Black on White

I have no statistics at hand, but I am ready to wager that Adolf Hitler has raised considerably the consumption of matzoh in America this year. At least half a dozen families, to my personal knowledge, observed a Passover seder this week for the first time in many years. Their sudden awareness of the holiday is a reaction reflex to the events in Germany.

Doubtless the Nazi Fuehrer has had the same effect in hundreds and perhaps thousands of Jewish homes. It is no more than fitting that one Pharaoh should help revive the memory of another.

Certainly the Haggadah this year had for millions of Jews—though themselves relatively safe and sheltered—a more intimate significance. The account of the sufferings of the children of Israel sounded all too contemporary in their ears; and the chastisement of the Egyptians may be prophecy as well as history.

At one Passover feast an American youngster asked the four questions in the stilted English translation. The answers were made by one of the guests in simple language. He told briefly of the Jewish slaves in their Egyptian ghettoes, and of Pharoah the crue taskmaker.

“Like Hitler,” the boy interrupted.

For the first time, in these bitter years, the routine questions and answers have a clearer meaning for thousands of Jewish children. If it can have this symbolic quality for a boy in New York, think what it must mean to a Jewish boy in Frankfurt-am-Main or Berlin.

For millions of Jews to whom the Passover has not the slightest religious connotation it does have a racial and folk meaning. The fable of an enslaved people emancipated and led to a Promised Land is not unique to the Jews. It is the scenario of a dream of all humanity—the Cinderella story applied to an entire people.

The tyrant, the emancipator and law-giver, even the forty years’ hardship before the magic goal was achieved, are the stuff of which dream patterns are woven, and they have a nostalgic beauty for grown-up children regardless of how “modern” and skeptical and materialist they may account themselves. Indeed, much that passes today for hard-boiled materialism, in the final analysis follows the self-same pattern. For exploited classes, for persecuted races, the parable of Pharaoh and Moses is palpitantly alive — whether it expresses itself in Marxist slogans or Negro spirituals.

The Jewish Communists who (according to press dispatches from Moscow) made a door-to-door agitation against the observance of Passover might have done more wisely to interpret the occasion rather than to suppress it.

If the Passover, as a folk memory, is worth celebrating at all, it is worth celebrating earnestly, with some measure of the solemnity and some suggestion of the depth of what it symbolizes.

The mock ceremony conducted in some Jewish homes seems to be much worse than none at all. The beauty and value of any ritual lies, after all, in the temporary assumption of its seriousness and importance. Conducted in a spirit of levity it not only becomes meaningless, but a mockery and an insult of those engaged in it.

A Seder in which there is bread as well as matzoh, in which butter is served with the chicken, in which Had Gad-yo is sung to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell,” in which Elijah’s cup is forgotten in the shuffle—and that is what the comic-opera version of a Seder amounts to in so many American homes—is not funny.

Such a feast staged in an anti-religious spirit of satire I can understand. But staged under some vague misapprehension that it is a Jewish gesture of race consciousness it defeats itself. Every race, every faith, every nation, has its memorial days, whether it be the Day of the Paris Commune, Independence Day or a religious holiday. If observed at all it should be observed without mockery.

A Hitler story will bear repeating this week of all weeks:

The Fuehrer wished to ascertain the feelings of his subjects and summoned unto himself men typical of all elements in the population and among them a patriarchal rabbi, and all those in his presence outdid themselves in praising him and his works, but only the rabbi was silent and brooding, so that at last Hitler became annoyed and demanded to know of the Jew what he was doing. Whereto the rabbi replied that he was thinking deeply of an important problem, and upon the Fuehrer’s insistence the Jew finally revealed his thoughts:

“It is thus, your highness. Once upon a time the Jews were tortured by Pharaoh in Egypt and he was smitten for it and in remembrance of that day we now eat matzoh. Later the Jews were persecuted by a tyrant named Haman, who was at length hung, and in remembrance thereof we eat haman-tash. And I sit here pondering, your highness, what we shall eat in remembrance of you.”

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