What Passover in the times of plague can teach us about our shared humanity by Elisabeth Becker-Topkara

As Jewish children raised in Morningside Heights (also known as Cathedral Parkway), New York City, plagues were a topic reserved for Passover. We children would name the ten plagues faced by the Egyptians, as the Jews were freed (through the leadership of Moses) from slavery in Ancient Egypt: blood, frogs, lice, beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the first born. Each time, we dipped a finger in wine and marked our plates with drops the color of blood.

The Passover story (in a very boiled down version) recounts the freeing of Jewish slaves from Ancient Egypt, who fled together with unleavened bread—hence, the matzah—and the protection of God—hence the parting of the seas to let them pass. Its namesake draws on God “passing over” first-born Jews in the tenth plague. From walking through water, to thousands of sons saved, matzah and wine, Passover’s beauty lies in a celebration of the miraculous and the mundane as one. It is a story of overcoming.

Passover was always my favorite holiday. It united our family with our closest family friends, the scents of my mother’s cooking, and the inevitable search for the afikomen (a piece of matzah hidden for children to find, which my sister located every single year of my childhood). It was a time of celebration and revelry, of being close to one another as we—an eclectic Jewish, Christian, American, Indian bunch—sought to learn from the Jewish tradition. Each year over the Seder, we celebrated our differences and yet togetherness in a city that had offered respite to so many who fled not Egypt, but other eras and areas of persecution. 

I took away certain lessons from our Seder book and discussions at a young age: that our people had overcome great suffering, and that it marked us with a great responsibility to alleviate the suffering of others. Our particular Passover lessons were often studded with parallel lessons from the Civil Rights Movement. My father was a quietly Christian man who, just like my mother, had participated in civil rights protests, along with our family friends. My sister, myself, and the other two children (Tess and James) all attended Riverside Church nursery school—an institution where Reverend Martin Luther King Junior had left his mark. There he gave his speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Breach the Silence,” and outlined his broader hope to “save the soul of the nation,” and to stand together, first and foremost as human denizens of this earth. In fact, the only two songs that I remember clearly from my childhood are “Let My People Go” (recounting the slavery of Jews in Ancient Egypt) and “We Shall Overcome” (a civil rights song written by Pete Seeger, for whom my second nephew is named).

There are four questions on Passover, but this year I am focused on a fifth. Who are our people? Or rather, who are not our people? Last year, my husband (a Muslim man) and I hosted a seder, uniting another eclectic bunch (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, agnostic, atheist). Passover has, I realized, for my family always been a time of inviting not only those like us, but also those beyond our immediate circle  into our home (along with the Prophet Elijah, of course, for whom we always set out a cup of wine). Passover is a holiday where we celebrate not first and foremost our Jewishness but our humanity.

This year, Passover will be a lonely affair here in America and across the world, as we distance ourselves to save one another. Some families will join each other on Zoom or other virtual platforms. Some will have to substitute key foods after a run on the grocery stores. The loneliness will hurt and yet it will, for many of us, also hold the greatest lesson of our lives.

Today, as I watch the vistas of my childhood emptied of life, I, a Jewish woman, take comfort in the churches of my childhood neighborhood in New York City. When I hear sirens, I imagine the Peace Fountain at Cathedral St. John the Divine, where a stone lion lies down with a lamb, to calm my mind. Or the staircases at Riverside Church that led to stained glass windows and to the bells that call the faithful to prayer. Today, I imagine Dr. King speaking in the same chapel where we learned to sing Peter Seeger’s songs in kindergarten, and where we mourned my father after his sudden death.

We are all together, if divided by time, in that stone church, in fleeing subjugation, and in this sudden new day of the plague.

Most of us in the so-called “Western world” thought we were free: free of imminent threats, whether in the form of armed conflict or disease. We externalized both, ignoring them when they lay outside of the bounds of our families, our geographical borders, our time. This year, of course, plagues have a terrifying relevance. As a virus upends our global order, as we fear for our lives and the lives of others, our interdependence comes clearly into focus. Today, we cannot look away.

This year, the greatest lesson to be found in Passover is both a Jewish lesson and a human lesson. And perhaps it is best summarized by the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s, words spoken in the same building where I learned how to read and I learned how to sing: “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

Maybe this year, not throwing tradition aside but making it our own, we will add Peter Seeger’s song to our Passover repertoire—“We Shall Overcome”—to signal our hope for overcoming, and our newfound awareness that our vulnerability ascends all borders. That we are all, in our mundane differences, miraculous and worthy of life. And that no one kind of person will be saved from this plague.

Yet I also take comfort in the fact that we are all in this together, even though apart. In the lyrics of Peter Seeger, “deep in my heart, I do believe, We’ll walk hand in hand someday.” Today, I do believe, is that day.

Elisabeth Becker-Topkara is a 2019-2020 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. She was a postdoctoral fellow for the Religion and Its Publics project for 2018-2019.

Photo Credit: Joshua Bousel via Flikr