When Veronica Ades’s guests gather around the Seder table, they’ll read the list of the 10 plagues, just as Jews around the world will do on Passover.
When Ades hosts a Seder, she says, “I don’t really understand not being political.”
The springtime holiday of Passover, when Jews retell the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt at a ritual meal laden with food and symbolism, has long been a vehicle for political commentary. A story about liberation from slavery lends itself to that.
This Passover, which begins Monday night, the nation’s preoccupation with politics and the flurry of activism since President Trump’s election are inspiring a new crop of amateur writers to try their hand at updating the age-old Passover story.
And for some, the big question has become: Is it right to cast the president of the United States as the villainous pharaoh?
Blair Levin said yes. He posted a parable online last month that began, “And then arose a pharaoh who knew not Jefferson, whose tiny hands had never touched the soil.”
His retelling of the Passover story came along with cartoon illustrations of Trump and Vice President Pence in pharaoh’s garb. The first plague? “In the Rio de Janeiro hotel branded with the Pharaoh’s name, baths in all the guest rooms began running blood-red colored water.”
“As far as I can tell, the Seder is always political. … One of the things about the Passover story is: How do you deal with a powerful autocrat?,” said Levin, a former Federal Communications Commission official who initially published his Passover piece anonymously but was identified as the writer on Twitter. “There are many different messages that one can take from it. But one of them is: Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I don’t know how you read the news without thinking about that message …. This is a moment that it struck me that the parallels are pretty obvious.”
The Haggadah — the step-by-step guide through the Seder ritual — has been rewritten more than any other Jewish text. In 2017 alone, writers added to the proliferation a “Zombie Haggadah” and a “Hogwarts Haggadah;” humor writer Dave Barry published a new Haggadah, and comedian Sarah Silverman wrote for another one.
And many modern families choose to compile their very own Haggadah, often using online tools to drag and drop in their favorite prayers and readings. This year, they’re pasting references to Trump interspersed with the prayers.
The Jewish community voted against Trump in the presidential election in greater portion than any other major religious group — 71 percent for Hillary Clinton and 24 percent for Trump. While Trump has found supporters among the Orthodox community — including his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, who are both Orthodox Jews — many more Jews have been unsettled by his presidency.
Jewish organizations have decried the influence of Stephen K. Bannon, who ran the website Breitbart before he came to the White House. The website has been accused of supporting white nationalist causes with its articles.
Jews have criticized Trump for purposely leaving Jews out of his Holocaust memorial statement and being slow to condemn the vandalism of two Jewish cemeteries and the bomb threats against dozens of Jewish community centers in the first weeks of his presidency.
Thus, his unflattering portrayal in many a homemade Haggadah.
Anti-Trump activist group Indivisible Nation BK’s online Haggadah — which said that parsley, which normally symbolizes spring, should symbolize the importance of attending a town hall during Congress’s spring recess — replaced the traditional hunt for the afikomen, a piece of hidden matzoh, with a hunt for Trump’s tax returns.
Jacob Alperin-Sheriff updated his “Republican Haggadah,” a complete service parodying conservative politics, for the Trump age. For the popular Seder song “Dayenu,” which says each of God’s miracles would have been sufficient on its own, Alperin-Sheriff listed Trump’s actions that he said should have been disqualifying. “If he had only brought the ‘birther’ campaign into the mainstream, that should have already been too much. If he had only called Mexican immigrants rapists … that should have already been too much. … If he had only urged voters to ‘check out the sex tape’ of a Miss Universe contestant he’d called ‘Miss Piggy’ and ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ that should have already been too much.”
“I do think it’s important to make it relevant to the current situation,” Alperin-Sheriff, a federal employee who lives in Rockville, said about the Seder. “You’re supposed to view yourself as if you were in the situation of the Jews coming out of Egypt. And that’s I guess hard to do if you don’t find it relevant to yourself.”
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the president of the Reconstructionist denomination of Judaism, recommends an open-ended discussion rather than a Haggadah that just castigates the president or any other politician. “My childhood Seder, the Haggadah was so clearly a Cold War text,” she said. “You could have just substituted Egypt for the Soviet Union. It felt heavy-handed. It didn’t invite conversation.”
The Reconstructionist movement does ask for conversation in its own Haggadah supplement this year — a dark, unsettling conversation. The supplement, focused on refugees, tells Seder-goers: “The world can change in a moment, and any of us could find ourselves in unfamiliar or unstable circumstances. Together with your family, consider the following questions. … How would you flee? If you had to leave your home suddenly, how would you do it? Via car? On foot? If you have pets, would they come, too? What would you take? … Where would you go? Do you have family that would take you in? Close friends, maybe?”
As commentators have debated whether to compare the beginning of Trump’s administration to the rise of Hitler in 1933 in Germany, a very dark game of “what-if” has played out in some Jewish households. It’s all theoretical — almost no one is leaving for Canada — but people have debated how they would know to leave, as some Jews did in Germany before the Nazis rose to power, rather than stay in the country if fascism took root.
The Reconstructionist Haggadah exercise seems to encourage that pessimistic line of discussion. Waxman said it’s meant more as a way to sympathize with real refugees, including Syrian families, but it does also evoke the Jewish anxieties of the Trump era. “You’re raising up resonances that weren’t there a year ago, or that were much, much quieter,” she said. “It’s less about ‘Jews are strangers in America’ — though the ground on which we stand feels different than it did a year ago — and more about cultivating empathy and ideally action on behalf of those who are named as strangers.”
Of course, when the discussions that the Haggadah prompts get underway, not everyone agrees. Passover is in many ways like a Jewish Thanksgiving — distant relatives gather from near and far for a long, boozy meal — and tensions can run high over questions of politics.
“The intergenerational and family dynamics of seders can be really intense. I definitely think of my childhood, where my uncle and I got into a fight pretty much every year at Passover,” Waxman said. But she said most families don’t steer away from bringing politics into their Seder discussions. “Passover as a festival of liberation is really understood as a religious holiday that has expressly political overtones.”
Political disagreements won’t be a problem for Ades, a Brooklyn obstetrician-gynecologist, no matter how liberal her Haggadah gets. In her circle of family and friends, she said: “Our argument is like, ‘Should I call Chuck Schumer twice today or once today?’”