Tsuzamen, lomir ontsinden di likht fun farshtendlikhkayt un fun libe.
So began the Third Seder (Drider Seder) at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture in Vancouver, BC, where I recently became a teacher, on April 8. All together, let us join in lighting the candles in honour of understanding and love.
This was my first time at a Third Seder, which usually takes place during the intermediate days of Passover, and was popularized in New York by the Workmen’s Circle (Der Arbeiter Ring). (The Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddish-language Hagodeh is still used and influenced Peretz’s version). I have attended seders without Haggadahs, Kabbalistic seders, Hasidic seders, Freedom seders, Interfaith seders and mainstream milquetoast progressive-light seders, but never a Yiddishist drider seder.
Lomir alle in eynem, in eynem, we sang, Come together as one.
Dem Peysakh m’kabel ponim zayn, lomir alle in eynem, trinken a glezeleh vayn. To welcome the presence of Passover, come together as one, drink a glass of wine.
The first cup of the seder was dedicated to Miriam, one of the increasingly common new symbols incorporated by many in the last few decades into their seders. The orange (affirming women’s rightful role as leaders in the community) and the fig (affirming Israeli-Palestinian solidarity) were both present, for instance.
I had experienced those things before, but what really struck me at this seder was the Jewish Socialist background and the emphasis on the one hand on remembering and celebrating Jewish resistance fighters, and on the other hand the focus on universalist visions of social justice which dominated the seder, taking a truly equal seat to the Judeocentric narrative.
When it came time to take a drop of wine for the ten plagues, the plague recited were modern and universal:
War … Pollution … Hunger … Exploitation … Bigotry … Injustice … Disease … Tyranny … Ignorance … Poverty
On the other hand, two of the most stirring moment of the Seder were very Jewish. The first was a Holocaust memorial ceremony, which I had never experienced in a seder and which, admittedly somewhat to my surprise, I found moving and appropriate. The second was a celebration of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, consisting of readings and a recital of the anthem of the Jewish resistance: Zog Nit Keyn Mol, which I had, by chance, just read about in Paul Goldberg’s work of historical fiction The Yid:
Never say you’re on the last road,
though leaden skies hide days of blue—
Our longed-for hour will come;
our steps will be a drumbeat: WE ARE HERE!
The last verse was bit of a shock to my peaceful Jewish diasporic sensibilities:
This song is written with blood, not with lead;
it’s no little song of a bird on the wing.
This one a people between crumbling walls
sang with guns in their hands.
This was not my Baba’s seder, though maybe it was my Zaida’s (he abandoned his Orthodox faith to become a socialist as a teenager, later running away from home to join the Red Army).
Listening to the Yiddish songs and feeling the pulse of decades of Jewish social idealism and left-wing politics was very heimische for me, and felt like a different way to find myself in the stream of Jewish history then I’m used to.
I liked it.
You and your family are invited to join us at our annual secular Community Seder. RSVP is required: 604-325-1812 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Our seder features our secular Hagaddah, Holocaust memorial service, the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir’s Pesach repertoire, and a traditional Pesach meal (chicken soup with matzo ball, chicken, vegetables, salad, wine). Vegetarian alternatives to the soup and chicken are available with advance request. Deadline for reservations: April 3.
He knocks three times with the knuckles of his clenched fist. There is movement behind the door, no more than what you’d expect. “Dos bist du?” asks a raspy voice in a language that isn’t Russian. “Poshel v pizdu,” answers one of the nineteen-year-olds in Russian. Sadykov and the boys don’t know the meaning of the question Dos bist du? Why would they know that these words mean, “Is this you?” But, of course, the Russian words “poshel v pizdu,” translated literally as “go in the cunt” or “fuck off,” rhyme with this enigmatic question. It’s a dialogue of sorts: “Dos bist du?” “Poshel v pizdu.” It’s more than a rhyme. It’s a question and an answer…. “Otkroyte!” Sadykov knocks again. Open the door! “Ikh farshtey. Nit dos bist du.” The meaning of this exchange escapes Sadykov, but it merits unpacking.
Had there been a Yiddish-speaking audience present, it would have surely rolled with laughter. Try to imagine the situation described above as a vaudeville skit: They come to arrest an old Yid. They knock on the door. “Is that you?” the old man asks in Yiddish. The goons answer in juicy Russian. (The rhyme: “Dos bist du?” / “Poshel v pizdu.”) “I see,” responds the old man. “It’s not you.”
In this scene, the audience never learns whom the old man refers to as “you,” but it’s a safe guess that he is not anticipating the arrival of Lieutenant Narsultan Sadykov and his boys. You can imagine what the audience would do. They would emit tears and saliva. They would slap their knees. They would turn beet red from elevation of blood pressure and constriction of air supply. Alas, at 2: 59 a.m. February 24, 1953, a Yiddish-speaking audience is not in attendance at 1/ 4 Chkalov Street, apartment forty.
