Tag Archives: passover

Thousands of Little Pharaohs: The Plight of the Agunah

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

In this Passover season, consider the plight of Jewish women whose marriages have ended but whose (former) husbands refuse them a get (bill of divorce), which only the man can grant under the traditional version of halachah (Jewish religious law). The spectacle of thousands of Jewish men behaving like little Pharaohs, in whose hands is the power to enslave or free their former wives, has become sadly familiar.

Not so well known is the inner world of the agunah. What are the emotional and spiritual consequences of being “chained” to a dead marriage? I spoke to “Deborah,” a former agunah from an Orthodox community in England, who was married for 13 years and had two children with a man who refused her a get for nearly five years following their February 2007 civil divorce, until he decided to get remarried.

Describe the community you and your ex came from.

I come from an ultra-Orthodox community in Manchester. I am the eldest of nine children. The average family has seven or eight children. My ex came from a modern Orthodox family in London, one of four. We were never on the same level of orthodoxy. No two families are!

At what point did you become aware that your ex was not going to grant you a get? How did he inform you?

I knew from early on this would be an issue. My ex mentioned in [British civil] court that he would give me the get after the “decree nisi [provisional decree of divorce].” Many times afterwards, he would say he would grant it on certain conditions. He asked for money—half the value of the matrimonial home, £200,000 [about $320,000]. He asked my family to pay him money in order for him to grant the get.

Was the Orthodox community supportive of your struggle? What are your feelings about that?

It was “oh dear, poor fella”—meaning my poor ex. It was a case of how can we support the man. I never had support. Of course my friends supported me, but even that became an issue. I lost people I thought were friends, but seemed to side with my ex. You definitely learn who your friends are when you divorce. I felt the community did not know how to handle the situation. For example, should my ex and the children be invited for Shabbat lunch, or me with the children? The rabbi carried on allowing my ex in the synagogue. I feel very let down by my community, then and now. I tried talking to so many people and so many rabbis. I have over 20 rabbis’ numbers in my cell phone. … I wanted action. I never got it. After I agreed to take part in a TV documentary about agunot, I was even more shunned. In the end, I left the Orthodox community, five years ago now.

What steps did you take to appeal to the Jewish religious court, the Beth Din, and other community authorities, and what did they do to try to convince your ex to grant the get?

I applied to all four Beth Dins here in London for a get. I do not feel there was any pressure for him to grant me a get. His rabbi made him his gabbai [sexton]. That had a ripple effect. People left the synagogue. But my ex would not go to the Beth Din when called to do so. Except on a few occasions, I was called to the Beth Din, I would go with my solicitor [attorney]. [My ex] got me excited, feeling the get was almost there, but then it all fell apart. I had various meetings with my rabbi and solicitor, but to no avail. He said he will go when he is ready. I always prayed that he would meet someone, it would be the only way he would grant the get. I was right!

What were the practical and emotional implications of your agunah status for you?

My life was put on hold, I was in limbo land. I couldn’t date, I couldn’t marry, I couldn’t anything. I tried talking to various people and rabbis to assist, but to no avail. I was depressed, I was very unhappy. I was doubting myself, I was doubting G-d, life, religion, everything that I always lived by.  What was my purpose in life? I cannot live like this, I felt strangled. It all vanished.

It was an awful situation to be in. It was a very dark time for me. I felt I would never have love again in my life. It was scary, frightening.

I did have wonderful people and friends around me who supported me through my awful ordeal. The husband of a friend of mine walked out of the synagogue my ex-husband was a member of when he was honored with an aliyah to the Torah.

I was so desperate I got a liberal [non-Orthodox] get [not requiring the ex-husband’s consent], but that did not do it for me. I still felt chained to my ex as I am not a liberal.

I have so many questions now. What is the Jewish life and way all about?

I do not wish being an agunah on any woman. I feel the power should be taken away from the man. It is wrong! I am a free woman.

Escape from Freedom?

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

As Passover approaches, I have been reading the psychologist Erich Fromm’s 1941 work, Escape from Freedom. Writing when Nazi Germany was at its height, Fromm sought the reasons why so many people felt their freedom to be “an intolerable burden” that they wished to escape. The questions he raised are still vital.

