Susannah Dainow

Freeing Ourselves from Mitzrayim: Pesach 5784

Pesach, with its ritual-dinner-party-meets-timeless-story setup, has been my favourite holiday since childhood. This time of year always takes me back to my great aunt’s epic seders, where I experienced the presence of God as a social thing: the raucousness of adults drinking four cups of wine while I played on the floor with my older cousins, absorbing the story of the Exodus as I roughhoused. Looking back, I understand what I felt as the words and the thousands of years of tradition behind them resonating in my body, even as I scoured my great-aunt’s grand apartment looking for the candy dishes filled with plastic-wrapped butterscotch and peppermint. I always sang the Four Questions along with my cousins, the part of the seder that spotlights child participants, and when I was older, I would read from the Haggadah to the attention of all the adults at that large table. The schmaltzy liquor of homemade matzah ball soup that we ate at those elaborate dinners is home to me.

No matter what else has happened on subsequent nights different from all other nights, those early memories stick, rendering Pesach a time to celebrate joy, story, family (however tense it can sometimes be), and peoplehood. No one, no war, can take these memories away from me. In fact, in a time of war, it is crucial to hold onto these memories and to create new ones, to honour the meaning they hold for us both individually and collectively, as the Jewish People.

At this time of year, around the Seder table, we tell the story of the Exodus and remember, each individually and through our collective actions as Jews, that it is as if we ourselves were taken out of slavery in Egypt. We recall that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means ‘the narrow place.’ We ask ourselves what the narrow places might be for us today, and how we might liberate ourselves from them.

In this day and age of a war raging past the half-year mark, there are particular possibilities for what Mitzrayim might mean, how we might address it around our Seder tables, and after.

Top of mind at the festival of liberation is the hostages still held captive in Gaza. To show that we remember and honor them, we might set a symbolic place at the Seder table, giving them a presence at our holiday of freedom, so that we may be more focused in our yearning prayer for their liberation as well. We may also say words of prayer specifically for the captives; some examples can be found here. And a link to the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi’s Pesach prayer for the captives, here. We can also write our own prayers. It is crucial to acknowledge these instances of contemporary Jewish bondage this Pesach. This night is not like any other night, and this year is not like any other year, as we work to defend our people from attack in our ancestral homeland and from rising tides of antisemitism the world over.

We can also pray for liberation for Israelis and civilian Palestinians caught, once again, in armed conflict. We can pray for better leadership, for a true peace partner for Israel, and a corruption-free Israeli government that has only its citizens’, and the Jewish People’s, best interests at heart. We can pray for, and work toward, a government that will listen to its intelligence officers and soldiers when they say an attack is being planned and will follow through to ensure the safety of its citizens.

A workable peace is liberation for all parties. It should be abundantly clear by now that none of us is going anywhere. A workable peace cannot grow out of an environment of hate and rising antisemitism the world over. Violent protests, Jew-hating graffiti, denialism, and tearing down posters of the hostages do not serve peace; they flagrantly undermine it. However, we will not give up. Jews may be tired, and we may even be scared at times, but we do not give up. On Pesach we don’t celebrate how G-d called us a “stiff-necked people,” while we wandered the desert, but maybe we should. That stiff-neckedness has saved us countless times. It will save us again.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to maneuver out of Mitzrayim this year is to look inward in our current context. There is liberation from without, living in a state of political freedom, and there is liberation from within, being at peace with ourselves. The war has brought to the fore an upsetting epidemic of internalized antisemitism. Whether it takes the form of Jewish anti-Zionism or subtler feelings of embarrassment and apology about moving through the world as a Jew, this self-hate is a corruption of our innate right to freedom within.

Internalized antisemitism is surely not a new phenomenon, but at this time in our history it has risen with, and been influenced by, the tides of non-Jewish antisemitism in the West. It was on display at the most recent Academy Awards, when Jewish director Jonathan Glazer infamously “denounced” his Judaism, after comparing Israel to the Nazi regime. In a less public and extreme manner, it is impacting countless Jews the world over, and renders us less capable of asserting ourselves and fighting back against external Jew-hatred. We must do the inner work necessary to jettison our internalized antisemitism, and the first step is speaking about it with other trusted parties, perhaps at this year’s Seder table.

In so doing, we will come to see that it is not we who are damaged or “wrong” but the messages of hate that antisemitism carries. We must celebrate our peoplehood and traditions, even as we maintain a critical eye toward them, an approach meant to increase learning and understanding. In other words, we must cultivate Jewish pride. There are many ways to express pride, ranging from celebrating Jewish holidays such as Pesach to participating in Jewish community events to simply identifying as Jewish in casual conversation. Self-education is also key. Excellent starting points are the two books by contemporary Jewish educator and activist, Ben M. Freeman: Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People, and Reclaiming Our Story: The Pursuit of Jewish Pride. These titles, with a third forthcoming, go a long way toward helping us dismantle the warping messages of antisemitism that we have been raised with in non-Jewish dominant cultures, and that have been dogging our world since Amalek.

This Pesach, we face unique challenges to our people. Let these challenges serve as an awakening for us to come together in a broad-based unity and inner as well as external work. We can and must respond to the legitimate fear we feel in Mitzrayim by activating our (perhaps long dormant) Jewish pride, drawing on our long tradition at Pesach as well as during the rest of the year. We cannot let antisemitism cow us into silence, and we cannot let it define for us who we are. This year especially, we must walk into the Sea of Reeds as proud Jews.

About the Author
Susannah Dainow is a writer and recovering lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. She writes fiction, essays, and poetry, often with a Jewish lens. Currently, she is at work on Aliyah, an intergenerational Jewish family story that explores Israel-Diaspora relations.
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