Jews tell stories. It is an essential ingredient of our identity and in the transmission of our values and culture from one generation to the next. Many others tell stories just as diligently, but Jewish tradition has cleverly constructed an entire holiday around gathering friends and family to tell the most uplifting story in our collective consciousness. It is our freedom story of the Exodus from Egypt.
On Passover we welcome an ever-changing and evolving group of those most dear to us into our homes to recount that “once we were slaves in the land of Egypt and now we are free.” We lift up the matzah, the symbol of both our suffering and hasty departure, and say, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, let all who are hungry come and eat.” The act of telling this particular story brings with it the opportunity for sharing the blessings that being free can bring.
Passover is also the moment for us to take storytelling personally.
Here at the JCC we aspire to support every individual in our community’s exploration of what being Jewish means for them; we call this “Jewish My Way.™” Passover presents us with an incredible opportunity to encourage each of us to tell our freedom story: freedom from constraints imposed upon us from the outside or those we impose upon ourselves. We all have one, maybe more than one. Here is mine.
In 1979 I was recruited to travel to the Soviet Union at Passover time, along with a colleague who worked in the Jewish community. I had already confirmed my plans to move to Israel in June and become an Israeli citizen. We were given names of refuseniks (Russian Jews denied permission to leave the country who were summarily then deprived of most ways to sustain themselves and their families) to contact; an itinerary that included conducting a seder in Moscow, a clandestine meeting in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg); and contact information for Jewish community organizers in Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
After our seder was cut short in Moscow by “travel agents” in hats and long coats, we were rushed to the airport and flown to Leningrad. In a small apartment that I will never forget, we were eating matzah (that we had schlepped from Brookline) when the door opened and in walked people whom I recognized. I had carried posters bearing their pictures in “Let My People Go” marches. They were part of a plot to hijack a plane and fly it to freedom in Helsinki almost a decade earlier. They were arrested before overtaking the plane and sat in jail, life sentences ultimately reduced through world pressure. We were there to greet them on the evening of the day of their release. Hillel Butman showed us the picture the authorities had taken of him that day. He scowled at the camera. We drank vodka, laughed and discussed our upcoming aliyah (immigration) to Israel. We spoke in Hebrew, which he had taught himself while sitting in jail with the help of letters he had received from Jews in the U.S. We were in the presence of a true hero.
When my wife Marjie and I ran into Hillel on the streets of Ramat Aviv months later, he scolded me for not calling him. I can’t remember if Marjie or I actually replied, but the response was “it’s not easy to pick up the phone and call a hero.” “Shtooyote (nonsense),” he said, and then he invited us into his new home in the immigrant absorption center for a l’chayim –one more shot of vodka to life and to freedom.
American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made of stories not atoms.” And as a great storyteller commented, “Story is our essence, the source and expression of every dream, dread, vision, death, birth and discovery.”
From all of us at the JCC, we hope you will find great joy and inspiring discovery in creatively telling the story of the birth of our people this Passover. And may you also discover the power of sharing your story with those closest to you.
Best wishes for a happy Passover,