Passover is a reminder that G-d prefers his children to be free from spiritual, emotional, physical and mental bondage. But for black Jews the weeklong holiday holds special meaning, often enriching their experience as part of the Jewish people.
The Haggadah reading often is combined with reflections on the history of slavery in America and the present circumstances of black people.
“We celebrate this holiday every year, and how many times are we reminded that ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’?” said Sandra Lawson, a rabbinical student who belongs to Congregation Bet Haverim.
The yearly reminder of freedom is what many black Jews appreciate most about Passover.
Nadiya Boyce-Rosen said Passover is a reminder that slavery should never happen again.
“You have people trying to say slaves are the new immigrant. When it’s posed that way, you need a reminder,” Boyce-Rosen said. “It’s very important to ensure your culture lives on when you have people who try to water it down. History is important.”
The Passover seder gives Lawson the opportunity to relate the story to her black heritage and tradition of standing up against oppression. “That’s why so many Jews are involved in social justice,” she said, “because we have this holiday.”
The rabbinical student said it’s fascinating to see how blacks and others relate differently to the story.
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s a slave narrative. They are looking at it from an Ashkenazi Jewish point of view, and then when we talk about it, they realize,” Lawson said.
She uses the example of Exodus 16:3, when the Hebrews complain about starving in the wilderness as free people after having plenty to eat as slaves, to point out characteristics of people with a slave mentality.
“It’s a slave narrative and trauma story,” Lawson said. “All the kvetching they were doing about having more fish as slaves is trauma.”
There are deep connections between African-American history and the Exodus from Egypt, Tarece Johnson said, including similar struggles and oppression.
“I celebrate it from a Jewish perspective, but as an African-American I see the fight and struggles just like ours,” Johnson said. “It’s that spirit to fight and survive.”
The story has relevance today.
Boyce-Rosen said it’s like a life lesson baked into her calendar. Passover is a story about a particular group, but what applies to the group also applies to the individual.
“You look at the story and see the fight that had to occur and the work that needed to be done. It’s something that galvanizes me, and you say, ‘This is why we need to be educated,’ ” Boyce-Rosen said.
For Reuben Formey, a black Hasidic rapper who performs as Prodezra, talking to his children about slavery is important at the seder while also discussing the history of blacks in America.
“At my table in particular there’s always us speaking about freedom and slavery and the connection to it,” he said. “We compare and contrast and talk about how it is to be African-American in society and the idea of the slave mentality.”
But the relationship is complex, Formey said. Judaism allots black Jews the freedoms that come with Jewish spirituality and culture.
“Obviously, we value the skin which is African-American and the spirituality which is Jewish, so we bring those together, and it does hold special meaning to have a certain level of freedom,” he said.
There are stark differences between the Jewish and black slave narratives, Deanna (Dvora) Windham said. Jews kept their language, names and clothes — three elements essential to identity that were denied to African slaves and their descendants.
That makes a huge difference. During Passover, Windham can’t help but think about the experience of her African ancestors.
“I’m extra-careful in remembering that they were slaves, but they were stolen and robbed of being able to have families, so it became a different experience,” Windham said. “Anything I learned about it, I learned on my own, except the small paragraph in history books in public school.”
Hearing the slave narrative every year is not an option, Windham said. Even after the seder, when the story is dissected for hours, Jews reflect for a week on why we deprive ourselves of certain foods.
In that respect, she said, the story of slavery is something you just can’t walk away from.
“I wish it was something black Americans had where you sit down, tell stories and have a liturgy. There’s meaning to that,” Windham said. “It’s not optional if you’re Conservative, Reform or Orthodox; everyone is doing it. However, you’re doing it first seder; you’re talking about the Passover. I wish my cousins had that, my sisters had that or my brothers had that. It’s disheartening, but in some ways I feel lucky.”