Friday, March 26, 2010

Passover: The Season of Rebirth

First: a head's up that this will be my last posting on this blog for a while - probably until April 23rd.

In addition to getting ready for Passover (my reflections on the holiday are below), I am also busy making my final preparations to lead a delegation of Temple Solel members (there are 15 of us travelling) to Cuba.  We will be in Cuba for eight days, from April 7-14.  During our trip, we will be meeting with the leadership of the Cuban Jewish community, delivering much-needed supplies to Jews and non-Jews, alike.  And, we will also have the chance to experience a little bit of what life in Cuba is like today.

Our travel agent assures me that there will be ample internet access for most of the trip.  Thus, I have every intention of blogging our experience.  The skeleton of the blog is up:  If you are interested in following along with what I hope will be daily updates, you can go to the blog now and become a subscriber.  There is a link to subscribe on the site.  In theory, the rest is self-explanatory.  Feel free to email me if you have any questions.


Ah....Passover.  Where to begin?

Members of the mainstream media, and the Jewish online world, are all abuzz about "Tweeting the Exodus" - an attempt on the part of a few rabbis to bring the Passover story alive - in 140 characters or less of course. 

It's not too late to find new Passover recipes here.

And you can find some easy-to-sing Passover songs for your seder here.

I have been reflecting recently on the well known Ahad HaAm quote, when he said: "More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people."

Historically, he argues, one of the sustaining forces of Judaism and Jewish identity has been our observance of the Shabbat.

That was probably accurate when it came to assessing the state of Jewish life from the Middle Ages down thru beginning of the 19th century.

But, thanks to the onset of the Enlightenment, patterns of Jewish observance have been changing.  Shabbat observance is not exactly what it used to be.  Click here for a reflection on that subject, written way back in 1961.  It's as true today as it was then.

I would argue that, today, Passover is the holiday that sustains the Jewish people.  It's not that we keep Passover.  It's that - on some level - Passover keeps us...keeps us Jewish, that is.

According to Jewish demographic studies, attending a Passover seder is a more widely observed ritual than going to synagogue on Yom Kippur! 

Passover is one of those moments in our year when we are internally called to remember our roots.  To return - even if only for an hour or two - to the customs and traditions of our ancestors.  And whether we are talking about a 15 minute rendition of the Maxwell House Hagaddah or an hours-long affair that stretches far into the night, there is something about the holiday that makes just enough of an impact on us, that it almost renews us as Jews for another year....the seder alone has the power to 'keep us Jewish' for yet another year.

In the reading that I have been doing in preparation for my trip to Cuba, I have been genuinely struck about how true this is (maybe even more true) for Cuban Jews. 

Cuban Jewish life peaked in the mid-to-late 1950s.  In the months before Castro came to power, Cuban Jews pooled their wealth and built monuments to their little community (of about 20,000 Jews at the time) that had come to thrive on the Island.  Cuban Jews in the late '50s were not so different from their American counterparts of the time.  There was a network of religious schools and synagogues. There were youth groups and sisterhoods.  And there were a number of Zionist clubs and organizations that funneled support for the newly-established State of Israel.  There were even a few kosher butchers and restaurants.

Overnight, everything changed.  As Castro came to power, so too did the influence of Communism - with its general disdain and intolerance for all religions.

(For the record: despite all of this, there has been virtually zero anti-Semitism in Cuba.  Indeed, for a variety of different reasons, Jews have been treated better than the rest of the Cuban population when it comes to certain things.)

Nonetheless, Jewish life on the Island largely ceased in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.  The grand synagogues that had been built in the late '50s fell into disrepair.  Beyond the fact that there was little money, under communism, to finance their upkeep...the fact is that Cuban Jews (we're speaking, here, of the ones who chose to remain on the Island after Castro) were afraid to show themselves at Jewish institutions.  It's not so much that Cuban Jews were embarrassed about their Judaism...but rather that they simply didn't feel comfortable expressing any religious affiliation.

The exception to this phenomenon was Passover.  Thanks to data that has been archived by the Cuban Jewish community, we know that the Cuban Jewish community that is basically thriving today because of the lists that the community had of people that had ordered Passover food.

Fascinatingly, all during the '60s, '70s, and '80s - even as Cuban Jews were not publicly gathering together....they were still committed to observing Passover.  There was a sort of underground network of people that tried to provide those on the lists with basic Passover staples.  Passover became the annual constant that kept Cubans attached and connected to their Jewish identities.

In 1991, when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was allowed to send staff, money, and supplies into Cuba after Castro legalized religious freedom, they relied on those lists of Passover food orderers.  Community leaders and JDC volunteers went door to door to reconnect with tell them that Jews would be gathering once again at such-and-such place, and that a new Hebrew school would once again be offering classes for children at such-and-such time. 

It sounds crazy, but it was thanks to that list of people that were still hoping for matzah - at a time when it was dangerous to do so - that allowed the community to survive, and even thrive once again.

It's not the Jewish people who have kept Passover - it's that Passover has kept the Jewish People.

I can't think of a better message of hope - and of re-birth - to celebrate as we come upon our springtime festival once again.  As our Cuban brothers and sisters seized upon this season to hold fast to the traditions that had been passed down to them, so too may we re-affirm our connection to generations past, by re-living the story of our freedom, and re-committing ourselves to working for the redemption of others.

Wishing you and your families a happy and a healthy Passover,

Rabbi Jeff Brown

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