7 Days: Diaspora
The biggest Pessah ever
When America's Jews sat down earlier this week to have their Pessah Seders, there is a good chance they were not alone.
One little-noted consequence of the high intermarriage rate in the United States is that more non-Jewish Americans than ever are living with a Jew in their household. That may portend dire consequences for the numerical future of American Jewry, but it also means that Pessah –during which a whopping 77 percent of American Jews attend a Seder – may be more widely celebrated today in America than at any other time in history.
"Because of the increase in the number of households that include Jews as a result of intermarriages, it increases the probability that more Americans that are not Jewish will participate in a Seder," said Prof. Leonard Saxe, director of the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.
Pessah has long stood as a beacon of Jewish observance in America. More American Jews go to Seders than light Hanukka candles, fast on Yom Kippur or have visited Israel, according to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01.
America, in turn, has long noted the observance of Pessah. Perhaps the most salient symbol of Pessah in America is the Maxwell House Haggada, first published in 1930 as part of that company's promotion of its kosher-for-Pessah coffee. In the years since, Pessah greetings by Tiffany's, Bloomingdale's and Macy's in US newspapers have become a fixture of the Pessah season.
Even as American Jews have assimilated, Pessah has persisted. In Manhattan, restaurants whose regular fare includes such items as shrimp cocktails and ham sandwiches offer Pessah menus where gefilte fish stands in for clam chowder and roast chicken replaces bacon cheeseburgers.
It's no surprise that this year has brought further evidence of Pessah's penetration into the unholy temple of popular culture.
The cartoonists behind JibJab, which produced a riotously funny cartoon during the 2004 US presidential campaign mocking George W. Bush and John Kerry, put together a Pessah offering this year in which an Eminem look-alike raps about the holiday staple: "I got a question/ 'bout the bread that is unleavened causin' indigestion/ called matza/ eat it for a week we gotsa/ no bread no pasta/ best believe it Jewish docta'." (See www.jibjab.com).
Another Internet cartoonist, William Levin, did a version of the popular rapper 50 Cent singing about the Ten Plagues: "Blood in the river/ back off nigga'/ Don't you f--k with 50 Cent/ I'll pull the trigga'." With more than one million hits, the cartoon, at www.shabot6000.com, was ranked No. 7 in the Top 10 "movers and shakers" on the web this week, according to the web tracking company Alexa (The Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club ranked No. 2).
"There is a growing, almost clich trend of making Jewish culture 'in-your-face' cool by mixing in elements of hip-hop and rap," Levin said. "I was trying to poke fun at that trend a little bit."
Although it is most often Jews who are introducing these expressions of Pessah into popular culture, gentiles are often collaborating with them. The JibJab cartoon, for example, was produced with help from NBC's Jay Leno and The Tonight Show.
This is a reflection of the way Pessah is being celebrated in America today. It's still a Jewish holiday (unlike Hanukka, which has been purged of its more particularistic elements and become virtually indistinguishable from Christmas); it's just being shared by a growing number of non-Jews.
This stands in stark contrast, of course, to the history of celebrating Pessah.
The paragraph preceding the recitation of the Haggada's Hallel section, "Pour out thy wrath upon the nations," was added to the liturgy during the Crusades, when the Jews of Europe suffered devastation and murder at the hands of Christians. The custom of opening up the door at that point in the Seder is actually not to welcome Elijah the Prophet, as children are typically taught, but because Jews used to open their doors at that point in the service to make sure there were no non-Jews in the vicinity who could hear them calling upon God to "pursue [our enemies] in anger and obliterate them."
In America, the open door is a sign of welcome, and many have entered it. About 31% of married Jews today are wed to gentiles, and the proportion is a far larger 47% among Jews who have married since 1996, according to the NJPS study.
That accounts for why Howard Dean, the one-time Democratic Party front-runner in the 2004 race for US president, and Cameron Kerry, brother to 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, both regularly attend (or host) Seders on Pessah. Both are married to Jews, and Kerry converted to Judaism.
The stubbornly high intermarriage rate in America, the wide acceptance of Jews and Jewish culture by Americans, and the modern penchant for Western ecumenicalism all mean that it is likely that more Americans than ever before attended a Seder this Pessah.
It also means that it's possible that the number of US Jews observing Pessah in future years may rise, or at least hold steady. Because chances are that Jews reticent to go to a Seder will be asked to do so by a non-Jewish spouse, relative or friend interested in experiencing one.
It's not your typical tale of Jewish return, but it sounds better than an exodus from Judaism.
This article can also be read at http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1114741316931&p=1074657885918
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