We often think of people who live under tyrannical regimes as helpless victims. This neatly avoids the problem that even the most monstrous regimes enjoy some level of popular support, without which they could not continue to function; and even worse, that a people granted the vote may freely elect a dictatorship, as happened in Germany in 1932 and as appears to be happening in Egypt today.

Why does this happen? In the case of Egypt, we can begin with the failure of the old regime’s ideology of “pan-Arab nationalism” as championed by the wildly popular dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in 1970. Nasser’s enmity to Israel was later abandoned by his successor Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979, although not before launching a devastating war of his own, the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

After Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamists bitterly opposed to the treaty, the dictator Hosni Mubarak came to power and ruled for almost three decades, preserving the letter of the treaty with Israel while discouraging “normalization” and encouraging anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media, most notoriously in a 2002 TV series, “Horseman Without a Horse,” which was based on the anti-Semitic fantasy “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a text originally composed by the secret police of Czarist Russia but now ubiquitous in the Muslim world. While he was far from being the Arab world’s most vicious dictator, Mubarak mismanaged the Egyptian economy while allowing corruption to flourish, leaving an impoverished and deeply religious people vulnerable to the slogan “Islam is the answer” (which begs the questions, which Islam? whose Islam? Questions the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more extreme “Salafists” have already answered, and woe betide anyone who draws different conclusions.)

Hatred of America and Israel, already encouraged by Mubarak despite the billions in U.S. aid he received, is at the heart of today’s political Islam, whatever the Muslim Brotherhood’s extremely canny spokesmen may pretend to gullible Western reporters. The Middle East Media Research Institute reports that, “In addition to antisemitic content, articles on the [Brotherhood’s] site also include praise for jihad and martyrdom, and condemnation of negotiation as a means of regaining Islamic lands. Among these are articles calling to kill Zionists and praising the September 9, 2011 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo – which one article called a landmark of the Egyptian revolution.” So how surprising is it that we are now witnessing the slow death of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty? In case any Egyptian harbors doubts about the wisdom of a new anti-Jewish jihad, recalling perhaps the disastrous wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1969-70 and 1973, MEMRI reports that state-owned TV is again showing “Horseman Without a Horse.”

The Torah teaches us that while the yearning for freedom is innate, so is the yearning for a Pharaoh who tells us what to do while “benevolently” providing for our needs. This is what our ancestors demanded in the wilderness to which they had escaped from Egyptian slavery, driving Moses and even God Himself to the verge of despair. What terrified the Israelites was the prospect of freedom as a barren wilderness; that is, a negative freedom consisting of the removal of all restraints. It is what today’s Egyptians, beset by poverty and violent crime, think they are glimpsing as well; and so two-thirds of them have turned for answers to Islamists who claim to have a direct line to God Himself. What these dangerous people have to offer is not a return to the medieval Islamic caliphate, but a religion-infused version of the twentieth-century totalitarian political movements that claimed tens of millions of lives. We have to start telling the truth to ourselves as well as the people of Egypt: that what they are building is not freedom, but a bridge into the abyss.

Not the First (or Last) Jew in Spain

by Hilary Weissman

While studying abroad in Spain this spring. I found myself unintentionally making numerous trips to the southern town of Córdoba– it served as a stop along the way in order to make the most of my EuroRail pass at the end of the semester. Córdoba’s storied Jewish heritage manifested itself when my sister and I were lucky enough to find the Mazal Sephardic restaurant (pun very intended) during my second visit. We sampled pumpkin flan and raisin roasted chicken with rice before the start of Passover, which we later celebrated with a congregation from Madrid. Other than the saffron-spiced yellow gefilte fish, the seder experience felt very familiar, as I was lucky to have my sister there with me to celebrate, daiyenu. We were transported between two different worlds as the Rabbi delivered a sermon and led us through the Spanish haggadah, and then brought us right back to our hometown synagogue, it would seem, as soon as he began to sing in Hebrew. Even his inherent Jewish kibitzing couldn’t be lost in translation.

Learning from my guidebook to Jewish Spain that there are merely 5,000 practicing Jews in Barcelona and Madrid each, along with pockets of communities sprinkled along the Costa del Sol (the southern border of Spain) surprised me much more than finding what was left intact of their ancestors after the original Diaspora. Spanish Jewry left their mark through the Sephardic flavor that enriches Spanish history.

