and new.
It’s perhaps strange that this politician’s presence at a seder should not only have made me feel comfortable, but deeply happy and fulfilled.
For a room full of Jews like myself, navigating the place of religion in out lives as adults, figuring out how political and social commitments might tangle up with family traditions, his participation was wonderfully affirming. Judaism has deep-rooted left-wing and social justice credentials to draw upon, which this seder explicitly celebrated more than most, but the question of how to integrate Jewish practice and identity into society in any given time and place is always, and for everyone, a challenge, in part because the contours are always shifting.
This past week or so I, along with many others, have found myself asking this question: What does it mean to be Jewish in the UK now?
Monday’s seder was in ways I can, and cannot explain, a rare moment of clarity for me. I’m deeply grateful for it.