My Passover odyssey began in March,1991, when I decided to organize a community Seder. It would be homemade affair in a rented room.
Because of space constraints, I had to close the registration at 95, yet I continued to receive a barrage of agitated last-minute calls from friends and strangers—including many people who were not Jewish. I was amazed by the response. What was the great attraction? I was determined to find that out. I hired a crew to film that initial Seder, and from there my twenty-year odyssey led me to document a variety of exotic Passover experiences that I could never have predicted or anticipated.
Some of the most noteworthy Seders and participants I filmed included Ethiopian Jewish teenagers from Israel meeting with inner city Los Angeles youth; Jewish socialists where God was never mentioned and poems about the Holocaust were read in Yiddish; Muslims and Jews holding a Seder of Reconciliation following 9/11; feminists celebrating the brave and revolutionary women of the Exodus story; nuns who had begun celebrating Passover 25 years earlier and were joined by members of the LA Catholic Worker group; battered women, where I wasn’t allowed to film their faces because of the real and present danger that their battering husbands might find out; a Seder for the gay and lesbian community, and a Seder for the deaf where everything was “signed” as well as spoken.
Over the years of filming, my question about why so many non-Jews were drawn to the holiday of Passover was answered. I could see at each Seder how the Jewish Exodus story is not just a personal journey for us as a people. It is also a universal story because it describes freedom from oppression for all people and, in the process, offers an equal opportunity for revelation and transformation for everyone –regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion.
Other Seders I filmed included one for Hispanic garment workers, led by Rabbi Laura Geller. It took place in one of the original sweatshops in downtown Los Angeles. Hispanic women held their toddlers and babies tightly in their laps as they listened to the translation from English and Hebrew into Spanish of the Haggadah, the book that relates the story of the Exodus. Their curious youngsters chewed on the unfamiliar dry pieces of matzah while their mothers paid close attention to the first-hand, riveting account of Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Clothing Factory Fire that took place in 1911 in New York. Rose, still feisty and articulate at age 101, recounted how the heartless factory owners managed to escape to the roof, but locked the roof door behind them, trapping the workers in a burning inferno. In the end, 148 garment workers died, including many who leapt to their death. Then the workers were invited to call out the plagues of our times: “Exploitation! Hunger! Unemployment! Homelessness! Prejudice against immigrants!” They knew their list of plagues by heart. My mind rephrased the old Levy rye bread ad: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Passover.”
That was also true at Chino men’s prison, where I saw Christian and Muslim inmates, whites, Latinos and blacks, crowding around the elegantly appointed Seder table with their Jewish “brothers” to relive the story of the Israelites. My cameraman panned his camera across their tattooed arms while they delicately removed 10 drops of grape juice from their symbolic wineglass, one by one, as each plague was described. Since God does not want us to rejoice at the death of our enemies, even though we celebrate our freedom we take out 10 drops to diminish the pleasure of a full cup. Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who had served in prison for embezzlement, and who now heads Beit T’shuvah, an addiction recovery center in Culver City, California, said: “The biggest prison you have is in here,” Borovitz said, pointing to his head. “So go to your soul, go to your heart,” he encouraged them, “where you are always free.”
Perhaps the most memorable Seder I filmed, however, which ultimately had a profound influence on my life and my career, was led by a Black Pastor, Charles C. Queen, for 600 African Americans. “The Israelites were getting out of Egypt,” he intoned. “They were going to be free people!”
When the choir sang the Negro spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” the entire audience joined the chorus with unequalled gusto. “Tell ol’ Pharaoh, Let my people go!”
A week later I was invited to speak to Dr. Queen’s congregation, in the Watts area of Los Angeles. I stood at the pulpit and looked around at their welcoming faces, not knowing what to say and suddenly I heard myself begin to speak. “I have a dream,” I said in a firm, clear voice.
“Tell it sister, tell it sister,” the congregation urged me to continue.
“I have a dream that one day people all over the world will come together to celebrate freedom.”
“Don’t stop now, sister, you’re getting there. You’re almost there,” they assured me.
“I see all of us celebrating freedom together at the table of humanity because freedom is something precious to each and every one of us. We may not pray the same way, or call God by the same name, but we can sit together side by side and be brothers and sisters in the cause of freedom. “
“Take us home now,” they chimed.