Paul Goldberg’s debut novel of historical fiction, The Yid, is a critically acclaimed, daring, original, and eminently readable book which manages to weave together Soviet history, Yiddish culture, and Shakespeare into a heady and unique brew. Filled with black humour, wit and insight, The Yid traces what happens when three Soviet secret police come to arrest a washed up old Jewish theatre performer for imaginary crimes and meet unexpected resistance. Soon Levinson, the aforementioned actor, has gathered around himself a gang of unlikely heroes who, finding themselves in the untenable situation of being wanted by the USSR, decide to up the ante and assassinate Comrade Stalin himself.
The book is a trip inside the brutal, unjust world of Stalinist era USSR, and more deeply, inside the life-killing, dehumanizing machines of night that human beings have built again and again. Levinson and his merry crew slip through the cracks and try to resist, creating a story at once reminiscent of a Purim shpil and dark 20th century satires like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Despite the humour, the novel is also unflinchingly violent and bleak at times. The Chicago Tribune accurately noted that the novel is “as hilarious as it is appalling, and vice versa.” It offers a kind of curious comic relief in times like ours, at once reminding us how fortunate we are, even in the era of Trump, and how precious the freedoms we have gained, as well as acting therapeutically somewhere between a comedy number and a blues song.
Paul Goldberg. The Yid: A Novel. Picador: NY. 2016.
לאז נישט דעם רוגז אבערנאכטיקן ביי דיר
Loz nisht dem rogez ibernechtiken bei dir
Don’t let your anger stay overnight with you.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, this saying reflects an old teaching in Judaism. In Tehillim/Psalms and Mishle/Proverbs there are many sayings warning against the dangers of anger. Rabbinic teachings follow suit: One must not persist in a quarrel (Sanhedrin 110a). The traditional Siddur (prayerbook) lists “making peace between one person and another” as a mitzvah (good deed) whose fruit one enjoys both in this world and the next (Hasidic prayerbooks add, “and between a man and his wife!”).
All of this teachings concern what you could call personal anger. This is anger that arises from an affronted ego, or from frustrated desire. There is no question, in my opinion, that the vast majority of our anger is of this type. What, however, should we say about impersonal anger? Moral outrage? Just indignation?
The Jewish tradition seems to make more room for this. The prophets certainly seem very angry at times, and not because someone made them a crappy espresso.
So says the LORD, roars Amos, I will bring a fire on Judah and devour the palaces of Jerusalem…I will not reverse it, for they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes!
Stephen Lewis, the npoliticaltical activist, recently told CBC that all of his work fighting poverty, AIDS, and injustice was fueled by “pure rage”.
On the other hand, we live in what many have called “days of rage”. We suffer from a plague of anger, frustration, irritability, cruelty, bullying, and judgementalism on all sides. This cannot be healthy- it blinds our understanding, details our communities and our communication, and increases our stress, all the while decreasing our joy and power.
If there is a difference between personal anger and impersonal anger, there is surely a difference between impersonal anger that motivates action and the kind that sinners and rages without being productive. The latter kind just weakens us.
I haven’t had as much time for this blog this week, so in lieu of my usual proverb with commentary, here are the four best Yiddish proverbs I discovered this week (from Fred Kogos’ “Dictionary of Popular Yiddish Words, Phrases and Proverbs”):
Hob mich vainik lib nor hob mich lang lib.
Better love me little, but love me long.
Hob nit kain moireh ven du host nit kain ander braireh.
Don’t be scared when you have no other choice.
In a shainem epel gefint men a mol a vorem.
In a good apple, you sometimes find a worm.
Kain braireh iz oich a braireh.
No choice is also a choice.
“Only once did the sun stand still”.
This saying references the story in the book of Joshua where a miracle stops the sun in the sky until ancient Israel can win a battle against their enemies (Joshua 10:13). The point is obvious: don’t rely on a miracle to make what you want happen.
All of us have a lot of things we wish would happen, both on a personal and a global level. We hope we will be healthy, happy and safe. We hope that climate change will be stopped and the ecosystems and creatures of the earth will survive, peace will prevail over war, and justice over injustice.
The question is, what are we doing about it? We can’t take on all of these causes (unless we can, and if you’re in that position, good for you!) but the pertinent question to ask ourselves is, is there anything in our lives we long for but are not actually taking practical steps to make happen? I can think of a damning list of things I wish for and maybe even pride myself on wishing for, but am not doing anything, or in any case could be doing more about. The message of this yiddishe vort: The sun will not stand still for me or for you.