Jews gathered last week for the Passover Seder meal to reenact the ancient exodus from Egypt and repeat family stories passed down from generation to generation. My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, once again shared the dramatic story of her last Seder with her family in Ukraine eighty years ago.
Passover 1943 was the last year my grandmother, who we call Mama Peppi, celebrated the holiday with her family in Chust, Western Ukraine. Her father had already been taken to a concentration camp, and so her young mother did her best to lead the service for the six children. When they reached the part of the Seder that called for opening the door to symbolically welcome Elijah the prophet, two armed Nazis entered their home. Quick on her feet, my grandmother gave the soldiers all the wine on the table, and they left the house. Every year, Mama Peppi reminds her eight grandchildren and more than 30 great grandchildren of the immortal words of the Haggadah book we read on Passover, “in every generation, they tried to destroy the Jewish people, but the Holy One Blessed be He, continues to save us from their hands.”
Hitler killed 6 million of our people during the Holocaust, including many members of my extended family. Fortunately, my grandparents were blessed to rebuild their shattered lives in the United States and to celebrate Passover in freedom. Yet American Jews have always known that antisemitism can reappear at any moment, even in the United States, and so we conclude our Seder by singing “Next year in Jerusalem.” I now live in Israel, and since celebrating the holiday here, I have a new story that I tell my own children at our Seder.
Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people celebrated Passover as an independent nation in their homeland of Israel – not around their family dining room tables, but in the Temple in Jerusalem. Sadly, there was great discord amongst the different Jewish sects who fought endlessly with one another. When the infighting boiled over, the Romans entered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews to the four corners of the world. Miraculously, we have now returned, and since 1948, the Jews have lived in freedom and independence under a Jewish government. But tragically, political discord has once again spilled onto the streets of Jerusalem, even as our enemies are scheming to destory us.
The generation that experienced the extraordinary events of 1948 is dwindling, and antisemitism is once again surging. Following months of mass protests against the government in Israel, this Passover comes at a time of great stress upon Israel’s democracy. Israel has important work to do in bridging the growing divide between the left and the right, all while defending itself against blood thirsty enemies like Palestinian terrorists and genocidal Iran that are threatening to finish Hitler’s diabolical work.
Passover, the Biblical festival of freedom, has inspired and encouraged those living under oppression and without their independence for millenia. My grandmother’s family never experienced the sweet taste of freedom, yet their Passover miracle from eighty years ago still inspires our family who are blessed to celebrate in the Jewish homeland. As the State of Israel prepares to commemorate 75 years of independence in two weeks from now, we must heed Passover’s eternal lessons so that Israel will overcome all of our current challenges.