“And one day I foresee that we will have an international holiday of freedom, and our gatherings will be telecast around the world,” I prophesied. “I can see us now, all sitting together, wherever we are, in America, Japan, India, and Europe and in countries all over the world.”
As a result of my visit to the church, I met and befriended Delores Gray, an African-American minister. One fateful evening at my home a few months later, we decided to create the Festival of Freedom movement. Our goal was to organize interfaith pilgrimages to retrace the steps of Exodus, from Egypt to Mt. Sinai to Jerusalem, sharing our faith stories along they way and then gathering for a Universal Freedom Seder in Jerusalem during Passover. The trip was open to everyone, but we were especially eager to bring the Black and Jewish communities together, to heal the rift that had occurred between those two communities after the freedom marches were over.
The first trip we organized in 1993 included eight African-Americans and five Jews, and it was led by Pastor Queen and his wife, Phyllis Queen. We took another interfaith group to Egypt and Israel again in 1994 and 1995. When Delores decided to remain in Israel, we went on hiatus but five years later in 2000, I organized one last Festival of Freedom pilgrimage. That year 36 people joined. We were invited to meet with the highest-ranking imam of the Middle East at the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. He, too, expressed support and commended our goal to initiate a conversation among all the children of Abraham.
After 9/11 my interfaith activities with the Muslim community intensified. I learned of a Muslim/Jewish Seder for Reconciliation that was being held in Thousand Oaks, California, led by Rabbi Steven Jacobs and Dr. Nazir Khaja, a Pakistani American physician and the director of a Muslim cable station.
My experience at that Seder ultimately led to my making a documentary for healing and reconciliation in 2003, entitled God and Allah Need to Talk, which I screen frequently on college campuses, in mosques, churches, and synagogues around the country and abroad.
This year in February, almost 20 years after I organized my first interfaith Seder, I had another epiphany. I was watching the Egyptian revolution on TV, mesmerized by the demonstrations and calls for freedom. “Down with Pharaoh,” the protesters cried out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. That sounds familiar, I told myself. It’s time to make a “Seder for Egypt,” I decided, to support the courage of the Egyptian people as they make their own Exodus from tyranny. I contacted my good friend, Dalit Argil, and she came on board immediately as a co-organizer, but soon the original theme had expanded to become a Universal Freedom Seder.
We invited representatives from 12 religious communities, officials from the Egyptian and Israeli consulates and the US State Department, and Sheriff Lee Baca. We asked four people to lead this non-traditional interfaith Seder: Rabbi Mordecai Finley of the OhrHatorah Congregation , Imam Jihad Turk and Dr. Mahmmoud Abdel-Baset from the Islamic Center of Southern California, and Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopalian priest and founder of the Guibord Center: Religion Inside Out .
About 250 people attended the Universal Freedom Seder on Thursday, April 14, 2011, among them musicians, artists, photographers, event planners and sound engineers who volunteered their time and talent to create this event. It seemed miraculous, considering the short amount of time we had to plan it. My co-organizer, Dalit, and I, would sum up the entire endeavor as an example and proof of “holy collaboration.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lba3AZOjttY). At the conclusion, Jilla, an Iranian-American woman, came to me, took my hands and said tearfully, “I never had a vision of what the world could look like until night. Tonight I saw what was possible.”
Looking back over the last twenty years of filming and organizing Seders, I can say that I have personally witnessed how supple and nurturing, how instructive and inspiring Passover can be for all people–not just for Jews. By listening deeply to the 3,500 year-old story of a downtrodden people, rescued from their oppressors, and then rewarded with revelation and the possibility for personal, lasting transformation, the participants at the Seders could imagine, taste, and affirm their own liberation.
This could happen–and indeed did happen–while sitting around a dinner table that honored a shank bone, hard-boiled eggs, parsley, salt water, bitter herbs, four glasses of wine, and flat, unleavened bread . . . and offered a glimpse of the Promised Land.
Ruth Broyde Sharone
Ruth Broyde Sharone is a popular interfaith motivational speaker and a documentary filmmaker (www.filmsthatmatter.com), who serves as the Co-Chair of the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (www.sccpwr.org). She wishes to acknowledge Gene Rothman, her friend and interfaith colleague, for suggesting that she submit this article to the L.A. Progressive.