Passover: A Holiday of Love and Liberation

Earlier this morning, my husband and my mother were in the kitchen strategizing about how to cook a brisket and bake almond macaroons at the same time. My husband patiently reviewed the detailed timeline he outlined two days ago--the gefilte fish out of the oven by 10 so the macaroons can get in and out by 11:30, when the vegetables go in, followed by the brisket and then the meatballs at 4:30. A few minutes later a storm rolled in, knocking out the power and forcing them to figure out how to continue without a functioning oven.  

Over the past week, Kevin has read through recipes, consulted with my mom, written and revised shopping lists, visited two grocery stores and Bed, Bath, and Beyond, helped switch out the normal dishes for the Passover dishes, cleaned out the fridge and pantry, and cooked. This is what true love is: taking on the most labor-intensive holiday of your wife’s religion despite being an atheist. My family does this to feel connected to an ancestral tradition and to a global community. Kevin does this to feel connected to us. 

* * *

Last night, we went out to Los Pollos for dinner with my parents. We sat at a picnic table on the restaurant’s porch, enjoying our last rice and beans before a week without bread, grains or legumes. My father fumbled with the ribs we had ordered, struggling to remove a serving for himself.

“Have you ever had ribs before?” Kevin asked.

“We had Chinese spareribs on our first date,” my mom recalled, “which almost didn’t happen because your father told me the wrong corner to meet him on, the southeast instead of the northeast. Then we saw Yentl, which your father hated.”

My father nodded in agreement.

“Abba,” I said, “tell me your version of how you and mom met. I’ve only heard the story from her perspective.”

“It was in December of 1983, at a Hanukkah party organized by and for Israelis at NYU. It was held at HUC [Hebrew Union College] in the West Village. I went with my friend Shaul…”

“Describe Shaul to them, Ido.”

“Shaul was also at NYU, writing a dissertation on dreams in the Hebrew bible. He was diminutive and dressed slickly.”

My mother interrupted. “I went with a friend, an occupational therapy student, who was short and I was tall. I convinced her that we should go over and dance and she started dancing with Shaul and I started dancing with your tall father.”

“Yes. We danced and then I asked her for her number. I didn’t have my cell phone so she couldn’t just type in her number. She had to write it down on paper.”

“Show them, Ido.”

I gasped. I had heard this story from mother so many times and never once did she indicate that any evidence remained. 


“It’s practically disintegrated.” Nevertheless, my father pulled out his wallet. Out of one of the smallest compartments he extracted the 35-year-old scrap of paper, in two pieces. In her familiar handwriting, but in Hebrew, she had written her name—Jodi Barkin—and two phone numbers, the one for her apartment and for her parent’s house on Long Island where she often spent the weekends. I flipped it over and found course listings for HUC seminars. They must have picked up whatever was on hand in the room. 

My father called a few days later and asked my mother out to a Chinese restaurant at 97th and Broadway. By New Years they were living together in my mom’s studio apartment at 71st and Columbus. In December of 1984, one year after they met, my father proposed. 

* * *

A few years ago I invited a friend to have lunch with me and my parents in Georgetown—I can’t remember why we were in D.C., but this friend lived there. It was her first time meeting my folks, and as we were leaving she turned to me and said, “your parents are so in love.” It took me by surprise, because although I knew my parents had a happy marriage and that they loved each other, I did not realize that it was evident (or of interest) to other people. It’s only now that I am older, having seen many unhappy and dysfunctional relationships, that I realize how lucky I am to have been able to take love like my parents’ for granted. 

* * *

Love may seem like an awkward topic of reflection for a holiday that’s about freedom from the bondage of slavery, but I would argue that it’s the crux of freedom’s goodness. There is an anecdote in Te-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” which I assign to my undergraduate students, that describes an enslaved man watching his wife and children sold away.

Image 4-19-19 at 2.41 PM.jpg

Every time I read this article, this line makes my chest squeeze and my breath hiccup. The image is so vivid, and if the situation is not relatable the sorrow of loss certainly is. Students always bring this anecdote up in discussion. Whereas the labor and economy of slavery is abstract to them, family, and love, is not. Liberation from slavery (whether in Egypt or the Americas) was not only motivated by love—the need for agency, autonomy, safety, equality, and power were also essential drivers—but it is my students’ visceral understanding of the former and their uneven experiences of the latter that provokes their empathy. Reading this anecdote, students come to understand that slavery is more than just a “bad” thing to do to other people; slavery is a personal terrorism of separation from, loss of, and grief for the people you love.

* * *

So I feel fortunate, on this holiday, for my freedom and the love that surrounds me. It is not to be taken for granted. It is a reminder to fight for a just world in which everyone shares the same freedom. For once we were slaves in Egypt.

The First Year

Whereas 5777 overlapped with my last year of graduate school, 5778 will be my first full year in a new career, one entirely of my own invention. I'm an "academic-adjacent entrepreneur," which is an unusual but increasingly common hybrid. Like an academic, I'll be teaching several classes this fall and will continue working on my research projects, conferencing, and applying for grants. I'll also continue to serve as co-editor of the Urban History Association's blog, The Metropole, and to participate in the active online community of #twitterstorians. At the same time, I'm knitting this work into a new business where I lead interesting discussions with cool people in the community, motivate and support other researchers, and write and edit compelling, persuasive messages for clients.

So while I devoted 5777 to finishing up the requirements to earn my doctorate, in 5778 my goals reflect my desire to grow into this new hybrid identity:

1. Build the readership of The Metropole blog to 2500 visitors per month.

2. Send out a new article to a history journal.

3. Write and submit a book proposal to a publisher.

4. Grow my business's revenue to equal to what I earned as a graduate student.


Celebrating the Win

As I've written about in the past, I prefer to make resolutions and set goals at the Jewish New Year rather than on January 1. 

