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Archive for April, 2016

A Pesach Carol

Nobody ever called me Ebenezer, and no one ever accused me of failing to give Bob Cratchet a raise – I have never employed a Bob Cratchet. I do not think I have been particularly miserly for most of my life, but a few nights ago I was visited by 4 ghosts – 4 Pesach ghosts. No, they did not seem particularly scary. None of them gave off eerie moans. No, I did not see a specter like head appearing on my door knocker at home – probably because I don’t have a door knocker. Yet, four ghosts paid me a visit and so tonight I will tell you about them.

The first ghost was the ghost of Pesach past. He looked rather like Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie “The Ten Commandments;” with flowing grey streaked hair, long beard, billowing robes. I actually thought it might be Charlton Heston coming back from the dead to chastise me for my opposition to the NRA until he told me that his name was Moish. “I am here,” he said, “to review with you the years through the lens of Pesachs past.” “Look Moish,” I said, “You don’t have to put on that spooky voice. Just speak to me like a regular person.” “OK, no problem,” said Moish. “Ghost guild rules require that I at least start out with the requisite voice. Let’s take a look at where you’ve been.”

With a wave of his long staff (did I mention he carried a staff?), we were back in the Pesach of the year 1965. Immediately I recognized the room. It was the dining room of our friends, the Bermans. Diana was one of my parents first friends when we moved to Allentown in 1963. By 1965 having seder with them was a yearly tradition. Her younger daughter Helene, had become one of my close friends – the kind of female friend who, later, when we were teens, would clue you in on what the girls were thinking. I really liked the pool table they had in their basement. My dad would conduct the seder at their house. Diana was divorced. And 1965 was the last year I had to do the 4 questions, as my younger brother was just learning how to read Hebrew.

Spring 1965 was an interesting time. The Yankees had lost the World Series the previous October, for the second year in a row. Their manager, Yogi Berra, had been fired, and the manager of World Champion Cardinals, Johnny Keane, was hired in his place. Mickey Mantle was still “The Mick.” But you had to wonder how much longer he could play on legs that were falling apart more each year. That spring we could not know that the long time Yankee dynasty was at an end. The great Yankee players of the 1960’s pretty much all fell apart that year. The Minnesota Twins would go on to win the pennant – go figure!

But the news that dominated adult conversation was Vietnam. President Johnson had been elected by a landslide that past November, but the war in Vietnam had greatly escalated. He ran as the “peace” candidate, depicting Barry Goldwater as a wild eyed maniac who would lead us into nuclear war. That was a real concern in those days. I remember bomb drills in elementary school, where we would have to go into a hall in the middle, supposedly most protected part of the building, and crouch down. I always wondered what good that would do if the building was caving in because of a nuclear explosion, but I never had the guts to ask the teachers. I just did the drill along with everyone else.

The other big conversation going on was the situation with African Americans. The previous summer there had been terrible race riots in Philadelphia, just 50 miles away from us. Although the President was pushing through many bills to ease the problems of African Americans, it did not seem like enough to stem the rising anger. Little did anyone know that the Philadelphia riots of August 1964 were just a glimpse at what would happen throughout the 60’s in places like Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Asbury Park. At Pesach 1965, there were really no hippies – the word would be used in print for the first time in September of that year. The Beatles were still writing love songs and John had not yet met Yoko. We lived in a world in which “The Sound of Music” would win the Academy Award for best picture.

Moish, however, decided not to let me tarry too long in Pesach 1965. With a wave of his staff (did I mention he carried a staff?) we were transported to Pesach 1978. The scene was my in law’s dining room, where almost 30 family members gathered for seder. Audrey’s dad led the seder and some of her young cousins all took turns singing the 4 questions. One young 4 year old cousin, too young to know Hebrew or be able to read, was not happy that other cousins got to sing, so he announced he wanted to sing as well and serenaded us with “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

That spring the Yankees had just reestablished themselves as World Champions, beating the Dodgers the previous October. Led by Reggie Jackson, they were absolutely the team to beat that year. They would win it all again in 1978 and one more time in 1981. In this time just a few years removed from the angst of Vietnam, the Academy Award winner was “The Deer Hunter,” one of many, edgy films that was critical of the war.

