ed note–remember as you read this, that Passover is by its very nature, a celebration of death and destruction against all Gentiles, not just those of Egypt. It is customary that at the Seder dinner every year that after the reciting the Ten Plagues out of the book of Exodus that the ‘Curse against the Gentiles’ is read in Hebrew that goes as thus–
‘Thus we implore God, that you shall similarly send these ten plagues against the Gentiles, who are the enemies of the religion of the Jews’.
Was this read in the presence of the American president?
Furthermore, how does a black man celebrate such festivities with people whose religion teaches that as an African he bears the Curse of Canaan, the basis for the enslavement of Africans?
Every year, the leader of the free world holds a Passover Seder at the White House. Barack Obama is apparently the only US president to hold Passover in high and meaningful regard, and hence holds an official ceremony marking the holiday.
If there are those still skeptical about the US president’s relation to Passover they are best to recall Obama’s Jerusalem speech last Thursday, in which the he proved that the holiday holds a deep personal significance for him, much exceeding any diplomatic pleasantries aimed at appeasing Israelis and American Jewry.
“It’s a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert,” Obama said of Exodus before an audience of Israeli students, “a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah.
“It’s a story about finding freedom in your own land. And for the Jewish people, this story is central to who you’ve become. But it’s also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering, but also all of its salvation.”
“To African Americans, the story of the Exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity – a tale that was carried from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement into today.
“For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me, personally… the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.”
Obama’s words are to some extent the first public admission of an inspiring connection he finds in Judaism in general, and Passover specifically, in regards to his political and spiritual outlooks. In his speech Obama granted Israelis a rare glimpse into the Jewish message as it resonates with America’s first African-American president.
‘The most Jewish president’
As a young Harvard student, Nathan Diament, currently the Executive Director of Public Policy for the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, met another young student who would later be the leader of the free world.
Nathan and Barack were members of the famous Harvard Law School’s less famous basketball team, and according to him, the president holds a deep connection to Jews and Judaism.
He says that among Obama’s closest circle of friends are Jews like Norman Eisen, the US Ambassador to the Czech Republic.
According to Diament, there is no doubt that Obama knew about Judaism from an early stage. He cites for example the fact that Obama’s Chicago residence was across the street from a local Reform synagogue. He additionally notes that all of Obama’s Harvard mentors were Jews, albeit secular, with a deep Jewish consciousness and identity.
Just last week, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a piece claiming that Obama is the “most Jewish president we’ve ever had”, Daiment recalls, laughing that even though he is not sure he agrees, it does say a lot.
Daiment and Obama’s connection strengthened when the latter was elected senator.
“We worked together to promote and handle the needs and challenges facing the Jewish community in America,” he says. However, he quickly notes, Obama didn’t stay in Senate for that long.
According to him the soon-to-be president once told him he believes that Obama is an African parlance for Barouch. Daiment then explained the meaning of the name Barack in Hebrew.
Daiment recalls that the first Seder Obama held was during his presidential campaign, somewhere in Philadelphia.
“The Jewish campaign staffers had organized a makeshift Seder for themselves, and he suddenly showed up and decided to join in.” In the spirit of the holiday they sang “Shana Ha’baa Babait Halavan” (Next year in the White House) – and Obama said: “We’ll do it.”
“After enjoying Seders with family and friends in Chicago and on the campaign trail, I’m proud that I’ve now brought this tradition into the White House,” Obama said during his speech. “I did so because I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah, and the story at the center of Passover that makes this time of year so powerful.”
According to Daiment, Obama’s seder is a private function, attended by the first lady, his daughters, family and Jewish staffers and friends .
The Forward, a Jewish daily, noted that this year’s Seder will have 20 guests, and that the menu will offer traditional dishes such as gefilte fish and Matzah balls; more importantly, the role of pharaoh will be played by none other than the US president himself.
According to Daiment, the Seder will be “very Heimisch” – (homey in Yiddish) a word he is sure Barack does no know – meaning that though it won’t be completely in accordance with the Halacha “it will signify exactly what the holiday represents for the president.”
So what exactly does the holiday of freedom represent for the first African-American president? And how did a staple of Jewish tradition find its way into the story of Black America?
Before opening the White House door to the Prophet Elijah, the seder participants read the Emancipation Proclamation that US President Lincoln issued, thus historically freeing the slaves still in shackles in the southern states, and effectively putting an end to American slavery.
According to Rabbi Marc Schneier, one of the US’s most prominent rabbis – who is sometimes dubbed rabbi to the stars – the connection between the African-American community and the holiday of Passover is both meaningful and historically rooted.
Rabbi Schneier authored a book titled Shared Dreams which documented the unique cooperation between Dr. Martin Luther King and Jewish students active in the civil rights movement. The book prompted Schneier to represent the Jewish community in the events commemorating 40 years to Dr. King’s assassination.
Meet the African-American Seder
Among his many roles, Rabbi Schneier serves as the founder and president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes Jewish-African-American dialogue within the states, as well as Jewish-Muslim cooperation and dialogue around the world.
According to him, a mutual seder is shared by blacks and Jews reaching back to old traditions common in both communities. A week or two before the actual Seder, across the US there could be – and still can be – found different joint seders.
“For years I would take part in these types of seders,” he recalls, elaborating that they are in fact more round tables of mutual historical discussions, as well as group rejoicing at the passage of both peoples from enslavement to liberty.
“The narrative of Passover is one of an enslaved people being freed,” and what indeed is more African-American than that?
“When I first met Obama,” he recalls, “he was a senator. We were involved in organizing a protest in Washington against the massacre that was then taking place in Darfur. He was very involved and was very interested in the book I was writing about the Jews and Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Susannah Heschel, daughter of world renowned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, recalls a White House reception in which the president proudly told her that her father’s books were in his personal Oval Office Library.
Indeed it seems that Obama’s connection to Judaism is based largely on that of Heschel, who Dr. King called “my rabbi.”
Heschel famously “prayed with his feet” and marched alongside Dr. King in Selma, Alabama, and according to Susannah, the latter was scheduled to join the Heschels for their Passover Seder, but was tragically assassinated two weeks prior.
Rabbi Schneier reports that an alarming percentage of students who made their way to the south to participate in the civil rights movement were Jewish.
“Sixty percent of those students were of Jewish descent,” he said, adding the Christian faith and the image of Moses releasing his people to the mix and the connection between the story of Exodus, the civil rights movement and Dr. King becomes clear.
“Not for no reason did Louie Armstrong’s song Go Down Moses become an anthem for Blacks in the US.”
According to Rabbi Schneier, Dr. King felt a great affinity to Judaism, and he found a symbolic connection between the Jewish story and the struggle of his own people for freedom in their country, specifically regarding the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
“The Jews played a decisive role in the struggle that would eventually place a black President as the leader of the United States,” he says, adding that he believes President Obama is more than acutely aware of this fact.
When asked how, if so, the president could be constantly labeled as pro-Muslim among such large portions of the Jewish public, he claims the president is mostly misunderstood.
According to him the president is committed to the two-state solution, much like the Israeli government, and a large portion of the Jewish public, is. While the orthodoxy in the US says he is not a friend of Israel, according to Rabbi Schneier, an Orthodox Jew, “it is just not true.”
“It is important to understand, for Obama, to give someone independence; to allow the Palestinians freedom within a state of their own – is not just the right thing to do politically, but the Jewish thing to do, the Passover thing to do.” As such, when you understand this, he claims, then you understand where the president is coming from.