I’ve always loved Passover. It’s not just the matzoh with butter and salt for breakfast. The political heart of Judaism lies in the story of Exodus: we remember God as the one who emancipates us from slavery. This is a foundational memory, for the Jewish people are not born in the Garden of Eden. Adam is not Jewish. The Jewish people, as a collective, are born in the movement of Exodus: from slavery, through emancipation, to the reception of the Law at Sinai. Our collective origin thus links us, for all eternity, to a history of the oppressed. But you don’t have to take my word for it—listen to Bob Marley. From the origins of the Blues in American Gospel, to the politics of Latin American Liberation Theology, the spiritual-political promise of Exodus has inspired people around the world, yearning for their own metaphorical Zion.
During a recent trip to Israel, I spent some time in the West Bank. It’s a difficult place to think about Passover. For some, this is “Judea and Samaria”: the Jewish homeland promised by God, and hence the redemptive culmination of the Exodus story. For others, the Occupied Palestinian territories embody yet another form of political subjugation, power and control: the type of slavery that Passover commemorates. Deep in the heart of this contested land is Hebron: where Abraham himself, the founder of Biblical monotheism, and the Grand Patriarch of both Jews and Muslims, is buried.
After a couple days travelling around the Territories—which included hitchhiking to a demonstration where IDF soldiers beat up Israeli activists—I return to the hedonistic ‘bubble’ of Tel Aviv. Walking from the bus station to my temporary apartment in trendy Florentine, I stumble upon a bizarre scene: a park filled with homeless refugees. Two large tents have been set up, overflowing with sleeping bags. I take a couple photographs, and a man softly walks up to me. He introduces himself as Adam and tells me his exodus narrative. He fled from Sudan, and walked to Cairo, where he was smuggled across the Sinai by Egyptian traffickers. Many of these refugees in this park walked here—or most of the way—from Sudan. Now, over 200 people are sleeping in the tents. The overflow are sleeping underneath the slides and monkey bars in an adjacent kids’ park. But things are about to get even worse. Bureaucrats in the Israeli government have decided that South Sudan is now safe—and so they are trying to deport the refugees.
What the fuck? It’s almost Passover. Haven’t any of these nitwit bureaucrats read Exodus? These refugees wandered here—through the desert—fleeing from political violence. Remind you of anyone?
So much for the supposedly apolitical ‘bubble’ of Tel Aviv. I continue home through Levinski market, where I stop at a trendy butcher shop and ask for some karnatzel. The guy behind the counter has never heard of it. “Its Jewish pepperoni,” I say, “from eastern Europe.” He shrugs in that charmingly disdainful Israeli way, negating my diasporic reference. As I munch on his Zionist pepperoni, I bring up the refugees in the park. He shrugs, non-plussed at my self-righteous invocation of Exodus. “What do you mean?” he says. “The Book of Joshua, man: we came here and slaughtered everyone who stood in our way.” The hipster butcher has a clean conscience. Bloody book of Joshua.
I feel dejected. So much for the politics of Exodus. Why do I even bother with the Bible? Maybe it’s time to scrap Passover and join the godless heathens.
A couple days later, by the grace of God, I stumble into an art gallery to see a show called “Iran.” The gallery is tucked away in the third floor of a run-down apartment complex, filled with beat-up couches, ashtrays, and DIY art. Clearly run by anarchists and nogoodniks. As soon as I walk in I see a statue marked “The most dangerous person on the planet.” It’s Ehud Barak. I’m enjoying a great film about exorcizing the racism of Avigdor Lieberman through lesbian BDSM practices, when I’m interrupted by a voice: “A toast! Come for a toast!” I go down to join a group that has assembled from throughout the building’s various art studios and media offices. Someone hands me a bottle of open champagne, saying the guest has to drink first. I take a big swig straight from the bottle and hand it to the next person. “Why the celebration?” I ask. “Wednesday is the fourth day of the week—and its 4:04. Three fours!” “Plus,” I add, “today is the Persian new year!” We toast again, and one of the curators passes me a joint. I love Iran!
On my way out, I’m accosted by Michael, a disheveled character straight out of Yiddish lit. He’s sporting the classic shtetl hat, curly black hair, a tangled and unkempt beard, and one crossed eye. His cloths are dirty, and he has a tendency to rant: the Ancient Mariner rewritten by Sholem Aleichem. After a vaguely conspiratorial diatribe that has something to do with computers and mathetmatics, he asks me what I’m doing in Israel. I tell him that I’m touring around the West Bank with different activist organizations. Michael is silent for a moment. His rant becomes focused, passionate, and cuts to the heart of Biblical ethics. “According to the Talmud,” he begins—and I’m hooked from there.
“Abraham, the father of all Judaism—was the first Jew. And when he made his covenant with God, he had to, well, you know: cut his penis. So he made the deal with God, and circumcised himself. Apparently, we’re told, the most painful day is the third day after the cut. So God leaves, and comes back three days later. Just at the moment that God returns, a couple guests show up at Abraham’s tent. So he tells God to wait just a minute while he welcomes the strangers.” Michael stops and fixes his one good eye on me. “Abraham tells God to wait!” The Talmudic point, Michael explains, is that “Receiving guests is more important than receiving the holy spirit.” Michael stops, beaming a radiant smile, and pausing before making his last point: “And the guests were not even Jews!” he yells. “When Abraham circumsized himself, he was the first Jew—the only Jew. That means,” he says, gesticulating wildly, “the strangers were not even Jewish!”
A big smile spreads across my face. “Have you see the refugees in the park?” Michael asks me. “Someone has to go into to the court, at the deportation hearing, and tell the judges this Talmudic story. It’s from something called the Bible!” he pretends to yell at the court. “It’s a Jewish thing. Have you heard of it maybe?”
Thanks Rabbi. Passover seems possible again.
Joseph Rosen is a writer and teacher based in Montreal’s bagel district. He has a PhD in how fucked up the world is, but secretly he is hopeful.