Friday, April 7, 2006

Family Gathering

Abigail Pogrebin, the gifted writer, has published a fascinating and beautifully written book called, Stars of David (see www.amazon.com or your local bookstore).  In it she reports on her interviews with sixty-two Jewish women and men who have made their public mark in the arts, politics, academia, journalism and letters.  What struck me at once about these overachievers was that while, with very few exceptions, all are disengaged from organized religious life, most consider their Jewishness integral to who they are.  A number do attend services on occasion (usually once a year) or have shepherded their child through a bar or bat mitzvah.  But that’s about it with one major exception.  The majority of those interviewed participate in, or host, a Passover Seder. I wasn’t surprised to read of that strong connection.

People often think that generally inactive Jews connect with their religion only on the High Holy Days (particularly Yom Kippur), if at all.  The fact is that Passover and particularly the Seder seems to have a much broader pull.  While those who pass on religous services altogether may do so without qualm, even the tangentially involved often feel they’ve missed something if they don’t participate in a Seder.  Ours have always involved extended and non-family members (often including Christian friends) who were eager and active participants.  There is something compelling about this holiday.

The prayers embodied in it the notwithstanding, the Hagaddah text strikes more of a universal rather than narrowly religious theme.  Its message of freedom resonates with everyone and not inconsequentially because it remains remarkably current.  The notion that setting people free will potentially have a generational impact – not merely Moses was set free but that I was set free with him – continues to be powerful.  Whatever residual problems and prejudices remain (and they can be significant), it is certainly a message to which African Americans can relate and which compelled so many Jews to join in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and before.  It’s also a message to which the authors of current American foreign policy might point to justify their actions aimed at bringing freedom (and democracy) to Iraq and elsewhere.  Of course, as is often the case, religious texts and messages are read and taken selectively.  The underlying message of the Exodus is that freedom resulted from a self motivated indigenous effort.  Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and eventually determined the need for laws to govern their everyday life.  Freedom can be taken (or sometimes given under duress), but can’t be imposed.

Perhaps even more compelling and in a profound way more enduring than the message (what probably brings Pogrebin’s Stars to the table) is the pull of family.  While other Holy Days and Festivals on the Jewish religious calendar are synagogue centered, the main event at Passover takes place at home.  While a certain historic order (Seder) is brought the proceedings, it is largly under full family control, often involving “proprietary” customs that are unique to each clan.  This may include how the Seder is conducted (my own family Hagaddah can be downloaded at www.jjprinz.com ) to what food is consumed.  For many people (and not only Jews) family is often the only remaining connection to their historic identity.  This is just another reason why promoting the existing family and the building of new families, including gay families, is so very important in our society, and ultimately to its survival.

I’ve always loved Thanksgiving because it is our most shared holiday, the one time religious and demographic differences melt away.  Passover is in its way the Jewish Thanksgiving that draws us in for many of the same reasons.  Even if no formal Seder is conducted in its observance (which is a pity), the importance of getting together with family and friends should in itself never be discounted.  Abby Pogrebin (whose mother was my college classmate) was motivated to write this book by her own journey in reassessing her roots.  Some of its most moving passages are found in the prologue and epilogue.  Her subjects, like so many contemporary children of religious backgrounds no longer have active contact with that side of their life (or of their ancestors' lives), but nonetheless want to maintain some thread of connection.  Passover and specifically the Seder seems to be a good place to start, and thus is a celebration not wisely cast aside.

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