(JVoices.com brings you the full Haggadah, In Search of Freedom: Exploring Common Ground Passover Haggadah, for the first time online.)
For the 14th year, the Milwaukee Area Jewish Committee’s African-American-Jewish Task Force held its annual African-American Jewish Seder. The seder has been led in synagogues, university libraries, senior centers, Jewish homes for the elderly, but never in a church. Until this year, when 130 people came together at All Saints Catholic Church this past Sunday to celebrate.
In a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Harriet McKinney MAJC executive director said, “For some people, every seder is an African-American seder.” I followed up with McKinney yesterday, and she told me that her daughter, Shahanna, first made this point when she co-lead the seder in the past. McKinney remembered her daughter’s words as a critical point, one that deserved and required repeating. For people to understand that there are people of color for whom the traditions and experiences of the seder that day were, and are, the norm.
“For some people, this is the first time they’ve had a chance to celebrate this ritual with a huge number of people who look like they do,” said McKinney. “Often the experience for a lot of African heritage Jews, is that it is usually, mostly European heritage Jews at a seder. Now they are having a seder with 60 or 70 people that look like they do, want to celebrate with them, and include a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish allies.”
(The Rev. Maurice Lawrence (left) holds a plate of matzo and hot water corn bread. Photo by Jack Orton)
McKinney also told me that the seder has long been attended by local and state politicians. This year, they were joined by representatives from
the office of U.S. Senator Russell Feingold, Congresswoman Gwen Moore from Wisconsin 4th Congressional District with one of her sons, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson and Circuit Court Judge Charles Kahn.
Each year, the Haggadah is written and changed to incorporate different actions and current events. For the last number of years, the seder included a special action for Darfur, including a display photographs from Darfur and a postcard writing campaign. Last year they wrote letters to Chinese Ambassador asking him to use his good offices to help solve the crisis in Darfur.
This year included a time to pray for President Obama, and a child’s prayer that corresponded with their Tzedekah Drive for All Saints Commons, a program of the church which provides housing and support for homeless women and children.
“The goal of the Seder is to build and strengthen the bridges of understanding between our peoples,” said McKinney, who said the Haggadah is crafted with this in mind. The parts of the seder and stories told “examine the parallel’s between our people’s histories, values, experiences and relationships.”
We’ve uploaded the Haggadah so that it’s now available online. If you use any parts of the Hagaddah be sure to credit Shahanna McKinney and Peter Goldberg and the Milwaukee Area Jewish Committee-an independent affiliate of the American Jewish Committee.
Here’s just a taste of what you’ll find between the covers of this fabulous Haggadah.
For it is said that every person, in every generation, must regard his-or-herself as having been personally freed from bondage in Mitzrayim.
And where is Mitzrayim? In the Torah (Hebrew Bible), it is the land of Egypt. But the name, Mitzrayim, has in it the Hebrew word for narrow, constrained, or inhibited. It is thus the narrow place that squeezes the life out of the human soul and body. For some of us, it was Pharaoh’s Egypt. For some of us, it was the Middle Passage. For some of us, it was the Spanish Inquisition or Nazi Germany. For some of us, it was the Jim Crow South or segregated Northern ghettos. For some of us, it is over-crowded housing and classrooms. For some of us, it is off-limits clubs and boardrooms. No one place is always Mitzrayim, but any place — even our own — can be turned into one. So tonight let us dedicate ourselves to break out of our own narrow straits. And tonight let us honor all people who have struggled and are struggling for their freedom.
KARPAS: Rebirth and Renewal
Because Passover is the great spring festival of the Jewish calendar, the first symbol of Passover is a green vegetable, karpas, traditionally parsley, onion, or potato, and our first ritual is a reflection of spring.
Greens–turnip, mustard, and collard, are an important part of many southern meals. Greens are most often associated with the traditional African-American cuisine. The liquid that is left over from cooking greens is called pot liquor.
Pot liquor became an important ingredient in the captive Africans’ diet. It is said to have been given as a healing potion, used to cure chicken pox, measles, and mumps; and so these greens also symbolize vitality and rebirth.
“My grandmother was a firm believer in the power of pot liquor, and so am I. It’s like the Jewish mother’s faith in chicken soup. And what is chicken soup other than plain old chicken pot liquor?” (Jackie Torrence, The Importance of Pot Liquor)
We dip the karpas twice: the parsley in salt water, and the greens in pot liquor. This is our hors d’oeuvre, the beginning of our festive meal, which we enjoy as free men and women. Festive meals are almost unknown to those in captivity. Let us dip the parsley in salt water (traditionally, a symbol of the tears of bondage), and the greens in pot liquor (a symbol of resistance to oppression), and say the blessing:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam borei p’ri ha adamah
Blessed are You Lord our G-d, Sovereign of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the earth.