My goals for this past year, 5777, were to:

  1. Finish writing my dissertation
  2. Graduate to Avigail Oren, Ph.D.
  3. Publish an article

Well, I nailed it. I spent last summer writing and polishing a paper that was accepted as a chapter in the forthcoming edited volume, The Ghetto in Global History: 1500 to the Present. I spent September through April frantically writing and editing the remainder of the dissertation. And on May 20th I walked to the middle of the stage at the Carnegie Music Hall and, crouching so my shorter advisor could reach over my graduation cap, received my doctoral hood and became Dr. Oren, Jr. in front of my closest friends and family members. 

Blurry iPhone photo courtesy of Dr. Oren, Sr.

Blurry iPhone photo courtesy of Dr. Oren, Sr.

I know so many people who describe their wedding as the best day of their life, but for me graduation unquestionably wins. 

Photo by Sergey Zlotnikov

Photo by Sergey Zlotnikov

So 5777 was a year of big goals, and big celebrations. This coming year, 5778, will be one of big changes, and big risks, but hopefully also big fun. 

Civilization in Decline

Over the course of this year's high holy days, I sat through four sermons by two different rabbis at two different congregations. These sermons left me deeply frustrated. Each one predicated a plea for greater communal participation and affiliation on the premise that Judaism and the American synagogue are in decline and that Jews and Israel are under threat from anti-Semites and the many enemies of the Jewish state. These declensionist arguments reduce demographic and cultural trends in Jewish (and American) life to a binary of better-then and worse-now and obscure historical and contemporary homogeneity in the American Jewish community. While this doom-and-gloom portrayal provides a foreboding backdrop against which to inspire popular engagement, it is an ahistorical interpretation that precludes possibilities by narrowly defining the engaged Jew as religious, affiliated, and Zionist.  

The narrative of Jewish decline, translated to a line graph, maps a trajectory upwards throughout the 20th century until, as one sermon posited, a rise in "skepticism" and secularism correlated with a fall in Jewish identification. As my mother succinctly put it, "I remember hearing that sermon when I was ten years old." That was 1961, in the midst of an era that Jews now point to as the definitive highpoint of synagogue affiliation and participation in Jewish communal life. Decline is a weary argument, one that historians of American Jews spent the last quarter of the 20th century challenging with a narrative of synthesis:

Over and over again for 350 years one finds that Jews in America rose to meet the challenges both internal and external that threatened Jewish continuity—sometimes, paradoxically, by promoting radical disconstinuities. Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing American Judaism in an attempt to make it more appealing, more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.
— Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism (Yale University Press, 2004), p. xiv

Historians in the 21st century have gone even farther to complicate neat stories of ascent and descent, arguing that the preservation of Judaism and Jewish identity was always an ambivalent and contested undertaking [1]. To argue for decline is to look back into the past and ignore the many varied ways that Jews have historically engaged with their religion and peoplehood; since 1654 American Jews have splintered off the Reform and Conservative movements, imbued socialist politics with a distinctly Yiddish culture, rejected the synagogue in favor of small havurot and lay-led minyans, and revived a distinctly Jewish politics for the 21st century in the form of social justice programs like Jewish Voices for Peace and Repair the World. That many people no longer identify as Jewish does not detract from the strength and vitality of the community that remains.

And yes, it's true that there has been a decline. But is it really so serious, so worthy of alarmist sermons? A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, did indicate a decline in Americans who identify as "Jewish by religion" (as opposed to by birth or a sense of shared peoplehood). This decline was measured, however, as a percentage of the total US population. In terms of raw numbers, there seem to be more Jews by religion now (4.2 million) than there were in 1957 (3.9 million) when the best comparative data was last collected. In the past 20 years, the Jewish share of the adult population of the U.S. has remained fairly stable [2]. I couldn't find good data on synagogue affiliation, but if we can accept that there is a connection between interest in Jewish education and rates of Jewish identification or affiliation, there's also not much bad news when it comes to enrollment in Jewish studies courses in American universities. A 2014 survey of members of the Association for Jewish Studies revealed that almost 50% of university professors who responded indicated that their enrollments have stayed the same over the past three years [3]. Yes, there are still 30% of respondents reporting declining enrollment, and yes, declines outnumbered increases 7% to 4%, but as Historian Jonathan Sarna noted in his Presidential Address to the 2014 AJS Conference, "That is not exactly an indication of imminent catastrophe." [4]

So, we are not where we were in the heyday of the mid-twentieth century--but I think that's a good thing. Yes, an estimated 60% of Jews belonged to a synagogue in the late 1950s [5], but the 1950s were also a time of stultifying conformity, racism, and male chauvinism. It's a difficult decade to romanticize. Instead of looking backwards with nostalgia, I urge anyone trying to write an inspiring high holidays sermon to see the particularities of the present and, when turning to the past, to evoke the enduring beauty and meaningfulness of Jewish practice that has ensured our continuity for 5775+ years. 

Shana tova.

[1] Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Harvard University Press, 2005). 

[2] See Chapter 1: Population Estimates in: Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. October 1, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2015. 

[3] Steven M. Cohen, Profiling the Jewish Studies Profession in North America: Highlights from the Survey of AJS Members. July 15, 2015. Accessed September 24, 2015. 

[4] Jonathan Sarna, AJS 2014 Presidential Address. December 14, 2014. Accessed September 24, 2015.

[5] Jack Wertheimer, "The American Synagogue: Recent Issues and Trends," American Jewish Year Book (2005), p. 10.