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Passover: A Cautionary Story

(Photo credit: Nick Levitin)

Passover is a Jewish holiday with universal appeal and as many different ways to tell the story as there are different types of people.

Years ago, I went to an ecumenical seder on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. The hostess was Jewish, and she invited a diverse mix of creative people. It was one of the best seders I ever went to. We told the story as we are supposed to and drank quite a bit as we are supposed to. It may be that it was as much fun as it was, because most of the people attending were actors. We reenacted the Passover story through storytelling, drinking and dancing around the table. We left at about midnight. I will never forget it.

In another New York Passover, I went to a seder where the host was very observant. When reading the Haggadah, each passage sparked a thought that required further investigation. Books were pulled from the shelves, religious ideas discussed, and the night turned into a Talmudic inquiry into freedom. We left at 2:00 a.m. I staggered onto the street feeling like I really did just win my freedom.

I grew up in period happily oblivious to antisemitism which was very much under wraps in the United States, our freedom and democracy very much taken for granted. In our family, holidays were not so much observed but noted, out of a sense of respect for the past. We would go to my grandparents, one of the kids would say the four questions, we would read from the Maxwell House Haggadah and then before you knew it, in a very shortened telling, it was miraculously time to eat. My Great Grandfather, Zeyde, tried very hard to get us to take the seder more seriously, but to no avail. At that time we were solidly assimilated and while a nice custom, lessons about freedom were about the past, so let’s eat!

My Zeyde knew better. He was a small man, who wore black pants and a white shirt and a yamaka. Family lore has it that he did well in Russia until he had to leave with my Bubbe Becky and grandmother, who was an infant at the time. He forged a new life in the United States running a fruit stand in Newark, New Jersey to create a better future for the next generation and the generation after that.

My Zeyde and Bubbe are very much on my mind this year as the Passover story is being told in the world, in real time, shaped by the war in Ukraine and January 6th. For the first time freedom, in the United States, codified by democracy, is no longer a sure thing. And the people of Ukraine are showing what is required to fight for it.

Vlodymor Zelensky is Ukraine’s Moses. Against all expectations, Ukrainians did not surrender their country because of the extraordinary dynamic of courageous leadership connecting with the courage and aspirations of a people. Whether it’s Zelensky, Mandela, Navalny or Martin Luther King, Jr., there is great inspiration and hope to be found in people who are willing and able to sacrifice themselves for a cause greater than themselves. They embody the enormous capacity of human beings to be great on behalf of that which is good.

And Putin is Pharaoh, with a hardened heart, putting people through hell, an embodiment of the ego at its most psychotic. The scenes playing out in the world are horrendous: bombed out buildings where less than two months ago stood thriving cities, suburbs, malls, parks, schools, and hospitals. People who had homes and comforts are now hiding in subways, basements or living in refugee camps.

The coverage leaves me horrified. A woman being interviewed had dark hair and a beige winter jacket and appeared stunned. She said her ten-year-old son asked her if he would be alive for his next birthday. She looked at the interviewer, tears welling in her eyes, and said “I didn’t know what to say.”

An elderly woman said her daughter was killed because she stayed behind to protect her. Another woman testified that her two grown sons were murdered and buried in their backyard. When her grandson appeared, I felt a sense of relief for them. His very existence meant they had a future to fight for.

Just six short weeks ago, the people in Ukraine were living normal lives.

Which brings me to January 6th. Putin is Trump’s role model and people I love and admire have been blind to how dangerous his election was. This is not a disagreement between reasonable people, but an inability for some to understand how easy it would be to lose what we have, to lose what other people sacrificed for. How ironic it would be, to have the country my family had to run from be the political and spiritual model that ends our own democracy.

We are living in a precarious time and Ukraine is a clarifying moment. We can no longer take our democracy for granted. An insurrection took place on January 6th which could have been the beginning of the end of democracy and there are still those working toward that end.

Passover this year is a story of freedom and the vigilance needed for it to be safeguarded. This Passover, I will bring a renewed spirit of gratitude for all those who came before and sacrificed for me and my children. And in my heart will be the people of Ukraine.

About the Author
Audrey Levitin is a Senior Consultant at CauseWired, a firm working with human rights and civil liberties organizations. For 15 years she was the Director of Development at the Innocence Project. She served as Co-Chair of US/Israel Women to Women, now a project of the National Council of Jewish Women. She is an essayist and her work has been seen in the Star Ledger, The Forward, MetroWest Jewish Week, and Cape Cod Life. She and her husband, photographer Nick Levitin live in West Orange, New Jersey.
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