Festival of Freedom

When I first took up the topic for this edition, innumerable songs came flooding into my head, including, of course, Janis Joplin’s version of Me and Bobby McGee and Odetta’s rendition of the post-Civil War song, Oh Freedom. But when the stark realization hit that I couldn’t sing you my article, I decided to take a different approach.

Some of the strongest memories I have from my childhood are those of the Passover Seders we held at our home every year. A Seder is the home ritual dinner conducted at Passover. We conduct it using a special book called the Haggadah. We always held two Seders, one on the first night of Passover and one on the second, and we were the only family I knew of that held two Seders. Everyone else I knew held only one on the first night of Passover. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that the people invited to our Seders considered it a measure of their worth to our family as to which night they were invited for, the first or the second. Apparently, people thought we invited only our most precious friends to the first night’s Seder and our lesser friends or acquaintances to the second night. I’ll never know how this belief got started because it certainly wasn’t true!

But I digress. So many other memories come to mind. During the Seder there are four blessings over wine, and everyone is expected to drink their glass of wine at that time, everyone, except, of course, the children, who are given grape juice. One year, my little brother, who was eight or nine at the time, managed to get wine instead of grape juice. He got very tipsy after just a little wine, and, if memory serves me, went head first into the chicken soup, and had to be put to bed!

I always remember that my father led the Seder sitting on one of the dining room chairs with a pillow behind him. He carefully instructed us, year after year, that in ancient times, this was a sign that he was a free man, because only free men, not slaves, had the privilege of reclining in comfort while they ate.

Many things happen during a Seder: blessings are made, songs are sung, questions are asked and answered, and stories are told. The key story told is that of the exodus from Egypt, and in the telling of that story, I remember my father leading us as we all shed symbolic tears for the Egyptians for each plague they had to endure. We dipped our pinkies in wine and shook off a drop for each plague as we recited, first in Hebrew, then English:

Dam, Blood
Tzfardeyah, Frogs
Kinim, Lice
Arov, Wild Beasts
Dever, Blight
Sh’hin, Boils
Barad, Hail
Arbeth, Locusts
Hosheh, Darkness
Makat B’horot, Slaying of the First-Born

In the most Orthodox Jewish households, the story is told by reading the entire book of Exodus from the Bible. All of this ceremony, questioning, reading, etc., occurs before eating dinner. My father used to tell about when he was a teenager growing up in a very Orthodox home. Of course, they read the Book of Exodus at the Seder. He said that during the reading, sometimes he and his brothers would get up and go for a walk for a couple of hours. They’d get home, and the old men would still be reading. Often, dinner would not be served until midnight!

The purpose of telling the story of the exodus is to teach the children about the escape from slavery and the journey to freedom so that we as Jews never forget what it was like to be a slave, so that we never undervalue freedom, so that we never allow it to happen to us again. But we also do this to remind ourselves that there are still people enslaved throughout the world. In the Haggadah it says, “Today…wherever slavery remains, Jews taste its bitterness.” And it is also written in the Haggadah, “For the sake of our redemption, we say together the ancient words which join us…with all who are in need, with the wrongly imprisoned and the beggar in the street. For our redemption is bound up with the deliverance from bondage of people everywhere.”

Many of the Jewish holidays throughout the year are connected to the idea of freedom. Freedom is a recurring theme in Judaism, perhaps one of its most important tenets. Mordecai Kaplan wrote, “The first and most solemn protest against human bondage is the declaration that the God of Israel is essentially the Redeemer of the oppressed. As believers in the God of Israel, we must hold to the conviction that slavery must be abolished not only in name, but also in fact….” Judaism is based on the concept of personal freedom, and perhaps more than all the other holidays, Passover is the Festival of Freedom. But in Judaism, the personal is the universal – and as long as one is in chains, no one is free.

Portrair by Shannon Wells-Emily Kelley

Emily was raised by extremely liberal parents in the lush and gorgeous Hudson Valley of New York where she was always in sight of inspiring mountains. Her formal education took her travelling all over the world at a youngish age and instilled in her a great love of different cultures and diversities, both tangible and philosophical. She has enjoyed
more than one profession, including that of being a chef, and has cooked for presidents and governors alike. She has lived in Alabama since 1989, though she longs for a cooler climate. Presently she resides in Sheffield, with her beloved husband, Tim, and two very old cats, and near her now-grown, delightful son, Dylan.

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