Last week, Columbia students joined with other New York Jews to make the Exodus from New York City to New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester, and Teaneck. Having left after class in a hurry, I rushed to Penn Station with the few items I had time to take with me. The moment the track number for the West Trenton Line appeared on the departure board, the sea of people split, and I bolted to the platform before they could close up again in front of me. As the New Yorkers behind me nudged me down the escalator in a huge hurry—even though the train wasn’t scheduled to depart for another 10 minutes—I felt as if I, too, had been in Egypt.
The Passover Seder, the ritual meal held each year in which Jews retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, suffers from a negative PR image. Despite efforts to abridge the narrative and to republish it with modern translations and interpretations, the word “Seder” has become a colloquialism that means any painfully drawn-out experience. For many of us, it brings to mind childhood memories of sitting at a long table in our grandmother’s living room, listening to our grandfather read the dense Hebrew text in his Yiddish accent, and waiting endlessly for the moment when it was time to eat.
In truth, that symbol probably characterizes very few of our actual Passover observances, and yet, each year around the world in preparation for Passover, Jews unite over their shared anticipation of the long meal revolving around a story of times past. Somehow, despite our obsession with TV shows like “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey” that are throwbacks to earlier times, ancient Egypt has yet to be picked up by producers as a cool, sexy concept for 2012. New PBS Masterpiece series, anyone?
What the Seder needs is an iPhone-friendly PR makeover to play up the continued relevance of the Passover story in 2012. Pared down to one word, Passover for me is about freedom—a topic that I find relevant and relatable—whether you’ve made the Exodus from Egypt or from the Upper West Side to be with your family for the holiday.
At this year’s Seder, packed with my family around my grandmother’s table and listening to my grandfather’s Ashkenazi accent, I connected the dichotomy between freedom and slavery to current events. When I think of what it means to be “free,” I immediately think of my academic freedom as a student. I have the freedom to raise my hand and ask a question, to contest a point, and to voice my opinion in Spectator. As newspaper headlines will reveal on any given day, however, the freedom to debate in public is not guaranteed universally. This year, we have seen students revolt in the Arab Spring, journalists arrested for publishing articles about the government, and websites and newspapers censured.
This year during Passover, I’ve also reflected on what it means to be free to practice my religion and to discuss it without fear of judgment or repression, which has been a revelatory experience for me both living in Paris among non-Jewish friends and sharing an apartment here with non-Jewish suitemates. Last year during Passover in Paris, I was questioned about my dietary restrictions and religious beliefs by friends from places in Europe where there are few traces of Jewish life. I began to appreciate what it has meant to grow up in cities where knowledge of Jewish ways is taken for granted. Traveling last year to European cities where traces of once-vibrant Jewish communities exist only in hidden plaques and memorials, and then this week at Columbia, studying the history of the Vichy regime in France that allied with Germany during World War II, I have gained a more profound understanding of the extent to which the freedom to practice religion—not just for Jews—is still a work in progress.
Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, I mindlessly eat cereal with my roommates. But on this night, as they eat Cheerios and I explain again why I instead reach for the matzo, snacking is a reflective experience during which I celebrate my freedom to openly chomp on Passover foods and to disagree with my professors and classmates at Columbia.
em>Jessica Hills is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and French and Francophone studies. Urban Dictionary runs alternate Fridays.