Among the many eye-opening experiences I had while studying in the Madrid province–language immersion, living on my own with seven girls from three different countries, trying exotic and native food, and crossing borders on my own–nothing was quite as charming as my interview and guided tour of the barrio, Alcalá de Henares’ ghost of a Jewish quarter.

You would only know you had entered the Madrid suburb’s Jewish quarter if you happened to catch the small plaques on top of the entryways, marking where the two synagogues were supposed to have been, pointed out to me by the owner of a small souvenir shop on Calle Mayor (Main Street). He said he would show me around the 15th- and 16th-century Jewish homes, lofted apartments over their storefronts, set apart by holes in the floors for the residents to see who was knocking at their front door below. If they knew the caller, they would throw their keys down to let their guests up. My tour guide shared some of his favorite Ladino music with me and, after I told him that our family had traced our lineage back to pre-Inquisition Spain, even let me in on the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name, Mirels, was probably Catalán (from the now-autonomous regions of Cataluña).

Though he claimed not to know much about the Jewish quarter, I spent the next two hours with him discussing the barrio, the architecture, religion, politics and current events. He told me about speaking with the Spanish ambassador to Croatia, who happens to be Jewish, and discussed the symbolism of the proximity of the old Jewish and Muslim quarters of Alcalá. The minor synagogue and the mosque were once across the street. Still, he said, “It became difficult to maintain the Hebrew religion and culture; the same happened with the Muslims—another 300,000 were expelled, and we never speak of this. In Alcalá de Henares alone the expulsion of the Muslims lost 10 percent of the population…but it’s not in the collective Spanish conscience like the expulsion of the Jews.”

After this conversation, I made sure to find the Jewish quarters that remain in several Spanish cities, like Toledo, Córdoba, and Seville. They are kept in various states—some only have rumored ties to Jewish communities and others are left in anthropological disarray, while a few have retained thriving historical proof of our ancestral fingerprints. Toledo, the most well known keeper of Sephardic heritage in Spain, boasts two of Spain’s three remaining pre-Inquisition synagogues, while Córdoba has the third. According to the Casa Sefarad in Córdoba, a colorful museum detailing the Inquisition and the journey of Cordoba’s native son, Maimonides, the 14th-century synagogue in Córdoba is Spain’s best-preserved synagogue, though it has fallen into disuse.

These interviews and trips were perfect supplements to the readings on the Jewish and Moorish coexistence and ultimate expulsion we studied in my Spanish culture and civilization class, in the form of history textbooks and historical fiction excerpts like “The Inquisitor” by Francisco Ayala, a story about a converted Jew who became a priest, confronted by his family and hidden past when they are presented before him to be interrogated. After all the nagging from my mother, grandmother, and every Judaica storeowner in Spain, I finally tackled The Last Jew on my commutes into the city with my newfound understanding of the context, and I think it is better this way, rather than drudging through it before my education abroad.

Passover Remixed

by Amanda Walgrove

For thousands of years, the Passover Seder has evoked universal themes of personal liberation and religious freedom. Each generation tells and retells the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. But the annual remembrance also has a history of being a uniquely malleable occasion that can be customized to certain values of an individual or household. From its conception, Passover has been a holiday predominantly based on interpretation of Bible narrative, using an aggadic midrash as its leading text for instruction and discussion during the Seder. While tradition has always been an important aspect of Jewish practice and ancestry, how much wiggle room is there to expand upon and perhaps amend certain traditions?

The adaptation of the Passover Seder is commonly accomplished through the modification of two main tools used during the annual observance: the Haggadah and the Seder plate. New songs and activities to include in Passover celebrations abound on the Internet; Each new year delivers a fresh batch of innovative variations of these iconic objects, and with the development of technology and the continuing exploration of certain core values, 2011 is no exception.

Seder plates, now used as microcosmic edible message boards, have a history of being modified with new foods that represent certain values and causes. Oranges have been known to symbolize the power of Jewish women, olives as a call for peace between Israel and Palestine, and an artichoke for the interfaith-friendly plate. Activists have grabbed onto the plate phenomenon as well. Last year, the Progressive Jewish Alliance put together a “Food Desert Seder Plate” that replaced the traditional items with ones symbolizing lack of access to fresh food in low-income neighborhoods.

