on in women’s seders, with their prominent oranges, which allow participants to recall smugly the
apocryphal rabbi who declared that a woman
belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate. Payback against straw rabbis is sweet.
The declaration, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” is the
hook on which the Mazon organization hangs its fund-raising appeal to fight hunger.
There are haggadot whose concern is Mideast peace, vegetarianism,
and evolving consciousness. All bear a selective connection with Pesach and its story that begins with a
demeaned, enslaved people and ends on a high of liberation and
No selective connection has stuck more tightly than the Shoah.
“For many contemporary Jews, a meaningful haggadah must include the
Holocaust,” writes Liora Gubkin, assistant professor of religious
studies at California State University, at Bakersfield, in her new
You Shall Tell Your Children – Holocaust Memory in American
Passover Ritual (Rutgers).
And although there is a surface similarity between the Hebrew
enslavement in Egypt and life and death in the Nazi camps,
the two events were fundamentally different. The
Pesach story begins with degradation and ends in glory; the
Holocaust story, from beginning to end, is about the incomprehensible murder of
millions of Jews. According to Gubkin, the attempt to preserve the
memory of the Holocaust alongside the Exodus is to misremember the
“Passover is a holiday that celebrates redemption,” she writes. “But
‘redeeming the Holocaust’ constitutes a dangerous form of
At the same time, she identifies the reasons Jews pair the two
events without a second thought. “Exodus is a master narrative of
Jewish self-perception, or Jewish identity," she says. "I think the gravitation
toward Passover is part of the struggle to incorporate the Holocaust
into contemporary Jewish identity.”
And Pesach is a nearly unanimous touchstone of Jewish identity.
About 70 percent of
American Jews between ages 35 and 64 attend or hold a seder.
In an interview with Gubkin, we discussed
her argument that from the first post-war haggadah, used at a seder
in Munich in 1946, Jews have sought to "add value" to the Holocaust
experience – to find meaning in the otherwise meaningless death of millions. We also
talked about the idea of “emplotment” – how Jews tailor the Holocaust
to fit the
narrative of the Exodus.
David Holzel: We’ve come to see as standard practice some sort of
commemoration of the Holocaust during the Passover seder. But you
point out that the Passover story and the Holocaust story are
fundamentally different – enough to question why people see them as
a natural pairing. Yet it’s something that most people – me
included, until I read your book – look right through without
recognizing. Is it a natural pairing? One is a story that goes from
degradation to redemption. The other goes from degradation to
Liora Gubkin: People have a hard time tolerating genocide in
the midst of a seder celebration – our ability to tolerate
genocide elsewhere is another issue. My argument is that the emplotment, or overarching narrative of the seder –
degradation to redemption – pulls the Holocaust into its
narrative reading. In part this is because of the narrative and
ritual expectations of the seder. In part this is because of the
desire for the Holocaust to have been meaningful in some way. We see
this all the time in the facile repetition of “Never Again” or “We
need to learn this history so as to never repeat it.” We also see
the desire for meaning in the elements of Holocaust-based Jewish
identity that are part of Jewish education programs.
I do think that although the theological fit is problematic and I am
horrified by the emphasis on the Holocaust as a secure base for Jewish
identity, there is a sincere attempt, with joining the Holocaust
and Passover, to come to terms with the ways the Holocaust is an
important part of who we are as Jews in the 21st century.