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Jack Smith

In the Seder remembrance of past slavery, an extended family sings together for freedom

April 03, 1985|JACK SMITH

We went to a Seder the other night.

I had never been to a Seder. I am not a Jew. I am not a religious person.

But Rabbi Alfred Wolf, of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, was holding this Seder in the interests of brotherhood, and he knows I believe in that.

He had invited the congregation of the Second Baptist Church, a landmark of the black community, to share the feast in the temple with his own congregation.

Seder is usually celebrated on the evening of the first day of Passover. This one was several days before that. "By magic," Rabbi Wolf explained, "the calendar has just been changed." He sat at a head table beside the Rev. Thomas Kilgore Jr. of the Second Baptist Church, along with their associates in the two churches, and their wives.

Passover, of course, is the eight-day Jewish celebration of the escape of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, as described in Exodus. It generally coincides with Easter week.

"Seder," the rabbi said, "is the experience of a Jewish family. Tonight we are all one family. We are brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, nieces. Pastor Kilgore and I are the fathers of the family. We have all had the experiences of slavery and freedom at some stage of our lives."

At each setting, fortunately, we found a Haggadah--a book explaining the ritual and containing the words to be spoken and songs to be sung. The table, it said, should have a candelabra and a festive tablecloth. There should be three pieces of matzo; a roasted lamb shank bone, representing the lamb sacrifice made on the eve of the Exodus; bitter herbs (a slice of horseradish), representing the bitterness of slavery; a sprig of parsley, for spring, and a small dish of saltwater to dip it in; charoset, a mixture of grated apples, chopped walnuts, honey and wine, symbolizing the mortar from which the Jews were forced to make bricks for the Pharaoh; a roasted egg, whose significance, I learned, is debated.

All these things we found. Plus a goblet of wine at each setting and a pitcher of wine.

Not knowing whether that forbidding fare was to be our entire meal or not, I was thankful at least for the wine.

"We will have to work a little magic on the wine, too," the rabbi said. "It is unfermented, so that it may be enjoyed by all ages."

I doubted that magic would work. It would take a miracle.

The rabbi then began the reading from the Haggadah:

"With family and friends we gather now to celebrate the festival of Pesach. With song and rejoicing we will commemorate our people's exodus from Egypt, and our ancient yearning for the liberation of all humanity from bondage. . . ."

Variously, the rabbi, the minister and members of the two congregations read from the book as the ceremony proceeded.

As at each table the candles were lighted, someone read:

May the festival lights we now kindle

Inspire us to use our human powers . . . .

To serve the God of freedom.

How natural it seemed for these two peoples to be celebrating freedom together; both had suffered the curse of slavery throughout their history, and neither was yet fully free.

In time we dipped the parsley in saltwater and ate it.

For behold the winter is past,

The rains are over and gone.

The blossoms have appeared in the land.

The time of singing is here.

We sipped our grape juice, then everyone joined in the singing of the Hebrew prayer: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam borei p'ri ha-gafen. (Be praised, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.)

I wondered in what dreadful circumstances the Seder had been celebrated at other times in Jewish history; how had they managed, in their faith, to keep the tradition alive in the concentration camps. Was there even then some bitter herb? Unleavened bread?

We celebrated this night in a bright room on the third floor of the temple, with six glittering chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling over the main chamber and smaller ones over the alcoves along each side. Slender Ionic columns separated the two. It was a long way from the wilderness.

There was, after all, a complete dinner, succulent roast chicken and vegetables and cake; and wine, if one could make the magic work.

Everyone joined in the singing of the hymn:

When Israel was in Egypt land

Let my people go.

Oppressed so hard they could not stand.

Let my people go.

Go down Moses

Way down in Egypt's land;

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go.

So an ancient Hebrew lament had found voice in the spiritual music of America's blacks.

I do not sing in public. But toward the end, when everyone stood to hold hands and sing "We Shall Overcome," I found myself holding my wife's hand on one side and the hand of a young black man on the other, and I was singing:

We shall overcome, We shall overcome

We shall overcome some day.

Oh, deep in my heart I do believe

We shall overcome some day. . . .

Finally, we sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," and I sang that, too.

From every mountainside,

Let freedom ring.

In closing, Rabbi Wolf said: "We do not want to engage in empty symbolism. We want to start a process, which, if we do it right, will bring people together."

I believe in that, too.

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