How are you preparing for the Seder? Is this night really going to be different from all other nights? Are you able to honestly visualize the words “in every generation we are obligated to imagine that it is we who are actually leaving Egypt”? Foods and traditions are important, but did you know some Jews never heard of matzah balls or gefilte fish? This Passover my goal is to visualize myself leaving Egypt, to view my imaginary image in an ancestral mirror. My DNA will prove who I am, but my appearances would be shockingly different from what or who I think I am. My skin tone would be darker, my physical stature would be shorter, and from head to toe there would be few similarities. Had it not been a fluke of nature or an accident in timing who really knows what paths their ancestors may have taken. I remember an elderly holocaust survivor explaining how he ended up in Australia. He was told he was boarding a ship that was sailing to New York and was lied to. (It also could have been they said New South Wales, and he heard only one word “New” and thought it must be New York.)
With this in mind, I began my visit this past week to Columbia, South America. My goal was to better acquaint myself with an unknown group of Jews called Anusim, the hidden remnants of the Spanish Inquisition. For many years I have heard of their existence, but in my mind it was more of Disney fantasy set in an exotic location. In the traditional Jewish communities these sorts of people were never encountered or seen. The groups I am visiting have struggled through years of turmoil to finally undergo a valid Orthodox conversion. Of course looking back they knew some of their customs were strange but never focused on why. Some did not eat pork while other lit candles in a closet Friday evenings. Some even washed their hands ritually before meals, but none of them could fathom that hidden Jewish practices were the reason.
After controlling my nerves sitting on a tiny propeller driven plane, I am working on overcoming my fear of entering the Medellin region of Columbia. The area was best known for its drug cartels, kidnapping, and violence, but at least they were not known to be anti-Semitic. It is a quest to learn about a unique segment of my people that I know very little about. How would I react to them; would I see them as my equal? Would I harbor any negative biases? Would I be comfortable with my family marrying into theirs?
Thank God my fears were unfounded. The plane landed safely, the airport had free WiFi, and the coffee was amazing (Sorry Starbucks). I was met at the airport by two young men, Asaf and Avner. Asaf was to be my chauffeur for the duration of my trip and knew how to navigate traffic that seemed to have no rhyme or reason. Since he worked with international business people, he spoke English well and acted as my interpreter. He personally comes from a family of 14 siblings, and he is the only one in his family to convert to Judaism. His family is very supportive and is mostly atheist or non-practicing Catholics. His reasons for converting had very little to do with his family’s Anusim heritage and more with a general appreciation for what he had studied about Judaism.
In light of my visit, the “four sons” of the Hagadah has taken on an entirely new meaning. Our sages in Pirkei Avot , the Ethics of our Fathers, state, “Wisdom is the ability to look into the future.” Hence the son who is wise is characterized by his ability to see tomorrow’s Jews in a vastly different manner than we may currently perceive them. One of the uncomfortable truths of my visit was to realize how poorly the Anusim are treated by the mainstream Jewish community. As an example, the local community has a Mikveh, but refuses to allow the Anusim women the right to use it. The wise son realizes that appearances, culture, and religious affinity have always been cyclic and will continue to be so. He looks ahead to find commonalities that will serve to strengthen our people and uses the rear view of history as a guide in order not to repeat mistakes made in our history. His question may be “why are you doing thing”, but his purpose in asking the question is to understand the variations and uniqueness of his culture.
The wicked son is the son who disassociates from the community by asking “why are YOU doing these things?” Yet it seems incongruous that that son who disassociates is still present at the Seder and that we choose to address his question. Thus the wicked son may be one of those who selectively mandate who is a Jew and decide unilaterally that those who are Jews by choice are to be treated as second class. They have difficulties with their own identity as Jews and can’t fathom why others would join the club. Instead of resolving their issues, they choose to negate the efforts of those in their community who have taken the task of conversion seriously. They negate the Judaism of others and think that only their particular practice and custom is legitimate. Thus even though they may feel superior they are classified in the Hagadah quite differently.
The simple son is the son who finds the whole subject of Anusim fascinating. Sadly, prior to my visit, I would have easily fit into this category. The simple son is content with being a bleacher Jew, sitting in the stands of life. He relaxes with an overpriced bear in hand while watching the game being played out on the world stage without really caring about the score or outcome. His passivity is the norm among his peers where the ghetto mentality is pervasive in his society, albeit in palatial surroundings.
The final son is the son who lives in his own little world, unable to conceptualize that there are Jews who live outside of his four corners. He may pray every day and maintain a strong relationship with God, but he has not idea of what the demands placed upon a truly observant person are. He fails to emulate Abraham who cared about all people and tried to bring monotheism to the masses, or Moshe who intervened on behalf of his brother. His myopia may be lauded in his circles, but in the Hagadah he is cast as the son who because of his lack of understanding must be taught by others.
So as you prepare for the Seder I ask you only to change one question. Ask not why this night is different from all other nights; ask how you are going to be different. It is so much easier to place the onus of responsibility on something intangible instead of on ourselves. Perhaps for a single night we can choose wisdom over comfort and choose to look into the future of our people. There are so few who seek our traditions that we do not have the liberty or right to ignore those who embraced our heritage with courage, dignity, and conviction in a manner that I have rarely if ever seen.
Rabbi Jack Engel