In the fields, ghettos and prisons
A dozen people clustered around my living room table — eying the matzo ball soup, kugel and charoset — listening to a Cliff Notes version of the Passover story. A few of us were raised Jewish and while we argued about the details, we agreed about the main storyline and presented it to our gentile friends.
The vegan matzo balls miraculously held together, and even though nobody wanted to search for the afikomen, people got a kick out of the story of Elijah and our imprecise recounting of the holiday’s origins.
Passover commemorates the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt and is a time to reflect on continuing oppression and liberation struggles, drawing parallels between Passover and more current stories. It’s been around two weeks since we squeezed around my table for a seder and left a dusting of matzo on my floor, but now it’s the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
In the face of the Nazi death machine, most enemies of the state were overcome with despair and hopelessness, but partisans launched a full-scale insurrection with almost no assistance, valiantly fighting off fascists in an attempt to provide an escape from the march to the concentration camps.
The Warsaw Ghetto fighters weren’t the only ones who fought as unofficial combatants in the war against fascism. One of the best books I’ve read, Partisanas: Women in the Armed Resistance to Fascism and German Occupation (1936-1945) details individual acts and collective resistance to oppression, carried out exclusively, or led, by women.
This Passover I remembered them, and my mind went to numerous other stories of people revolting against their oppressive conditions.
According to some sources, this week also marks the anniversary of the first slave revolt in what is now the United States, as African slaves escaped their Spanish captors in what is now South Carolina.
Next week is the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, which exploded out of years of grinding poverty and heavy-handed policing.
While rioting is usually characterized as senseless violence, even the nation’s icon of nonviolence knew better.
“These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions,” Martin Luther King Jr. said decades before the 1992 uprising. “I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Rioting may not solve the problem, but it isn’t the source of the problem either. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising didn’t “solve” the Holocaust and US slave revolts didn’t end enslavement, but to resist in the face of systematic death isn’t crazy — it’s the only thing that makes sense.
The timeless quote, attributed both to Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and later Spanish Civil War militant Dolores Ibarruri, comes to mind: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Passover is more than a chance to celebrate successful acts of defiance and exodus stories, but to make sure we are cognizant of continued oppression and to ask ourselves if we are aligned with the forces of liberation. The lessons from the holiday, like my seder, are for Jews and gentiles alike.
While the Jewish people don’t live in slavery, the conditions persist. Migrant farm workers in Eastern North Carolina, prisoners like the “Strong 8” in Raleigh who don’t receive the pittance they are due, descendants of slaves and survivors of sex trafficking can likely relate to aspects of the Passover story and the messages contained within it. The Jews, as the story goes, didn’t just escape Egypt — soldiers were swallowed by the Red Sea, God struck down first-born Egyptian sons and Moses killed a brutal slave driver.
The takeaway from the story isn’t that violence is the answer, but that it has frequently been part of the equation. While King recognized the tension that caused riots, there are many other languages of the unheard in our midst. Can you hear them?