Tomorrow is the Jewish celebration of Pesach (Passover). Pesach is a holiday that is very dear to me because it chronicles the Jewish people's escape from slavery in Egypt and is a celebration of freedom.
One of the things I am proud about in being a North American Jew is how many Jews have been inspired by the story of Passover to advance the cause of freedom, justice, equality and civil rights for all people. For me, part of being Jewish is believing that all human beings have the right to a dignified existence and that this belief is worth fighting for.
It is in this spirit, that for Passover this year, I would like to celebrate Jews that advanced the cause of civil rights. I think we have a tendency to look too far into the past for heroes. We see heroes like Yehosua, Moshe and Bar Kochva as more like legends than human beings. As an adult and a teacher I now find myself most moved by the stories of human sized heroes like Julius Rosenthal who helped Booker T. Washington establish schools of southern blacks in the early 1900s or Rabbi Heschel who marched with Dr. King on Washington in the 1960s. I am inspired by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay mayor in the United States. I am inspired by Rahm Emmaneul, President Obama's health czar who is helping bring health care to the poor of the United States at last. Though he may not be altogether heroic, especially considering his colonial policies, I am inspired by how Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli risked his early career to argue (unsuccessfully) for the right of non-Christians to sit in the British House of Commons and pushing through the Reform Bill which finally gave the vote to the majority of the working class.
The conservatives in the United States arguing against the health care bill and gay marriage, saying these things will be the end of America and the American way of life, might do well to remember that the same arguments were put forward in regards to extending the vote outside the gentry in Britain.
I have called too many countries home to call myself a patriot of any one place. I guess I am what EM Forster disparingly referred to in "Howard's End" as a "cosmopolitan" but I don't consider that a bad thing. Living in so many places has made me really see that there are not so many differences between people and countries as we all like to think there are. A lot of these barriers are just things we put up to make ourselves feel safe and protected from things that frighten us.
I am not frightened of people who are different from me. What I am frightened of is other people who are frightened. Frightened people are dangerous because they don't think. In trying to protect themselves they stop caring about who they harm.
Sometimes I feel like we Jews have become kind of complacent. Usually when people start talking about Jewish people becoming complacent, they go on to harangue us about how we're not keeping enough of the traditions alive anymore, or marrying outside the religion or not going to synagogue enough. That's not what I'm talking about. Just a few generations ago most Jews lived in poverty-stricken ghettos or in shtetl villages in constant fear of pogroms and had few rights. Today many Jews live in the nicer parts of town and have good jobs and are well educated. I think Passover means not forgetting where you come from and not being ashamed of it. In my grandparent's generation lots of Jews were communists because they wanted a more equal society where they weren't on the bottom all the time. Now, as our fortunes have improved many Jews have turned to Conservatism. Some think Conservative parties are more pro-Israel. Personally, I don't care how Zionist you are, it's no excuse to back parties that seek to stymy the cause of freedom.
Any politcal party that stands on a platform that the denies the poor the right to health that the rich enjoy, or decrees that two consenting adults don't deserve the right to marry, to me, is not a party that wants freedom for everyone. A party that seeks only to maintain the status quo is not a good party for Jews, or anyone human for that matter.
Personally, I'm proud of the Jews we didn't learn about in school, the Jews who were the shit-disturbers. People like Gertrude Stein and Emma Goldman who saw things in society they thought were unjust and decided to expose them to the general public through words and deeds. Just think, if Moshe had decided to uphold the status quo, where would we all be now? Moshe Rabanu was a shit-disturber too! He had it good and easy livng in the Pharoah's palace. He could have just lived out his life there, but he couldn't turn his face away from the injustice he saw around him. He ultimately chose to face the wrath of Pharoah and his soldiers, rather than the torments of his own conscience, guilty at just sitting back and doing nothing while others suffered.
On Pesach I say a bracha to all those who were brave enough to stand up for their rights and those of others, who faced down the mockery and the cruelty of people who were frightened of difference to work for a better world for the future. May I remain as true to your spirit and example as I can.