Feminists have also latched onto the opportunity to emphasize certain values and key figures in the Passover Seder. “Jewesses with Attitude” (JWA) recently debuted a short video highlighting Miriam’s role in the Passover story, her legacy as a leader, and the contemporary Jewish women who follow in her footsteps. While Miriam may be the only Biblical woman who is “not described as somebody’s wife or mother,” she is absent from the traditional text. But this hasn’t made her famously essential role in the Passover stories any less profound. Now, many observers include Miriam’s cup in their Passover Seders, representing “the recognition of women’s contributions and the commitment to inclusivity more generally, making sure all Jews have a voice.” JWA is teaming up with JewishBoston.com—which has already released a free, downloadable, customizable Haggadah—to produce a Haggadah that celebrates the contributions of women to Jewish life.

In the virtual Haggadah department, DIY Holiday Co. just released their first product, Do-It-Yourself Seder, which allows families to create their own personalized Haggadot. Offering content relating to current events, foodies, kids activities and songs, the new project serves to broaden the Passover tradition with an interactive and creative approach. Similarly, Haggadot.com, winner of the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund award, allows users to cut and paste their own Haggadot. The Forward compares the process to Amazon.com, which has thousands of retail partners from which you can mix and match. Users can add their own photos and stories, pull from those others have shared, paste it all together, print it out, and upload it for others to ponder.

For fans of the most traditional form of Passover capitalization, the overwhelmingly popular Maxwell House Haggadah has been given a makeover to go along with its first new translation since its original printing in 1934. Conforming to contemporary vernacular, “thee” and “thou” have been replaced with “you.” God is also no longer gendered by the proper pronoun, “He.” Along with the new cover design, the text will also be larger, and the layout easier to navigate.

The message of Passover hasn’t changed, but the ways in which we retell the stories will continue to evolve for each individual, family, and generation. If you ever remember acting out the Passover story in Hebrew School, now you can see it all through your Twitter feed as @twitplaymoshe, @twitplaypharaoh, @twitplayammon and friends reenact #exod2011. While some may fear that “watered down” versions of the Haggadah and internet fads can damage the observance of the holiday, a sense of community and accessibility is important during a time when Jews give thanks for religious and personal freedoms. With the internet on board as Moses readies himself to lead the Jews out of Egypt once again and Jake Gyllenhaal preparing to hide the afikomen on “Sesame Street,” all we need now is the iPad and Kindle to consider joining the Seder so we can say, “Passover?” “There’s an app for that!”

For Refugees, a Modern Exodus

By Adam Chandler

Before escaping to Israel in 2003, Ephraim lived in a camp with 15,000 other Eritreans. Like a growing number of refugees from Eritrea as well as the Congo, Darfur, and Southern Sudan, Ephraim set off to evade the lethal farrago of political unrest, genocide, and deprivation that has come to typify the drought-laden portions of Eastern Africa. He left when he was 19, some seven years ago, a decision he says he made “to preserve life.”

The trek itself was a life-risking gambit. He paid smugglers to take him north through a maze of menace filled with unceasing obstacles. Those who don’t die of fatigue, starvation, or dehydration on the way must make it through the Sinai Desert where an Egyptian policy of shoot-on-sight claims dozens of lives yearly. Women making the journey are frequently raped, sometimes by their handlers, and refugees often face financial extortion by a cast of profiteers.

Once the refugees enter Israel, they begin the daunting task of acculturating to life in a new country, looking for jobs and shelter. Some of the women who arrive widowed or pregnant with the children of their assailants end up sleeping in places like Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv’s seedy Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. This is often where Nic Schlagman  finds them.

Schlagman, 30, first became aware of the community of African refugees simply by walking through the neighborhood surrounding Tel Aviv’s decrepit Central Bus Station. Separate from Tel Aviv’s beach scenes and chic Bauhaus buildings, South Tel Aviv is home base for an ingathering of migrant workers from far-flung countries and exiles who come to Israel to work or start a new life. Israel, a Westernized country boasting a strong economy, has become a prime destination for both.

According to government statistics, there are more than 215,000 foreign workers in Israel, just under half of them working without a legal permit. Schlagman estimates the population of African refugees living in Israel numbers around 25,000. But beyond the hope for work and stability, Schlagman believes the appeal of life in Israel has a deeper resonance for refugees like Ephraim.

“It all began with the Seder.” Schlagman says.