The big crisis in those years centered around the price of gas, which drove inflation into double digits. The cost of borrowing money was so great that no one could fathom how the economy could ever move forward and break the cycle of high inflation and high unemployment.

The great hope that spring was in the Middle East, where just the previous fall, Anwar Sadat made his famous, dramatic trip to Jerusalem. Sadat’s grand gesture, which he hoped would lead to a swift, comprehensive peace agreement between the Arab world and Israel, an agreement that would include self determination for the Palestinians, took the world by surprise and created a aura of hope for the intractable conflict. The Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, however, would end up derailing this grand gesture through a constant focus on legal details rather than grand principals. Begin was trying to consolidate the Israeli hold on the West Bank and used this time to accelerate the building of settlements there. While a peace was achieved with Egypt that holds until today, Sadat paid with his life and Begin’s West Bank policy helped to create the boondoggle that clogs any attempt at a peace process today.

I was about to ask Moish to what year we were going next, when I was back in my bedroom. “What a dream!” I thought to myself. Then I saw a tall, thin, African American man walking towards me. “President Obama!” I cried, “What are you doing here?” “I am not President Obama,” he said. “I am the ghost of Pesach present.” “Well why do you look like the President?” “First of all, because he hosted a seder in the White House. Second, what better way to get you to focus on what is happening in the world around you right now?” “Well,” I said. “The Phillies are rebuilding, and it looks like the Cubs might finally break their 118 year curse. “No, I want you to be aware of some other things beside baseball,” he said.

So he waved his staff (did I mention he carried a staff? It seems that all Pesach ghosts carry a staff), and we were looking into my dining room, in my house, with all of our invited guests. The food was plentiful, delicious, and all seemed to be having a great time celebrating our seder. The children of our guests were singing the 4 questions. “It all looks just like it should,” I said. “Yes, but now you need to see this.” And he waved his staff again and there I was staring into another Jewish family’s home. They were distraught. No seder was happening. They were a family in crisis. Their jobs did not pay enough – bills piling high. The family was in counseling. The children were struggling in a substandard school. They had no time or appetite for sitting at a seder. Their questions were not about how this night was different from all other nights, but how to survive. I turned to the ghost and asked, “Why are you showing me this?” But he was gone and suddenly I found myself back in my bedroom. “Wow, what a dream.” I thought.

Then, I saw a rather scary figure – just like out of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. A figure draped in a black shroud, hooded and carrying a staff. This one spoke not a word. “Are you the ghost of Pesach future?” I asked. The figure nodded. “Where are we going now?” The figure just waved his staff and pointed.

It is a seder in my dining room. My kids are there and my youngest granddaughter, Libby, must be about 10 years old. She has just finished singing the 4 questions. She looks up at me and says, “Saba, can I ask you another question?” “Of course,” I say. “I learned in school this past week about how angry people were when I was a baby. I heard there were police shooting black kids. I heard people hated Muslims and Mexicans. Lot’s of people were really upset. The teacher said too many people did nothing to stop people from hating. When you were working in your congregation, what did you do? I cannot tell you my answer because all of a sudden I was back in my bedroom.

“Wow, what a dream,” I thought. I was finally about to try to go back to sleep when I saw another black man, but different this time. He was dressed in a tee shirt and jeans, and had a head full of dreadlocks. “Who are you and how did you get in here?” I asked. “You know me mon,” he said. “I am Marley’s ghost.” “Jacob Marley’s ghost? Aren’t you in the wrong story?” “No mon, I am Bob Marley’s ghost, and I am in the right story.” “How do you fit into this story?” “Because of a song that I wrote, that you need to remember. It is called ‘Redemption Song.’” And then he began to recite the following:

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,

None but ourselves can free our minds.

How long shall they kill our prophets,

While we stand aside and look,

Some say its just a part of it

We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever have:

Redemption songs, Redemption songs, Redemption songs.”

Pesach sameah (Happy Pesach) to everyone!

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