Struck by the narrative of the migrant community in Tel Aviv, Schlagman began working with the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) to provide food, shelter, and cultural immersion assistance for African refugees in Israel. On a spring day in 2009, some of the volunteers were talking about their plans for the Jewish holiday of Passover. The refugees were familiar with the story of Moses leaving Egypt, but were curious about the Passover ritual of the Seder, a ceremonial recounting of the exodus into the Promised Land.

“As we were explaining the festival, it occurred to me that this wasn’t just our story, this was really their story. They literally, in many cases, walked through Egypt crossing the Sinai to flee oppression, hoping to find freedom. We had this idea that we would try to create this Seder together.”

The Seder was held in Levinsky Park and drew 1,000 people, an even split between refugees, curious Israelis, and a melange of contributing community activists and volunteers. The pastor from a refugee church brought in a choir to sing traditional Passover songs with a choir from a nearby Jewish seminary. The event, which aimed to bring about a broader consciousness regarding the refugees, combined the normal order of the Seder with the opportunity for Africans and Israelis to explore parallels between their stories.

Despite the commonalities in narrative, Israel’s policy regarding the refugees is a confusing one. After their status as asylum-seekers is determined, refugees are granted “temporary protection,” which ensures that they are not arrested or deported for three months. At the end of three months, a rubber stamp re-extends their stay another three months. Throughout these periods, refugees are not issued work permits. While the Israeli government doesn’t prosecute employers for hiring illegal labor, the refugees are frequently resigned to working menial jobs without the inherent protections that a work permit provides.

The debate about the refugees inspires much theater. Right-wing Israeli politicians label the refugees anything from infiltrators and security threats to the xenophobic extreme. As Israel faces a demographic problem vis-a-vis its Jewish character, even the idea of naturalizing a relatively small non-Jewish community remains politically unpopular across the spectrum. Calls from the largely-marginalized Israeli left wing argue that Israel was founded as an asylum for those fleeing oppression and genocide, but go largely unheard. Schlagman adds:

“It begs the question, what was the point of coming here? If this land doesn’t allow us to flower from the experiences of our history as wanderers for 2000 years, then what have we learned?”

In the meantime, activists like Schlagman and volunteer groups like the ARDC go about their work. Grassroots efforts have given some refugees a safety net to acclimate to life in the country. And while in limbo, refugees manage a precarious life. Some find better work and even open small businesses. For four years, Ephraim’s family didn’t know where he was. He now works a sanitation job from the early evening until five in the morning. He then goes to class on two hours’ rest and tries to stay awake. Ephraim, who secured a large scholarship at an Israeli university, has found a poetic topic of study: government.  When asked about his long-term plans in Israel or abroad with his family, he explains he doesn’t have any.

“I don’t have time to think about that.”

Seders, and the Last Supper, and Jesus! Oh, My!

By Michelle Albert

A recent article on Slate raises the question of a possible connection between the Last Supper and Passover, dredging up a long-standing source for argument and speculation.

On the surface, and indeed to many Jews and Christians, the Last Supper seems to have been a seder. It is generally acknowledged that Jesus was Jewish; in fact, early Christians had to be Jews before they could be Christian. At the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples said blessings over the bread and wine and reclined as they ate. (Though that they ate bread, not matzah, is one mark against the correlation). Three of the four gospels, those of Matthew, Mark and Luke, state that the Last Supper happened after the start of Passover.

We know that the Last Supper and the resurrection happened around Passover – the proximity of Passover and Easter attests to that. But there is plenty of debate whether the Last Supper happened either before Passover started, or on the first night. The fourth gospel, that of John, dates the day before Passover (when the Jews were preparing for Passover) as the time of the crucifixion. And Jesus’ actions, though reminiscent of Passover tradition, also match up with what was done at most Jewish tables at the time. (And remember: bread, not matzah). Continue reading

The Seder: Not Just for Jews Anymore

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Did you know that the three pieces of matzo used during Seder represent the holy trinity?  Or that a leg of lamb on the Seder place could replace the shank bone?  Sound absurd?  Perhaps, but not if you’re celebrating Passover as a Christian.

Yes, that’s right.  Passover is no longer just the domain of Jews, but also of Christians who are–  according to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a comparative religions professor at Middle State Tennessee University and co-author of “Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians”–seeking a closer connection to Jesus as a man and as a Jew.    “The practice of Seders is a growing phenomenon.  Christians are really interested in the Seder meal and [churches] are trying to give their members a sense of what it was like during the life of Jesus.” Continue reading